GARDINER — Regional School Unit 11 has cut its ties with its accrediting agency, leaving its high school one of only a few in central Maine without accreditation.

RSU 11 officials say the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ stamp of approval is too costly and rigid. Gardiner Area High School also was at risk of losing its accreditation because there is no full-time librarian at the school.

“They have very strict guidelines that look at various aspects of the school that do not necessarily encourage or foster best practices, where they’re looking at our facility (or) they’re telling us how many people to employ in certain departments,” RSU 11 Superintendent Pat Hopkins said. “We want something that’s more ongoing, that really looks at what’s happening in the classroom.”

Accreditation through NEASC is expensive and arduous. The school staff prepares a self-study and hosts a review team once every 10 years. Gardiner Area High School’s last review was in 2009.

The decennial review typically costs $25,000 to $30,000, and schools also pay membership dues of a few thousand dollars a year. A 2009 study by the University of Maine, commissioned by the Penquis Superintendents’ Association, found that schools in their sample paid about $53,000 for re-accreditation and membership in a 10-year period.

Between reviews, most of the oversight happens through correspondence. Schools must submit two-year and five-year reports, notify NEASC of any changes that threaten the school’s ability to meet the accreditation standards and update NEASC on progress toward addressing shortcomings.

Of about 120 public high schools in Maine, 95 are accredited by NEASC’s Commission on Public Secondary Schools. In central Maine, other schools without accreditation are Monmouth Academy and Mt. Blue High School.

Janet Allison, executive director of the commission, said the accreditation process gives schools a research-based, peer-reviewed way to get an outside perspective on their facilities and instruction.

“It’s invaluable to ensuring that all kids are receiving the type of information that they should have,” Allison said.

She said she had not received word from RSU 11 about the school board’s decision earlier this month to leave NEASC.

NEASC is a private, nonprofit organization based in Burlington, Mass., and Allison would not discuss specifics regarding Gardiner Area High School. She said the commission’s standards for the library or media center are key because it’s “one of the largest classrooms in the school.”

Hopkins and Gardiner Area High School Principal Chad Kempton received a warning about the school’s library last April, in a response to the school’s two-year progress report.

The letter praised developments in 17 areas, including the formal adoption of an attendance policy, the use of a mission statement to guide decisions, professional development and planning activities and the purchase of new computers, electronic resources and print materials for the library.

The commission asked for a special progress report, due by December, describing action to address four recommendations. It also expressed “serious concern” that the high school was sharing a librarian with Gardiner Regional Middle School and said the high school should have its own full-time, certified librarian for the 2012-13 year.

Schools that do not resolve the commission’s concerns in a timely manner can be placed on probation or have their accreditation terminated.

The school did not submit a progress report or any other response because officials were reconsidering NEASC membership, Kempton said.

The RSU 11 school board eliminated a librarian position in 2011 as a budget decision. Hopkins said the current configuration, with full-time education technicians in both the middle school and high school libraries, keeps both libraries staffed at all times.

The school board is considering hiring Portland-based Great Schools Partnership to conduct a review of the high school that’s more relevant than NEASC’s “antiquated” system, Hopkins said. Great Schools Partnership does not offer accreditation.

“If we’re going to sever ties with them (NEASC), we understand that we must continue to have an outside organization come periodically into the school to analyze our systems to make sure that we’re meeting the expectations that we have from the state,” she said.

School board member Deborah Holmes, of Gardiner, who cast the sole vote against cutting ties with NEASC, said she did not want the district to abandon an accreditation that could have lasted several more years without having something else on the horizon.

“I don’t feel good about a switch that leaves us without an outside evaluation,” she said.

Allison said she doesn’t think it’s a weakness that NEASC’s review team spends only a few days in a school once a decade, but Hopkins and Kempton said they want something more personalized.

“The thing I like about the Great Schools Partnership is they’re more involved, they’re more in the school, there’s more in-person contacts,” Kempton said.

Kempton said he’s also impressed with the research that Great Schools Partnership put into identifying global best practices, which are the basis for its high school reviews. The organization has conducted reviews of Portland High School and Casco Bay High School, also in Portland.

Executive Director David Ruff said Great Schools Partnership staff members meet with administrators, teachers, parents and students for several days spread over the course of 12 to 18 months. Schools also can engage them in an ongoing relationship.

“We really are trying to get a sense of what is the normalcy and what is the practice that happens on a regular basis,” he said. “We don’t want the school to put on a show-and-tell event for us.”

After the review, Great Schools Partnership provides feedback evaluating the school’s instruction against their global best practices. Ruff said they try to be flexible because not every best practice will actually improve learning at every school.

Great Schools Partnership looks only at instruction and learning, while NEASC also has standards for facilities and physical resources.

Working with Great Schools Partnership may not be much cheaper than NEASC. While there are no annual dues, Ruff said, the cost of the review is $20,000 to $30,000.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
[email protected]