A new vision for Queen City schools

Manchester Proud to unveil proposed vision for district

After some two years of gathering input from the business and civic community, students and educators, the Manchester Proud organization’s proposed plan to reshape the future of the Manchester School District will be officially presented to the city’s Board of School Committee at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, at Manchester Memorial High School.

Manchester residents are encouraged to attend.

Project coordinator Barry Brensinger, design principal at the architecture firm Lavallee Brensinger in Manchester, spoke to the heart of a proposal that was shaped over two years with considerable community input and the consultancy of both Reaching Higher NH and 2Revolutions, a national education reform initiative that identifies major positive trends in education and advises how a district can capitalize by incorporating these trends into a community’s vision.

Manchester Proud’s community planning groups, made up of 29 educators, administrators, business and community leaders and students, aimed high, and most would say with good reason.

“Increasingly, our public schools impact the fate of our community and everyone who lives and works in Manchester,” Brensinger said.

Manchester Proud is strongly endorsed by both Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig and School Superintendent Dr. John Goldhardt.

The ‘whole child’

The three core concepts of Manchester Proud’s plan, as described in what Mayor Craig referred to at a Feb. 5 school board meeting as “a guide for the continued development of our schools,” are: addressing real equity for every learner, increasing student-centered learning while giving educators the training and support to meet these needs, and increasing community ownership of education.

“My expectation for the 20th is that the school board will approve this plan … that it will guide us in developing a final plan,” the mayor said. “It is not finished. It is a living and breathing document.”

Educating the “whole child” is foremost when equity is the topic. Three independently surveyed Manchester educators from three different public schools, who worked in Manchester Proud community planning groups, supplied the same troubling affirmative answers to students often coming to school hungry and asking for money for food, wearing the same clothes two or more days in a row, and not having adequate winter clothing and footwear.

Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig says the Manchester Proud plan is ‘a living and breathing document.’

Abigail Gemme, an English teacher at Central High School, noted that the school’s Key Club offers a food pantry that can be accessed through the guidance department. Many students are additionally eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches. Requests for money from educators could indicate food insecurity at home.

Saint Anselm College Professor Loretta Brady directs Requity Labs, an organizational research center that promotes trauma-informed solutions for community resilience and social equity.

“Any change effort that is addressing the deep needs the Manchester School District has must be inherently poverty-, cultural- and trauma-informed; and for this it must be met with external policy changes to be effective,” Brady said.

“Students come to school able to learn but not always ready to learn, because of adverse childhood experiences,” observed Lizabeth MacDonald, principal of Weston Elementary School.

When asked about her favorite students, she replied, “I love the challenging students — turning them around, showing them that school is a safe place, a caring place, a learning place, and that we are there to help them.”

Student-centered learning — a must in educating the whole child — essential says that all students are given the same learning opportunities.

“Student-centered learning is infinitely better than a student sitting in the classroom and being talked at,” Gemme said. “Student-centered learning says, ‘Here’s the goal.’ There are many different directions to get to that goal.”

Amanda Eagan, a math teacher at the Manchester School of Technology, spoke to how relevance of a topic, a key to student-centered learning, engages the interest of a student.

“Every single math teacher in history has probably been asked, ‘When am I ever going to use this in my life?’” she said. “And so many times the answer is, ‘Honestly, never,’ unless we can tie the information being learned to either something of interest to the student and/or something happening in the world.”

Eagan’s graphing lesson entails students choosing a product, often video games, and tracking costs, supplies, sales and profit.

“I love when a kid says, ‘Oh, I get it!’ usually after lots of perseverance and maybe some tears,” Eagan said. “It’s a joy to watch their confidence grow and grow.”

Educational equity

Some degree of student ownership of education was endorsed by approximately 75% of Manchester voters in the most recent local election. The non-binding referendum question asked for approval to have a student sit on the Board of School Committee. If implemented, the debate would center on whether it is a voting or a non-voting seat.

The Manchester Proud plan calls for a personal learning plan for every child. How does this student best learn?

Given his or her best chance to succeed, evaluation comes from self, peer and educator assessment. Project-based learning for every learner integrates subject core content, work-study practices (communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking), and ties it to authentic, real-world problem-solving.

Starting in eighth grade, each student must develop a career/college readiness plan, a physical portfolio of the student’s projects and accomplishments, and defend them for evaluation.

Educational equity also means de-leveling.

‘Increasingly, our public schools impact the fate of our community and everyone who lives and works in Manchester,’ says Barry Brensinger, Manchester Proud’s project coordinator.

Peter Perich, a school committee representative from Ward 8 after 41 years as an educator — the last 33 at Manchester Memorial High School — explained that students are placed in one of four tiers in middle school. “West High is experimenting with dismantling the levels,” the longtime Memorial assistant principal said. “It’s a learning curve. Results look positive, and if they continue, Memorial and Central will also go that way.”

