This Business Strengthens Christian Schools Nationwide—Without Help From Uncle Sam

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Dr. John Scheel has the heart of a pastor, the spirit of a servant leader and the expertise of more than four decades of educational administration. Accrediting Commission International (ACI,, which he founded 29 years ago, bears the marks of all three. ACI's mission statement highlights the organization's purpose in helping non-government regulated schools, colleges and theological seminaries improve their educational processes "one institution at a time."

'To Make Their School Stronger'

Dr. Scheel has an even more personal way of explaining ACI's purpose. The organization exists, he said, "to help the Christian or religious school for accreditation, which means that they are looked at by a third-party representative for constructive criticism, for help, to make their school stronger and to make a strong network between Christian or religious schools and colleges." ACI strives to help these schools "do things in a more formidable way and at the same time retain their integrity."

The need for an organization like ACI, Scheel said, arises out of the fact that many states do not regulate Bible colleges.

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"They're free and autonomous, and that's good," he said. "But where we come into play is we help those schools ... to make them stronger and better at what they do."

For the past 52 years, Scheel has served Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Beebe, Arkansas, first as founding pastor and then as bishop. His church, which is completely separate from ACI, sponsors both a school and a Bible college. Although these schools are now accredited by ACI (with someone other than Scheel doing the required inspections), Scheel, who received his doctorate in Christian education, said accreditation by a previous organization "sowed the seed" for his founding of ACI. Even before his church had a school, Scheel's teaching experience in other Christian institutions helped him notice something was missing.

"A lot of schools do a good job of teaching, but they have poor administration skills because they've never been taught how to print transcripts, or how to make them, or how to file for students," he said. "We exist as a service organization to help them reach those goals."

In addition to accrediting schools, ACI offers teacher certification. Although teachers need not be ACI-certified for the school to receive accreditation, "we do recommend that a school certify its teachers," says the ACI website. Not to be confused with state teacher certification, ACI certification is "a vehicle to let our members know a teacher is qualified in a certain field to teach subjects for our membership. Administrators may also be certified."

To pursue certification, teachers must furnish a request letter from the member school along with a resume. If they have attended official classes in their field at a college, they must also furnish a transcript of credits and a copy of their degree.

'No Government Ties'

Whether certifying teachers or accrediting schools, ACI emphasizes and supports private religious education. The organization effectively fills the accreditation gap for private religious schools because it "does not allow the schools to take federal funding or state funding of any kind," Scheel said.

And this factor makes ACI unique.

"We only accredit religious schools, religious-centered schools and nongovernment-regulated schools," Scheel said. "You can't be on the U.S. government list [of accredited schools] if you don't accept federal funding. ... And that's one of our rules and regulations. If a school is going to take federal funding or government funding of any kind—because we're not just in the United States—then we don't accredit them. They have to be autonomous religious schools."

Because ACI only works with schools that don't accept government funds, Scheel said, "It's just like the book of Daniel—when Daniel and his friends refused to eat the king's meat—because we're very firm in private Christian education, and we don't have anything to hide." He added, "We are the largest accrediting organization that has no government ties. As far as I know, we're the largest in the world."

Although ACI only accredits faith-based schools, the organization itself has no statement of faith. This frees ACI to accredit all sorts of religious schools, from charismatic to Catholic and beyond, Scheel said. However, the organization makes sure each school it accredits presents its own statement of faith publicly "so a student or potential student does not err," he said. "They're getting the religious education they think they're going to get. That's one of our requirements."

In addition, ACI intentionally keeps itself free from denominationalism. The organization "looks at it from an educational standpoint. ... We make sure that the schools don't deceive the public," Scheel said. "We don't want somebody spending their money and finding out they're in a Calvinist school when they thought they were in an Armenian school. ... It is very important to us that the student knows what they're getting into."

Even a good school whose doctrine doesn't match a student's beliefs could prove problematic, Scheel said. So ACI's accreditation standards include a readily available statement of faith for each school.

'Accountability and Oversight'

ACI has accredited more than 500 schools in its 29 years of existence, Dr. Scheel said. At present, 230 schools, including international schools, have active ACI accreditation, and most of these are Bible colleges.

"Out of the 230, we probably have 15 or 20 schools that have kindergarten through 12th grade," he said. "And then we have a few adult high school programs, where people go back to school and get their high school diploma."

Accreditation by ACI has proven value, Scheel added.

"A number of private enterprises and large businesses have taken our accreditation to give scholarships to employees' children and to employees as well," he said.

