By Doug Ireland
---- — Educators call it the ultimate test, but it’s not an exam taken by students.
It’s a high school’s quest for reaccreditation — a test of the efforts and determination of an entire school community, including administrators, staff and students.
Every 10 years, high schools in New Hampshire are evaluated by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
For the next several months, Salem High School will be preparing for its own four-day evaluation in March by a 17-member team of NEASC representatives, principal Tracy Collyer said.
That team will evaluate the school in dozens of areas, commending the district for some things and recommending improvement in others. They will interview administrators, staff and students before they pack up and leave.
“They come in that Sunday and will spend the next four days with us,” Collyer said. “We know we are doing great things in Salem, but we know there is room for improvement.”
Salem High has already launched an 18-month self-study as part of the reaccreditation process, seeking to determine how the school measures up, Collyer said.
“To have NEASC accreditation is important for schools because it says you have met current standards,” Collyer said. “A lot of this process is us getting evidence. This is a good process for us to really take a look at what we are doing.”
Londonderry High School was reaccredited two years ago, following an extensive review that gave the district passing grades in most areas, Superintendent Nathan Greenberg said. The district was told it needs a school auditorium, he said.
“It’s very important,” he said of the process. “Getting approval is a sign we have quality programs and services for all of our kids.”
While most public high schools in New England — 640 — are accredited, there is a small percentage that are not, according to Janet Allison, NEASC’s director of the Commission on Public Schools.
A school granted accreditation is determined to have facilities, staff, resources and curriculum that make the grade.
“We think it’s very significant,” Allison said.
After a school is reaccredited, officials must file two- and five-year progress reports. They may also be asked to file additional progress reports at any time during the 10-year period.
Most high schools accredited
Although high schools are not required to be accredited, all but four of 72 in the Granite State have passed the test, according to Allison.
The four, including three in northern New Hampshire, are small schools with limited resources, she said. The schools are in Colebrook, Pittsburg, Lisbon and Milton.
When a school fails to receive accreditation, parents become concerned their children will not be accepted by colleges.
“It can have an impact, depending on the program, the school and the student,” Allison said.
Pelham school Superintendent Amanda Lecaroz said if there is only one opening left at a college and two applicants, the college could favor the student from the accredited high school as opposed to the one that is not.
That’s not a scenario parents or prospective college students should have to worry about, she said.
“I don’t want to put my kid in that situation,” Lecaroz said.
There is only one school in the Granite State — Stevens High School in Claremont — in serious danger of losing accreditation. The school is on probation after being cited for deficiencies, including its curriculum, a year ago.
That compares to five schools in the Bay State on probation, but none in northeastern Massachusetts. Maine has three schools on the list.
Before a school is placed on probation, it’s issued a warning. Allison would not say how many New Hampshire schools have been issued warnings.
A warning notice is kept confidential between NEASC and the district, unless that district chooses to announce its status, she said.
Districts working to improve
Most school districts make a concerted effort to get off probation and warning lists, even though it could require a significant investment in resources, Allison said.
“Within five years, it’s an expectation it’s going to be resolved,” she said. “The majority of schools are working to resolve their issues.”
Pelham High School has been on the warning list since 2008 because the aging building no longer meets standards, Lecaroz said.
That’s the same year Salem High was removed from the warning list once the district made improvements to the school library, Collyer said.
The library was too small and often used as a hallway by students to get from one end of the building to another, she said.
To prepare for its upcoming evaluation, Salem High has established a steering committee to guide the district’s self-study.
That steering committee oversees seven subcommittees — each with approximately 20 members — that ensure the district is meeting standards in areas such as curriculum, instruction, assessment, and core values and beliefs.
Collyer said the only major concern at the school is the condition of the 46-year-old school building, which has never been renovated.
“We do have an older building that we know will come up (during the evaluation),” she said. “It’s an old building that needs some help.”
Collyer said the facility is cramped and outdated.
“It is just difficult to support the technology that they have for classrooms these days,” she said. “We don’t have very much storage — we are using hallways for storage; we are using classrooms for storage.”
She said the district has done what it could over the years to make minor upgrades, including installing more electrical outlets, but a substantial renovation is needed.
That’s why the School Board will ask voters to approve funding for the work in March. Pelham will do the same thing — request money from voters to expand the school, Lecaroz said.
The district has also made minor improvements to its school in the meantime, recently installing new sprinkler, heating and cooling systems.
When Brian Stack started at Sanborn Regional High School eight years ago as assistant principal and curriculum director, the school had been on probation for several years. The building and its curriculum were deemed inadequate.
But a new school was built in 2006, resolving NEASC’s building concerns. It took a few years longer to address curriculum deficiencies, according to Stack, now the school’s principal.
“If you are deficient in curriculum, you can improve that,” he said. “For a building, that’s different. You have to get voters to approve it.”
The school will not be evaluated for three years, but Stack said they are already focusing on improving its core values and beliefs. It’s an area he knows NEASC will pinpoint.
Preparing for renewal of accreditation comes at a cost — $20,000 to $25,000.
“That’s a pretty big price tag,” Stack said.
But it’s worth the investment, superintendents said.