Belle S. Wheelan, Virginia's secretary of education, has announced that she is leaving Gov. Mark R. Warner's administration to lead an organization that accredits higher education institutions in several states.

Wheelan, 53, former president of Northern Virginia Community College, said she will leave her post July 22 to join the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association for Colleges and Schools. Warner (D) has elevated Peter Blake, deputy secretary of education, to fill the position.

Wheelan, of Fairfax, is among the first members of Warner's Cabinet to step down as the governor enters the final months of his four-year term, which ends in January. Whittington W. Clement, who was secretary of transportation, left in March to return to private law practice. Robert M. Blue, who served as the governor's top lawyer and policy director, also has left the administration.

Blake, 48, of Richmond, said yesterday that he'll continue pushing Warner's education initiatives, including efforts to provide increased opportunities for high school seniors to get college credit and a program to encourage adults who have not completed high school to earn General Educational Development diplomas.

"People of all ages are realizing that a little more education is a good thing," said Blake, who has three children in Richmond public schools. "The governor's got a pretty ambitious agenda, so as his secretary I'll do all I can in six months to accomplish as much as I can."

Warner, who is prohibited by law from serving consecutive terms and is considering a run for a national office, has made education a major focus of his administration. As chairman of the National Governors Association, Warner launched a campaign to overhaul high schools, including pushing partnerships with businesses that would allow more students to gain industry certifications in high school. He also recently announced the creation of an Early Learning Council to study ways businesses can contribute to early childhood education.

Wheelan credited programs supported by the administration with helping some struggling Virginia schools boost test scores. Under the Partnership for Achieving Successful Schools program, for instance, educators from high-performing schools have been brought in to help low-performing schools, and businesses and community organizations have provided tutoring and other support.

Wheelan said the office also worked with area museums, including the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, to create displays and programs that include material from the Standards of Learning exams, standardized tests Virginia students take to measure their performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"We have helped institutions around the state that were low-performing, and now the students are doing well on the Standards of Learning test," Wheelan said.

Wheelan will begin July 24 as president of the Georgia-based commission, the accrediting body for colleges and universities in 11 southern states, including Virginia.

Before his 2002 appointment, Blake worked as a staff member for the Virginia General Assembly's House Appropriations Committee.

Belle S. Wheelan will be replaced by her deputy, Peter Blake.