The journey to accreditation

2/22/24 by Executive Director Shana Kennedy

In 2015, I was working hard to establish the Institute of American Contemporary Circus in Philadelphia.  I was learning how to form and run a nonprofit, design a curriculum, get licensed as a vocational school, find a new facility… it was a lot.

Out of seemingly nowhere, I got a call from a man who said he was opening the Circus Conservatory of America, in Maine, which was going to be an accredited, degree-granting college in a custom-built facility.  He had enlisted a powerhouse leadership team, was making beautiful promotional materials, and was even interviewed on NPR. 

I was crushed.  I was confused.  All of these puzzles I was trying to solve – how had he so quickly solved them?  Everyone I spoke to placed obstacles in front of me – from the Pennsylvania Board of Education to the Department of Licenses and Inspections, from the charitable foundations to the universities, from the insurance companies to the banks – there was a never ending list of people I had to convince, applications that had to be submitted, fees to be paid, rejections to withstand.  And this guy in Maine had just figured all of this out?  I very nearly gave up, imagining that he had some secret store of knowledge or money that I would never have access to.

The best thing that came out of that episode was that I changed our school’s name.  IACC had never felt quite right.  It described our school’s vision in a somewhat clinical, grandiose-sounding way.  But it was far too similar to the Circus Conservatory of America.  The name Circadium came to me suddenly, in the midst of the identity crisis, and it immediately felt right.  

My small team and I adopted the new name and got back to work.  It’s a good thing we did, because within a year, the conceptual Circus Conservatory of America had completely evaporated.  The school never opened at all.  For a while some vestiges of it held on – there was a facility in Maine, and a community of people there, who had invested a lot and cared deeply about the project.  But the higher-education program turned out to be a complete illusion.

How vindicated I felt!  I knew this wasn’t going to be that easy.  All of my research told me that years of work lay ahead.  Ha, I was right!  ….but the gloating did not last long, because all I had really won was the ability to keep doing the work, and to keep discovering new layers of challenge.   

Getting our initial license to operate from the Pennsylvania Board of Education was the first major hurdle that we cleared, in 2017.  We were allowed to open the school, and we became the first licensed vocational school for circus in the United States.

I had learned, by that time, that accreditation was a different level.  That no national accrediting agency would even look at us until we had a class of graduates, three distant years ahead.  It wasn’t even clear any national accrediting agency would consider us, ever.  The first two that I tried shut me down, saying that we did not meet their requirements.

Other problems arose from being a non-accredited school.  We couldn’t get visas for international students.  Parents couldn’t use 529 funds.  Trying to explain to prospective students, year after year, the difference between being licensed and being accredited was exhausting.  

And then there was a pandemic.  2020 disrupted our first graduation and made it impossible for our graduates to find work; it destabilized our finances.  When we finally crawled out of the rubble enough to apply for consideration for accreditation to the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges in 2021, they determined that we weren’t financially stable enough, and told us to come back a year later.  

And so.  It wasn’t until 2022 that we were able to officially apply for accreditation.  Part 1 of that process was fairly easy – I submitted basic information about the school, and they gave me permission to do Part 2.  Part 2 is where things got truly difficult.

I wasted a few months in 2022 staring helplessly at this application, unsure of how even to begin.  So many of their questions involved things that we weren’t doing at all at Circadium, and I didn’t know how to do those things.  

The best decision I made was in the fall of 2022, when I hired a consultant, Rosario Nunez from Bayside Consulting in Florida.  While I was deeply worried about the costs of hiring someone, I know now that I never could have done this without her.  Rosario and I began an intensive period that we spent up to 10 hours a week in Zoom calls together.  She helped me take apart every system of the school and re-build it again to meet ACCSC standards.  She trained me on how to actually run a school properly – and how to fill out an application thoroughly.  She had no patience if I sought an easy way out; she told me directly, at every turn, where the school was not doing a good enough job.  And every time she pointed out a problem, I had to fix it, and the school got better and better.

