Lessons in Quality

Adam Cooke and Nick Sacco explain how the accreditation process is impacting their private language school

In May 2011, the Department of Homeland Security sent out the announcement that all language schools needed to be accredited. What affect will this have on the school community as a whole? It is generally accepted that accreditation will raise the bar for American schools and eliminate the schools that are known in the industry as “visa mills” — the schools that are either fraudulent in service or fraudulent in their treatment of the student visa system. The expectation is that this will raise the quality of the American education experience. Most importantly, accreditation holds benefits for students shopping around for their educational experience who will be able to confidently choose an American language school knowing that they will be paying for a professional, competent service.

Connect English welcomes the accreditation process and the positive implications it holds for our institute. The school was built by teachers who had dealt with various layers of accreditation in their combined years of prior teaching and school management experience. Upon the school’s inception in 2008, the pillars of the school’s philosophy were built on accreditable standards of education and procedure that would get the job done. Both of the school’s founders had some previous years of experience in a different San Diego language school that had failed accreditation because that school was not built on clear systems and documentation of procedures. Having been through that before, and having seen firsthand what didn’t work, we knew how to build good programs from the ground up.

Getting accredited brings a number of challenges to an independent, privately-owned language school. Hiring talented and passionate teachers is essential. They make a lot of the difference between us and our competitors, and our students see clear results from having such energetic and experienced people leading their classes. We have one teacher who is experienced, energetic and effective in the classroom, but is currently working toward her bachelor’s degree. Before being hired, she was passed over for a number of other teaching jobs at schools that were already accredited. Those schools wouldn’t hire her because their accreditation required that all teachers have a four-year degree. We gave her a chance to demonstrate her teaching abilities with a sample lesson, and we were impressed with her explanation style and classroom management skills. For our students’ sake, there was no way we could pass up the opportunity to hire her. Through our observations of classes, we’ve seen repeatedly that she’s highly effective at keeping her students moving forward. Although it won’t be a simple task under accreditation requirements, we’re making a point of keeping this teacher on our staff as she works toward her bachelor’s degree.

Clear and consistent documentation of lesson plans and student performance on exams is also a must, but many teachers are wholly focused on their performance with the students in the classroom, not on writing down test scores at the end of the study week. Good documentation is an essential component of good education, but you won’t find many teachers who would say that documentation is their favorite part of their job.

And then there are the financials. An independent, privately owned language school rarely has the luxury of an accounting department that can spend almost unlimited amounts of time organizing the books and the statements from months and years of student tuition and fee payments. We already spend much of our time reviewing bookkeeping, payment systems, accounting statements and all of the other facets of our own finances, but accreditation means doing even more. Contract accountants needed to be called upon for the initial application, and without a doubt they’ll be working closely with us even more so throughout the rest of the process. Accountants are great people, but they add a new level of rigor. The way we think of it: there’s nothing wrong with adding a new level of organization, analysis and understanding to our finances.

So, is this new accreditation requirement beneficial for the schools that are subject to it? Well, we decided to build our school around principles of hard work and attention to details for our students, so accreditation is just another element of that bigger picture. Nobody ever said that running a great language school in sunny San Diego was going to be easy. Having already gotten a good sample of the hard work that lies ahead of us, we wish all of the other language schools in the U.S. the best of luck with the process as well.

Adam Cooke and Nick Sacco are the founders and directors of Connect English Language Institute San Diego.