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Should entire school districts or just individual schools be accredited?

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 29, 2013: To avoid the challenges associated with the current school transfer law, and to give parents a better idea of how their children’s school is doing, the elected board of the St. Louis Public Schools wants the state to begin accrediting individual schools rather than entire school districts.

Board member Katherine Wessling said that such a change would provide more useful information to the public in general and to families in particular than the current accreditation system does now.

“As it is now,” Wessling said in an email to the Beacon, “with districts as a whole being labeled as unaccredited, individual schools within that district which are achieving see their good results ignored and families are unaware that they even exist.

“Given that most families would prefer to educate their children in the best possible environment that is closest to their home, the switch to accrediting schools rather than districts will give families better information and will also relieve concerns from neighboring districts that they will have to accept influxes of students with little warning or time to prepare.”

School accreditation is done by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, based on a variety of factors. Currently, only three of the state’s 520 districts – Normandy and Riverview Gardens in north St. Louis County, plus Kansas City – are unaccredited. Eleven more have provisional accreditation, including St. Louis and Jennings.

Under a law upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court last month, students who live in unaccredited districts may transfer to any accredited district in the same or an adjacent county. Students who want to transfer for the upcoming school year have to submit applications to the district where they live by Aug. 1.

A new law that takes effect at the end of August lets the state take over an unaccredited district immediately instead of having to wait for two years, as the law formerly allowed. Currently, state-appointed boards are in charge in Riverview Gardens and in St. Louis, even though the city schools regained provisional accreditation last fall.

Though the three-member appointed special administrative board has authority over the St. Louis schools, voters still choose members for an elected board, which has no direct power over how the schools operate. Still, the board meets regularly, and it recently approved a resolution calling for the accreditation of individual schools, not districts.

Noting that parochial and private schools are accredited individually, and that a label of unaccredited may lead parents to think that no schools in a district are serving students well, the resolution says that a change to individual accreditation of public schools “would give parents better information on their choices, would eliminate the requirement to bus students long distances from their homes by illuminating in-district accredited choices rather than obscuring them, and would minimize the impact of transfers on any individual school since the choices would be greater.”

The subject has been a particular problem in the city schools. Though it regained provisional accreditation last year – only after Chris Nicastro, commissioner of education, said at first that their progress did not merit such a change – the district could lose accreditation again once a more rigorous evaluation system, called MSIP5, goes into place this fall.

The resolution from the elected board even says that “it is widely anticipated that SLPS will lose accreditation under DESE in the next school year as standards change, which opens the possibility of great strain being placed on neighboring districts as students attempt to transfer even though the majority of SLPS high schools are accredited by The North Central Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement.”

The city’s Metro High Schoolconsistently ranks among the top high schools in the state.

So, Wessling says, “the needs of all stakeholders would be best served by moving from a district-wide accreditation label to a school-by-school accreditation label.”

Asked to respond to the proposal from the St. Louis elected board, DESE released a statement that said:

“The Missouri School Improvement Program (MSIP) 5 works to prepare every child for success in school and life. MSIP 5 is the state’s school accountability system for reviewing and accrediting public school districts in Missouri. MSIP began in 1990 and is entering its 5th version this year.

“Starting with the 2012-13 school year data release in August, the Department will begin issuing performance reports for each school in a district allowing parents and communities to better evaluate their school’s performance every year. We hope better information on student achievement in each school will help communities join together in supporting and improving our schools.”

A spokeswoman for the department said the state school board could make the change to individual accreditation, if that change was considered worthwhile, with appropriate comment from the public.

The individual school reports are a part of MSIP5, which imposes more rigorous standards and more frequent evaluations on Missouri districts. The new system is part of the state’s effort to by in the top 10 nationally in terms of education by the year 2020 .

Legislation that would have rated individual schools with a single letter grade, A through F, was proposed in the General Assembly last year but did not win approval.

Opponents said such information is currently available for individual schools and boiling it down to a single letter would be overly simplistic.

Kate Casas, state director for the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri, one of the backers of the school grading effort, said in an email that “we have long believed that whole district accreditation really doesn't provide parents the kind of information they need to make informed decisions.”

Earlier this year, in an effort to win passage of the letter-grade legislation, the alliance published a spreadsheet showing how individual schools in the state would fare if they had been evaluated by the standards that would be imposed by MSIP5.

For St. Louis, far more schools rated an F or a D than won higher grades. In Normandy and Riverview Gardens, all schools but one were graded F; Washington Elementary School in Normandy received a C in the simulation.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.