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Hartford High School Retains Accreditation, Gets Probation Instead

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Hartford Public High School was spared last week from becoming the first high school in Connecticut to lose its accreditation.

A commission of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, meeting Sept. 28 and 29, backed away from an earlier recommendation to strip the 1,630-student school of its accredited status, and instead called for placing the school on probation. ("School's Potential Loss of Accreditation Alarms Students," Sept. 3, 1997.)

The turnaround by the NEASC's Commission on Public Secondary Schools came just days after parents and district leaders won a state court injunction to block temporarily the loss of accreditation. The timing raised questions about whether the association, which has hiked its standards in recent years, was caving in to pressure from state and local officials.

But Vincent L. Ferrandino, the association's executive director and chief executive officer, said the lawsuit did not figure in the group's action.

"I believe [the commission members] felt that, given the options they had before them, probation would allow them to monitor the school very closely and very tightly," he said. "If anything, this whole process with Hartford Public High has emphasized the point that we are looking at standards today that are higher than they were five years ago."

Rare Legal Action

Although it's not unusual for postsecondary institutions to go to court over threatened losses of accreditation, it is believed to be unprecedented for a high school to bring such a lawsuit. Representatives of the six regional groups that accredit schools said last week that no high school in their jurisdictions had ever taken legal action in an accreditation dispute.

But the potential withdrawal of accreditation had also prompted dramatic efforts on the part of state and local officials in Connecticut to try to fix the problems cited in the NEASC report on Hartford Public High. Those deficiencies included high dropout rates, lack of professional development for teachers, large class sizes, outdated equipment, the "deplorable condition" of athletic facilities, and an infestation of rodents and insects.

The bad news for the school was the last straw prompting a state takeover of the entire 25,000-student Hartford district in April. The district has since installed a new superintendent and a new board of trustees, put in place a mechanism for monitoring district leaders, and replaced much of the administration at Hartford Public High School.

The takeover legislation also earmarked $20 million for physical improvements at the school, some of which are already under way.

"It's hard to imagine how much more change could've been implemented in that short period of time," said Donn Weinholtz, the dean of the college of education, nursing, and health professions at the University of Hartford.

In the soon-to-be-dropped lawsuit, the district argued for a probationary period to make more improvements, which the accrediting organization has permitted in most other cases. The NEASC in recent years has canceled the accreditation of just three of its approximately 700 public middle and high school members.

Even though the district won its probationary status in the end, Mr. Ferrandino said the agency was never obligated to offer that option as a matter of process.

Allan Taylor, the lawyer representing district officials and Hartford Public High parents, said: "Basically, somebody at the association got a train started, and once we slowed it down and had a lot of people yelling that it was the wrong train [the association] decided to take a look at it themselves."

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