OXFORD — When Rev. Jeff Smith, administrator at Trinity Christian Academy, heard about the passage of the Alabama Accountability Act back in 2013, he thought it may be an opportunity for his school.
Five years later, Smith says that as expected, Trinity, a small private school in Oxford, has been removed from the state’s list of schools eligible to receive scholarship funding under the law because it lacks the required accreditation.
The Alabama Accountability Act was passed to encourage students zoned for schools labeled as “failing” by the state — those that score in the bottom 6 percent on certain test scores — to transfer to other schools through the use of tax-credit funded scholarships.
In 2015, the Legislature updated the Accountability Act to require participating schools be certified by a recognized regional accrediting agency such as the National Council for Private School Accreditation or AdvancEd.
“When we heard about the law, we asked ourselves ‘could this help students we serve?’” Smith said in a Wednesday interview at the school.
Smith said that while Trinity participated minimally in the program, the system was broken, particularly early after its passage.
“It was a hard concept for parents who may have to pay for the tuition up front and then receive a tax credit on the back end,” he said. “A lot of parents don’t have the money to do that.”
Another aspect of the law, though, allows private nonprofits called Scholarship Granting Organizations, or SGOs, to allocate money derived from up to $35 million in tax credits to students across the state.
In the few years after the law’s passage, Trinity Christian Academy partnered with the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund, an SGO associated with former Governor Bob Riley, to administer funds to those interested in attending the school.
“We had a student that had been zoned for a ‘failing’ school that came, and eventually that student left, but the two younger siblings stayed,” Smith said.
For the 2015-16 academic year, Trinity received $3,000 quarterly for the three students.
During the 2016-17 school year, Trinity received $2,050 quarterly from the program for the two siblings who remained at the school.
The tax-credit funded scholarships that followed those students were only a small fraction of the school’s budget.
Smith said that the school has about 125 students, a number that has more than doubled in the six years he’s been Trinity’s administrator.
When it comes to being removed from the list of schools eligible to receive scholarship funding, Smith said Trinity had been expecting the change.
“We knew we weren’t accredited, so we knew this would happen,” Smith said.
Smith said the school was accredited between 2003 and 2008, but that changes in Trinity’s administration and troubles caused by the economic crash left that accreditation in limbo.
He also told The Star that the school’s lack of accreditation has led to myths being spread about Trinity’s status.
“Some people think you won’t be able to get into college. That just isn’t true,” he said.
Smith said that 60 to 70 percent of TCA graduates attend college and that over a period of 15 years, only two have had issues involving their diplomas requiring them to obtain GEDs.
During that same time, Smith said, the school has had around 100 graduates.
But Angela Morgan, director of UniServ District 14 for the Alabama Education Association, told The Star last week that she believes unaccredited high schools put students at a disadvantage.
“It’s really a big concern that parents would think that this would give their children an equal education,” Morgan said. “This is essentially a voucher program that’s funding private schools with no standards using money that could otherwise go to public schools. And it’s putting these kids at a disadvantage.”
Some colleges do have more stringent admissions standards for students who attended unaccredited high schools. Alabama State University, for example, requires such students to have a minimum score of 21 on the ACT test to be admitted. Attempts to reach officials at UA, Auburn, and JSU were not successful Wednesday.
Smith said that he believes Trinity students will meet these standards. TCA requires all graduates to have at least a 16 on the ACT test, sometimes higher, depending on the type of diploma a student is seeking.
“There are safeguards in place to ensure our students are ready for college and beyond,” he said. “All of our teachers have degrees and are certified.”
Brina Hart, a teacher at Trinity Christian Academy, said Wednesday that she also isn’t concerned by the school’s lack of accreditation. Hart, who graduated from the school in 2002, has 3 children currently attending TCA.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” Hart said. “ACT scores are the most important thing colleges look at when students apply, and we have great ACT scores.”
Candice Jackson, who also has children attending TCA, wrote in an email to The Star that she chooses Trinity not just for academics, but for other reasons as well.
“Choosing Trinity Christian Academy is not about picking a school that spent some thousands of dollars and checked off all the boxes on an accreditation organizations list,” she wrote. “Choosing TCA is about choosing a school with an outstanding curriculum, teachers that truly have a servant's heart, and a place where positive family values are shared among parents, staff, as well as students.”
Jackson said, though, that she doesn’t harbor any resentment toward parents concerned with accreditation.
“If that is a requirement you are looking for in an educational institute, then that is your choice,” she said. “Your child's education is a big decision. There are just certain sacrifices you are willing to make or not make for what is best for you and your family.”
Jackson’s insights shed light on another reason behind Trinity’s lack of accreditation.
“It costs a lot of money,” Smith said of the accreditation process, which he said he’s looked into. “The initial cost is several thousand dollars, and then there are renewal costs. Our desire is to be accredited, but with the size of our school, it’s something where we have to look and say where are we going to spend our limited money.”
Smith said that if the school gains accreditation down the road, they’d have to closely consider whether they’d seek to participate in the Accountability Act’s SGO program again.
Smith said there has been a lot of miscommunication about the program.
“Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund has been great, but there is such a backlog of students wanting to participate,” he said. “I’d like to see changes.”
Smith said he supports, for example, lifting the $35 million cap on tax-credit funding to SGOs under the law.
“I would love for it to be expanded,” he said. “It would benefit students hugely.”