South working on reaccreditation

NASHUA – Nancy Hilliard didn’t know how exhausting the process of evaluating a school could be. Then she served on the visiting committee for the reaccreditation of Bow High School.

“I was blown away by what this committee had to do,” said Hilliard, a teacher at Nashua High School South. “It’s a pretty thorough and eye-opening process.”

Now that South is due for its own reaccreditation, Hilliard’s experience on the committee has equipped her to prepare the school for its upcoming evaluation. She is now the head of the steering committee to make sure South meets New England Association of Schools and Colleges standards.

Accreditation is the process of determining whether a school adequately prepares students for a higher institution of learning or a career. All New England schools – from elementary to college – must be accredited by the NEASC when they first open and reaccredited every 10 years.

If a high school is not accredited, students are at a disadvantage when applying to college, said Charlie McCarthy, associate director of the committee on public secondary schools for the NEASC.

When the NEASC surveyed colleges 10 years ago, 70 percent said accreditation was a factor in their admissions process. McCarthy said if the same survey were conducted today, the results would likely be the same.

During reaccreditation, schools are evaluated on seven standards: mission statement and expectations for student learning; curriculum; quality of instruction; assessment of student learning; leadership and organization; school resources; and community resources.

The old Nashua High School was due for reaccreditation in 2000, but because of the major renovation of the south school and the construction of the north school, the school district was given an almost unheard-of five-year extension, said South Principal Tim Kelley.

McCarthy said the NEASC is hesitant to grant extensions, but does so when schools are undergoing major changes and completing a self-study would be counterproductive.In his five years on the commission, McCarthy said, Nashua’s $143 million high school construction project is the largest he has seen in New England.

“I don’t know of another community that has made a commitment of that sort,” McCarthy said.

Now that the project is complete and both schools are open, Nashua South teachers are working in eight subcommittees to draft a self-report to present to the NEASC before the spring of 2006, when its visiting committee will examine the school.

Teachers will spend the coming months measuring their school against the seven standards, identifying areas in which they are doing well and where they need improvement.

Committees will take an honest look at areas that could be improved, Hilliard said, because even if they fail to identify problems, the NEASC visiting committee won’t.

“It’s an intense process,” McCarthy said.

Although school officials aren’t worried about failing the reaccreditation process, Kelley said, they do believe the NEASC will make recommendations for improvement.

“We expect there’ll be recommendations,” Kelley said. “Every school has recommendations. This is really an individual assessment of what we’re doing.”

As part of the process, the school is required to survey parents, students and teachers about the school.

Beginning in late January or early February, surveys will be available to teachers and students online and to parents at school and community events. The school hopes for a 70 percent return rate on the surveys, Kelley said.

By the end of the 2005-06 school year, Nashua South will complete its reaccreditation process and the NEASC evaluation will move to the recently completed north school.