School's Potential Loss of Accreditation Alarms Students

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When they learned last winter that their high school might lose its accreditation, Susan Haines' worried students pelted her with questions: Would the school close? Would colleges accept them? Would they be sent to different schools in the fall?

"I didn't teach much that day," the Hartford Public High School science teacher said. "I spent the whole day answering their concerns."

But few of those answers have lessened the students' anxiety as the school nears a final judgment. The New England Association of Schools and College's Board of Trustees plans to decide Sept. 18 whether to follow the recommendation of one of its commissions and cancel the 1,630-student school's accreditation.

In fact, losing accreditation in Connecticut is a little like flunking a test that doesn't figure into a final grade. Like a number of states, the Constitution State hasn't required public schools to secure the blessing of the area's regional accrediting body. As a private organization in which membership is voluntary, the Bedford, Mass.-based NEASC has no authority to close schools, transfer staff members, or demand improvements.

But losing accreditation does sting. It sends a compelling message that a community of educators no longer believes a school is serving its students. And its impact is evident in the public outcry and political response that usually follow, as it has in Connecticut's state capital.

The Last Straw

The bad news about Hartford Public High--reputed to be the country's second-oldest public high school--became the last straw prompting a state takeover of the entire 25,000-student district. Hartford Public has the largest enrollment of three secondary schools in a district that has long been plagued by low student performance and complaints of mismanagement.

Similarly, a critical NEASC report on a high school in Lawrence, Mass., now has lawmakers weighing state intervention.

Students, meanwhile, are left fearing the unknown. Many college admissions officials, employers, and national honor societies say loss of accreditation doesn't automatically preclude students from eligibility, but they also acknowledge that it can affect their view of the school.

"I think it may make us somewhat more careful in our review" of an application, said John Kolano of the admissions department at the University of Connecticut. "But it in no way across the board closes the door."

Acting as a simple stamp of approval on one level, the accreditation process also is designed to drive school improvement.

As a kind of quality-control mechanism, private organizations such as the NEASC work outside the realm of government regulations. Some states have, however, created their own approval processes for public schools.

Before joining the approximately 700 public middle and high schools in six New England states that are members of the 117-year-old NEASC, a school undergoes a lengthy approval process. Groups of educators evaluate how well a school lives up to standards in such areas as curriculum, facilities, finances, and staff support. ("Once Status Symbol for Schools, Accreditation Becomes Rote Drill," March 26, 1997.)

To maintain accreditation, a school submits to periodic evaluation. Every 10 years, an NEASC team conducts an on-site evaluation that includes dozens of interviews with teachers, administrators, students, and parents. In the years between visits, the schools conduct self-evaluations and provide detailed progress reports.

"I'm becoming a big fan of accreditation," said state Rep. Cameron Staples, who co-chairs Connecticut's joint education committee. "It's about as comprehensive a top-to-bottom assessment as you can expect. It's really a self-help process," said the Democrat.

Since 1994, about 200 site visits have resulted in NEASC termination of only two high schools' accreditation--both in Massachusetts. Another two dozen New England secondary schools are on probation, including another one in Hartford. Hartford Public High School hasn't yet lost accreditation, but after hearing the visiting team's report, the group's Commission on Public Secondary Schools notified the school that it would recommend nullification.

The NEASC report on the Hartford school cited scores of deficiencies, including 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.

A Silver Lining?

The commission's announcement has drawn mixed reactions.

"It's unfair," said Corey Brinson, a student representative on the school's governance team who is beginning his senior year. "I live in this town, and I may go to the only school in the state that's lost its accreditation."

Officials at the NEASC maintain that individual students have little to worry about in applying to college, especially those who prove themselves with good grades, high standardized-test scores, and leadership activities.

"We try to make it very clear to colleges and universities that we're not in the business of penalizing kids," said Vincent L. Ferrandino, the group's executive director and chief executive officer.

Although the bad news did little to help morale at the school, many teachers expressed hope that the decision would prompt long-needed improvements.

"I was on the record from the beginning as saying, 'Let's plead guilty and go on to correct it,'" said Hoby Littlefield, a math teacher at the high school for the past 30 years.

That has been the experience of other schools. When the NEASC stripped Boston's Jeremiah Burke High School of accreditation in 1995, city and school officials vowed that it would never happen again. The school quickly got $4 million from the city to pay for facilities improvements and a new principal who recruited about 40 new staff members. Test scores remain low, but Principal Steven Leonard reports ample evidence of improvement--from the updated books in the library to a significant drop in tardiness.

"I think the best thing that could have happened to the Burke, was the loss of accreditation," he said.

But the students in Hartford understandably have more trouble appreciating the big picture.

"For us who are applying to college, it's hard to look at this and say it's a good thing," said Hartford senior Marisa J. Futernick. "When the changes are made, we won't be around anymore. We're just here for the hard times."

Pleas for Probation

Hartford officials are appealing the commission's recommendation in the hope of swaying the accrediting group by the time its board meets later this month to make a final decision. The appeals process gives a school three chances to make its case, and the district has struck out twice already.

Although conceding that many deficiencies have existed, Hartford officials argue that the NEASC should give the school a probationary period to make more improvements, which the organization has done in most other cases--but which Mr. Ferrandino said it has no obligation to do.

District leaders also point to the flurry of activity in Hartford in the past several months that they say has addressed many of the NEASC's concerns. A new superintendent took over in March, and she recently replaced all of Hartford Public High's top administrators.

When the Connecticut legislature last spring voted to seize control of the entire district, it earmarked $20 million for Hartford Public, and this summer the building has undergone significant improvements. ("Conn. Bill To Seize Hartford Schools Passes," April 23, 1997.)

In another sign of how accreditation can be used to spur improvement, the lawmakers stipulated that all schools in the Hartford district must now seek and gain accreditation--a rule that doesn't apply to schools elsewhere in the state.

"We don't want to challenge [the accreditors'] veracity so much as to try to convince them that the state has and we have taken extraordinary steps to address these things," said Robert Furek, the chairman of the district's new state appointed board of trustees.

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges Web site explains the process of accreditation. It also contains information on its Commission on Public Secondary Schools, its accreditation standards, and other commissions directly responsible for accrediting schools.

PHOTO: Above, although Hartford Public High School traces its beginnings to 1638, the school's present facilities were built in 1962. Evaluators found fault with high dropout rates, lack of professional development for teachers, and outdated equipment. The prospect of punishment worries Corey Brinson, left.
"I may go to the only school in the state that has lost its accreditation," says the Hartford senior.--Benjamin Tice Smith

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