SAU41 Superintendent speaks out on Hollis Brookline High School’s potential loss of NEASC accreditation

The Journal asked Interim Superintendent John Moody to discuss the NEASC situation, and what the loss of accreditation would mean for the community. Here is what he said:

How did this happen? Why is it that we find ourselves in this situation, and what is the commission actually saying to us? Two accreditations ago, they cited overcrowding. Cautions then were not because of number of students, but insufficient staff teaching spaces to accommodate the number of classes.

The metrics are simple: They built the high school with a program in mind and a number of students in mind. As the years went on, decisions were made to add programs. We want students to have a variety of challenging, enriching coursework. The number of courses when we built the school is different from what is offered now. There is a great demand on classroom space. There is no question that what they are doing for curriculum is enviable on the part of other schools, but every time you offer something, you limit yourself.

There are teachers on carts and sharing space. It is disruptive for them to have limited space for planning and group meetings, and at the same time you need to expand special education programs. Every time you expand a program, you need more space for the same number of students, and there are fewer available classrooms.

Cafeteria space, by any measure, is too small to accommodate the number of students in the building. That has been the real focus of NEASC. We have to cram kids in and spread lunches out just to have space for them to eat. With 800 students in a very small cafeteria, even with different tables, in the end it doesn’t make a lot of difference. It really depends on schedules.

The tertiary issue is the athletic fields. There is some concern about safety issues, but that comes more from the community than NEASC. In addition to the maintenance part, can you keep them in reasonable shape without having to take them offline for a time? It limits use. You need to invest in the fields you have, as well as commit to the longer-term investment to add to them.

From my perspective as superintendent, curriculum program spaces are most important. I’m very supportive of improving the athletic facilities, but our primary mission is to make sure we have academic facilities.

Which of those things is the community willing to address first, or do they want them both addressed at the same time? It is our obligation to say, ‘Here is the plan. This is why we are asking to do it. What is the benefit of adding space to the high school? What do the kids get out of it?’

What’s happening is that this is one of the times when the focus has shifted to the kids. It’s not just about budgets, but about the kids of Hollis and Brookline. So now the community is struggling with ‘What is the best way to solve the problem?’ How much is each of those communities willing to spend on this – that is where we get hung up. What is the cost, short-term and long-term, what does it mean for Brookline and for Hollis?

There was so much on our warrant that it was hard to focus on one thing, with the teacher contracts, the bond. What was accomplished is that the focus shifted from political agendas to what is best for our kids, and that is where it belongs.

We got our accreditation in 1995. We made two unsuccessful attempts to address the concerns that NEASC had, and by the third time, enough time had elapsed and there is no evidence that the community is willing to support the recommendations they made regarding space, therefore we will be put on probation.

I filed a show cause letter (Sept. 10, 2013): We had significant changes in leadership, an interim superintendent and they should give us a chance to look at the building facility study, as well as the athletic fields study. The Joyce Report presented a number of alternatives to free up space that would potentially resolve the traveling teacher issues, but none of those solves the cafeteria issue.

Now, we are at a juncture where we are not sure. There is no sense of certainty that we will end up with a bond or some sort of financial commitment that will resolve these issues. If we end up with none, and can’t find a way, a year from June we will have our accreditation terminated. We will be a persona non grata.

We’ve taken our last shot at show cause, and done internal things. There are some alternatives but they are quickly dissipating. Right now we are in a holding pattern. This is not an action they take lightly. Once you lose your accreditation, it is gone.

The NH DOE has standards for high schools, but these are minimum standards, the floor, not the ceiling. All high schools need to be approved by the DOE, you have no choice. If you are not approved by the DOE, students at an unapproved high school can petition to go to an approved school in the state at the cost of the district. State aid is affected, too. We meet the minimum standards for New Hampshire.

NEASC is voluntary, and most high schools are accredited. It is an opportunity to have a peer group come to the school and measure its performance. Prior to the visit, the school completes the process of gathering evidence that standards are being met before they come to validate it. If we choose to measure our success ourselves, we only see things from our perspective, but having outsiders helps us better understand our strengths and weakness and what we need to improve. Probation is the next to the last step to termination and they do not like to do that.

They have surveyed colleges and universities, and they do not penalize students for not coming from a NEASC-approved school. However, in some instances it is a higher standard in the application process where you have to demonstrate that you possess those skills the college is looking for.

We do not need to do this (NEASC accreditation) but we choose to do it to make sure we are meeting the standards the community holds us to and doing it for the right reason. When they tell us repeatedly that the cafeteria is inadequate, we need to look at that.

We have a great reputation. When folks see or hear that you are not accredited, they start to make other choices. The label itself makes a difference whether they move out or move in but send their kids to a private school.

The big missing piece is the assumption on the board’s part that people go to the website for information. This is not true. The challenge is marketing what you are reading on more than just the website. You have got to go to the schools and community groups and have accelerated discussions about this crisis with NEASC. The big problem is that we have a very short time without the ability to really market what it is that we are looking for. People who go to the website are informed, but they need to go beyond that and reach those who don’t know what the problem is or what the solutions.

We have a very short time frame. We are required to issue teacher contracts no later than April 15, so the warrant must be closed by April 10. If it isn’t, all of the collective bargaining employees will get pink slips because without the warrant, there will be no money on July 1. That would have a tremendous negative impact on the staff, a demoralizing doomsday scenario.

We can go anywhere from what is already there to some sort of minimalist approach. You can’t change the language of the bond article but can reduce the amount. Each item in there has a cost attached.

My plan is to get these things done so the new permanent superintendent is not confronted by these issues next year. We need to make a decision so the co-op and school districts can move on. This consumes a great deal of time and effort, but it’s not my money. The voters in the community get to decide how much they want to invest. My job is to articulate what I believe is in the best interest of the SAU and put it out there so they can decide.