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Project Seeks To Hone Preschool-Program Accreditation

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Concerned that existing accreditation procedures do not adequately address the growing numbers of public-school programs serving 3- to 5-year-olds, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has joined forces with early-childhood experts to tailor an accreditation process to preschool programs.

In a pilot project to be launched this year, sacs plans to incorporate into its own accrediting procedure the National Association for the Education of Young Children's standards for early-childhood programs.

The joint venture, experts say, represents the first attempt to fashion an accreditation procedure for use by a broad range of public and private schools and centers for preschool children in a wide geographic area.

Sacs, one of six regional bodies that accredit public and private schools and colleges, accredits programs in 11 Southern states. The n.a.e.y.c. has its own rating system to accredit early-childhood centers nationally.

Officials of sacs and the n.a.e.y.c. have met informally to discuss how to merge their standards, and representatives ofboth groups will meet in March to work out the details.

The project, which could get under way as early as this spring, is expected to include at least one school that serves 4- and 5-year-olds from each of the sacs states.

Officials of both groups say the project could serve as a model for other accrediting bodies and could help spur the spread of "developmentally appropriate" instructional practices in early-childhood programs.

"We see a great potential for our two organizations to emerge with a model that other regional accrediting associations can build on as they become involved in early-childhood development," said John M. Davis, executive director of sacs's Commission on Elementary Schools.

When sacs approached the n.a.e.y.c. about the project, said Susan Bredekamp, director of professional development for the n.a.e.y.c., "we were quite excited because it seemed to have such potential for influencing a lot of different schools that have not, until now, shown a lot of interest in early-childhood accreditation specifically."

"We see it as a real opportunity for influencing the broader field of early-childhood education," she said.

If the project succeeds, said Milly Cowles, an early-childhood professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a member of sacs's early-childhood task force, "I can't imagine there could be any more of a positive influence for developmentally appropriate programs for young children throughout public-school programs in the South."

Since its establishment in 1985, the n.a.e.y.c.'s National Academy of Early-Childhood Programs has accredited about 1,000 programs using a voluntary rating system that involves about a year of self-study followed by internal evaluation and validation by independent experts.

The accreditation criteria address such features as curriculum, staff-child and staff-parent interaction, room arrangements, play facilities, health and safety standards, staff qualifications, and adult-child ratios.

About 60 public-school early-childhood programs have been accredited through the process, and some states have used the n.a.e.y.c. standards, in tandem with state standards, in evaluating their preschool programs. But the bulk of programs accredited by the naeyc are private child-care centers and preschools.

Of the 7,000 elementary and middle schools accredited by sacs, at least 4,000 include kindergarten programs that serve 5-year-olds, Mr. Davis said, and increasing numbers are serving 4- and even 3-year-olds.

Sacs consulted the n.a.e.y.c. last spring in an effort to better serve those programs, he said.

"We recognize and respect the n.a.e.y.c. as the premier association that works with young children, and sacs was really looking to them for leadership and support," said Linda W. Coffey, director of elementary education for the Broward County, Fla., schools and president-elect of sacs.

Mr. Davis noted that the sacs standards do include some criteria relevant to kindergarten and early-childhood programs, such as pupil-teacher ratios and requirements governing teacher certification and classroom materials.

But the procedure, he said, "hasn't extended into the depth" of the n.a.e.y.c.'s standards.

Because "their materials have gone far beyond what we have," Mr. Davis said, "we felt there was no need to go out and reinvent the wheel."

The effort will benefit both groups, said Diane R. Garbo, assistant director of elementary education for the Louisiana education department and a member of sacs's early-childhood task force, because n.a.e.y.c. leaders are "the recognized experts in the field, and sacs has an excellent pro4cess for evaluating institutions."

While some of the other regional accrediting bodies accredit kindergarten and early-childhood programs, most use generic standards and none have early-childhood criteria as extensive as those being contemplated by sacs.

"What is exciting about sacs is the recognition that their [existing] standards are not as relevant to young children," Ms. Bredekamp said.

The associations covering the North Central and the Northwest states have both begun exploring the need for more specific preschool standards, but those discussions are in the early stages.

Sacs's leadership role is not unusual, experts note, pointing to the fact that the association began accrediting elementary schools in 1960--some 20 years before the other accrediting bodies.

