By Max Goodwin
Hickman Mills is one of just five provisionally accredited school districts in the state of Missouri. In recent months, motivated by neighboring Kansas City Public Schools regaining full accreditation in January, school officials in Hickman Mills have pointed to advances in their own district in hopes of having its accreditation restored as well.
On a Friday in late April, the superintendent of Hickman Mills Schools Yaw Obeng was animated by evidence of district improvement laid out in a report he received the day before by an education nonprofit called Cognia, which specializes in analyzing school districts for certification.
In that review, Cognia found Hickman Mills met the nonprofit’s criteria for accreditation and showed significant improvement from a 2017 review by Cognia that found Hickman Mills lacking in some categories.
Obeng has presented necessary accreditation material to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), pointing to evidence like the graduation rate, which has now been above 80% for at least three straight years. He believes the district has already improved and currently meets the criteria needed for full accreditation.
But Obeng says state accreditation could still be a year away even if Hickman Mills does meet the criteria. There is no predetermined timeline for the process, a spokesperson for the state department said.
“I’m attempting to have those timelines right now,” Obeng said. “I’ve been given indication that they will start to do our review next year and start to look at us.”
Byron Townsend, who served as president of the Hickman Mills School Board until recently and is still on the board, wondered if the district might already have received full accreditation from the state had it requested to be reviewed earlier, as KCPS did during the pandemic.
In the time since Kansas City Public Schools achieved full accreditation, the state implemented a new process and criteria for review with its latest iteration of the Missouri School Improvement Plan. This plan is meant to improve the process after the state department was unable to use test scores for evaluation when state assessment tests were canceled in spring 2020 as the pandemic began.
Hickman Mills is currently participating in that process under the new review system, said Mallory McGowin, chief communications officer for the state education department.
Townsend said the new system should provide a faster path to accreditation.
“Instead of the two years that it normally takes to get reviewed and accredited, that process might get cut down to one year,” he said. “So, of course, the district is going to jump on that.”
Hickman Mills received an overall score of 275 on a 400-point scale when Cognia reviewed it in 2017. But the district earned a score of 375 in a more recent review, well over the mark required for Cognia’s accreditation after significant growth was shown in a wide range of areas.
Obeng plans to point to the positive review by Cognia as he continues conversations with the state. Though the department says it does not make recommendations to the State Board of Education based on third-party evaluations, Obeng sees clear signs of positive growth.
Still, there’s more progress to strive for. Board governance is one piece of the criteria the state looks at, and that’s an area Hickman Mills wants to stabilize. Meanwhile, Obeng is in his third year as superintendent, bringing consistency to the position, and the school board recently raised teacher salaries.
As the work continues, Obeng said the district is on the right path, and that’s essentially what he’s heard in conversations with the state department and state board members. Patience may still be required for those eager to see Hickman Mills regain full state accreditation, but Obeng is confident the time is coming.
“As bureaucracies are, they tend to push us off and say we’ll get to you,” Obeng said. “I just have to stay on it to make sure they come and spend time in Hickman Mills.”