Braille Monitor March 1986
by Pat Cannon
In a brief news release issued in early February the Michigan Department of Education announced that the Michigan School for the Blind (MSB) would not seek re-accreditation by the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC).
The announcement declared that the residential facility could better serve its students by undertaking its own self-study, using an in-state monitoring team. The message was clear--MSB had decided to "de-NAC." The announcement was welcome news to members of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), since the organization has opposed NAC and its practices for many years. However, I believe it is important to understand how and why the decision to "de-NAC" was reached in Michigan. As a member of the school's Citizens' Advisory Committee (CAC) I would like to review some of the events of the past two years that led to the Michigan decision. It is a decision that was not reached quickly or easily, a decision that came only after a great deal of careful consideration.
The Michigan School for the Blind, like many residential schools in the country, has gone through some difficult periods in recent years as it has adjusted to its changing role with the onset of mainstreaming. And, also like many other schools for the blind, MSB has been threatened with consolidation or closing. A major turning point in the school's resurgance took place in the fall of 1984 with the appointment of Dr. Velma Allen as the new MSB Superintendent. Dr. Allen is a gifted, dedicated individual who is obviously committed to improving educational opportunities for all blind students in Michigan.
When I was appointed to MSB's Citizens' Advisory Committee in late 1984 I was extremely optimistic about the school's future under Dr. Allen's leadership. I was looking forward to tackling the many challenges ahead and truly believed that the Michigan facility was on the rebound. I also knew that the controversial issue would be dealt with soon, since MSB's NAC accreditation was set to terminate in 1986.
Early in 1985 I proposed to the CAC that our membership be expanded to include official representatives from NFB and other consumer groups in the state. The proposal was adopted, and NFB ultimately designated John Mullin as official representative.
The issue of re-accreditation by NAC first appeared as a CAC agenda item last September. Should the school begin the re-accreditation process with NAC? After lengthy discussion regarding the merits of NAC, a motion was offered not to seek NAC re-accreditation. The motion had only two supporting votes--mine and John Mullin's--and failed overwhelmingly. One of those who opposed the motion was CAC member Dale Strong. Strong is also Chairman of the Michigan Commission for the Blind and has been an NFB member for many years.
The MSB/NAC issue was the topic of considerable debate at NFB's Michigan convention, held in October, 1985, in Lansing. For a variety of reasons Strong was publicly criticized for his CAC vote, some even suggesting that he did not have the best interests of the blind persons in mind when he voted.
It was my strong belief that the CAC should address the NAC issue with only one question in mind: What action would be in the best interest of the students at the Michigan School for the Blind? Following the NFB convention, I spoke with Dale Strong about the NAC issue at the school, convinced that he, too, would act in the best interest of the students. I suggested that we conduct a careful and thorough study of the issue before we pursued re-accreditation by NAC. Strong was very supportive of such a study.
When the CAC met at the Michigan School for the Blind in late October, I proposed that we conduct such a study and that we postpone any further official action on the re-accreditation subject until we completed such a review. With the active support of Dale Strong, my motion to conduct a thorough review of the NAC process was adopted.
In the early 1950's an auto manufacturer challenged potential car buyers to "Ask the man who owns one." With that thought in mind I proposed that we survey directors or superintendents at several other residential schools for the blind and get their views on the value of NAC accreditation. The proposal was adopted, and I was directed by the CAC to conduct the study.
The following letter to the CAC Chairperson reveals the results:
November 18, 1985
Charles Ramsey, Chairperson
Citizens' Advisory Committee
Michigan School for the Blind
Dear Mr. Ramsey:
As you know, our Citizens' Advisory Committee has spent a considerable amount of time in recent months discussing the merits of seeking reaccreditation from the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC). Since the Michigan School for the Blind (MSB) is already accredited by the North Central Association, questions have been raised regarding the value of spending the school's limited resources for NAC accreditation at a time when we're striving to provide the best possible services for students at the school.
