SACS accreditation gives school district steps to success

Published 12:01 am Sunday, December 16, 2007

NATCHEZ — The industry supermarket has an aisle on which Adams County leaders don’t shop.

It’s not that the products there aren’t needed; the Economic Development Authority just doesn’t have the right type basket to hold them.

Typically the type of businesses and industries that are interested in coming to Natchez or Adams County look to hire their employees from the surrounding area.

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Industries that would relocate staffs or even just top management to Natchez don’t take a second look at the city, EDA Board Chairman Woody Allen said.

And Allen doesn’t chase them because he doesn’t have the big thing they are looking for — a highly ranked public education system.

“You’d love to turn the table to where we had a No. 1 school system that was raved about so that it was a selling asset,” Allen said.

But as is, the type industries coming to town aren’t the types that care much about the public schools, he said.

“I just don’t think we are ever getting into the market to see those because that’s being nixed before it starts.”

Up to the challenge

The folks at the Natchez-Adams School District have heard Allen’s cry for years, and they’ll tell you they are making small but steady steps to turn things around.

Consistently ranked middle-of-the-road or lower by the state, the public schools’ administrators know the road before them is long.

But they’ve got a map, an engine and nothing but the future ahead of them.

This year, the district took a step less than 200 districts nationwide have taken. They opened their doors for a district-wide accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

They passed.

But the shiny banner and nice plaque didn’t come without some stern advice. SACS sent along seven challenges the district must conquer in order to improve itself and to earn re-accreditation in five years.

The challenges:

4 Providing instruction and curriculum to support meeting Average Yearly Progress and increasing the schools’ classification levels

4 Providing and maintaining updated technology

4 Increasing supportive parental involvement at the secondary level

4 Public perception of the value of education

4 Expense of maintaining older school buildings

4 Finding additional ways to communicate with parents and stakeholders

4 Hiring and retaining quality teaching personnel


In the South, and in most places beyond, SACS is the most well-known, well-respected accreditation agency there is.

SACS and the agency it joined with recently — the Council on Accreditation and School Improvement — accredit more than 13,000 schools throughout the country.

The Natchez schools have received the SACS seal since the 1950s when Superintendent Gilmer McLaurin started things off.

Up until recently each school in the district was accredited separately. But there was no district-wide title that took a comprehensive look from the superintendent’s office down.

Accreditation is issued in blocks of five years at a time, and since the last time the Natchez school passed the test, the district-wide accreditation was added.

So this year, Superintendent Anthony Morris and staff opted to go for the big plaque and the more thorough critique.

“We think that it’s necessary for us to do it so that we can see where we are going,” Morris said. “(District accreditation) is a more comprehensive view. Most of the focus in the past has been at the school level. Now, you have to have your act together from top to bottom. It’s a better measuring stick.”

The standards

The process of becoming SACS accredited takes approximately a year.

First the district files comprehensive reports on everything from finances to the number of counselors in the primary schools. They have to address 10 standards: beliefs and mission, governance and leadership, curriculum, instructional design, assessment and effectiveness of results, resources, student services, staff and stakeholder communications, facilities and the continuous process of educational improvement.

Then, a team of five SACS review members comes to town for a four-day inspection.

At least half of the team must be from out-of-state.

During the visit — in October of this year — the team interviews just about every possible combination of administrators, teachers, parents and community members.

Finally, they make a report to the school’s leaders with their findings.

O’Neal Bozeman, a retired administrator with 28 years experience, from Georgia chaired the Natchez review team. And he liked what he saw, Bozeman said.

“I think they’ve got a good school system,” he said last week. “They do have some challenges in there though, but they really understand what they’ve got to do.”

Bozeman said the seven challenges outlined by the SACS team were specific to Natchez and based on interviews conducted with stakeholders.

“Within two years they’ll have to send to the regional (SACS) office a report as to what progress they are making,” Bozeman said. “I want to commend them for going district-wide. It puts everyone on the same sheet of music.”

And with the music sheet, the road map or the measuring stick clearly visible, the Natchez schools know just what they have to do, Morris said.