ITHACA, N.Y. – The Finger Lakes School of Massage’s application for reaccreditation has been deferred by the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training, pending the school’s ability to demonstrate compliance with several of the accrediting council’s requirements.
An on-site inspection by two ACCET staff members in September, along with multiple complaints submitted to ACCET by FLSM students and staff, have raised questions about the school’s record keeping, curriculum, human resources procedures and compliance with certification rules. Citing 14 areas of concern, ACCET’s review commission voted at its December meeting to defer FLSM’s reaccreditation pending a future unannounced follow-up site visit and satisfactory response from school directors.
ACCET is an independent accrediting organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education since 1978 as a “reliable authority as to the quality of education or training provided by the institution’s of higher education and the programs they accredit,” according to its website. It reviews compliance with educational standards at continuing education and training organizations, like trade schools and language institutes.
Reaccreditation deferrals are fairly common for schools reviewed by ACCET: of 27 schools seeking reaccreditation at the December meeting of ACCET’s commission, 11 were reaccredited while decisions for 16 were deferred pending further information. A deferred reaccreditation is not an “adverse action” in the parlance of ACCET, and does not change a school’s formal accreditation status.
Nevertheless, the ACCET commission’s findings make clear that several issues at FLSM need to be resolved, including concerns described by former FLSM staff and current students to the Ithaca Voice in October.
In a letter obtained by The Ithaca Voice sent from the commission to recently appointed campus director Jerry Barber, ACCET acknowledges attempts by the school to address issues listed in a September site visit report but calls into question whether promised changes have been implemented. FLSM is one of just two schools issued a reaccreditation deferral that will be subject to a follow-up site visit before its application is reconsidered at the ACCET commission’s April meeting.
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FLSM’s main campus is in Ithaca, and the Ithaca campus is the site slated for a follow-up visit by ACCET staff. Issues at FLSM’s branch campuses in Mt. Kisco, New York and Frederick, Maryland – called the Central Maryland School of Massage – are also described in the commission letter. All three campuses part of the TruMantra Schools higher education portfolio, which also includes the Arizona School of Integrative Studies.
What is accreditation?
Vocational schools can seek accreditation voluntarily to verify that they provide quality education and to become eligible for certain federal benefits. Accreditation is required, for example, for students to apply for federal financial aid like Pell Grants and Stafford or Perkins Loans, according to ACCET.
The government does not oversee accreditation directly, but the U.S. Department of Education regulates accrediting agencies like ACCET. The New York State Department of Education maintains its own list of licensed vocational programs, and accreditation is not a requirement to be on the list. Of the 18 licensed massage programs in the state, 17 are currently accredited.
In addition, while accreditation is not required for a massage program to be licensed in New York, several of the concerns outlined by ACCET touch on state licensing requirements. To become licensed massage therapists, students must complete a minimum number of hours of class time on topics like kinesiology, hygiene, and neurology, along with a minimum number of supervised clinic hours. ACCET’s decision to defer reaccreditation cites issues with FLSM’s documentation of curriculum components and certification of classroom instructors, issues that could conflict with New York licensing standards.
Schools reviewed by ACCET need to apply for reaccreditation every three to five years. After first receiving accreditation in 2009, FLSM’s reaccreditation application was deferred in 2013 before it was eventually approved. FLSM’s current reaccreditation application will be reconsidered in April, after ACCET receives a report from the school and conducts its follow-up visit.
Why is FLSM’s reaccreditation deferred?
According to the ACCET commission letter sent to FLSM’s Ithaca Campus Director Jerry Barber on Dec. 18, the school needs to address 14 areas of concern to have its application for reaccreditation granted at the commission’s April meeting. Some concerns cited in the letter arose during an on-site visit at the Ithaca campus from Sept. 4 to 5. Others came from complaints submitted to ACCET, three of which are currently open and under investigation.
While the issues outlined in the commission letter range from curriculum guidelines to financial policies, many center on disorganization and inadequate record keeping at the Ithaca campus.
Several key administrative positions saw turnover in the past year, with a flurry of firings and resignations in the month surrounding the September ACCET site visit.
“This staff turnover caused a significant negative impact to the operation, as evidenced by student comments in their end-of-program surveys and lost and/or incomplete record keeping,” the commission letter reads.
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The commission’s letter cites several examples of inadequate records: incomplete employee evaluations, missing minutes for mandatory meetings, a lack of documentation for tuition refunds to students, improperly certified classroom observations.
While the school had a chance to respond to issues that were listed in a report following the September site visit, the December letter points to several items school directors said they addressed but did not adequately document.
For example, in response to a concern that student job placements were below ACCET’s 70 percent benchmark, FLSM indicated 2017 graduates of the full-time therapeutic massage and hydrotherapy program had a 70.67 percent placement rate. The ACCET letter says of the provided information, “the institution provided no supporting documentation to substantiate these 2017 completion and placement rates.”
In interviews with the Ithaca Voice in October, FLSM students and employees suggested some instructional and supervisory employees lacked proper certification. The ACCET letter calls into question the certification of one classroom instructor and further states, “all instructor performance evaluations and classroom observations were only signed by the director of education who was not qualified to complete such evaluations/observations, as she did not have a massage therapy license, as required by ACCET.”
The letter further states that FLSM has not provided evidence that its curriculum, grading rubrics, review of student and employee feedback, and staff training meet accreditation standards.
While representatives from FLSM did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Ithaca Voice, ACCET’s letter includes summaries of the school’s initial responses to each of the commission’s 14 concerns.
According to the commission letter, FLSM said several record-keeping issues are the result of migrating files to Google Drive, a collaborative work platform. For example, in response to ACCET’s concern that school directors did not take student satisfaction surveys, which “contained a number of critical comments related to staff turnover,” into consideration, the school responded that they would share results in a Google Drive folder in the future so administrators, instructors, executive management and owners can review responses. The same concern and response apply to employee satisfaction surveys.
In both cases, ACCET asked that in addition to creating a shared folder, the school provide attestations that employees have reviewed the survey results, document analysis of survey responses, and provide evidence that feedback has been used to improve the school’s programs. ACCET similarly requested documentation that changes addressing several areas of concern have been implemented.
“The deferral of a final decision is intended to allow for an opportunity to clarify and/or resolve the issues of concern cited herein, specifically focused on the demonstration of systematic and effective implementation of revised policies and procedures in practice over time,” the letter concludes.
FLSM has until Feb. 28 to submit responses to ACCET’s concerns for its reaccreditation to be reconsidered at the commission’s April meeting. ACCET’s follow-up campus visit is set to take place before April, though the exact dates will not be announced in advance. In the meantime, while FLSM is barred from making major institutional changes it will continue to operate as normal.