Scheel mentioned Chrysler Corp. as one of those companies. ACI has also seen schools grow because of their ACI accreditation status, he said. He also noted, "We shine with the military." With some schools, he said, "if a military member is taking courses and they get deployed, they would lose credits if they left in the middle of the semester." But because all ACI schools accept each other's credits, a deployed student can continue via extension with no loss of credit.

Rev. Steve Baran, president of the National Christian Counselors Association, also spoke to the value of ACI accreditation: "Organizations need accountability and oversight to assure and ensure that the organization carries out its mission in a professional and ethical manner. As a faith-based organization, freely sharing our faith as we equip those called to the ministry of counseling, is our No. 1 priority. ACI grants us that freedom to continue to freely share the gospel with others while maintaining accountability and oversight of our organization."

Another facet of ACI's success, Scheel believes, comes from its annual conference, which gives educational professionals from ACI schools "a chance to network with other schools that are trying to do the same thing," he said. "We usually have 50 to 65 college and school administrators who come." At the conference, these professionals are "just bubbling over with joy getting to meet the other people who have small schools like theirs."

In addition to encouragement and networking, the conference provides instruction, with topics based on the conference evaluations from the previous year, and the encouragement and insights of a top motivational speaker.

'Check for Safeguards'

So how does a school receive ACI accreditation? First, an administrator sends an email with the name of the school, number of students, mailing address, telephone number and email. Upon receipt, ACI will send a packet containing an application and other information needed to begin the process. Once ACI receives and approves the application, Dr. Scheel said the school "will receive a candidate status," which expires in six months. During that period, ACI requires an on-site inspection.

The inspection is detailed, as any reputable accreditation process is.

"We go in and actually look at their curriculum, what they use and how they evaluate it," Scheel said. "Some courses are practicums or clinicals, where they work with a pastor or mentor, but we ensure that there's some way the individual student is evaluated. Most of the time, of course, it's a test."

ACI, Scheel said, checks the work students are required to do. The inspector looks at the curriculum and compares it to what other similar schools use. This also, he said, gives ACI a way to recommend curriculum to schools that need help.

An important part of the on-site inspection, Scheel said, is to "check for safeguards to see that they're doing everything they can to prevent plagiarism or cheating."

This also applies to the growing number of schools that offer online education. In this area, ACI was ahead of its time.

"We have always, if they've met the criteria, allowed online or correspondence schools, and people criticized us. ... And now if there's a state college anywhere that does not offer online courses, I don't know about it," he said of the proliferation of such schools.

For a correspondence or online school to receive ACI certification, "We require proctors when they test." However, he adds, "there are some very wicked, crooked people who work in religious education, and we call that, too, when we catch it."

As a part of this check, ACI looks into "a school's reputation with the public. We make sure they're not just a boilerplate diploma mill that takes money and gives degrees. When we do the on-site inspection, we check to see if the amount of work required is worthy of the credit given."

'Not in It to Make Money'

Although ACI looks at the physical aspects of the school campus, the organization's primary focus is educational outcome.

"We don't deal with sports—some of our schools have them, and that's OK," he said. "Basic safety, we check on. Our K-12 schools are required to have background checks on their teachers. We look for basic fire safety ... that's part of the site visit. And we check to see if they're financially solvent for the size school they have and what they're doing."

But what about the accreditation fee?

"The cost is minimal for the schools," Scheel explained. "Even for the on-site inspections, the school must pay for only one person's travel expenses." ACI absorbs the cost of any additional team members. "Because that's what ACI is: It's a service organization. We're not in it to make money."

Of course, not every school receives full accreditation. But ACI's staged process helps schools that are serious about meeting the standards to do so.

"If it's not just utterly ridiculous, they get a Provisional Accredited status, which means there are certain things they've got to remedy," he said. "We give them six months to make an effort," communicating with the school throughout this time to help them meet the standards. They can renew this provisional status three times "as long as there's good progress being made."

Once the standards are met, ACI grants accredited Member status, which most of its schools have. But after the school has been ACI accredited for 10 years and has had two on-site visits and up-to-date annual reports, it earns Comprehensive status.

And ACI has a final status for a select few schools that have done extremely well: Comprehensive Member With Honor. Scheel says of the 230 schools currently accredited through ACI, only 15 or so have earned this distinctive status.

Looking to the future, Scheel believes "there's really an onslaught against religious education—or anything religious, anymore. And ACI will give us strength and a voice to speak up, by having the strength that there is in numbers."

As he sees it, the bottom line is that "we all strive to make every school better. Our motto is 'the good better and the better best.'"

Marti Pieper is copy editor and assistant online editor at Charisma Media.

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