The News and Observer
January 13, 2011
By Thomas Goldsmith and T. Keung Hui
RALEIGH — Faced with pleas from emotional parents, Wake County school board members voted Wednesday night to avoid – for now – a decision to break ties with the national accreditation agency that was preparing a probe of the school system.
Following two hours of secret meetings at Millbrook High School, members voted 5-3 to ask the AdvancED accrediting agency to provide clarity and a narrower scope to its investigation. The school board, which considered dropping its affiliation with the agency, agreed to send it a letter seeking to proceed with the accreditation process, while also asking that the Wake board have legal representation during the investigation.
Representatives of AdvancED were not immediately available for comment.
Members who supported the letter said they valued the association with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an organization that is part of AdvancED. But they said they couldn’t agree to all the agency’s demands.
“I urge SACS to be reasonable and professional,” board vice chair Debra Goldman said. “I pledge to work further for accreditation.”
Parents plead at hearing
The parents who spoke in favor of working further with the accreditation process appeared during a public hearing planned to address student reassignment.
“If we lose our accreditation, how does that help our children?” parent Lana Nixon asked during the evening forum.
The forum was the first of five scheduled to address student assignment in Wake, which recently abandoned a policy of balancing schools using students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. The subject became a key issue this week, after school board members threatened to sever Wake’s relationship with AdvancED – a scenario that could jeopardize college plans for some students and make it harder for others to earn scholarships.
AdvancED accredits more than 25,000 of the nation’s schools, has been reviewing Wake’s 143,000-student school system in response to a complaint by the state NAACP, which told AdvancED that the board was not following its own policies when it took steps to discard its socioeconomic diversity policy.
An investigation by the federal education department’s Office for Civil Rights remains in progress; it was also sparked by an NAACP complaint.
The Wake school board leadership has been resisting elements of the AdvancED review, saying that some of the agency’s questions are too broad and concern matters that shouldn’t affect accreditation. In addition to student assignment, AdvancED has raised questions about several other matters, such as the board’s hiring of attorney Thomas Farr as special interim counsel, the use of the conservative Civitas Institute to train board members, the cost of ending mandatory year-round schools and the cost of not building a high school on Forestville Road.
Enloe student speaks
Dhruv Jain, 16, an Enloe High School student at the forum, urged the board to allow AdvancED to continue its investigation.
“If everything is fine and there’s nothing going on behind the scenes then you should have nothing to fear,” Jain said.
Wednesday’s vote followed a secret meeting on the subject. The school board, which included county lawyers in the conversations, claimed attorney-client privilege as grounds for closing the meeting to the public.
Republican board members referred questions about the letter’s contents to board attorney Jonathan Blumberg, who said he hoped to have the letter crafted by today. Sutton said that former Raleigh City Councilman Kieran Shanahan, who has been hired by the GOP majority, will assist Blumberg in writing the letter.
School board member Keith Sutton questioned why his colleagues thought that AdvancED would back away from the positions it has taken throughout the scope of this investigation. “They’re not going to change their mind,” Sutton said. “We need to let them get on with this investigation.”
Democrat joins majority
Former board chairman Kevin Hill, the only Democrat to vote for sending the letter, emphasized that he was trying to move the process forward.
“I voted to send a letter that will help provide additional clarity to my colleagues,” Hill said. “Then we’re going to have to take action.”
Democrat Dr. Anne McLaurin voted against sending the letter along with fellow minority members Carolyn Morrison and Keith Sutton.
“If we don’t have anything to hide, let ’em come,” McLaurin said.
The board may still elect to cut ties with AdvancED. Talk of doing so seems to be divided along party lines.
Chairman Ron Margiotta and other members of the board’s five-member Republican majority have appeared to favor cutting ties with AdvancED. Four Democratic members supported retaining the system’s affiliation with AdvancED.
One of those, Carolyn Morrison, had issued a statement earlier today on the topic: “Withdrawing our accreditation would be another discouraging blow to our school system, which in little more than a year has seen withdrawals from diversity efforts, professional learning teams, the North Carolina School Boards Association, requirements that our superintendent be an experienced educator, and reduced time for public comments.”
Accreditation has been viewed as a valuable means of keeping standards high, encouraging professional development and making sure students have an equal shot at scholarships and college admissions.
Impact on admissions
Colleges do pay attention to the issue, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars & Admissions Officers, a Washington-based association of more than 10,000 higher education admissions and registration professionals.
“High school accreditation is very meaningful in terms of evaluating students,” Nassirian said. “Therefore its loss can be consequential.”
For 12th-graders this year, the loss may not be as damaging. As time goes on, continuing without accreditation becomes more troublesome, he said.
An admissions officer can quickly see that an applicant’s school doesn’t have the seal of approval from an accrediting body. It is often the first thing that pops up in school databases. “That’s going to stick out like a sore thumb,” Nassirian said, especially if the college admissions office is not familiar with the high school.
Steven Roy Goodman, a Washington-based consultant who advises families on the admissions process, said accreditation is not the be-all, end-all indicator of quality, but its loss can create negative perceptions.
“It’s likely to have a broader impact the farther away you get from Research Triangle Park,” said Goodman, who regularly advises clients in North Carolina. “Do you want to have to be explaining why you went to an unaccredited school?”
Parent Ava Barlow said she moved to Wake because of the schools, but added that the possible loss of accreditation could drive her away again.
“I am personally horrified,” Barlow said.