The CAPRA Connection

June 22, 2023, Feature, by Jennifer Schleining

CAPRA Connection 410 update

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How this accreditation program helps create better park and recreation departments

More than 190 park and recreation departments at cities, towns, villages, counties, states, special districts and military installations in 38 states have built a comprehensive management system of operational best practices. The Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies (CAPRA) strengthens teamwork among staff, imbeds park and recreation best practices into departments’ internal culture, establishes a continuous improvement mindset for all activities and prepares park and recreation professionals and their agencies for the future.

I recently spoke with staff from six park and recreation departments about their CAPRA experiences. Each department participated in the 2022 CAPRA season, either as a newly CAPRA-accredited department or a reaccrediting one. Following are their unique CAPRA stories along with insights into what they learned, what they wish they had known, the impact CAPRA has had on their department and what advice they have for those considering CAPRA. Each had their own journey and motivations for participation. However, each of these leaders say their departments are better because of it.

The Journey

Bryan Hughes, director of the newly accredited City of Avondale, Arizona, which serves a population of more than 100,000, joined the staff in 2020. Avondale is located near Phoenix and offers its community recreational and learning opportunities that reflect its vitality and diversity. Hughes and his staff familiarized themselves with the department’s policies and procedures and matched their desired changes with the CAPRA standards. After a few months, they set a goal at their 2020 staff retreat to become CAPRA accredited by 2022.

In 2014, the city manager’s office in Desoto, Texas, directed all city departments — including parks and recreation — to earn an accreditation. Desoto boasts a population of more than 55,000 and is located 13 miles south of downtown Dallas. The DeSoto Parks and Recreation Department serves as the number one tourist attraction for the city. The department director at the time provided them with support to make that possible in 2016. “Within the Dallas-Fort Worth area, there is a high concentration of CAPRA-accredited agencies, and I think that also helps play into a little bit of the friendly competition…. [W]e want to be not only the best in the nation, but we also want to be the best within our respective area,” says Assistant Director Chase Ellis, CPRP, CPO, RCRSP.

Michael Wargo, CPRP, executive director for the newly accredited Willamalane Park and Recreation District in Oregon, discovered when he joined in 2018 that staff were not regularly reviewing several of their policies, procedures and master plans. The district, which serves a population of more than 62,000, is Oregon’s first special park and recreation district, designated in 1944. He found inspiration in a CAPRA session at the 2016 NRPA Annual Conference in St. Louis and believed CAPRA “was just a blueprint for success to get us where we need to be, to make sure we were using best practices — not just updating our existing policies and procedures but identifying what our deficiencies are and enabling us to correct those.”

After becoming an Illinois Distinguished Accredited Agency in 2015 by the Illinois Association of Park Districts and the Illinois Park and Recreation Association, the Oak Brook Park District decided to start the CAPRA process. Oak Brook is a western suburb of Chicago that is home to approximately 8,000 residents and 350 employers. To prepare, the agency formed a committee chaired by Deputy Director Dave Thommes, CPRE, with members of its leadership team. The staff saw the CAPRA process as an opportunity to better organize their policies and procedures and wanted to join the small group of Illinois CAPRA-accredited departments. In 2017, the Oak Brook Park District did so.

When she joined Lower Makefield Township, Pennsylvania, as director of parks and recreation in 2017, Monica Tierney, MBA, M.Ed., CPRE, found the agency was experiencing a growth spurt. The township serves a population of about 33,000 people and is located on the Delaware River. Tierney turned to NRPA and the Management of Park and Recreation Agencies book for guidance. She used CAPRA guidelines to help her create policies and plans for her new parks and facilities. In 2019, she decided the agency was ready to earn the CAPRA accreditation.

The City of Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation, which serves a population of nearly 500,000, recently embarked on a 10-year comprehensive master plan and decided to pursue CAPRA for the second time after a brief hiatus. The department specializes in vibrant senior and youth programming and is responsible for forestry services on more than 5,000 acres of city-owned public land. According to Sabina Kasumova, senior management analyst, “We knew that the [CAPRA] accreditation process itself would provide a critical roadmap for improving our operations through comprehensive self-assessment, peer review and ongoing monitoring. We aimed to identify areas of strength, [to find] opportunities to improve, and to ensure that our policies and procedures are aligned with best practices for parks and recreation management.”

Lessons Learned

Dominic DeCono, CPRP, senior management analyst for City of Avondale, joined the staff in 2020 with responsibilities to oversee CAPRA. He shares that “going through the CAPRA accreditation process for two years almost feels like I went back to school to get a professional degree in parks and recreation…. There were so many things I had no idea about that after going [through] the process, I now have so much more knowledge [about] and so does my team.”

Sydney Elliott, MBA, CPRP, youth and business coordinator for DeSoto Parks and Recreation Department, says the team learned the strengths of the staff members who were leading the work for the initial accreditation and gained a better understanding of the steps necessary to earn and maintain the accreditation.

Wargo believes that every park and recreation organization has the opportunity to improve, and their involvement with CAPRA ensures they review all their policies and procedures on a regular basis.

These park and recreation leaders admit they underestimated how truly stressful the process would be, how long it would take, and how important attention to detail was in making them successful. Thommes shares how important it is to understand what the CAPRA reviewers are looking for when writing narratives and providing evidence for the standards. Tierney wished they had leveraged the CAPRA Community on NRPA Connect more. Through the process, Elliot says it is not about getting the designation, but it is an opportunity for the department to look inward and ensure its activities deliver the best outcomes.

The Impact

Laure L. Kosey, Ph.D., CPRE, executive director of Oak Brook Park District, says her department developed new partnerships by working on CAPRA. She continues to focus on those relationships.

According to Hughes, the CAPRA accreditation “has given us some legitimacy within not just the city but the city council” in Avondale. Similarly, Ellis and Elliott shared that prior to CAPRA they used basic tools to manage their park maintenance. Now, their departments have implemented a software system for all inspections that better tracks the information needed. Lynn Todd, CPRP, CPO, operations manager at Lower Makefield Township, shared that CAPRA has allowed them to evaluate all their programs from the perspective of “does this fit the need and are we doing what is best for our township?”

Both Lower Makefield Township and Willamalane Park and Recreation District became eligible for additional funding after becoming CAPRA accredited. Tierney says Lower Makefield Township received a “$900,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to complete the Master Plan for our Memorial Park. This park houses the [Pennsylvania] State Monument for 9/11.” Wargo adds that the “recent funding of $56,000 to build a mobile technology lab that created more accessible technology for students in Springfield and $232,000 to replant approximately 6,000 filbert trees at Dorris Ranch affected by Eastern Filbert Blight are a testament to Willamalane’s commitment to serving its community and preserving its unique public park resources.”


Thommes encourages departments to “just go for it.” Elliot agrees, “Absolutely do it, but be prepared for the overall wellness check on your organization. This is not something that can be done in a day, a week or a month, but is almost a career commitment…. It is not just something to check the box, it is something to live by.” Tierney shares that “CAPRA itself is not expensive, and if you are worried about the cost of CAPRA — as a small agency particularly — there is really no price tag on doing the right thing as an agency.”

Everyone notes that it is important to ask lots of questions and to reach out to peer CAPRA-accredited departments for guidance. They also say it is important to enjoy the process, even when it is stressful. What’s more, everyone agrees that CAPRA has brought them closer together as a team. Ready to embark on your own CAPRA journey? Get started here.

Jennifer Schleining is CAPRA Accreditation Senior Manager at NRPA.