Putting Your Best Foot Forward for Accreditors
School officials blithely hand out tests to students all the time, but administrators and teachers aren't so calm when they're the ones sweating the exam.
For three days here last month, 17 inspectors from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools poked and prodded rural Loris High School to determine whether its accreditation should be renewed.
In the metal shop, an inspector checked to make sure the gasoline canisters in the storage room were shut tight. In the science lab, another outsider checked for adequate ventilation. And in at least a dozen classrooms, visitors hovered near the back wall, scribbling notes.
Though Loris High has aced the once-a-decade exam ever since it first earned accreditation in 1967, the school still gets dressed up for the occasion.
"It's like, if you're having guests into your home, you spruce up," said Bobby L. Nalley, the school's principal. "But I'm not afraid of them coming."
Mr. Nalley is proud of his 820-student school. Loris High consistently scores above the South Carolina average on the SAT and well above average on the state high school exit exam. More than 40 percent of the school's graduates attend college, and 95 percent of them pass their courses after their first semester at college, the principal said.
The evaluation team--school administrators, teachers, and college professors from South Carolina--arrive to put the icing on the cake, certifying to parents and college administrators that the school is up to snuff. The visit costs the school $7,000 for the team's transportation expenses, motel rooms, and meals during their stay.
Laura Mourning, whose two daughters attend the school, said the money is well spent. "In industry, they have people checking, so it's reassuring to have an agency check schools," she said. "No child deserves to go to a school that is substandard."
The quality-assurance check can also make a difference in a college's decision to admit a student, said Timothy J. McCormick, the director of admissions at Coastal Carolina University. The four-year college in nearby Myrtle Beach accepted half of the high school's college-bound graduates last year.
Though colleges look at students' grades, class rank, and standardized-test scores to get an idea of their abilities, he said, accreditation can help students who might not be admitted otherwise.
"It's not the deciding factor, but it can help," Mr. McCormick said.
Because the process is voluntary, school principals get to choose which accreditation test they want to take. Mr. Nalley opted for the comprehensive review that comes from the sixth edition of the National Study of School Evaluation. He said its detailed assessment combs through a school's curriculum, services, and facilities.
Nuts and Bolts
The school recently completed a strategic plan with the 27,000-student Horry school district that focuses on larger school improvement goals. The Southern association's review will complement the district's planning efforts, Mr. Nalley said.
"We elected to use this because we wanted to take a hard look at the nuts and bolts," he said.
The peer review is also valuable because school officials could use the results to lobby the district for specific improvements. No district wants to risk having a school lose accreditation, so a committee's recommendation to fix some deficiency can get the administration's attention.
Glenn Price, one of the evaluators and a band director at a high school in Lugoff, S.C., remembers a secondary school that was cited for shuttling its students to an elementary school for a 10 a.m. lunch because it had no kitchen facilities.
"They've got a cafeteria now," he said.
In that same vein, the evaluators also become advocates who ask the school staff how the district could make their lives easier.
Rick Starr, who's been on several school evaluation teams, is a veteran at compiling such wish lists. Over the din of two dozen freshmen jogging around an indoor basketball court last month, Mr. Starr, a high school principal in Bamberg, S.C., asked the physical education teacher how the association can help her expand the sports options for students.
"I'd like to do something with golf," Juliane Suggs said.
Myrtle Beach is a golfer's haven, and the new state standards on physical education focus on teaching students recreational sports they can carry into adulthood, she said.
Evaluators make architectural suggestions as well. Down the hall from the gym, several football players lift barbells and bench-press in a windowless weightroom. As Mr. Starr inspects the cramped quarters, he suggests improving the workout facilities. "Maybe they could knock down this wall and locate that teacher to another classroom," Mr. Starr says, tapping the cinderblock.
"One of the things we can do for them," Mr. Starr said, "is to make recommendations on budgeting money, and when districts see that, they often see clear to shift a few extra dollars."
Nowhere To Hide
In their draft report, which included more than 150 recommendations, the evaluators came up with many suggestions that would cost the district money. They suggested that the school buy more foreign-language magazines for the library, for example, and expand the home economics department's budget for groceries.
The school received only one citation--for a trashy lot strewn with rusted metal. The area violated a Southern Association of Colleges and Schools standard that says schools must be "attractively landscaped," said the draft, which the principal receives by the end of the week.
If the school fails to correct the problem, it could be put on probation. Only schools that ignore such warnings for several years, though, get into serious trouble.
Some members of the Loris evaluation team said they worry that many of these details would be missed if more rigorous examinations were adopted.
"In this process, nothing gets hidden," said Kathi Carr, an evaluator who examined the books in the school's library.