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Prospect earns high marks in NEASC report


September 29, 2009
ALTON — A three-year journey for administrators, teachers, and students at Prospect Mountain High School came to an encouraging conclusion late last month with the news that the school is well on its way toward earning full accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).

With a glowing final report in hand from the evaluation committee that visited Prospect Mountain this past spring, school officials are hoping to receive official notice of accreditation when the NEASC Board of Trustees meets to take a final vote on the matter next year.

Founded in 1885, NEASC, the oldest of the country's six regional accrediting agencies, awards membership and accreditation to any educational institutions in the Northeast that seek voluntary affiliation with it.

Accreditation through an organization such as NEASC enables students to transfer course credits from one member school to another, and can improve their chances of receiving federal loans and scholarships or being admitted into colleges and military programs that accept only students from accredited high schools.

The designation also offers teachers and administrators access to a network of educational resources to help them meet local, state, and national requirements, and a wide range of professional development opportunities.

As part of the accreditation process, schools are required to complete an extensive self-study in preparation for a visit from an evaluation team charged with assessing the school's adherence to its mission statement and expectations for student learning, along with its curriculum, instruction methods, and assessment practices, the effectiveness of its leadership, and support for the mission statement among students and community members.

School librarian Cathy Fraser, who chaired Prospect Mountain's 11-member NEASC Steering Committee, said during a joint interview with Principal James Fitzpatrick Monday that the accreditation process began for her in 2006, when the committee (composed of faculty, support staff, and JMA board members) first began meeting.

Over an 18-month period, from August 2007 to January 2009, the steering committee spear-headed an exhaustive study of every aspect of the educational and social atmosphere at Prospect Mountain, forming subcommittees to delve into each of the seven standards used to determine a school's eligibility for accreditation.

By the time the subcommittees completed their work and submitted their results for inclusion in the 100-page self-study, Fraser said, every member of the faculty and support staff had taken part in the process, along with seven JMA board representatives (one on each subcommittee) and two students.

"Cathy did a great job of walking people through this," Fitzpatrick said, explaining that Fraser's mantra during the process was that it would be better for the school to be over-prepared than under-prepared.

Fraser added that as the subcommittees completed their work, the staff took advantage of faculty meetings and delayed openings as opportunities for cross-training, ensuring that everyone would have full knowledge of what had been discussed by all seven committees.

The final self-study report, she said, was sent to each of the 16 area educators assigned to the visiting team that spent three days at the school in April conducting an on-site evaluation.

According to Fitzpatrick, the most daunting aspect of preparing for the evaluation team's visit was providing evidence for "everything we put down on paper" in the self-study.

In the weeks leading up to the evaluation, he explained, administrators collected examples of student achievements ranging from award-winning artwork to newspaper articles to furniture made in woodworking classes, turning the second-floor teachers' lounge into an exhibit of sorts.

"We had thousands of things for them to look at," he said.

While he personally felt "a lot of excitement and anxiety" about the evaluation, Fitzpatrick said he, Fraser, and other members of the steering committee were put at ease when evaluation team chairman Ted Hall met with them shortly before the process began.

Fitzpatrick said Hall's easy-going attitude (he recalled Hall saying, at one point, "Relax, this is a good process") helped alleviate his concerns, adding that his nervousness was gone within an hour of the evaluation team's arrival.

During its three-day visit, the evaluation team toured the building; spent a total of 48 hours shadowing 16 students for half a day; conducted more than 20 hours of classroom observation; met individually with 32 teachers to discuss their work, their instructional approaches, and their assessment methods; and held group meetings with students, parents, administrators, and teachers.

Fraser praised students for being "very receptive" to the evaluation process, commenting that one female student, in particular, received a personal letter of thanks from an evaluation team member for her politeness and cooperation.

"Everybody was perfectly aligned," Fitzpatrick said, adding that the most important aspect of the evaluation from his perspective was the fact that "none of it was a façade."

"Everyone was genuine," he commented, explaining that the teachers and administrators who participated in the evaluation were very open and honest about what the school does well and what it can improve upon.

In fact, he added, many of the recommendations contained in the evaluation team's final report run parallel to conclusions the steering committee reached in its self-study.

The findings

Summarizing its findings, the evaluation team states in its final report that as a new school, Prospect Mountain was able to begin with a clear focus on its mission — personalizing education in order to maximize individual success.

Noting extensive evidence throughout the school that the mission truly drives every aspect of life at Prospect Mountain, the committee found that personalized education has manifested itself in the wide variety of courses and co-curricular activities available to students and the in the support students receive from the faculty.