The second best decision I made was in December of 2022, hiring my assistant, Sylvia.  It was Rosario who told me I needed to do this – Rosario who was my no-nonsense life coach for most of a year.  She said, “You cannot do this by yourself.  You need to hire someone.  Now.”  And she was, as always, right.  Sylvia became the second pair of hands I absolutely needed – her smart judgment, patience with repetitive tasks, and willingness to cross-check everything multiple times became the critical component to getting the work done. 

The work itself was probably a thousand pages of documentation.  Hundreds of pages were the written applications alone – but they referenced files, catalogs, policies, meeting minutes, lists and charts, and innumerable other documents that all became part of the infrastructure of the school.  Every item had to speak to every other item.  Attendance records were reflected in Satisfactory Academic Progress reports.  Survey results were documented in the Institutional Assessment and Improvement Plan.  Professional development records were maintained in employee files.  And so on …

Not being an academic, I had lots of terminology to learn.  Institutional outcomes, instructional methodologies, clock hours, applied general education, learning resource systems.  And I had to teach Circadium’s faculty how to work with these concepts as well.  I owe a debt of thanks to my faculty who put up with a year of frequently changing systems and requirements.  They showed up dependably at meetings to learn the new information, to help solve problems and to offer their perspectives. 

It became clear early in this process that Circadium would not be granting bachelor’s degrees.  We don’t have enough general education courses, and we can’t sacrifice time from the circus training to make space for those courses.  A vocational diploma is the right framework for the Circadium program.  And because our accrediting agency is for vocational schools, there is an appealingly practical side to this process – we must assert that we are preparing students to work in the field, and then we have to demonstrate that they are doing that after they graduate.  

Peak stress came in November of 2023, when we had our on-site visit from ACCSC.  After submitting the Part 2 application many months earlier, and a major revision in the summer, we were finally assigned a team of evaluators, who spent two days at Circus Campus combing through everything.  They reviewed all of our files, interviewed staff, explored the facility.  The evaluators were delighted to see their first-ever circus school, but they also took their jobs seriously.  They even brought in an Occupational Specialist, Joseph Pinzon, as a circus expert to be another set of eyes.   

What a glorious relief when they ended their visit telling us we had “no findings”.  While they had offered suggestions throughout the visit for next steps we could take, and areas we could continue to grow, nothing reached the level of a finding.  For a first-time applicant, for a school unlike any other in the country,  this was a tremendous achievement.  

The final step came in February 2024, when the ACCSC Board met to review the evaluators’ reports and finally issue our accreditation.  This entire process lasted 2 years – but really it feels like a journey of 10 years, since I first began the struggle to establish this school and meet all of the requirements of a real higher education program in the United States. 

There are more steps ahead.  I have to apply for federal financial aid, and permission from the Department of Homeland Security to admit international students.  But before I start those projects, I’m taking a moment.  I’ve climbed a mountain, and I want to enjoy the view.

The quest for accreditation had some practical goals (financial aid for students, for example).  But it also had a very strong symbolic goal.  Circus in the United States is still not widely recognized as an art form.  It is most certainly not recognized as a legitimate career path.

The way to change this is not by raging to our friends online, or by writing strongly worded letters to the government.  It is by putting in the work.  Dancers do not have a recognized role in society because they asked for it.  They have it because they’ve demonstrated it.  They’ve demonstrated how to cultivate sophisticated artistry, how to build stable institutions to support that art, and how to educate young practitioners.    

There is no reason that circus cannot do the same.  But we have to take our art form seriously.  We can’t keep giving up, because we don’t see where the money is going to come from, or how we’re going to find the audiences.  Too often, we defeat ourselves before the work even gets made.  And then audiences never see contemporary circus.  Cheap, commercialized circus stays in the forefront of everyone’s vision, and a vicious cycle ensues.  

Circadium is here to say that things can be different.  With perseverance, we can build the world that we want to live in.  You want an accredited school for circus that prioritizes original artistic creation in a beautiful facility?  We have that now.  What’s next?