Academic team’s visit to SEARK successful, officials say

A two-person team with the Academic Quality Improvement Program of the Higher Learning Commission, took part in a three day visit to the campus of Southeast Arkansas College last week to meet with students, faculty, staff and members of the community to assess the degree to which SEARK is serving the educational needs of the people of Pine Bluff and surrounding areas.

The visit was part of the process for SEARK to maintain its accreditation status.

Visit overview

“A community college is part of the community and your presence is telling us that this college is important to you,” Larry Sanderson, an AQIP team member from New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs, N.M., said at a Sept. 19 luncheon that brought members of the community together with the team. “We extend a special thanks to the community members who have come out today. Community colleges must be engaged with their community.”

Sanderson and his colleague, Julia Smetanka, director of education at the International Academy of Design and Technology in Troy, Mich., wrapped up their visit Friday.

“SEARK has a very clean bill of health,” Sanderson said in a conversation Monday afternoon. “We have a very positive report across the board. We placed SEARK at the Higher Learning Commission’s highest grading level of clean bill of health with no recommended follow-up. Our report does have to go through a final committee for a quick look and it will then be voted on by the HLC. If there were any problems to be addressed they would be on the table right now and there are none.”

Sanderson said that the takeaway for SEARK is that the campus should continue to develop its data management systems as it has been doing for the past two years.

“We said to continue to work on data management and the assessment of student learning,” Sanderson said. “They are involved in that and doing good work. We encouraged them to keep doing more of it and to follow through with their plan.”

High praise

Sanderson said that his experience at SEARK had been an overwhelmingly positive one.

“I have never in my life been on a campus that has such a positive set of attitudes on the part of the students, faculty and staff,” Sanderson said. “The commitment to the school by the community is just great.”

Sanderson said that the meeting with students was especially powerful.

“Normally when you talk to students you hear complaints but these guys told us how great the college is in their lives,” Sanderson said. “We spoke to single moms and people who had been laid off from their jobs who said that SEARK was giving them a second chance at their goals. Some of them said that they thought about giving up after losing jobs but didn’t and came to SEARK.”

Sanderson also said that he was very impressed with the attitudes of employees of the college.

“We talked to a groundskeeper and asked him what he would do to make the college better and he said he would add more courses to bring in more students,” Sanderson said. “Normally people on the grounds crew ask for things like new equipment. One of the students we talked to said when she first came to campus she asked a maintenance employee where a class was and she said that instead of telling her he actually took the time to walk her to her class.”

Sanderson said that students singled out faculty members by name to say how much they were supported.

“All the faculty talked about was doing a good job for the students,” Sanderson said. “SEARK is a college that is very much a part of the community that needs it. I was blown away by the positiveness. It was a great experience to meet with all of them. At the core of it they’ve just got heart.”


SEARK President Steve Hilterbran was pleased with the results of the AQIP visit.

“The visit from AQIP was very positive,” Hilterbran said Monday. “The takeaway for us is that they see SEARK as a college with a very caring faculty and staff and that we are well-respected by the community who see the college having worth to them. They [the AQIP team] were very positive and we were pleased.”

Hilterbran said the assessment team wants SEARK to demonstrate that it is using data in the decision-making process.

“We need to do a better job of student assessment and of reviewing what we are doing,” Hilterbran said. “We need to be able to measure the data we collect against our peers and nationally to see where are are and where we need to go. We are going to make the gathering of data and putting it into a form that is easily understood into a complete staff function. The staff member will pull the existing data, put it in usable form and then put it up on the web to demonstrate that we are using the data in our decision-making process.”

Hilterbran said that the agreed-upon timeframe for having a person in place and working with the data is Dec. 31, 2012.

AQIP and accreditation explained

The HLC is an independent corporation and one of two commission members of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which was founded in 1895 as one of six regional institutional accreditors in the United States, according to its website. The HLC accredits, and thereby grants membership in the Commission and in the North Central Association, degree-granting post-secondary educational institutions in the North Central Region.

The HLC has five criteria for accreditation, which include: mission and integrity; preparing for the future; student learning and effective teaching; acquisition, discovery and application of knowledge; and engagement and service.

Sanderson described the AQIP accreditation cycle in his presentation.

“AQIP is a seven-year cycle,” Sanderson said. “First campuses write a portfolio, which is a 100-page document that says, ‘Here’s who we think we are and what we are doing.’ The portfolio is submitted and then a feedback report is prepared by peer groups and the campus then takes that report and works on things that are brought up and prepares another report. This is followed by the two-person campus visit. The two-person team then submits their report to the Higher Learning Commission. The findings are reviewed by a group and then AQIP says the campus is certified for another seven-year cycle.”

AQIP provides an alternative evaluation process for organizations like SEARK that are already accredited by the Higher Education Commission.

An institution in AQIP demonstrates how it meets accreditation standards through the sequence of events described by Sanderson.

Sanderson said that the same people who begin the process by reading a school’s portfolio stay with the process through completion so that the school can feel more at ease during the process.