Taking note of the fact that administrators have spent a good deal of time clarifying the academic, civic, and social expectations for students, the evaluation team explained in its report that academic expectations are guided by rubrics with clearly defined levels of achievement.

The report notes, however, that those rubrics use several different conventions to determine those levels of achievement, which some students might find confusing.

While the school has identified indicators to measure progress on the social and civic expectations, the report states, it is still in the beginning stages of identifying what it means to be successful in meeting those expectations.

Praising the school's faculty and staff for their "exemplary work" in documenting the curriculum, the evaluation team viewed the common format that includes core competencies, state and national standards, assessments, and content of what will be taught as a format that will help the school as it continues to grow.

The fact that Prospect Mountain is a new school and that its students come from two different sending schools, however, means that there is still work to be done to coordinate the curriculum with the sending schools so that all students attending Prospect Mountain are prepared for the work expected of them, the report states.

The evaluation team also notes in its report that the wide array of courses offered to students at the high school could be both a positive and a negative factor — positive in the sense that students have a "remarkable diversity of choices," but negative in the sense that there are sometimes too few students enrolled in a course for the teacher to be able to run it effectively, and those students are then forced to take classes that might not interest them.

The instructional practices used at the high school earned high marks from the evaluation team for making it clear that the teaching staff is committed to personalizing education for all students.

"There is tremendous variety in the instructional practices and there is a strong professional culture that focuses on continuous improvement of instruction," the report states, adding that there is also a clear commitment on the part of teachers to provide different types of assessments in order to allow students to demonstrate what they have learned.

In its report, the evaluation team suggests that it will be important, as the school continues to evolve, to ensure that all students at all class levels have instruction and assessment that will help them develop critical thinking and higher-order applications of their learning,

The team also notes that some of the school's lower-level classes do not have the same repertoire of instructional practices or assessments as the higher-level classes.

The report views the professional development plan recently approved and implemented at the high school as a vehicle that will provide teachers with more opportunities for collaborative work to improve instruction and assessment.

"Prospect Moutnain High School has strong leadership from the principal and assistant principal, both of whom lead by example," the evaluation team stated in its findings on the effectiveness of the school's administration.

"They are both very visible and proactive in the school," the final report states. "The principal's vision is the school's vision, and he works to keep improving the school."

The evaluation team found fault with the school's master schedule, however, noting that it presents "significant problems" in terms of student and teacher schedules and wide variations in class size and teacher load.

A major contributing factor to the scheduling conflicts, the report states, is the presence of four levels of classes, "a system that is not backed by current research to provide the best opportunities for all students to be successful."

Despite issues with the master schedule, the evaluation team found the resources available within the school to support learning to be "outstanding," particularly student services such as guidance, special education, social work, and health, which "provide students with the support they need to be successful in the school."

The evaluation team also found a high level of support for the school's mission among the residents of Alton and Barnstead.

"The school board functions at a high level, and both communities have embraced the idea of a regional high school to support the students in their towns," the report states, adding that the school itself is in outstanding shape, with well-designed spaces to support all aspects of its programs and strong support from the custodial staff.

"We're very pleased with the report," Fraser said. "It's a true reflection of Prospect Mountain High School."

Although the school's faculty and administration have done their best all along to promote a first-rate environment for students, she said, "having your peers look at you and say 'Yeah, this is great' … confirmed our belief that we're doing a good job."

Fitzpatrick agreed, adding that the report "provided some proof about many of our assumptions."

Stating that the staff was "very pleased" to see that the evaluation team's commendations were plentiful and their recommendations minimal, Fitzpatrick said he was personally thrilled that the team members were so appreciative of the positive culture at Prospect Mountain, and "how in-tune we are with our mission."

"They were very impressed with the overall environment" and with the fact that the students, staff, and community all seemed to be working together toward the same goal, he said.

Many of the recommendations outlined in the evaluation team's report are "things we're already working towards," he said, noting that several of the recommendations tie in with each other.

"Seeing these things come to light is one of the benefits of the self-study," Fraser added, explaining that the self study process offered faculty and staff members a chance to discuss issues such as the master schedule and "figure out where to go."

The next step

In light of the fact that Prospect Mountain is a fairly new school seeking its initial accreditation through NEASC, and not an established school with a continuing accreditation, Fitzpatrick said official notification of the school's accredited status will most likely come in late spring or early summer of 2010, when NEASC's Board of Directors meets to vote on the matter.

Once the administration receives the notice of accreditation, he explained, they will be asked to update NEASC every two years on the steps taken to address the evaluation team's recommendations.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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