Sept. 7, 2002 – Two messages were delivered to the education professionals and government officials at a weekend conference on high school accreditation. One was to forget the past; the other was to correct it.
About 100 people gathered at Marriott's Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort on Friday morning for the first working session of an Institute on Accreditation being presented by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.
The attendees included School Improvement Team members from each of the territory's four public high schools, plus Education Department officials, members of the Board of Education, teachers union representatives and other government officials.
The agreed-upon objective is to see accreditation restored to the territory's three public high schools that lost it last November and to achieve similar recognition for the fourth high school, which has yet to be accredited.
All four schools — Central, Charlotte Amalie, Educational Complex and Ivanna Eudora Kean — will be expected to meet a set of standards in order to attain reaccreditation by 2004. When the time comes, Middle States will send accreditation teams for a round of on-site inspections, associate director Mary Ann Keeley, one of the institute facilitators, said. In the meantime, schools are being asked to demonstrate progress in the four areas of shortcomings identified when they lost their accreditation.
The areas are: high teacher absenteeism, high student absenteeism, the lack of an adequate substitute teacher pool and the need for greater administrative autonomy and site-based management — that is, for school principals to be able to purchase supplies and equipment and pay substitute teachers on their own without going through the labyrinthine government bureaucracy.
Keeley said corrective action in all four areas is "a necessity" for reaccreditation.
Compliance timeline agreed upon in June
In June, Keeley visited the territory, addressed the Senate Education Committee and held a closed meeting with Education officials where agreement was reached on a timeline for complying with steps toward reaccreditation. For an outline of those steps and the deadlines for taking them, see "Reaccreditation plan laid out in private session".
On Friday, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and top education officials greeted the gathering before turning the agenda over to Keeley and John Bartemes, Caribbean regional agent for Middle States. Keeley began by saying, "It's a new day to move forward" in the accreditation process.
Middle States is one of six accrediting organizations for public and private schools in different regions of the nation, its territories and certain foreign countries. The idea of establishing standards was first expressed by U.S. college administrators in the late 1800s, Keeley said, in an effort to ensure that students graduating from secondary schools were prepared to make a successful transition to higher education.
Keeley told her audience Friday that accreditation is both an awarding of a national credential and a process to ensure quality education. "Accreditation is not primarily or solely an award. First and foremost, it is about school improvement," she said.
Accreditation helps schools focus on the process of educating students and clarify what kind of results should be seen at the end of the process, she said. Achieving the standards of accreditation also provides a means for a public school system to show public accountability, she said.
At the end of April, the governor fired Ruby Simmonds as Education commissioner hours after word reached the territory that Middle States had rejected the territory's appeal of the association's withdrawal of accreditation last November. In repeated warnings over recent years and through the appeals process, the association repeatedly cited the four areas in which the V.I. public school system has failed to meet standards.
New private sector group funds institute
Reaccreditation is a hot topic in this election year. Turnbull, whose background and training is as an educator, took a seat in the front row of Friday's opening session, accompanied by top Education officials. At the start of the session, he thanked members of the private sector who had helped to form the new Foundation for Accreditation of USVI Schools Inc.
A release issued by Government House later in the day said the foundation provided funding of $20,195 to underwrite the cost of the institute, which opened with a reception Thursday evening and went through Saturday afternoon. In presenting three checks totaling that amount, it said, attorney Richard Bourne-Vanneck, foundation vice president, pledged the organization's continuing support of the reaccreditation effort.
Also expressing thanks was William Frett, the new St. Thomas-St. John district schools superintendent. He called the Foundation for Accreditation "(an) indication that private-sector interests are now committing themselves to improving the education system."
Frett, who was named chief of operations for the district after Turnbull removed Rosalia Payne from the superintendent's post on Aug. 26, the day before classes resumed for the new school year, also spoke. Addressing members of the four School Improvement Teams taking on the task of making sure their schools meet the standards set by Middle States, he said, "There's a lot of work ahead. The work had been done before, but it can be done, because accreditation is something the schools have already had."
The teams are made up of teachers, administrators, parents and business people, including representatives of The West Indian Co. and the V.I. Bankers Association. In breakout sessions held later Friday, teams were guided through the specifics of meeting the 12 standards that will lead to the awarding of accreditation. The teams' work is important, Keeley said, because school principals cannot meet the standards by themselves.
The standards start with the need for schools to set objectives, strike a balance in leadership between government and school administrations, and set up clearly defined chains of command. They also include the need for schools to receive proper funding; technological assistance; and health, guidance and counseling services for students. The guidelines call for both preventative and emergency health and safety measures to be in place.
Also, schools must be accountable in their business practices and must seek to improve their organizational standards through the use of long-range, strategic and operational planning.
Questions raised after the presentation spoke to the difficulty of meeting the demands regarding teacher and student attendance, a substitute teacher pool and site-based management. The greatest concern expressed was regarding substitute teachers.
Concerns about substitute teacher pool
Education spokeswoman Juel Anderson said the department's internal personnel division had spent most of the summer recruiting substitutes. And Alscess Lewis Brown, personnel chief, said increasing the substitute teacher pool is "a very difficult process" because the number of teachers in the pool shifts according to the need for substitutes.
CAHS Principal Jeannette Smith Barry expressed concern about the deadline of Oct. 15 to have the needed substitutes identified. The date was set without consulting the principals, she said, and will be difficult to meet, since administrators are still busy getting things in place for the new academic year.
Keeley indicated there may be some flexibility on the matter but warned administrators that the substitute pool must be filled by next Jan. 1, when Middle States personnel begin visiting the high schools to start checking their progress toward qualifying as candidate schools for accreditation.
"Schools are expected to meet the stand
ard," Keeley said. "They may meet it in different ways, but they are expected to meet the standard."
Anderson, speaking outside the meeting room, said some difficulties the territory faces in seeking to meet the standards involve entities outside the Education Department. Student attendance policies involve the Board of Education, she said, and procurement issues involve layers of bureaucracy set out in the 1954 Revised Organic Act that governs the territory.
Keeley acknowledged some of those difficulties during the proceedings Friday, commending acting Education Commissioner Noreen Michaels for having invited the heads of other agencies that provide funding and support needed to meet the school accreditation standards.
For Jorge Galiber, Board of Education chair, the institute represented an opportunity to get involved with the process and gain new understanding of how he and others can make an essential difference. "For the first time in a long time, we have all the partners under one roof," he said.
One CAHS parent, Margarita Benjamin, said more people must be recruited into the accreditation effort, particularly parents like herself who are key to meeting the standard of better student attendance. "The parents' participation depends on parents' involvement," she said.
Benjamin heads the CAHS Parent-Teacher-Student Association and also is the V.I. representative to the National Association of PTAs. She said if she carried any message back to the territory's PTAs, it should be one conveying to parents the importance of "what the accreditation process is all about" in the education process.
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