Making the grade keeps getting harder

It was not a pleasant meeting. Shortly before the start of the school year, Dr. Richard Chavez, the principal of Centennial High School in Compton, Calif., held a get-together with incoming seniors and their parents to pass on some bad news: Centennial had lost its accreditation.

"It was a shock," says Tamara Moore, a 17-year-old junior. As the district's student representative on the board of Compton Unified School District, Tamara had heard the news a few weeks earlier. Now, everyone had questions for her. "A lot of people in the community didn't know what it meant," she says. "My mother didn't know."

Centennial, with 1,307 students, is one of three high schools in Compton, a suburb of slightly more than 93,000 people in Los Angeles County. Compton may be known best for having high crime rates and for nurturing gangsta rappers such as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, although it would probably prefer to be known for producing tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. Because Centennial is renovating its older buildings, students are attending classes in low gray buildings placed row upon row, making the campus resemble an army barracks. Some blame the move to the temporary structures, which occurred a week before an accreditation committee came to visit, for the trouble.

Although exact numbers are hard to come by, at least a few dozen primary or secondary schools in the United States lose accreditation each year, leaving parents and students angry and bewildered. Students at these schools suddenly find their futures threatened, but they're not sure how. Since teachers and administrators don't usually prepare for losing accreditation, anyone with questions about the consequences may have trouble getting answers.

Accreditation refers to a stamp of approval granted by one of six regional accrediting associations in the United States. The associations are nonprofit, nongovernmental entities whose purpose is to evaluate colleges and schools. The oldest accrediting association, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), was founded in 1885. The youngest, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, was founded as merger of smaller organizations in 1962. At present, about 30,000 primary and secondary schools in the United States - more than 70 percent of the total number - are accredited, according to Mark Elgart, executive director of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, one of the six regional associations. At the high school level, more than 90 percent are accredited.

The movement to start accrediting schools originally began because, until recently, there were no national standards, or in some cases even statewide standards, for evaluating schools. This changed with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which gives the federal government a larger role in monitoring school performance. In addition, most states have independently passed initiatives to make schools more accountable. Most schools now must meet these federal and state requirements as well as those of the accreditation organizations.

"You're looking at three levels of demand," explains Charles McCarthy Jr., associate director of the Commission on Public Secondary Schools for the NEASC. "Many principals and superintendents feel they're under pressure to serve too many masters."

While the expanded role of federal and state government overlaps with that of the accreditation agencies, however, accreditation remains important for now. It has a longer history and is based on more in-depth inspections, including on-site evaluations of schools. Parents check on the accreditation status of schools when they choose a neighborhood.

College admissions officers use accreditation to ensure that applicants are coming from acceptable schools. High schools use accreditation when deciding whether transfer students will receive credit for work completed at another school. Accreditation can affect everything from community morale to property values.

Losing accreditation is unusual. For example, of the roughly 3,200 schools in the region covered by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), which evaluated Centennial, only two lost accreditation in the 2002-2003 school year, according to George Bronson, associate executive director of WASC. In the case of Centennial, he says accreditation was revoked only after the school repeatedly failed to act on recommendations made during previous inspections.

The consequences of losing accreditation vary from school to school and state to state. Centennial, for instance, continues to operate, although students may transfer to another school. Chavez says that while at least 12 of the 1,300-plus students have chosen to leave so far, a "mass exodus of students" is likely should Centennial fail to regain accreditation this year. If that happens, it could jeopardize the school's survival.

For students at Centennial, the greatest concern is that their diplomas will be worthless. Lekisha Watkins, a 17-year-old senior who is president of the student council, says, "I don't want the hard work I did to be in vain."

In reality, California will grant Centennial's students high school diplomas regardless of the school's accreditation status. College is the real problem. Many if not most, schools, including the University of California, require that applicants come from accredited schools. About 35 percent of Centennial's students go on to some kind of higher education, according to Chavez. (At Beverly Hills High School, by contrast, more than 95 percent of graduates pursue higher education.)

While Chavez has persuaded the University of California to make an exception for at least this year, other schools may be less understanding.

According to a survey of 139 New England colleges conducted by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, 72 percent of the respondents indicated that for out-of-state applicants accreditation was "a very important criterion or virtually necessary."

This is a problem for students like Tamara and Lekisha, who hope to attend out-of-state schools. Also, when accreditation is lacking, colleges rely even more on SAT scores, which are likely to be lower at nonaccredited schools. (Centennial's average cumulative SAT I score in the 2002-2003 school year was 676 out of 1600, as opposed to the statewide average of 1012.)

Students choosing prospective colleges may find that getting an answer about the importance of accreditation is a challenge.

Of the six admissions offices contacted for this article, only three - Harvard, Pomona, and the University of California - were able to provide information within a few days. The other three - Seattle University, Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas, and the State University of New York - drove this reporter around in circles.

Chavez, who has been at Centennial for a little more than a year, says he is confident that Centennial will regain accreditation in the spring, after it is inspected again. He cites high turnover rates - including three principals in five years - as a primary reason why previous recommendations were not followed properly.

"Retaining staff is necessary to build a culture of consistency," he says.

For now, students at Centennial are closely watching the school's efforts. Lekisha says she is happy to see changes, but "I still feel they could be working harder." She hopes to attend college in Texas, and now takes supplementary classes at a junior college. "It upsets me," says Lekisha's mother, Sheila. "I'm running all over town."

Nevertheless, Lekisha is staying put, along with most students, and school spirit has evidently survived. "We're all Apaches," says Moore, referring to the school mascot. Jerry Johnson, an alumnus of Centennial and mother of a ninth-grader, says she believes in the school. "My son was so excited to be going here," she says. As for getting the school back on track: "I know God's going to make a way."

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