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Recession Seen Risking Accreditation in New England

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In announcing that a record number of its member schools face the possible loss of accreditation, the New England Association of Colleges and Schools has provided perhaps the clearest evidence of the effects of the recession on the region's schools.

The association confirmed last month that 39 secondary schools have been warned they risk losing their accreditation status, and that another 6 have been placed on probation. Those numbers may grow by the time the accrediting body's commission on secondary schools meets next month, officials said.

If the panel determines that the schools are unable to meet its standards and terminates their accreditation, they said, students at such schools may have difficulty gaining admission to college. In addition, the schools risk losing enrollments from students outside their districts, and businesses may be reluctant to move into the areas served by the schools, the officials warned.

Robert O'Donnell, director of the New England association's public-secondary-schools commission, said the extraordinary number of schools facing a loss of accreditation reflects the economic downturn that has forced massive budget cuts in several states in the region.

"We are getting very concerned that reduced funding has markedly made a difference in the quality of programs in schools," Mr. O'Donnell said. "Schools try to be as imaginative as possible, but they are really losing the battle."

Karen Angelo, superintendent of the Claremont, N.H., school district, whose high school risks losing its accreditation, said the New England association's warning could become a factor in a forthcoming lawsuit the district plans to file to challenge the state's school-funding method. The suit is expected to charge that the funding system is unconstitutional because it relies heavily on property taxes and forces districts with low tax bases to provide inferior educational services.

But Ms. Angelo rejected the idea that the accrediting agency should relax its standards to take into account the fiscal problems the region is experiencing.

"We do not think in a time of economic difficulty we should lower standards," she said. "We should all continue to strive to improve the status of the school as a whole."

'Programs of Quality'

Though schools throughout the country are feeling the effects of the recession, officials of accrediting agencies in other regions said they had yet to see budget cuts drastic enough to endanger schools' accreditation.

Like the other regional accrediting groups, the New England Association of Colleges and Schools is a voluntary association that confers a ''seal of approval" on schools that meet its standards.

The association's standards measure a school's quality in nine areas, according to Janet D. Allison, assistant director of the group's secondary-schools commission. These include: philosophy; curriculum and instruction; student services; educational-media services; administration, faculty, and staff; school facilities; community support and involvement; financial support; and school climate.

The standards are "qualitative," Ms. Allison said. "It's not how many books you have, how many square feet are in the building, how many outlets there are."

Earning accreditation, Mr. O'Donnell added, is an "indicator to the public that programs of quality" are provided in the school.

"If a school is accredited," he said, "it has gone through a comprehensive self-study and identified youngel10lsters it is working with, developed a philosophy that reflects those students, and developed programs of substance to help youngsters improve."

"If it is not accredited, it shows it has not gone through that process," Mr. O'Donnell continued. "If it was once accredited and lost it, it shows that the programs it once had are no longer in place."

Ms. Angelo, the New Hampshire superintendent, acknowledged that substantial cuts in spending over the past few years have had an effect on programs in her district. For example, she said, as part of an effort to cut 47 members of its 300-person staff, the district certified paraprofessionals as teachers, reducing the number of support-staff members for special-education classes.

But, she observed, the Claremont district is limited in what it can do because of its low property-tax base.

"We're working at solutions," Ms. Angelo said. "But the solutions are beyond our means."

'At a Disadvantage'

Over the next few months, the ac4crediting agency will monitor the schools that were warned to determine if they have taken actions to remedy their situations, according to Ms. Allison. If not, they could be placed on probation and, if the problems do not improve, could have their accreditation terminated.

College-admissions officials are watching the process closely, according to Michael C. Behnke, director of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said that admissions officials consider a school's accreditation status to determine if the problems that led to termination put applicants "at a disadvantage."

"If there are serious flaws in a program, it's going to affect how students look as applicants," Mr. Behnke said. "They might not have [had] access to facilities, to libraries, to art and music classes that might stimulate them. [These flaws] may in fact produce a weaker applicant."

Businesses and parents also consider a school's status in deciding whether to move to an area, Ms. Angelo noted.

The Claremont schools currently receive about $600,000 a year from tuitions for students from other districts who attend school there, she said. If Claremont High School loses its accreditation, the superintendent said, "they could go to another school."

Such an action would send a signal to the public about the effects of budget problems, Mr. O'Donnell of the New England association said.

"A number of schools are having severe problems," he said. "Our best contribution would be to tell the public what is occurring."

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