By Othor Cain
It took just under 45 minutes for the state’s second-largest school district to learn its fate Aug. 16, when the Commission on School Accreditation voted to downgrade the Jackson Public School District’s accreditation status to “probation.”
The downgrade was in response to an audit of 22 schools that found the district in violation of the state’s accreditation standards.
Paula Vanderford, executive director of the state Education Department’s accreditation office, led the discussion that delivered the unwanted grade to JPS.
Vanderford said, “Out of all the findings within the report, the state recommended the probationary status because of two findings: maintaining a safe school environment and the district’s graduation requirements.”
It was noted in the report that schools were regularly without fire extinguishers, evacuation plans and smoke detectors. Broken windows, inoperable air conditioners and toilets were also highlighted.
JPS Superintendent Cedrick Gray, who was not allowed to address the commission during the hearings spoke to members of the media after the meeting. “The sky isn’t falling … this isn’t a funeral for JPS,” Gray said. “We will get through this, and we will address every concern.”
The report also noted the district did not have records proving graduated students had completed the required number of Carnegie units or had a passing score on all four of the high school exit exams.
“We agree with a lot of the findings, but we also contend that some of them were based on subjective, rather than objective criteria,” Gray said. “With the issue of graduation, we maintain that all of our students graduated based on state standards, but if a document was missing from a student’s file, that places that student in jeopardy.”
Before the Aug. 16 hearing, JPS began correcting some of the audited problems. “This is a process we embrace,” Gray said. “I’m confident in my team, and we will work to continue building stronger schools together.”
Gray opted not to take the Commission’s recommendation of a hearing 10 days after the audit was released saying, “We didn’t feel as if we had enough information and we didn’t want to appear as if we were ‘fighting’ the state.’”
What does probation mean for JPS?
The probation status for JPS gives the district 60 days to create a corrective action plan and timeline. No programs will be affected. Students attending high schools, whose accreditation has been assigned probation, will continue to receive Carnegie unit credits that count toward meeting graduation requirements. Students who meet the graduation requirements established by the district and the Mississippi State Board of Education will be awarded a diploma. Admission to any Mississippi Institution of Higher Learning or any Mississippi Community or Junior College is based on the specific criteria required by the individual institution. As such, the probationary status should not affect a student’s ability to enter college.