Because the movement to serve 4-year-olds in the public schools is still in its infancy in many Southern states, Ms. Cowles said, "the project is getting in on the ground floor."

"The standards will be available for school people to use as they implement programs," she added.

Members of both groups are hopeful that the project will help reverse the push in some states and districts toward more formal academic instruction and testing at earlier ages.

"One of our strongest hopes," said Marilyn M. Smith, the naeyc's executive director, "is that we can begin to turn the elementary-school curriculum around."

Ms. Coffey said the n.a.e.y.c.'s approach "is a lot more relevant for young children."

The association's standards promote learning through discovery, play, and problem solving, and stress that skills should be introduced only as children are ready. They also offer examples of developmentally appropriate activities for each age.

The accreditation process itself, experts say, could be used to train school personnel.

The materials "are an excellent staff-development model for helping principals and teachers improve their programs," Mr. Davis said.

For those "already committed to a more developmental approach, this will provide them more support," Ms. Bredekamp said, "and for others who are not as aware, it will provide an educational tool."

"The way the standards and checklists are written, it makes it very obvious what is desirable in a quality program," Ms. Garbo said.

In view of sacs's role in accrediting colleges, the project also has the potential to bolster teacher-training programs for early-childhood profes8sionals, its backers point out.

Vocational programs and secondary schools accredited by sacs may also have a role to play because of their work in training and providing child-care and parent education for teenage parents, she noted.

The project also could provide an evaluation tool for the growing numbers of private-sector agencies and businesses opening up early-childhood centers, Mr. Davis said.

"Business and industry is looking to us for that kind of help," Ms. Coffey noted.

Although the procedures used by the n.a.e.y.c. and sacs vary, officials of both groups are hopeful of reaching a common ground.

The most significant discrepancy, officials say, is that sacs requires preschool teachers to have at least a bachelor's degree with some specialized training or state certification, while the n.a.e.y.c. recognizes other forms of training and experience.

The two groups must also reconcile differences in the adult-child ratios and group sizes called for in their standards and in the period of time accreditations are valid. In addition, they must ensure that enough personnel are trained in both processes at each pilot site.

So far, the most extensive use of the n.a.e.y.c.'s accreditation process in public schools has been in Maryland.

The state offers dual accreditation using the n.a.e.y.c.'s self-study process and a more rigorous state certification process for preschool through 3rd-grade programs. About 35 schools have been through both, said Ginger A. Eckroade, a consultant to the state education department.

The Arizona education department has used the n.a.e.y.c.'s procedures for programs serving 3- and 4-year-old special-education pupils, and about a dozen have become accredited.

Other states, such as Iowa and Illinois, have drawn on the standards in implementing state-funded programs for at-risk preschoolers.

Jo Anne Woodward, a preschool-program specialist for the Arizona department's special-education section, said the evaluation's cost may have deterred some schools from seeking the accreditation independently. The cost ranges from $250 for programs with fewer than 60 children to $750 for those serving more than 240.

Another problem, Ms. Eckroade noted, is that the n.a.e.y.c. standards have been "more day-care-directed" than school-oriented.

When the group first established the program, Ms. Bredekamp explained, "we wanted to establish accreditation where it did not exist."

Conversely, some accreditinggroups have shied away from preschool accreditations because of a lack of demand and "because there is an organization already doing that," said Don E. Halverson, executive director of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

Initiatives linking the n.a.e.y.c.'s principles with the public schools should be encouraged, however, because they can foster "the kind of philosophy and goals and objectives we feel the public schools should address," said Chalmer Moore Jr., president of the National Association of Early-Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education.

Other accrediting officials also say they are interested in following the results of the sacs pilot.

"They're the lighthouse regional association, and anything they would do would interest us," said David Steadman, executive director of the Commission on Elementary Schools for the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges.

"We're encouraged by the fact that they have entered into a relationship with another group that has the same interests," said John Stoops, executive director of the elementary-school commission of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. The m.s.a.c.s. has a joint accredition program with the American Montessori Society, but it has not accredited public-school early-childhood programs and has no separate preschool standards.

"We're all very much aware of the importance of early-childhood programs" to young children and families, said Catherine A. Baird, assistant director of the Commission on Schools for the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. "I imagine we'll all be looking at how to work with and better serve them."

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