Would spending money on NAC accreditation be the wisest use of funds, or could those limited funds be better spent elsewhere to provide needed services for the blind youth of our school? At the urging of the Committee, I have researched this issue quite thoroughly and, as you requested, report those findings in this letter.
The objective of the study was to simply ascertain the value of NAC accreditation for the Michigan School for the Blind. I attempted to identify what benefits of that process there would be for MSB students, what could be lost by not seeking re-accreditation by NAC, and what impact accreditation has on the school's ability to secure grants.
I interviewed superintendents or directors at nine different residential facilities for the blind in various parts of the country. Three are presently NAC accredited, four are not NAC accredited, and two were previously NAC accredited but have since dropped NAC. I also spoke with Dennis Hartenstine, Director of the National Accreditation Council. A list of the schools and the individuals I talked to is enclosed.
When I spoke with the individuals, I explained that our advisory committee was dealing with the question of whether or not to seek re-accreditation and wanted to determine if doing so was, indeed, in the best interest of our students. It was explained that because of our limited resources we were considering that our students might be better served if funds were spent directly on programs being planned at the school. I am pleased to report that each person I interviewed was most cooperative and shared their views on the subject candidly and at length.
Dennis Hartenstine, NAC's Director, told me that presently about one-half of the residential schools for the blind in the country are NAC accredited. He explained why he believes NAC accreditation is important: "It helps in terms of being recognized as providing quality services. The self-study helps to analyze what you're doing and determine future planning," he said. "And it enhances the public image of the school."
Dr. Joseph Kerr, the Director of the Overbrook School in Philadelphia, viewed the value of accreditation quite differently: "This school is 153 years old and has never been accredited by NAC. We have no plans of seeking NAC accreditation because there are only two evaluations that really count: one, the state department of education; and two, regional accreditation. This school has never been asked by any college, university, state department of education, federal government agency, or anybody else if we have NAC accreditation."
Dr. Kerr agreed that self-study is the key to meaningful evaluation: "Your own evaluation, tailored to the needs of your particular enrollment, is most valuable. You don't need NAC's national standards to do that. Your own self study can better accomplish the goals of accreditation."
"I couldn't see where we were going to get $5,000 worth of benefits from NAC accreditation," said Durward Hutchinson, Superintendent of the Indiana School for the Blind. "We're accredited by our own State Department of Education. Our programs have grown. The State has been very supportive of us and we just couldn't see us gaining $5,000 worth of prestige from NAC. Sure, the self-study is helpful, but that can be done without the National Accreditation Council."
The Oregon School for the Blind has been NAC accredited for ten years but did not seek re-accreditation. Donald Edwards, the School's Director, explained that they just couldn't afford it: "We saw no particular value in NAC accreditation, except to say you have it. Did not seek re-accreditation because of the costs involved in the process."
"We're doing very well without it (NAC), whatever it is," said John Sinclair, the Director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind (MAB) in Brookline, Massachusetts. Like the Oregon School for the Blind, the Massachusetts Association for the Blind had been accredited by NAC but did not seek re-accreditation. "We dropped NAC for philosophical reasons," Sinclair said.
The strongest proponent of NAC accreditation that I talked with was the Director of the Illinois School for the Blind, Dr. Richard Umsted: "It's necessary to assure credibility with legislators, parents, and local school districts. North Central, in a very real sense, is window dressing," said Dr. Umsted, who is a member of NAC's board of directors. He said he was familiar with the Michigan School for the blind. "I'm very much concerned about the Michigan School, and I think that NAC accreditation is. essential for them."
Another residential facility presently accredited by NAC is the Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped. William English, Director of the School, expressed reservations regarding NAC accreditation: "It's not cheap going through the NAC accreditation process. I have some problems with the fact that it costs a whole lot--and I'm spending $10,000 of Wisconsin's taxpayers money for this."
The Ohio School for the Blind recently completed the re-accreditation process. "The on-site visit from NAC cost us about $6,000--that was just for transportation, housing, and food for the people who did the on-site inspection." said Dennis Holmes, Superintendent of the School. Additionally, the annuai dues for NAC accreditation are $1,500. "From my perspective," said Holmes, "the primary value of accreditation is the self-study process."
