EAST PROVIDENCE — The East Providence School Department will contest a recent decision by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) to drop the high school’s accreditation standing from warning status to probation, but will do so knowing full well much repair still needs to be done to the building and its infrastructure.
Schools Superintendent Kim Mercer led the School Committee through a lengthy presentation on the NEASC findings during the board’s meeting Tuesday night, Aug. 13.
A July 2013 NEASC report explained the reasoning behind its decision. The status of EPHS was being lowered because of “The continued failure of the current school site and plant to adequately support all aspects of the school’s educational programs and its ability to deliver 21st century learning expectations.”
Following Mrs. Mercer’s presentation and after a brief discussion at which time Ward 4 representative Tim Conley said he didn’t think it was necessary to appeal the NEASC determination, At-Large rep and Committee Chairman Joel Monteiro and Ward 2’s Tony Ferreira, with different levels of certitude, urged the School Department to appeal.
The Superintendent and her staff have asked for and received an extension of the appeal process. They must deliver the department’s response by Aug. 30. NEASC is scheduled to render its final decision on the matter in October.
The Superintendent told the committee and those in attendance how a NEASC oversight contingent came to its latest decision following a status visit to EPHS on May 31 of this year.
Some of the key differences between warning and probation, Mrs. Mercer said, were a school that “fails to make significant progress towards addressing problems identified.”
“It’s a little bit more severe, but we still have our accreditation,” she added. “But the problem is we’re one step closer to losing it, losing the accreditation.”
The Superintendent said her department was granted the extension, in part, because of the ongoing construction at the high school.
Mrs. Mercer went through a detailed PowerPoint slideshow about the high school’s history with NEASC, noting those concerns that have been addressed since 2004 and acknowledging those that still linger with the 62-year-old facility.
The Superintendent recognized the improvements made over the years. Much of that progress, however, has been on the curriculum side.
“I applaud the staff and the administrators who worked (at EPHS) at the time,” Mrs. Mercer said. “(The improvements) were things that the administrators and teachers had control over and they made good strides.”
Some of those improvements, which date back to 2009, included the introduction of a curriculum director, the integration of technology into classroom lessons and changes to the budgetary process making it more inclusive and response to the needs of students.
While work on the building’s infrastructure has been continuous over the years, it remains lacking in several key areas, specifically health and safety. During their visit, NEASC representatives found toilets and sinks in state of disrepair covered with plastic trash bags to the great embarrassment of city officials also on the tour.
The School Department has spent most of a $15 million bond approved by voters in 2010 on repairs at the high school, the installation fire safety doors and remediation asbestos floor tiles that hindered the indoor air quality. Heating and electrical systems have been updated to a point. An elevator has been installed to meet some Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Faulty windows have been replaced in portions of the building. And some cosmetic touches have been done.
With all that work completed, though, plenty remains to be fixed. Among the areas still of concern to NEASC as of May 2013 are the lack of sufficient funding for instructional materials, including textbooks; the lack of ADA access in most classrooms and locker rooms; lack of technological capabilities; poor conditions of bathrooms; lack of space and inadequate privacy for guidance and nursing services; and the overall poor condition of the facility.
Mrs. Mercer noted the School Committee recently addressed another of the ongoing NEASC concerns when it voted to spend upwards of $200,000 to renovate two chemistry labs. In addition, through the efforts of alum John Carnevale, qualms with the condition of the gymnasium and its impact on Physical Education curriculum have been alleviated.
“They are beautiful,” Mrs. Mercer said of the refurbished main and smaller gymnasiums. “I think the kids will be proud when the come back to school and see those facilities.”
A renovated health/nursing services area has also been completed with improvements to the treatment room and a small area created for greater privacy and confidentiality.
The latter elements still give NEASC pause in the EPHS Guidance Department. Mrs. Mercer said she and Principal Janet Sheehan are looking at alternative spaces in the school to possibly move the department to a more conducive area.
“It looks nicer,” Mrs. Mercer said of the guidance area, which has had new tile installed and is in close proximity of the administrative offices. “But what (NEASC) wants is it to be away from the (main) office.”
Ultimately, however, Mrs. Mercer said another $12 to $13 million in upgrades to the school are likely needed over the next few years for it to maintain its accreditation.
Plumbing and restrooms are in need of upgrades. Improvements to its instructional programs and materials are required as are cosmetic and some structural needs in the cafeteria and classrooms. Technology needs to be updated. And the overall general cleanliness of the facility must be maintained and improved.
“They’re willing to work with us,” Mrs. Mercer added of NEASC officials. “They just want to see a plan going forward that we’re addressing their concerns.”