School Credentials Team to Scrutinize Wake

T. Keung Hui and Thomas Goldsmith, News & Observer (Raleigh), August 18, 2010

A powerful accreditation group is threatening to strip its credentials from Wake County’s high schools unless the school board majority can justify all the major decisions they’ve made since December.

The sweeping review that will be conducted in early fall by Advancing Excellence in Education Worldwide, or AdvancED was triggered by a March complaint filed by the state NAACP and is one of less than a handful conducted each year by the accreditation group based in suburban Atlanta.

“It is rare, and it is serious,” Mark Elgart, CEO of AdvancEd, said of the pending review of North Carolina’s largest school district.

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The AdvancED review team, scheduled to spend three days in Raleigh in September or October, is charged with determining whether the school board is making decisions based on the best interests of students and the community and whetherthe board is following its own policies, Elgart said.. If the answers don’t satisfy the team, Wake’s 24 high schools could lose the accreditation that makes it easier for students to get scholarships, loans and college acceptances.

The decision to scrutinize Wake school board actions follows months of protests, rallies and arrests since a new majority took control of the board in December and immediately began dismantling the district’s longstanding economic diversity policy in favor of community schools. The Rev. William Barber, head of the state civil rights organization, has been at the forefront of those protests and rallies and has twice been arrested during school board meetings.

AdvancED accredits more than 27,000 schools, but only rarely executes the kind of review that Wake is getting. In Georgia, reviews of three districts resulted in one losing its accreditation–the first such action in nearly 40 years–and two others facing sanctions. In two of those Georgia districts, the state’s governor removed school board members in the aftermath of the accreditation group’s review. No provision exists in North Carolina law that would allow anything similar to happen here.

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Roiled by the news

The news that AdvancED would put the Wake board’s decision-making under a microscope brought angry charges from supporters of the majority that the group was venturing far from educational topics and presenting unnecessary obstacles.

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Tedesco [John Tedesco, a school board member] asked how relevant it is for an accreditation agency to look into legal contracts, school construction decisions and other board policy decisions.

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Another decision to be reviewed is the board majority’s vote to name the Civitas Institute, a Raleigh-based conservative organization, as one of the groups that can provide training to board members. Francis DeLuca, president of the Civitas Institute, said the review is going too far beyond educational issues that should be determined by elected board members.

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School officials urged AdvancED in April to drop the review, calling it “completely unwarranted.”

“The persons who have made these unfounded complaints are seeking to use your organization in an attempt to defeat the will of the voters of Wake County as reflected in the last election,” the school district said in its response.

But the school district’s response didn’t satisfy AdvancED, which now wants detailed information on the qualifications of the people developing the new student assignment plan and any financial and academic studies used to justify abandoning the diversity policy. Some of the issues raised are similar to those brought up by Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a community group that supports the old diversity policy.

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Still the largest system

In June, school board members discussed whether to continue their membership in the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which is the regional organization for AdvancED. The board kept the membership after interim Superintendent Donna Hargens lobbied them to stay.

Tedesco said he thinks Wake could pull out of SACS without negatively influencing students’ college prospects.

“We’re still the 18th largest school system,” Tedesco said. “I don’t think colleges make decisions based on a school’s accreditation.”

But Stephen Farmer, director of undergraduate admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill, disagreed. Many North Carolina universities recommend that applicants come from accredited high schools, he said. {snip}

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