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High Praise, a Little Criticism for DHS by Accreditors

Darien High School generally impressed a group of 18n educators from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges who visited last spring as part of its 10-year accreditation process.

A team of 18 educators from a regional school accreditation group gave lavish praise to Darien High School for its learning environment, great teachers and students, and even its parents.

The school could improve, according to the accreditation committee, if it did various things such as tie its established rules more closely to its clear mission statement and improve its documentation of how its meeting the goals of that mission statement.

The school should also have more classes with students of varying abilities, the said the accreditation committee, a group from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Normally, the NEASC meets to vote on accrediting a high school in the spring, but the organization now plans to do so in November, and an NEASC official told Arlene L. Gottesman, interim principal of the school, that Darien can expect the high school to be accredited.

High school officials, however, must answer the NEASC's recommendations by either implementing them or explaining why they think they shouldn't have to do so. If the response isn't good enough for the NEASC, then accreditation can be taken away.

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Gottesman quoted some of the effusive praise in the report in an Oct. 1 memorandum to Stephen V. Falcone, superintendent of schools:

"The culture and climate of Darien High School (DHS) support a vibrant, positive learning environment where students are offered a wide variety of programs and supports to become successful, contributing members of society. Students are engaged, hard-working, focused and open. Teachers are student-centered, accessible, knowledgeable and committed. Teachers at DHS exhibit strong student-centered instructional practices."

If anything, that praise was less effusive than what Judith Evans, the head of the visiting committee told school officials, Gottesman said on Tuesday.

"The first thing she said was, 'What a fabulous school, and what a fabulous district,'" Gottessman recalled, adding that Evans also said "that it was probably one of her best visits."

The entire 72-page report has been posted as a PDF on the Home page of the Darien Public Schools website and is also attached to this article.

Among the recommendations that the accreditors gave the school district were these (all of which are quotes, and in which "21st century learning expectations" is the phrase used for the school's mission statement):

  • Clarifying the 21st century learning expectations and implementing commonly used, schoolwide rubrics [established rules] against which student achievement of academic, civic and social expectations can be measured.
  • Ensuring that all stakeholders understand and explicitly integrate the 21st century learning expectations into the daily functioning of Darien High School.
  • Providing for increased opportunities for students to learn in more heterogeneously grouped academic classes.
  • Including clear connections to 21st century learning expectations in all curricular documents and in all taught curriculum, regardless of instructional levels.
  • Providing resources for teachers to participate in workshops and conferences in order to maintain current with best practices.

A total of 44 recommendations were in the report, Gottessman said. That may sound like a lot, she told the Darien Board of Education at its meeting Tuesday, but Gottessman said she has worked in school districts where there would be three times that many recommendations for a high school.

Overall, she said, the NEASC report on Darien High School is "a pretty powerful and positive report to the district."

Clara C. Sartori, a member of the Board of Education, said she thought the report was sometimes inconsistent, with some recommendations seeming to contradict others.

The reason for that, a school administrator said, may be that some subcommittees within the visiting committee may not have been aware of what other subcommittees were concluding, and members of the visiting committee as a whole may not have read through all of the recommendations carefully enough to have spotted the inconsistencies.

Board member Heather Shea said she thought the report "dinged our library," and criticized noise in the cafeteria a bit unfairly, since both of those facilities are in a newly built school that made vast improvements on the building that housed Darien High School the last time an NEASC accreditation visiting committee had stopped by.

Gottessman pointed out that despite any particular criticisms, overall the visiting committee loved the school.

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