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Clayton seeking recognition from state accrediting agency

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

While the Clayton County School System is working to regain accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, it is also pursuing individual school accreditation from the Athens-based Georgia Accrediting Commission.

A team of GAC consultants is spending this week visiting each Clayton County school to determine whether they meet the commission's standards for accreditation. The consultants will give their reports to Commission Executive Director Carvin Brown at the conclusion of their visit to Clayton County's 60 schools. Brown will then make recommendations for each school to the full commission when it meets on Oct. 5.

Clayton County Corrective Superintendent John Thompson said the district consulted with SACS officials and received their blessing before pursuing GAC accreditation.

"We need all the support we can get," Thompson said. "Will it give us everything we want for our children? No. What we want is world-wide accreditation ... Many school systems in this state have both state and SACS accreditation ... They [students] will be eligible for anything under state law through state accreditation."

The major benefits of GAC accreditation are students can easily transfer their high school credits from a Clayton County high school to a school in another school system, and they will remain eligible for the HOPE scholarship. GAC accreditation will also make it easier for graduates of Clayton County high schools to get into a Georgia public college, even though the state's university system has guaranteed that a lack of accreditation would not prohibit admission.

GAC accredits nearly 1,600 schools in Georgia, including public and private schools, special needs schools and pre-kindergarten programs, said Commission Executive Director Brown. It only deals with the accreditation of an individual school, not a school system, he added.

Brown also said all of the public schools, and some of the private schools accredited by GAC, also have SACS accreditation, although it is not a requirement.

GAC focuses on the individual schools and does not look closely at district-wide leadership and governance. Commission officials do look at whether school board members are interfering with day-to-day school operations, however. "If we find that has happened, then that may somehow negatively affect our decision," said Brown.

One of the biggest areas of concern for Clayton County students and parents is eligibility for the HOPE scholarship program. SACS and GAC are two of seven accrediting agencies, which state law recognizes as valid accrediting agencies for the purpose of qualifying for the HOPE scholarships. The other agencies deal with private schools, or independent study programs.

Students who graduate from Clayton schools in 2009 and 2010 are guaranteed eligibility for the HOPE scholarships under state law. If SACS accreditation is not regained by Sept. 1, 2009, the graduating class of 2011 would not be eligible without GAC accreditation, according to Monet Robinson, a spokesperson for the Georgia Student Finance Commission, which oversees the HOPE scholarships.

"If they [the district's high schools] are accredited [by SACS and/or GAC] on Jan. 1, 2011, then the students will be eligible for the HOPE scholarship," said Robinson.

That would put graduates of Clayton County high schools in the clear if they wanted to attend a public college in their home state and needed a HOPE scholarship to pay for the expenses, but there is still the issue of out-of-state, and private, colleges and universities.

Accreditation from GAC will only protect a student's chances of getting into a Georgia College, but it is uncertain what affect it would have on admission to private or out-of-state colleges, the commission's executive director said. Public colleges in some states require regional accreditation, however, and that is something only SACS could grant to the school system.

"I can't guarantee Harvard University, or the University of Virginia would accept our accreditation, but we do get calls all the time from out-of-state colleges wanting to know about our accreditation standards," Brown added. "They want to make sure the academic standards of a high school meet their admissions requirements."

The team of GAC consultants visiting Clayton County schools is being lead by Dr. Robert Threatt, who has also worked on evaluation teams for SACS. Threatt declined to comment for this story.

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On the net:

Georgia Accrediting Commission: http://www.coe.uga.edu/gac/