AUGUSTA — When the regional accrediting agency put Cony High School on probation in 1998, Augusta Public Schools built a new high school and poured thousands of dollars and hours of staff time into fixing Cony’s status.
Now the school district is poised to give up accreditation of Cony and the Capital Area Technical Center willingly.
Accreditation through the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, or NEASC, is voluntary for high schools and indicates that a school’s curriculum, instruction, culture, physical space and equipment, testing and reporting meet standards set by NEASC based on research.
NEASC accreditation works on a 10-year cycle, with a visit by peer evaluators once per decade and a series of self-study reports prepared by the school staff in between.
Cony staff members said they have learned some valuable things during the process, but the value has not been in proportion to the expense and time commitment required.
CATC Director Peter Gagnon has similar complaints about the NEASC process for career and technical schools. Gagnon said it costs $67,317 in a 10-year period for annual membership dues, the peer evaluators’ visitation costs, additional staff time needed and other expenses. The cost is similar for Cony.
There’s a trend of schools looking for alternatives to NEASC accreditation.
Gardiner Area High School is one of the latest to leave NEASC. Regional School Unit 11 officials said the accreditation process was too costly and rigid, with more attention paid to the building and staffing than what happens in classrooms. Gardiner’s accreditation status was also in jeopardy because there is no full-time librarian at the high school, as required by NEASC.
Enough local school officials have told the Department of Education that they’re interested in a state accreditation process that the department put out a request for proposals in September for a contractor to design such a process. No proposals were received, however, and state officials still are considering how to proceed, spokeswoman Samantha Warren said.
The Department of Education already has a review process for career and technical schools, which must be accredited to receive federal Perkins funding.
Most of Maine’s 28 career and technical schools use the state review process; the NEASC website lists only six, including CATC, that it accredits.
Gagnon said the state review would cost much less because Augusta would have to pay only for visitation costs and staff time. It also could be more relevant because the evaluators would be from Maine, not other New England states where career and technical education runs on different models.
The alternative review process proposed by Cony officials is one the school already has been engaged in for two years. Cony is a member of the League of Innovative Schools, a network of New England high schools that share ideas for improvement.
The league is a program of the Portland-based Great Schools Partnership. The three high schools in Hallowell-based Regional School Unit 2 also are members.
Cony staff members said many of the initiatives that they think have made the greatest positive impact in the last two years — such as a schedule with longer class periods, greater coordination between the junior high and high school, intensive SAT preparation and strategies for helping struggling students — have emerged from their work with the League of Innovative Schools.
“What we often find is that when it comes to answering these (NEASC) questions, the good, the reform, the things that we’ve done that we use to answer these questions have come from Innovative Schools,” Assistant Principal Stewart Brittner said.
Mathematics department chairwoman Patricia Hannigan said the NEASC process consists mostly of answering a set of questions about what already is being done and hoping Cony made the grade. Participating in the League of Innovative Schools has involved workshops for staff input and resulted in an action plan that’s forward-looking.
“The staff as a whole feel very positive about Innovative Schools because each and every one of us has had a part in it,” Hannigan said.
At a meeting in November, school board members were receptive to the idea of cutting ties with NEASC.
“One thing that is really interesting to hear is that NEASC really seems to assess if we’re adequate, whereas the Innovative Schools approach looks at the possibilities,” at-large board member Amanda Bartlett said. “I think that’s really exciting.”
The board tabled the vote, however, because the idea had not been discussed at any public meeting, and board members said they wanted a chance for feedback in case people in the community consider accreditation important.
NEASC accreditation has been valued highly in recent history, especially when Cony was on probabtion from 1998 to 2004, mostly because of the poor condition of the school building. To regain full accreditation status, the school department made hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements to the building, planned the construction of a new school — which opened in 2006 — and addressed problems of curriculum, assessment and staff morale also identified by NEASC.
Although the League of Innovative Schools provides Cony with opportunities for internal and external review, it does not come with a stamp of approval like the one the school would lose if it leaves NEASC.
School department officials have tried to determine whether external audiences, such as colleges or businesses or families considering a move to Augusta, pay attention to accreditation.
Superintendent James Anastasio said the staff polled every postsecondary school that Cony graduates have attended in the past five years, and none said they checked whether an applicant’s high school was accredited. Instead, they look at an applicant’s individual record.
Anastasio also said people at schools that have dropped accreditation have seen no noticeable effect on enrollment or the appeal of their communities to prospective residents.
The Augusta school board probably will vote Dec. 11 on ending Cony’s and CATC’s memberships in NEASC.