Monday, October 30, 2023

Looking Toward the Future; Post-Pandemic Accreditation Reflections

It's been three years since the visiting team from ACSI's Central Region accreditation commission left our campus and gave us a recommendation for full accreditation.  For those of you who don't know, ACSI stands for the Association of Christian Schools International, of which MCA is a member, and one of the services they provide for their schools is accreditation.  ACSI's commissions are recognized and approved by state departments of education, including Illinois, and are involved in dual accreditation agreements with several of the regional agencies, including Middle States, North Central-CASI, and Cognia.  

The COVID pandemic interrupted the preparation period for MCA and stopped the sending out of teams to schools for a while, so we had to wait for a little bit for our team to be available and ready.  We were thankful that our school was recommended for full accreditation, and for the encouragement that the team provided during their visit.  From their observations, they left behind four recommendations for our school to complete prior to the next accreditation period.  On just our second annual report for this accreditation cycle, we were able to inform the commission that we have met all of the major recommendations they left for the school to complete prior to the next cycle.   

A Continuous School Improvement Plan 

Developing a plan to continue improvements we made when we were still seeking accreditation was one of the major recommendations.  MCA has gone through a period of transition and some major change since the 2017-18 school year, and has reached a time in its history where planning for the future, in response to the school's experiences and changes which have occurred, now goes beyond securing a stable enrollment and securing its financial viability.  We have operated at near-capacity enrollment for the past two school years, and have had three years of solid financial security.  Our goals now must be adjusted to reflect where MCA will go over the next five, ten, even fifteen years. 

Our school's identity as Evangelical and non-denominational is an asset.  We are in a neighborhood in which there are no other schools of similar faith background and theology, but with at least one Evangelical mega-church, and several larger congregations of like faith and order, along with a cluster of smaller churches, many of them Spanish-speaking, that form the base of our constituency.  Since the pandemic, we have welcomed over 140 new students to our school, the majority of whom have come from the local public schools.  The adjustments we have made in our enrollment and admissions processes now reflect the school's desire to maximize the availability of seats for students in our classrooms because of this demand.  

Where We've Been

MCA has been here, at this location, since 1956, so this is our 67th school year.  It has transitioned over time to reflect the ethnic and cultural demographics of the surrounding neighborhood and currently is one of the most ethnically and racially diverse Christian schools in ACSI, with over 90% of our students coming from an ethnic or racial minority group.  Originally a Kindergarten through 8th grade school, a high school program was added in the late 1970's and operated for about 15 years before space requirements and changing demographics led to the decision to return to elementary education.  A "junior kindergarten" was added as an academic component for kindergarten preparation in the 1990's.  

The shifts in demographics and other circumstances have created ups and downs in the school's development.  An unsuccessful attempt to restart the high school program in 2017-18 led to a leadership transition and a downturn in enrollment.  The facilities were in need of a major upgrade and staff turnover was a problem.  But our school is built on a biblical foundation that starts with prayer.  Since the transition, the low point occurring during the 2018-19 school year, we have been blessed.  

Counting Our Blessings:  How We Got Here

Evangelical Christian schools are built on Biblical principles, including the dependence on prayer.  Midwest Bible Church has been committed to the school ministry since it was first founded in 1956, and in spite of adverse conditions, continues to remain committed to providing a Christian education and a biblical ministry of discipleship to students.  

The first steps in putting the school back on a solid foundation were supported by prayer.  The fact that God affirmed the continuing existence of this Christian school ministry, at this place, is evidenced by the blessings we have received that were part of his continuous improvement plan for MCA: 

