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Guiding, inspiring and advancing independent schools

| November 4, 2013 | 1 Comment

By Meade B. Thayer

The Northwest Association of Independent Schools (NWAIS), founded in 1946, is an eight-state regional association of 109 schools in the United States covering the states of Washington, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and Wyoming, along with affiliate schools in the province of British Columbia, Canada.

Just as schools strive to be both viable and sustainable, the same is true for any association of schools. Association membership dues are no different than tuition income for schools, and associations must make sure to provide services that are of high value if they wish to retain their member schools. This is especially true when membership dues like ours run anywhere from US$1 500 to US$33 000 (based upon a school’s operating budget). Providing services that are valued by the diverse range of member schools is made all the more challenging when our members range from schools founded in the late 1800s to 75% of our schools founded since 1975 and over 40% founded since 1990. The needs of schools in such different stages of development are vast, and it is this challenge that has driven the work of our association for the past 15 years.

An important historical decision

In 1998, the association’s mission was “to improve education in general and to encourage, support, strengthen, and promote independent education”. At the same time, there were more and more new, young schools interested in joining the association, and this caused the association’s board of governors to consider how broadly it wanted to improve ‘education in general’ – especially since the newer, younger schools affiliated with the association were struggling with gaining accreditation within the allotted time frame.

In now what is viewed as one of the most important decisions in the history of the association, the board agreed to a broad interpretation and adopted a willingness to work with any independent school getting started. It was recognised that by helping young schools navigate the early challenges of being viable institutions, the association would, in the long run, help develop stronger schools. The association added a Subscriber School category, designed for schools that were in the ‘earliest stages of development’, and followed this up a couple of years later by adding a Founder School category, designed for individuals that were in the planning stages of starting a school or for new schools in their first or second year of existence. Adopting these new categories resulted in an 81% increase in membership.

Helping schools understand the accreditation process

While the growth in membership was an important factor in the sustainability of the association, it was also important that the association delivered the appropriate services to these young schools. Often these schools ‘didn’t know what they didn’t know’, and we had to live up to the promise of helping them through their early, often rocky, stages of development. And this is where our accreditation process came into play. While these young schools often expressed concern about all that was expected of them to become accredited, we realised the need to break down these expectations in accordance with where these schools were in their stages of development.

One of our projects was the development of a chart that outlined our expectations for schools, based upon their level of affiliation. This chart started with our 14 standards and their underlying 74 indicators for accreditation, and worked backward so as to articulate our expectations for where a school should be in its developmental stages as it worked toward reaching the standard. As the excerpts overleaf indicate, there are some expectations that we want to see in all stages of a school’s development, and there are other expectations that lend themselves to developmental stages.


Chart used in several key ways

This chart is used as part of the association’s membership application process for schools wanting to join the association, or for current members wanting to move up a level of affiliation. The executive director discusses the school’s selfassessment of the chart with the school head and board to help assess the school’s current developmental stage, along with determining how much more work the school has in front of it prior to moving to the next level of affiliation or beginning the self-study process for accreditation.

While variations of the chart have been in use since 2003, the newest version, completed in September 2012, also includes references to the association’s core values and essential characteristics. Reaction to the chart has been very positive, as it helps young schools recognise that gaining accreditation is not a quick and easy process, nor something that a school should undertake all at once. Additionally, it helps schools see that there are smaller and more easily attainable steps that can be taken prior to embarking upon the self-study. Many of our younger schools have utilised the chart as a template for developing a short-term work plan or a longer-term strategic plan.

To help reinforce the importance of the chart, the association also includes the chart as part of its annual reporting process. All non-accredited schools must reference the chart in providing illustrations of what they have accomplished in the past year to live up to the association’s core value of ongoing school improvement, and illustrate that the school is focused on moving toward the next level of affiliation.

Guiding and inspiring

While we continue to assess the effectiveness of all aspects of our accreditation process, our members’ appreciation for our work in helping schools attain and maintain accreditation shows that we are achieving our mission as we guide, inspire and advance our schools. It is our hope that this information may well serve your school as well.


Category: Summer 2013

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  1. Tim McIntire says:

    Great comprehensive statement of your history and help for independent schools, Meade. I would add that your leadership has been formational in this intelligent approach to helping new independent schools being established and becoming accredited.

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