Accrediting Agency’s Role in Education Spurs Debate

Contentious, dysfunctional, divisive and ineffective. Perpetual paralysis. An undercurrent of mistrust and conflict. A theme…of doubt and lack of confidence.

Those harsh words sound like a description of the notoriously partisan U.S. Congress. They are actually aimed at a more local source of frustration — school board members who meddle in hiring and firing, who misspend precious dollars, who disrupt board meetings or even hurl insults. But there’s a critical difference: When school boards misbehave, a private, nonprofit group has the power to rein them in.

AdvancED, parent company of three of the nation’s six regional agencies that accredit schools, sets standards for 1,300 school districts and 23,000 schools in 37 states, giving it a dominant influence over U.S. education. Some say its role has become too dominant.

Accreditation is a stamp of approval sought by schools around the world — from county- or city-wide school systems, to juvenile justice education programs, to exclusive private schools. The accrediting agencies look at school leadership because if a governing board is mired in controversy or conflict, students, employees, and the whole community can suffer.  Still, if elected school boards need to be straightened out, should that happen through a private process run by professional educators? Or through public debate and the ballot box?

The path through political chaos has significant consequences. School board turmoil affects how well the schools are run, and a downgrade in accreditation mars the reputation of the school system. And, some critics say, giving too much power to a private organization erodes a small slice of democracy.

“Democracy is hardball. It’s rough, it’s raucous. It always has been in the history of our country,” said Don McAdams, a former Houston school board member who founded the Center for Reform of School Systems to help improve school board governance. “So here’s a private organization involving itself, really, in the democratic process. And the democratic process is something that has to be regulated by the people themselves.”

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Adviser Pushes Students to put Life Stories on Paper

When the time comes for Evan Forster to help young people who participate in the College Bound program at Chess-in-the-Schools to craft their college application essays, he goes out of his way to avoid having them write about chess.

“That is the easy default,” said Forster, founder and owner of Forster-Thomas Inc., an educational and career consulting firm, and Essay Busters, a nonprofit.

“But chess is already all over their candidacies,” said Forster, who has served as a college adviser at Chess-in-the-Schools for 12 years.

“So their personal statement should add something new, get into the student’s soul,” Forster explained. “Otherwise, our kids begin to cancel one another out, telling the same story about how chess changed their lives.

“We want them all to get in, not just the few with the most compelling chess stories.”

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Chess Organization Positions Students to Make Right Moves

Program is much more than tournaments and trophies; it helps low-income youth get into college.
When Eriberto Guzman decided in 2009 as a high school freshman to join the chess program at The Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, he did it because it was a way to compete in national scholastic chess tournaments for free.

After several months of chess instruction, he eventually did go on with his teammates to win first place in a national chess championship, as well as second place as an individual in the same tournament.

But soon after Guzman got involved with the chess program at his school, he discovered it was about much more than winning tournaments and trophies.

“Once I joined, they started giving us college seminars and providing us opportunities for community service and to go to [cultural] events,” Guzman said. “It was so many things that would help in the future.”

The activities Guzman described came by way of College Bound, a program offered through Chess-in-the-Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit that brings chess lessons and tournaments to 32 elementary schools and 18 middle schools in mostly low-income neighborhoods throughout Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, reaching approximately 13,000 students.

Chess-in-the-Schools also has provided trainings and helped set up scholastic chess programs in cities from Miami to San Francisco.

Chess-in-the-Schools has gotten a lot of attention for its involvement with several schools that have won national titles, including Intermediate School 318, the school featured in the recently-released chess documentary “Brooklyn Castle,” as well as Middle School 118 and Public School 70, both of The Bronx.

But agency officials prefer to stress the organization’s work in getting young people from high-poverty areas into college, particularly selective colleges that they might not otherwise consider.

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How Should Kids, Youth Workers Interact Virtually?

The key is keeping the same boundaries as in the physical world, agencies say, but that gets trickier online.
Although youth workers and the young people with whom they interact naturally form close bonds, they don’t really become friends. 

However, this dynamic has taken on a new dimension in the past half-decade with the explosion of social media sites, led by Facebook, which has added ease and casualness that’s stretched the definition of the word friend and has simplified sharing pictures, descriptions and accounts of people’s personal lives, which heretofore would have been much more cumbersome — and required much more intentional action.

Youth workers and leaders of youth-serving agencies must make new, informed decisions about dos and don’ts of social media and youth work. For some this may include a better understanding how social media works, while others — especially younger professionals — may need to unlearn some of the freewheeling habits they formed when they were teens themselves just a few years earlier, even as their overall understanding of social media and its tools are undoubtedly an asset.

“Many, many youth-serving agencies, including schools, family service agencies, mental health, after-school programs, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Scouts, etc., now recognize a need to develop reasonable, user-friendly guidelines to ensure proper use of this technology and to prevent any untoward uses of it,” said Frederic G. Reamer, professor of social work at Rhode Island College, who has lectured about and worked with professional associations to develop guidelines around how youth and their adult mentors should interact in the social media space.

Reamer is unaware of any organization that has tracked statistically the numbers of agencies that have developed social media policies and says he would be “shocked” if any such database existed. But he has seen anecdotal evidence at his lectures. “Any time I ask my audiences … the number of hands seems to be going up.”

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Where Foxfire Still Glows

It’s first period, in late September, and students in the Foxfire Magazine class at Rabun County High School, in northeast Georgia, are doing what many journalists consider the least desirable part of their job: transcribing interviews. It’s time-consuming and tedious, but also necessary. Not just to get the facts right, of course, but to hear the telling tones and rhythms of voices — in some cases, voices not long for this world. Preserving these voices is part of Foxfire’s original mission, which is still playing out more than four decades after its birth here in the once-isolated mountain community where Deliverance was infamously filmed.

A fungus found in the Southern Appalachians that produces a dim glow — and a potent metaphor for ural education — Foxfire has come to mean plenty of other things. First it was an experiential kind of English class in Rabun County, brought to life in 1966 by an overwhelmed young teacher named Eliot Wigginton; then a book series that resulted from the cultural journalism magazines his students made; a museum memorializing the work; a method of instruction derived from it; and, “most importantly,” writes Ann Moore, executive director of the Foxfire Fund, “Foxfire is the living connection between the high school students in the magazine program and their heritage, built through interaction with their elders.”

Foxfire is also a reminder of a terrible thing that happened to some students while the good thing — the learning — was also happening. Sometimes good and its opposite can coexist, even in a single person or place. Even in a teacher. But we must not overlook the good that persists anymore than we should forget the bad. It’s all part of history—all of it important to remember and learn from.

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