After a weeklong review of the entire Newton County School System, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement (SACS CASI) named the district a "quality" school system Wednesday.
SACS CASI accredits more than 13,000 schools and school systems across the country and internationally. SACS CASI is an accreditation division of AdvancED, which also encompasses the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement (NCA CASI) and the National Study of School Evaluation (NSSE).
To receive SACS CASI accreditation districts must "adhere to the AdvancED Accreditation Standards for Quality School Systems, engage in ongoing self-assessment and continuous improvement, document results of improvement efforts, complete a standards assessment report between six weeks and six months prior to a quality assurance review, and host a quality assurance review team once every five years."
"This week is basically a culmination of those activities," said Stephanie Athens, SACS CASI quality assurance review team chair and retired Florida educator.
After the full report is submitted to the district, administrators must show they have acted on the quality assurance review team's recommendations by submitting a progress report two years after the review.
AdvancED standards for quality schools include efforts for systemic, systematic and sustainable improvement.
Earlier this week, NCSS Superintendent Steven Whatley presented an oral report to the quality assurance review team about the district's mission, accomplishments, challenges and goals.
"The education of our youth is the responsibility of the entire community," Whatley said. "Open communication and involvement are critical elements. Input from the community is welcome and desired by the board of education and administration."
Whatley said issues challenging schools throughout the state are affecting students, teachers and administrators in Newton County as well. Such challenges are serving a majority of low-income students, retaining quality teachers and administrators, increased interest in charter schools and vouchers, yearly state austerity reductions to expected revenue for the system (a total of $19 million since 2002), ensuring all subgroups meet annual yearly progress as part of the No Child Left Behind Act and increasing the rigor of high school curriculum while increasing graduation rates.
The system failed to meet AYP goals as an entire district this year because of the number of schools not meeting goals on the school level. Nine Newton Schools did not meet 2008 AYP goals compared to three in 2007.
Financial challenges stem from requests from Gov. Sonny Perdue to slash state agency budgets as well as a recently approved senior citizen property tax exemption, which will both likely reduce local revenue for the system in coming years, according to Whatley.
Ever increasing enrollment numbers present other challenges such as hiring educators and constructing schools to house the students. In a decade, the system's enrollment has grown by nearly 10,000 students. Currently, 155 trailer classrooms are in use. Whatley said the county's estimated population by 2050 is 400,000-more than four times what it is today.
After a previous SACS review, district administrators decided to develop a strategic improvement plan based on its mission. Improvement goals include all students (including limited English proficiency students) achieving minimum requirements in reading, language arts and mathematics, all students being taught by highly qualified teachers, and safe schools that are conducive to learning.
"Our business is providing educational excellence for all students," Whatley said. "We are not there yet and have so much remaining to be done, but we are making strides."
Whatley highlighted several accomplishments of which the principals and the board of education are particularly proud. While only around half of the system's students with disabilities graduate with a regular diploma, almost 80 percent of all students in the class of 2008 graduated on time. High school students also scored close to the state average on the 2008 Georgia High School Graduation Test.
More than three-fourths of elementary school students met or exceeded standards on state-mandated tests with the exception of third, fourth and fifth graders in science and math.
"Excellence doesn't mean meeting minimums," Whatley said.
Outside of student achievement, Whatley said the system has increased communication with parents through student track and school messenger, which are online and telephone systems designed to relay student and school information to parents in a timely manner. Internal communication has also received a boost through a newly implemented electronic information dissemination system between teachers and the board and electronic newsletters.
A customer service audit and training and redesign of the system's Web site has made information channels more accessible, user-friendly and useful, according to Whatley.
To meet the demands of growing enrollment, the system opened South Salem Elementary School in July. Local funding for new school construction will largely come from revenue collected in the third Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax passed last September, for which all system employees worked toward gaining public favor.
"Yet given these accomplishments, in seeking to meet the district's mission of providing educational excellence for all students, we will be addressing several challenges during the coming years," Whatley said.
Whatley said continuing goals always include improving student achievement by reviewing student data and expanding parent involvement.
"When parents are engaged in working directly with their children on learning activities in the home, reading with their children, supporting their work on homework assignments, tutoring them using materials and instructions provided by teachers, attending and actively supporting school activities and helping out in classrooms or on field trips-these are the kinds of involvement and skills needed to enhance achievement," Whatley said.
By examining documents, visiting schools, observing classrooms, deliberating professionally and interviewing 345 administrators, BOE members, teachers, parents, community members and students, the quality assurance review team came up with a list of system strengths, commendations and recommendations.
Strengths included a positive working relationship between the superintendent and board of education, community perception of the district, communication of student learning expectations to the community, effective leadership, investment in technology, reduction of the dropout rate, accessibility to central office staff, a focus on customer service, commitment to professional development, exceeding state and national averages on the SAT and ACT in the black student subgroup and provisions for increasing student populations.
"Applaud yourselves," said Athens after announcing the system's accreditation status to the assembled crowd of administrators Wednesday. "You've done a great job; keep at it."