  • Through the foresight of church members many years ago, funds were made available to renovate the main building, now known as the Vernon Lee Building, from top to bottom, along with the Pre-K building.  This was completed in the summer of 2018. 
  • The instructional faculty was stabilized with standard credentials requirements put in place for the accreditation process.  All MCA teachers have a minimum of a bachelor's degree in their teaching field, and full certification.  The turnover rate has dropped below 5% annually, and staff salaries have been raised across the board to a much more competitive level.  
  • Full accreditation, delayed by the pandemic, was granted beginning January 1, 2022 and is good through December 31, 2027.  
  • Donors coming forward enabled the school to complete the full renovation of the gymnasium, including the construction of a new band room, in the spring of 2021.  
  • The school achieved full financial independence in the fall of 2021, and has been able to develop contingency funds and savings for future maintenance projects.  
  • After being frozen in place for several years, teacher salaries were increased by over 10% beginning in the fall of 2023, with the goal of providing a minimum of a 5% increase annually each year thereafter. An insurance benefit has been added.  
  • Playground equipment was purchased and installed in the spring of 2023.
  • Our post-pandemic AYP scores in the spring of 2023 showed no adverse effects from the pandemic on the expected student outcomes of our students.  
  • Our re-enrollment rate is 95% of currently enrolled students. Enrollment has exceeded 200 students for the past two years. Since the fall of 2021, more than 145 first time students have enrolled at MCA.  
Where Are We Going? 

Of course, from a demographic perspective, it is our desire to continue the improvements we have seen in enrollment and financial stability.  We still offer tuition and fees at a lower rate than any other private, religious-based schools in our neighborhood, due to the full ownership of our facilities and being debt-free on their renovations.  Increases are planned to cover expenses for program additions and improvements as we continue to offer a distinctively Christian, academically excellent education to our students and their families.  These increases will primarily support teacher salary increases and benefits for teachers including covering professional development expenses. 

As we have increased the number of students we have enrolled, most coming from public schools, we have seen a decrease in the proficiency level attained on standardized testing in math and English language arts.  More than 80% of our students meet or exceed benchmarks in these subjects with proficiency levels running around 75%.  Students who have been at MCA for two or more years show proficiency levels similar to those of the students who have been here since kindergarten.  And while test scores are not the product of an education, they are one of the ways we measure the quality of academics which take place in our school.  (note, MCA students AYP is measured using the ITBS, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, except for those students entering a CPS selective enrollment school, who take the NWEA or Map Test, and those on Invest in Kids Act scholarships, who take the Illinois Assessment)

So what does a continuous school improvement plan for MCA look like?  

1.  We are now planning for enrollment management rather than enrollment growth.  Almost all of the vacant seats we have this year are in 7th and 8th grade.  As the current 6th grade, with 22 students, transitions to 7th and then 8th grade, calculating a 95% re-enrollment rate, we will reach full capacity of the school in the fall of 2024.  New student applications, at their current rate, will easily fill the few available spaces, less than 5% of the total, in any given year.  

2.  Academic achievement is stable.  We offer two transitional classes for students in eighth grade, Algebra 1 and Physical Science.  There is room to consider additional fine arts or elective courses for students, including Spanish for all students, K-8.  

3.  Capital improvements will include updates and improvements to campus security, addition of technology components and movement toward a full one to one from grades 3 up with the chrome book capabilities that we have.  

4.  Development of a community ministry service program for all students to become engaged in opportunities for ministry, which are abundant in this part of the city.   

5.  Continued increases in salaries for instructors and administration will ensure quality faculty.  The school needs additional personnel support in several areas, which the accreditation report noted and recommended.  

6.  There is a clear need for an Evangelical-based, distinctively Christian high school in this part of the city, where income levels and the growth and development causing increased property values show that one could be sustained.  Working toward development of a coalition of churches who are willing to catch and sustain this vision would be a goal that many parents would support. 

Continuing to Equip Students by Connecting Objectives to a Biblical Worldview

The MCA class of 2019 graduated from high school last spring, and entered college this fall.  That's hard to imagine, and what may seem like an eternity to the students was four very short years that passed by quickly for everyone else.  This fall, after earning some impressive scholarships, those students went on to schools like John's Hopkins, Notre Dame, Northwestern, UIC, DePaul, Olivet Nazarene, and Wheaton College, just to name a few.  

Conversations with some of our graduates can be inspiring.  It's clear that most of them picked up on the reason for them being here, and that their experience in this little Christian school on Cicero Avenue had an impression on their faith.  We're proud of their academic achievement, that's a good recommendation for what happens on our campus every day.  But to hear them speak of their faith, and of choices they have made because they prayed about the decision and sensed and discerned an answer, is also a recommendation.  The seeds of faith that are planted during the first fifteen years of a child's life are the most influential down the road, and we're glad to have them every day for just that purpose. 


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