The Director of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind, John Sinclair, was asked how dropping NAC had impacted on MAB funding. "The subject of accreditation has never been raised by any funding source," he said. "I've never seen the question on any grant application--and we get a lot of federal grants, no questions asked."
"We like to believe that NAC accreditation improves the position of a school to receive a grant," said NAC's Director, Dennis Hartenstine. Dr. Richard Umsted, Superintendent of the Illinois School for the Blind, and a member of NAC's board of directors, agreed that accreditation is helpful: "I refer to NAC recommendation to justify needs," Umsted explained. "It's expensive, but the return our school gets is a very small price to pay."
Patrick Small, Superintendent of the California School for the Blind, said not having NAC accreditation has had no impact on funding: "It just doesn't make a difference," he said.
Dr. Roy Brothers, Director of the Washington School for the Blind, another residential facility not NAC accredited, concurs: "We're accredited through the state, and we get great support for our programs from consumers, so we have no reason to seek NAC accreditation," said Dr. Brothers.
"The NAC accreditation process is a stupendous amount of work that adds not one iota of credibility to our school," said Dr. Joseph Kerr, Director of the Overbrook School. "There is absolutely no attempt to tie any dollar flow to NAC accreditation."
Durward Hutchinson, head of the Indiana School, agrees: "I've been here twenty-six years without NAC accreditation. NAC gives ms a rough time about that, but so far I've not had the justification given that would change my mind," concluded Hutchinson.
There was one point, Mr. Ramsey, that everyone I talked with agreed upon: The greatest value of the accreditation process is the self-study. It is also quite clear that there is no link between NAC accreditation and the ability to secure funds. The study also demonstrates that, other than perception, there is little or no value in NAC accreditation. I believe that not seeking re-accreditation by NAC would benefit the Michigan School for the Blind by allowing us to commit our resources to programs that could directly benefit our students.
I recommend that we not seek reaccreditation by NAC but undertake our own self-study. Doing so would permit us to take a good, hard look at our school, our programs, and our objectives and help us determine to what extent we're achieving our objectives. An instate monitoring team of professionals, parents, and consumers could best set the standards by which our Michigan facility should be judged.
Conducting our own evaluation would result in a more meaningful process and would save an estimated $10,000 in funds that could be used for important programs like summer enrichment and outreach.
I appreciate your cooperation and support in this effort. If you have additional questions, please call me at 517-373-3730 or 517-339-2729.
Patrick Cannon, Member
Citizens' Advisory Committee
Michigan School for the Blind
cc: Norman Stockmeyer, President
State Board of Education
Dr. Phillip Runkel
Superintendent of Public Instruction
Dr. Velma Allen, Superintendent
Michigan School for the Blind
Michigan Department of Education
After sharing copies of my letter with them, I spoke individually with Dr. Allen, Dr. Runkel, and several members of the State Board of Education about the NAC re-accreditation issue. All were interested in the survey and each pledged to act in the best interest of MSB students.
Since MSB was already accredited by the North Central Association and since there seemed to be no value in dual accreditation, there was mounting support for the proposal to conduct our own self-study in lieu of re-accreditation by NAC.
The results of my survey were reported to CAC members at our November meeting, and a motion by Dale Strong that we accept the recommendation of the study passed unanimously and enthusiastically. I was directed to make a presentation to the State Board of Education regarding the issue and ask the board to accept our recommendation that we not seek reaccreditation by NAC but undertake our own self-study instead.
In the presentation to the State Board of Education in late November I pointed out that the CAC conducted the study to determine what was truly in the best interest of our students. We began the research with an open mind, assuming that NAC was neither wonderful nor wicked, simply determined to learn what could be best for our students. The presentation was well received, and in December the following memo was issued by Basil Antenucci, Acting Director of Residential Education Services for the Department of Education:
Michigan Department of Education
DATE: December 27, 1985
TO: Velma Allen--cc: Jim Phelps
FROM: Basil Antennuci
SUBJECT: National Accreditation Council
I understand that your Citizens' Advisory Committee has spent a considerable amount of time studying the merits of re-accreditation from the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped. Further, I understand that it is your Committee's recommendation not to pursue accreditation, based on a rather thorough review by Pat Cannon in which he reported on his telephonic survey of nine superintendents or directors of residential facilities for the blind from various parts of the country.
