COVINGTON - The district accreditation review of the Newton County School System started this week.

Members of a Quality Assurance Review Team with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools came into town Sunday evening to start its three-day review. SACS is an agency that accredits schools in the region.

The team - made up of administrators, superintendents and other grade-level and post-secondary educators from such states as Florida, Georgia and North Carolina - are visiting the school system after NCSS officials contacted SACS, expressing interest in gaining district accreditation through AdvancED, a parent organization of SACS and other accrediting agencies.

Currently, NCSS uses a common rotating schedule with SACS to have its schools accredited. District accreditation holds the schools to a higher standard.

After the team held an orientation meeting Sunday night at the Holiday Inn Express, the group went into the school system's central office Monday morning to hear an overview of the system from Superintendent Steven Whatley.

"The mission of our school system is to provide educational excellence for all of our students. We are not there; we know we've got a long way to go," Whatley said to a room of team members, central office staff members and school administrators on Monday morning. "In the face of change at state, national and global levels, we are changing at our schools."

He explained that high levels of growth over the past several years, in addition to recent state budget cuts, have affected the school system, but he said the hiring - and retaining - of highly-qualified teachers and focusing on every type of student can help move the system forward and help them attain their goals.

Whatley mentioned that staffing, which is a majority of the system budget, and school overcrowding also are some of the issues currently affecting the school system.

Even so, he said the school system continues to be able to build new schools with state funding and local taxes and decrease its drop out rate; Whatley expects a better budget when the economy improves.

"We are very hopeful for the future," he said.

After Whatley's system overview, the team started Monday morning meeting with school system personnel, school board members and school administrators and staff. The team members also interviewed community representatives and held several team meetings outside of the school system venues, according to the review schedule.

Today, they plan to visit several individual schools, talk to students at their lunch times in the schools and continue visits with school administrators and school system leaders. In the afternoon, they plan to meet with a group of educational stakeholders, including parents, community members, business partners and new school-level staff members, as well as hold more team meetings outside of the school system, according to the team schedule.

Wednesday, the team will finish up any necessary interviews and finalize their reports.

At 1 p.m. at the Newton County Board of Education building, the team will present an oral exit report to the school system during a special called board meeting that is expected to last about an hour. At this meeting, the team is expected to recommend whether or not the school system can move forward in the district accreditation process.

If approved for district accreditation, the system must host a Quality Assurance Review once every five years to review a selection of schools, act on the review team's recommendations and submit a progress report two years after a review, according to the AdvancED Web site.

The school system does not yet know the price tag for this week's review.

Linda Hayden, associate superintendent for curriculum, said the school system doesn't contract with SACS and that the committee chair will present the fees after the review. Hayden said the school system set aside about $5,000 to cover all expenses, including hotel, food, travel and fees.

The Rockdale County public school system, which is scheduled to have the same review in November, expects to pay a $2,250 fee for the visit, as well as paying for lodging, meals, work space and transportation for the team, according to a letter sent from the AdvancED President/CEO Mark Elgart to RCPS Superintendent Samuel King.

Michelle Floyd can be reached at michelle.floyd@newtoncitizen.com.