By Monique Harrison

Daily Journal

When Mississippi's public schools receive this year's accreditation ratings in March, they will be based upon a system designed to gauge more objectives.

Before the system was revamped, districts were evaluated on 13 academic-related performance standards. Now, the number of academic standards that must be met by Level 3 schools is 35. Level 5 schools must meet 38 out of 38 standards.

The accreditation rating schools receive also will be more specific. For example, instead of simply receiving a 2 rating, Level 2 schools will now receive ratings of 2.0 through 2.9.

"We've raised the standards and we've also given districts something to compare," said Mississippi Department of Education's Office of Accreditation Director Yvonne Dyson. "They'll have a better idea of where they stand - how they have changed since the year before."

Because more standards figure into the equation, districts with just one weak spot will fare better.

"We've had several districts that are at a Level 2 because they had one problem spot," Dyson said. "This will give them more flexibility, without compromising ... any of the standards."

Before 1982, the state's districts were evaluated only on process standards, which gauge things like the quality of facilities and the financial health of the district.

In 1982, the Legislature moved to add an evaluation of performance standards designed to measure a district's academic health. The process was revamped after a 1991 order by the Legislature required the State Board of Education to increase the number of standards and provide more specific accreditation ratings. The revamping process was complete in July 1994 and is now in its first year of implementation.

The board also moved to reward districts that rate a Level 3 or above by giving them less oversight.

Successful districts are now exempt from routine on-site evaluations. Some districts with higher ratings also are declared exempt from the next accreditation evaluation. These exemptions are designed to give officials more time to work with at-risk districts.

When a district receives a Level 1 rating, it is placed on probation. Then, an extensive evaluation of the district is done.

"We ask a lot of things," said Walter Moore, director of Special Projects in Conservatorship. "We want to know if dollars are being used to support the instructional program. Is the curriculum outlined? How is the district faring financially?"

After the evaluation, the district is required to put together a corrective action plan, based on recommendations made by the State Department of Education. Then, the State Board of Education must approve the plan.

Moore and his staff then work to see that the district implements the plan, making trips to the district and offering advice.

"We're in and out," he said. "We show up at board meetings - just about anything that can be done to help them while they are implementing the plan."

The probationary period can be up to 18 months.

If a district blatantly ignores the orders of the State Board of Education, legislation is in place to allow the board to take over the district, assigning a conservator to mandate changes.

When the North Panola School District was taken over by the state in December after being found with a deficit that could reach 1.2 million by June, it made history, becoming the first district ever to be taken over.

"Districts typically work to implement what we ask," Moore said. "We don't usually have a problem with getting cooperation."

Still, Moore said state law allowing district takeovers is not as tough as many think.

"The local board would still be calling the shots," he said. "We would appoint a conservator, but the local board still would have to approve personnel and finances. One would expect the district to do what the conservator asked, but they are still in definite control. It's not a very tight law."

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