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I’ve always felt that our religious school at Congregation Or Chadash in Tucson, AZ, goes above and beyond the standard – but when I learned of a way to validate that belief in an official capacity, I was eager to pursue the opportunity.
Three years ago, I participated in a webinar that addressed the benefits of going through an accreditation process for religious schools through the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE). I was familiar with the concept of accreditation through my previous job as a preschool teacher, and I felt it would be worth pursuing at Or Chadash. Our religious school education committee gave me their blessing to move forward, and in August 2013, we began the process of seeking accreditation.
I knew the accreditation process would be very detail-oriented, forcing us to take a closer look at the way we do things and making us examine our methods, our resources, and even our physical surroundings. Still, I felt it would be well worth it if an authoritative entity could validate that what we do in our school does indeed exceed the standard. I was confident, too, that the process would help us reach a higher level by pointing out our weak spots so we could address them and grow stronger.
After filling out a self-evaluation/application, there are three main steps to obtaining accreditation. To determine the best way to prepare for each step, we formed a committee of two co-chairs and about 10 volunteers. They were our best support system, showing a commitment and devotion that made it possible for us to complete the entire process.
The first step is an administrative checklist, an inventory-type document that includes the objective standards that model educational programs should meet. We were asked to provide documentation such as our parent handbook, bulletin articles, samples progress reports, and other record-keeping forms.
The portfolio was the second and most detailed step. It also took the longest to prepare. We reached out to congregants from different constituencies, including members of the board of directors, various committees, sisterhood, brotherhood, etc. In doing so, we learned more about the way these groups function and began to feel a connection that was not there before. We interviewed people in their homes, at the synagogue, and just about anywhere they were willing to meet the volunteers who would interview them. We created live documents and videos to show the life of the synagogue and religious school, and it brought people together in a special way. Each classroom was observed by members of the committee, and copies of the observations were shared with the staff and filed in the portfolio. Samples of lesson plans and student assessments were also collected and copied. Since our Hebrew School meets on a separate day from our Religious School, we had to record a minimum of 10 minute lessons in each of the Hebrew classes and any classes that would not be meeting during the weekend of the site visit.
One piece of feedback we took very seriously was about our lack if technology in the classrooms. I began researching options and found out there are a lot of free, easy ways to incorporate technology in our settings as part of the lessons. Even when there are no computers in the classrooms, there are tools that incorporate smartphones, tablets etc. For example, after a field trip to a food bank, I created an interactive game to test students' understanding using Kahoot.it, a free, user-friendly site that can be accessed on any device with wi-fi connection.
The last step in the process was our site visit, which was set for a Saturday and Sunday in December. In advance of the visit, we were given instructions on how to prepare prior and what to expect. Throughout the whole process (and our many questions about it), the ARJE accreditation team was always attentive, helpful, and patient.
Our evaluators – who were professional, courteous, and friendly – met with me at the beginning and the end of their visit, and in between, they met with various groups that included the board, staff, and committee members. One evaluator commented on how warm, welcome, and open our staff was, which made me feel as though we were truly living up to our congregational mission of being as welcoming as we say we are.
Right before the turn of the new year, I received an email from the ARJE team confirming the good news: Our school had received accreditation! It was a wonderful feeling to see all our hard work pay off with accreditation.
I strongly recommend that other learning establishments go through an accreditation process. It will help you truly understand and appreciate the inner working of your institution – and ultimately make you even stronger.
Rina Liebeskind is the director of education at Congregation Or Chadash in Tucson, AZ.