A new accreditation report criticizing Belmont High School’s curriculum and safety triggered outrage from the school district’s interim superintendent, who, in a letter to the community last week, called the report riddled with “caricatures, exaggerations, and outright falsehoods.”
The district received the report from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges toward the end of last month, said Thomas S. Kingston, who started his interim role in Belmont last year.
“There are critical faculty issues, budgetary deficiencies, and programs that must be developed and implemented to ensure students’ ability to live the school’s core values and beliefs, and to achieve the 21st-century learning expectations,” the report states.
The report was based on the results of a self-study conducted by Belmont High School staff members from September 2010 to May 2011, and a four-day site visit by a committee from the accrediting agency in March.
The association is the oldest of six regional accrediting agencies in the United States. Membership is optional for educational institutions, but many colleges require prospective students to be graduates of accredited high schools. Accredited schools are evaluated at least once every 10 years.
Kingston said Thursday that the association’s director has offered to issue a revised report. The director was at a conference last week and was not available for comment.
The report says the high school is not physically safe for its occupants. Doors are often unlocked, it says, and office employees cannot see people entering the school. The building itself is described as being “at the point of crisis . . . in a state of general disrepair.”
The report calls the fire-alarm system outdated, and says that it “compromises the safety of the occupants’’ because it does not pinpoint the location of a fire. Many of its electrical panels are near documented water leaks, according to the report, and there are concerns with rats, mice, and ants.
The building does not support the programs of the school, nor does it comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the report.
In his letter to the community Tuesday, Kingston said the safety issues raised in the report “are simply wrong and liable to create concern — even panic — that is unwarranted.” The district, he wrote, has ensured compliance with safety and accessibility regulations, and this year modified the women’s locker room to ensure compliance with Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education.
The school maintains documentation that the facility meets most applicable federal and state laws, and is in compliance with local fire, health, and safety regulations.
Kingston acknowledged in an interview Thursday that the high school needs renovations, and said the district has had a plan to renovate the facility since 2004. Belmont has submitted a statement of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority several times in recent years, he said, but has not yet been accepted into the state’s pipeline for project funding.
In a portion that drew particularly sharp criticism from Kingston, the accreditation report says budget cuts and a deteriorating building have affected the quality of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Funding from the town is not dependable, according to the report, and must be supplemented by the local Parent Teacher Organization as well as the Foundation for Belmont Education.
In his response, Kingston pointed out that the school district’s budget has actually grown every year, and said last week that he suspects the review team never examined the actual budget, though he could not be sure.
“The statistical fact that the visitors could and should have verified is that every year the absolute amount of dollars for schools has increased, and many times beyond the rate of inflation,” he wrote in his letter. “Overall, the visitors seem not to understand the budgeting process of a town.”
The accreditation report also criticized the school’s curriculum, saying that it does not meet 21st-century learning expectations, which include citizenship, research skills, communication, critical thinking, and problem solving.
“I disagree. And I disagree strongly,” said Kingston, who served as Chelsea’s superintendent before retiring and taking the interim role in Belmont.
The focus on 21st-century skills, he said, has been present in Belmont High’s curriculum for the last 20 years. “I think the issue had to do with the formality of articulating what those skills were,” said Kingston, “not that they weren’t being taught.”
Also, he said, many of the issues raised in the report have already been addressed.
Laurie Graham, the School Committee’s chairwoman, said that while the process of going through the self-assessment was helpful, she was surprised by the errors in the report. “It’s a useful process, but the report itself has many fallacies.”
The town will continue to push for renovations at the high school, she said, and work to alert the community of the problems the district has identified with the report.
Despite the problems raised by the review, Kingston said, he does not believe the school’s accreditation is threatened. The district is awaiting the association’s determination of its accreditation status. The association does not simply discontinue a school’s accreditation — rather, if there are problems, it returns a list of corrective steps for the school to complete, according to Kingston.
“I have never been through an accreditation that doesn’t have some finding that requires serious address,” said Kingston. “That’s not just in Belmont.”
The district spent about $50,000 to have the accreditation conducted, said Kingston, and he said the final report makes him question whether it was worthwhile.
Asked whether Belmont would consider withdrawing its membership in the accrediting association, Kingston said, “I think it has to.
“I think with any kind of district where you have budget stress, you have to consider whether the investments you are making are worthwhile.”