A spokesman for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges called Principal Susan M. Nicholson on Friday to tell her of its decision to put the high school on warning status since some teachers have as many as 160 students a day in their classrooms.
"The numbers they explained to us are pretty stark," said Charles McCarthy, associate director of the Commission on Public Secondary Schools for NEASC, the major accrediting agency for schools and colleges. "I haven't seen too many school class sizes and teacher levels at that level and breadth."
A report detailing the specific areas that need to be remedied will be mailed in seven to 10 days. The North Andover school was cited in two of seven categories of standards set by the agency - instruction and community resources - which in the North Andover case refers to dependable funding.
The district will have until June 1 to report back on changes in the works to mitigate the situation, McCarthy said.
It was clear to Nicholson that NEASC had serious concerns when it requested a listing of teachers and their student enrollments a few weeks ago. The highest were 164, 160, and 155 students per teacher spread over five classes a day.
The decision to place the school on warning status was issued shortly afterward.
Nicholson is already hearing about teachers feeling overwhelmed.
In the English department, for example, one teacher has 155 students spread over five classes. If she hands out four writing assignments this term, per the current standards at the school, she will be grading more than 600 papers. Foreign language classes jammed with too many students need to split up the time they work on verbal fluency because there are simply not enough seats in the language lab.
"With those large numbers, we will be challenged," Nicholson said. "You can't cut personnel to that extent and not know that there is an impact on the kids."
School officials hoped to receive a break from the accrediting agency, citing a lack of staff needed to put together a comprehensive report on their school.
Nicholson and her school's management team and accreditation steering committee leaders sent a nine-page letter to NEASC in early September asking the association to postpone a reaccreditation set for October 2007 due to "unprecedented extenuating circumstances."
The letter detailed substantive changes and a litany of woes the beleaguered school system faced in recent months, including the scandal involving the resignation in March of Superintendent Harry K. Harutunian, a shortage of funding, staff reductions and the resignation of personnel.
"Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong," said School Committee Chairman Alfred M. Perry of the last six months in town schools.
At the high school alone, 22 staffers lost their jobs, were transferred to another school or resigned.
The reduction in personnel forced class sizes of up to 30-plus in many classrooms, limited the availability of certain science classes, and forced the cancellation of elective courses in Russian history, integrated technology and physical education, among others.
A last-minute cut of $31,000 in the high school budget, which the principal learned about in September, slashed the science equipment and library budgets and clamped down on other department funding, too. And changes in staffing means there are fewer teachers with the institutional knowledge of how the system works.
The move to issue accreditation warnings came as no surprise to Nicholson or others.
"This is something I've been saying for the last six to eight months," Perry said. "I said, 'If we don't get a little more money, we're going to have to reduce the teaching staff, class sizes will rise, and the high school accreditation will be in danger.' Some people say I'm using scare tactics, but I'm just telling the truth."
The New England Association of Schools and Colleges, based in Bedford, oversees the accreditation of more than 95 percent of all public secondary schools in the region's six states. On any given day, one school in six of the 649 high schools on its rolls is on warning status, according to the association's Web site.
A formal warning on accreditation falls short of a school being placed on formal probation, a situation faced by Haverhill and Beverly high schools in Massachusetts, Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, N.H., and 11 other secondary schools in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
"We'll find a way to fix it," Perry said.
The remedy, he said, will be adding more staff to the high school next year to correct the problem.
"This warning is a signal that we have a lot of work to do," Nicholson said.
She said the North Andover Town Meeting in May will be a strong indicator of whether the high school can right itself in the eyes of the accrediting agency.
"I have to believe the citizens in this community would rally in support of funding for the schools," she said.
North Andover High was placed on warning status in May 2004 shortly after the opening of the new $58.5 million high school, funded with 63 percent state money. That warning from NEASC was rescinded within five months after more money was infused into the school system to rectify problems.
The situation may not be fixed so quickly this time, but McCarthy said that in these circumstances, the association looks at the good-faith attempts to change the system. The next level of discipline would be probation, but that step would not be taken if the town shows reasonable progress.
"There is no magic number," McCarthy said, "but I don't think you can find a community that would say what's happened at North Andover now is of optimal or even minimally acceptable standards."
Some of the factors leading to the warning status since March:
Superintendent of Schools Harry K. Harutunian resigns following weeks of scandal and uncertainty.
High school assistant principal falls in building, fracturing hip.
Budget shortfall of $3 million.
* 7.5 professional positions cut.
* 6 paraprofessional positions cut.
* Work schedule of two secretaries cut from 12 to 10 months.
* Community programs director resigns.
* Special education director resigns.
* Vote fails on trash fees, intended to help finance schools.
* New budget issued, includes more personnel changes.
* Social studies department chairman suffers major heart attack.
* High school assistant principal resigns.
* Human resources/personnel director resigns.
* 3 full-time teacher positions at high school restored.
Source: Letter from school officials to New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
Workload gets heavier as class sizes grow at North Andover High
* Keri Zwinggi, 155 students
* Audra Williams, 143 students
* Melissa Downey, 149 students
* Michelle Roy, 152 students
* Richard DelMonico, 142 students
* Juliette Darmon, 160 students
* Diane Lewis, 149 students
* Ryan McCann, 164 students
* Charles Anderson, 138 students
* Sarah Vivenzio, 147 students
* Barbara Sanford, 146 students
* Andrew Van Horn, 145 students
Scott Young, 133 students
All of these are based on five classes per day