Likewise, the unofficial response of State Board of Education members, as this issue was discussed at the recent Committee of the Whole meeting, appeared to favor the Committee's recommendation. Therefore, I would recommend that we not seek re-accreditation but undertake our own self-study, using an in-state monitoring team of professionals, parents. and consumers.
Please share this information with your Advisory Committee and keep me apprised of your progress in implementing the self-study.
In mid-December Dr. Allen, the MSB Superintendent, sent the following letter to NAC:
Department of Education
Michigan School for the Blind
January 13, 1986
National Accreditation Council
New York, New York
Dear Ms. Piqueras:
The Michigan School for the Blind has been advised by its Citizens' Advisory Committee and our Office of Residential Services not to pursue NAC re-accreditation this year. The matter of reaccreditation was discussed at a recent committee of the whole meeting of the State Board of Education at which time it was recommended that we undertake our own self-study using an in-state monitoring team of professionals, parents, and consumers.
As you may be aware, the Michigan School for the Blind is seeking to reestablish its credibility within the state of Michigan and to re-define its mission in accordance with the needs of students in our state, rather than follow established trends in other states which may differ from us in fundamental ways.
Given the financial and time constraints of accreditation, we have opted to continue with our North Central Association accreditation (since other schools in our state have NCA accreditation) and to undertake our self-study using Michigan parents, educators, and consumers.
We do plan to use your materials for our North Central self-study and request permission from you at this time to do so. We will give you full credit in any written publication.
We thank you for your support and cooperation over the past several years. If our situation changes and we feel we need to affiliate with NAC in the future, we will contact you.
Velma P. Allen, Ph.D.
cc: Basil Antenucci
Citizens' Advisory Committee
Our Citizens' Advisory Committee feels confident that our action not to seek re-accreditation by NAC was, indeed, in the best interest of our students. Early in February the Michigan Department of Education issued the following statement:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
The Michigan School for the Blind (MSB) will utilize an in-state monitoring team of professionals, parents, and consumers appointed by the State Board of Education to conduct its own self study to evaluate the effectiveness of programs at the School. The self-study, which will be conducted in lieu of seeking re-accreditation by the National Accreditation Council (NAC) for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped, is being undertaken upon the recommendation of the School's Citizens' Advisory Committee (CAC) and the Michigan Department of Education. "
After surveying superintendents or directors at a number of other residential facilities for the blind across the country, the CAC determined that the interests of students at the School for the Blind cold be best served by not seeking re-accreditation by NAC--a process that would cost the School several thousand dollars," said Basil Antenucci, Acting Director or Residential Education Services. The Michigan School for the Blind is presently accredited by the North Central Association (NCA), the same accrediting body that sets standards for other schools in the state.
"We are seeking to re-establish credibility and to re-define our mission in accordance with the needs of students in our state, rather than simply following trends in other states," stated Dr. Velma Allen, Superintendent of MSB. "By conducting our own self-study with an in-state monitoring team, we can best tailor our programs to meet the needs of Michigan's students."
By not pursuing NAC accreditation at this time, MSB will save approximately $10,000--funds that will be used instead to fund programs that will more directly benefit students at the School.
"We are proud of the progress the School has made during the past year; enrollment at the School has increased by 14 percent, and several new programs have been implemented. The Summer Enrichment Program offered last summer attracted 64 students from 26 intermediate districts across the state. This course of action reflects our desire to continue our outreach efforts to provide services to all visually impaired students in the state. The active involvement of the CAC and the support of the State Board of Education have played key roles in the School's resurgence," said Antenucci. The School presently serves 89 visually impaired or severely multiply impaired students.