VUHS eyes accreditation process

VERGENNES — Vergennes Union High School Principal Ed Webbley will meet on Monday with any interested community members to discuss his recommendation that VUHS not pursue accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).
That meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on Jan. 25 in the VUHS library.
Webbley takes the position — explained at length in a letter that may be read at www.vuhs.org — that the benefits of NEASC accreditation are slight compared to the cost of more than $30,000 and the disruption the process would mean to many initiatives VUHS has undertaken to improve the school’s climate and education.
“The way NEASC works you bring everything to a grinding halt for at least a year and a half,” Webbley said. “And all these things we’ve got on board for high school transformation that make us sort of a poster child for transformation in the state of Vermont, they’d have to come to a screeching halt as you did a self-study. An outer-directed self-study, which is a little like gazing at your own navel.”
Addison Northwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Tom O’Brien and VUHS board Chairwoman Kristen Bristow both said they back Webbley’s position, and Webbley said most VUHS educators also agree.
“When we asked the faculty, ‘do you think the NEASC is worthwhile,’ it was a resounding ‘no,’” Webbley said. “There were only two or three vocal supporters of it.”
One of those vocal supporters of NEASC is VUHS librarian Chris Brady, also a former Mount Abraham Union High School board member. Brady said the best professional development experiences he has had came from NEASC, and that the process forces a complete evaluation of a school’s programs that is of great benefit to a school and its host towns.
Even the internal efforts at VUHS to upgrade its delivery of education cannot match up to a full NEASC review, said Brady, noting that Mount Abe, Champlain Valley and Middlebury union high schools have NEASC accreditations.
“The accreditation process provides a unique opportunity for communities to undertake a comprehensive study of their schools to determine how they measure up to a rigorous set of established standards derived from the current best practices in teaching and learning,” Brady wrote in an email.
One issue apparently not in play is whether lack of NEASC accreditation affects a school’s students’ college applications. Admissions officials at the University of Vermont and Middlebury and Castleton State colleges stated unanimously that NEASC accreditation was not a consideration when they reviewed applications from public school students.
“The main thing for us is that we want to see that a high school has at least their own state department of education accreditation,” said Castleton Dean of Admissions Maurice Ouimet. “NEASC and all is great, but it is not the be-all and end-all. The most important thing we want to see is a school is recognized by its own department of education as an operating school.”
UVM Director of Admissions Beth Wiser echoed Ouimet, and replied, “Oh, absolutely,” when asked if VUHS was in good standing with the Vermont Department of Education, which recently awarded VUHS $75,000 to pursue educational initiatives.
Middlebury Associate Director of Admissions Bert Phinney added further perspective.
“To be honest with you, we don’t know if a school is accredited in most instances,” Phinney said.
PLUSES AND MINUSES
In his letter on the VUHS Web site, Webbley said he worked at schools in the Midwest during the accreditation process as a teacher and as an administrator and saw “mixed results, at best.”
He also referred back to the 2002 NEASC report at VUHS and called it “poorly focused. It told us nothing we didn’t already know.” Webbley said attempts to obtain feedback from NEASC officials failed, and that no assessments on critical areas, included on the library and student-support services, were provided. He also noted that 18 other Vermont high schools, many of them, like VUHS, on the small side, have decided not to re-up with NEASC.
At the same time, he said working with NEASC again would bring to a halt several VUHS efforts, including:
• Improving the school’s climate; many teachers and administrators have attended a series of conferences and done extensive follow-up to work on this issue.
• Creating an effective system to provide quick help for struggling students using the morning advisory and callback periods.
• Increasing the school’s percentage of students going on to higher education, in part by reworking graduation requirements to make them “performance-based” and give students more ownership of their work, an effort just now gaining traction.
• Creating support teams to work with students who need help.
Many of those efforts and others require time from teachers that would otherwise be devoted to accreditation, Webbley said, while at the same time federal requirements have increased, such as reporting for No Child Left Behind and testing.
“I don’t think we have the time. One of the things we’ve done here is we’ve made huge strides in a short period of time. I don’t think we have time to stop our transformation and then restart it in a couple of years,” Webbley said.
But Brady believes NEASC would offer more benefits than what is already ongoing at VUHS, including an examination of all aspects of the school and its relation with the community.
“The beauty of the accreditation process is its scope,” he said. “School accreditation involves the examination of not just the school programs but all facets of school and community resources dedicated to supporting and nurturing school improvement.”
And NEASC has much to offer to all at VUHS, too, he said.
“Membership in NEASC provides extremely valuable professional development opportunities for teachers, administrators and board members. Participation on a NEASC visiting team has been recognized by many participants as one of the most valuable hands-on learning experiences available for professionals in education,” Brady wrote in his email.
Brady said information about NEASC is available at http://cpss.neasc.org/about_accreditation/benefits/.

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