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Pioneer undergoing accreditation

NORTHFIELD — Pioneer Valley Regional School is eagerly awaiting the results of its 10-year accreditation review.

Though a four-day peer site visit began Sunday, the school has been hard at work for the past year preparing for its evaluation by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

“It starts with a year-long self study,” said Principal William Wehrli. “We started by reviewing our core values and expectations for student learning.”

It was a school wide effort. Wehrli said each faculty member was assigned to one of the seven areas of the self study. Those areas are core values, beliefs, and learning expectations; curriculum; instruction; student learning and the assessment thereof; school culture and leadership; school resources for learning; and community resources for learning.

The 113-page self study, finished in January, concludes with a list of the school’s strengths, and identifies its needs, as well as two- and five-year plans to address them.

“I found it interesting, because the study causes us to look carefully at ourselves,” said Wehrli. “I think the standards are good; they reflect what schools should be doing.”

Sunday, 16 teachers and administrators from schools around New England began a similar study of Pioneer, but instead of a whole year, they were given just four days to examine all the areas covered in the report and write their own.

Their schedules were packed with student shadowing, classroom observations, and meetings with teachers, students, and members of the school community, as well as poring over boxes of student work, said Wehrli.

Wehrli said meetings between the visitors and Pioneer students provided a candid view of the school.

“Kids will tell you the straight story,” he said. “Our students represented us well; they were honest and thorough.”

The visiting team worked nearly around the clock, starting their days around 7 a.m., and finishing around 10 p.m.

Wehrli said some of the visitors were impressed by the school’s recycling and composting program, which has reduced the school’s waste by 85 percent since its inception.

Also a surprise to the visiting team, he said, was the school’s commitment to heterogeneous learning.

“It takes people a while to wrap their heads around heterogeneity,” he said. The concept of heterogeneity is to teach students of all abilities in the same core classes, to provide them all with the same opportunities.

“For example, every ninth-grader takes the same biology course,” he explained. “In a lot of people’s minds, there are five different types of students,” all of whom should receive instruction commensurate with their levels of skill or ability.

He said the school’s recent institution of electronic student portfolios also impressed the visitors.

“Throughout the year, students do things that can be assessed” and collected in their portfolio, Wehrli explained. Those can include written assignments, as well as pictures of projects and video presentations.

The care and maintenance of the building and grounds is a point of pride for the school, and Wehrli said several of the visitors were impressed by it as well.

Wehrli is also proud of his school’s new schedule, which lengthens class periods while reducing the frequency with which they meet. It also lets students out early on Fridays so that teachers can have time to collaborate.

It will be a while before the school hears how it did. A draft of the report will be given to the principal 10 to 12 weeks after the visit, and he will have 10 school days to issue any comments or concerns on facts presented in the document. But Wehrli won’t be able to share its contents with faculty; he has to wait for the NEASC to sign off on it and submit to him a final version.

The NEASC’s Commission on Public Secondary Schools won’t meet to discuss the visitors’ report until its fall quarterly meeting, usually held in September or October, though a subcommittee will review it prior to that meeting.

Wehrli said he’s confident that the visitors’ report will echo much of what was included in the self study.

For its strengths, the school touted its commitment to a heterogeneous community with equal opportunity for all; a safe, positive, respectful and supportive environment; a faculty that personalizes instruction and engages students; its new schedule; its curriculum; the condition of its building and grounds despite limited maintenance funds; and its professional development time.

In its needs, the school listed funding and support staff to improve its technological resources, a competitive and equal salary schedule, effective communications of student achievements, use and refinement of advisory and collaborative time, continued implementation of electronic student portfolios, a process for ongoing review and revision of the school’s core values and expectations, and a district wide plan and curriculum map for kindergarten through 12th grade.

For more on the accreditation process, visit www.neasc.org.

David Rainville can be reached at:

drainville@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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