Conducting Site Visits as Part of Ongoing Monitoring
What Makes Site Visits Useful & Effective for Charter School Authorizers
Authorizers are pivotal storytellers for the schools they oversee.
Conducting Site Visits as part of the oversight and monitoring process will help authorizers assess the leading indicators to better understand what’s really happening within each school. When done well, Site Visits provide authorizers with the opportunity to collect qualitative evidence along with quantifiable data in order to support a more comprehensive understanding of how a school operates, and they help further inform high-stakes decision-making, all for the sake of telling each school’s full story.
When authorizers meaningfully understand what’s happening at a school, they will likely avoid making any crucial decisions for the school based solely on limited data outputs.
Merely relying on data outputs may generate ambiguous school stories and may result in decision-making that does not capture the true context of a school or the community it serves. For example, if an authorizer based their renewal decisions for alternative high schools based solely on on-time graduation rates, every alternative high school would be closed by their overseeing authorizers. Without the full scope of qualitative components, it is impossible to have a true understanding of what’s happening on the ground in schools.
Additionally, authorizers can promote positive impact and establish clear expectations for schools when they create a transparent process that generates consistent year-to-year or comparative data. Site visits should be well-planned, evaluative processes with clearly identified objectives and outcomes. Conducting Site Visits is also a way for authorizers to ensure they are not faceless, distant government entities, but instead, they can focus on building trust and forming genuine relationships with the schools they oversee.
In this article, we will explore four common types of Site Visits, identifying how they aid authorizing function. Those four kinds of Site Visits are:
- Pre-Opening Visits
- Formative Visits
- Diagnostic Visits
- High-Stakes Visits
Let’s begin with Pre-opening Visits.
Pre-Opening Visits are evaluative in nature and typically focus on a set of requirements with deadlines that newly authorized schools must fulfill prior to the school opening. They support an authorizer’s monitoring of a new school’s development and occur between authorization and opening of a school. Whether conducted on-site or virtually, pre-opening visits can provide a school with feedback regarding their progress to date and highlight remaining expectations needing completion prior to the school opening.
For example, during a pre-opening visit, authorizers might require a certain date by which the school must demonstrate that the facility meets all relevant codes and/or obtain a certificate of occupancy. The authorizer will monitor the school’s progress towards this deadline, and the pre-opening visit will serve as a final checkpoint to ensure that all requirements have been met at that time.
Some authorizers include a clause in their contracts that in order to open, a school must successfully meet all requirements set forth in the pre-opening visit. This way, if a school does not successfully meet all requirements, the authorizer has grounds for delaying an opening.
Next, we will consider Formative Visits.
Formative visits are conducted as part of an authorizer’s oversight and monitoring processes. The frequency of formative visits varies by authorizer and might occur quarterly, bi-annually, or annually. Formative visits might also occur at the end of a school’s first year of operation, in order to assess how the school is doing early on in the life of the school, and if they are implementing the plan they described in their application with fidelity. Formative visits allow authorizers to observe the school’s education program as one means of oversight, and gain qualitative data around areas like instruction, professional development, and school culture, through mechanisms such as focus groups, classroom observations, and document review.
An evidence-based site visit report that captures this information can help school teams determine some next steps toward continuous improvement. Authorizers also sometimes use formative visits to provide feedback to schools about where they are in relation to renewal expectations.
The third type of visit are Diagnostic Visits, which are sometimes used as part of the intervention process. That is, if an authorizer identifies a problem at a school, they might conduct a diagnostic site visit to try to determine the root cause, which will allow them to identify the proper recourse for the school. It is important to note that through diagnostic visits or any type of site visit, the authorizer must continue to ensure the school’s autonomy. So, for example, if an authorizer conducts a diagnostic visit and identifies the root cause, they can then oversee the school’s development of a plan for resolving the issue, but they should not dictate how the issue should be resolved.
Finally, we will consider High-Stakes Visits.
A high-stakes site visit directly informs a decision-making process. An example of a high-stakes site visit is a renewal site visit. Some authorizers conduct renewal site visits to collect information that will help inform their renewal decisions. Please note that some authorizers do not conduct separate renewal site visits because they already regularly conduct site visits as part of their oversight process, so they are continuously obtaining this information throughout the contract term. But, on the flip side, some authorizers who do conduct site visits also choose to conduct a specific site visit for renewal in order to observe and analyze the school at a particular point in time during the renewal process, and/or conduct a renewal site visit that is more in depth than their normal site visits.
Another example of a high-stakes site visit is the pre-opening visit described earlier. In this case, if a school does not meet all of the established requirements, the authorizer may choose to delay the opening.
The SchoolWorks team strongly recommends having an established protocol for each visit type to help support a consistent process and consistent feedback across all schools in an authorizer’s portfolio. The protocol should include details such as a description of the steps taken during the process, the roles and responsibilities of the school and the site visit team, a schedule, and the criteria and indicators that inform the site visit. Having an established site visit protocol will also help ensure that site visit team members have a shared understanding of how the site visit will be executed and what evidence they are collecting.
For more information on how SchoolWorks recommends structuring Site Visits unique to each school, including best practices and tried and true protocols, check out our Online Professional Development Course for Authorizers, which includes a bonus lesson focused on Site Visits. The first section of the course, Authorizing 101, is free for you to explore today. Please also feel free to reach out to us anytime at email@example.com.