Edward Udel: No ignoring elephant in CBRSD room

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DALTON — Elephants make their way into unexpected places. The elephant in the room that required the old Taconic High School to be either rebuilt or replaced was the New England Association of Schools and College's report of 2003 that cited critical deficiencies of the facility and the antiquated equipment it housed. Dr. William Travis, superintendent of schools, listened to the report presented by Doug McNally, Taconic's principal, then stood up to congratulate the faculty and staff for earning numerous performance commendations while acknowledging that the building deficiencies had to be addressed.

NEASC is authorized to grant unencumbered accreditation for 10 years or to grant conditional accreditation (sometimes for a shorter duration) requiring corrective actions to eliminate operational or facility-based problems, or in the worst possible scenario, to deny accreditation. While NEASC accreditation is a voluntary process chosen to provide objective evaluation and to drive improvement, participating schools must take their recommendations seriously.

Schools in the NEASC network routinely participate in self-studies and three-day site visits conducted by evaluators who have no connection to the school. They carefully and thoroughly study every aspect of the school's operation and the facility.

Students who attend high schools that have lost accreditation may be viewed differently. Some colleges and universities are influenced by accreditation status when determining eligibility for admission. Lost accreditation can certainly generate angst among parents who are concerned about their public school's reputation and who want their children to have unfettered access to quality colleges and universities.

OBLIGATIONS TO NEASC

I have followed the public discourse about the proposed new Wahconah Regional High School but to date, there has been no mention of this powerful and still influential elephant in the room, NEASC. As a result, I scheduled a brief meeting with Aaron Robb, principal of Wahconah, to learn about the most recent NEASC site visit of 2013 and to obtain a copy of the report. It obligates Wahconah to send a series of written reports to NEASC specifying the actions the school is taking to address the accrediting agency's recommendations including the numerous facility deficiencies.

In section 7, under the standard of Community Resources for Learning, the NEASC report states, "Uncomfortable, inadequate and in some cases, unsafe conditions in the school building inhibit the ability of teachers to deliver a 21st century education to all students. In particular, the lack of science lab space substantially limits the opportunity for students to participate in exploration, higher-order thinking, and the authentic application of knowledge in their science classes." Specific problems are described throughout this section that concludes with a list of commendations and recommendations. One of them states the following:     

Ensure that the school site and plant support the delivery of high quality school programs and services by addressing the deteriorated plaster in the locker room area, damaged ceiling tiles, roof leaks and safety concerns associated with the storm windows.

Locally, we have witnessed the strong and decisive steps Berkshire Community College has recently taken to strengthen its nursing program in response to the possible loss of accreditation. Berkshire Medical Center lost its accreditation as a surgical teaching center because it failed to satisfy its accrediting agency's requirements. Participating schools in the NEASC network must treat their recommendations as obligatory, not optional; as central and not peripheral. Ignoring or minimizing an accrediting agency's recommendations can have unwelcome consequences.

If the citizens that comprise the Central Berkshire School District want Wahconah Regional High School to retain its NEASC accreditation, then the only question becomes how, not if, the facility is altered or replaced.

FACING REALITY

The DRA/Skanska project manager has estimated that the cost of repair (not replacement) that would bring the current building up to code is $45.6 million. He has identified problems not visible to the naked eye including asbestos in the floor tiles and the absence of insulation in the external walls, a heating system that produces uneven heat and some door openings that are too narrow to meet the needs of those in wheelchairs. This base rebuild does not include upgrades to reconfigure or enlarge any academic spaces nor does it create additional science labs. It is uncertain as to whether or not funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority would be available to support a base rebuild. A new structure would cost local taxpayers approximately $42 million with the MSBA paying the balance.

Either way, the cost will be significant. Those who would prefer to tackle the challenge piecemeal must ask this question: Where will the students be housed while the work is in progress?

I believe that the building committee has made the right recommendation just as the committee that guided the construction of the new Taconic High School made the right decision.

Doing nothing is not an option. The serious problems revealed by the NEASC reaccreditation process and by the project manager's report cannot be driven away by wishful thinking or strategically placed blindfolds.

A longtime educator, Edward Udel is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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