“Students feel trapped once they’re placed in a level at middle school,” Gemme said. “Leveling means where a student is placed in eighth grade measures how a student currently performs, not what he or she is capable of.”

All of the educators interviewed cited the leveling system as providing little mobility.

“Students can be role models for each other,” Gemme said, noting that students of differing abilities help each other in class and “enhance everybody’s learning.”

“I taught at an American school in Mexico that was de-leveled and loved it,” Eagan explained. “In the end, all students are learning the same skills.”

“As it is now, it’s too much about winning in the higher tiers,” Eagan said. She gave an example of a teacher offering a retake on a test and one student wanting that option after scoring a 97 on the original test.

With 43% of Manchester’s students persons of color, equity also means cultural competency for both educators and students.

Elizabeth Kirwin, a teacher for English language learners at West High School and a community planning group member, cited “approximately 1%” as the representation of educators of color in the district.

Woullard Lett, a past president of the Manchester chapter of the NAACP, currently serves as co-chair of the organization’s educational committee.

“One of the main elements of cultural competency is taking a broader view of humanity than just Eurocentric traditions,” Lett said. “It’s essential to understand a culture’s technology, language, food and clothing. It means having an appreciation of all cultures. It goes beyond just tests and instructors. It requires a passionate societal agreement to develop genuine interest and to recognize that we are all members of the human race.”

“A good teacher asks what a student likes, what he does after school, how things are at home,” Perich said.

He spoke of a student some years back who he engaged with but was giving one of the school’s other administrators nothing but trouble.

“I was trying to break up a fight in the cafeteria,” Perich said. “This student saw that someone was going to jump on me, and he prevented it. He literally had my back. He’s now a major in the Air Force.”

“In school, these are my students, but at the end of the day they’re my neighbors,” Perich added.

Business partnerships

Business-school and community-school connections also have great potential and ideas from all quarters are appreciated for extended-learning opportunities.

According to Eagan, the Manchester School of Technology “is working with the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire to build a plane with our manufacturing students,” Eagan said. “We have also worked with the Currier Museum, UNH Manchester and Manchester Community College on a variety of things, including projects, guest speakers and early college courses. Partnerships equal exposure for our students.”

Stephanie Dakoulas headed the special education department at Memorial High School for nine years and spoke to the department’s Basic Employment Foundation program, through which students receive job training in the community.

“It’s extremely valuable to our students to get out into the community and to see the work that goes on in banks, at restaurants, at city hall, and at the library.”

The list of businesses and community sites the developmentally challenged students have worked at for this long-term program is extensive and includes the Greater Manchester Chamber, LeBlanc’s Hardware, Elliot Hospital, the Red Arrow Diner and the Manchester City Library. Training at the Elliot was typical as students sorted laundry and put together patient kits.

Dakoulas cited liability as a factor that gets in the way of business-school connections.

Procon of Hooksett has offered workshops on the building trades to both Oyster River High School and to Manchester’s Parkside Middle School. Through the American Council on Education, it pairs Memorial High School and MST students with industry mentors. The students design and construct virtual buildings and sites.

Eversource Academy at Manchester’s Central High School and Velcro University at West have also been well-received.

Support for educators may be the elephant in the study hall in furthering Manchester Proud’s vision. The plan calls for a quantum leap in support for educators in both training to address core concepts such as whole child and cultural competency, and for personal development.

District teachers have been working without a contract since June of 2018. Dakoulas said one Memorial special education teacher left the district in August for Concord and a $20,000 raise.

“I am the child’s educator, safety net, counselor and mentor,” MacDonald answered when asked what the average person on the street doesn’t understand about her work. “I have one half-hour every other week for professional learning communities and one half-hour every six weeks to assess each grade level.”

Manchester Proud’s plan cites “a culture of distrust” in the district.

“Trust goes from the school board to the superintendent to the administrators to the teachers to the students,” Perich said. “If it doesn’t work at one level, all the levels are affected.”

“I would love to meet with all math teachers in the district,” Eagan said. “I would like to meet with all ninth grade teachers in the district. This would be so helpful.”

No business can function in what educators and others call narrowly focused “silos.”

“Business leaders across all industries understand that in order to have a growing economy, a healthy, thriving, and dynamic public school system is an essential ingredient,” Michael Skelton, CEO of the Greater Manchester Chamber, said.

Jonathan Kozol, the widely respected author on dysfunctional education in the U.S., claims that well-intentioned educational plans with catchy names such as “Lighthouse Schools,” “Focus Schools” and “Pilot Schools” fail for two reasons: lack of commitment and for thinking all issues would be solved within one school year.

According to 2Revolutions co-founder Adam Rubin, who spoke at length at the Feb. 5 school board meeting, Manchester is currently graded a C minus on Niche.com, well behind three other districts nationally that have slightly larger populations and lower income.

Manchester Proud’s organizers and participants seek to improve that grade. But to succeed, commitment to the vision is required.

Categories: Education

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