School official happy with progress

If guiding the school district through multiple crises is the measuring stick, Superintendent of Schools Christopher Hottel said he’s done a pretty good job thus far.

Hottel is entering his third full school year as the district’s superintendent. He took the helm in an acting role in June 2006 after former Superintendent Julia Earl was placed on paid leave.

He was officially hired as superintendent in April 2007.

With the school year kicking off this week, Hottel met with members of The Telegraph’s editorial board Thursday morning to discuss some of the district’s initiatives and issues that are currently on the table.

When asked to judge how he has done in the role so far, Hottel said he was proud of being able to see the district through tough times, starting with working within the confines of the budget to bring back staff who had been laid off in 2006.

“And last year was a very challenging time with the teacher contract,” he said. “I guess I’d have to say we all did a pretty good job together of getting out of that.”

Hottel said that with the contract situation now in the past, it is time to start looking forward and planning for the future of the school district.

It is going to take some time to completely heal after last year, when the district came within hours of a teachers strike, but that healing process has now begun, he said.

“There is a lot of hope and enthusiasm this year,” he said. “And I think that is going to translate to some real success and allow us to do what we’re supposed to do, which is focus in on student learning.”

The first day of school was Tuesday, but Hottel said there are still some teaching positions that remain vacant. The district has historically had difficulty filling math and science positions at the high schools, which is a national problem, as well.

The vacant positions are being filled with long-term substitutes until permanent teachers can be hired, he said.

The district had approximately 150 teaching vacancies to fill over the summer.

“The mix we have of youth and veteran teachers is very good,” he said. “We’re still challenged in attracting minority candidates to teach, and we’ll do more work in that area.”

Hottel said human-resources staff in the past has traveled to Boston to try and recruit more minority candidates. It is important to have a staff that reflects the makeup of the student body, he said.

“Having diversity in the staff and leadership that mirrors the diversity of the students is really important in the school system,” he said.

Nashua has a larger Hispanic student population than any other school district in the state, but Hottel said the number of minority teachers and staff is “very small.”

Hottel said building leadership, shaping belief, creating achievement and celebrating success are what sees as the cornerstones of success for the school year.

He said he focused this summer on looking for quality principals to replace many principals who retired at the end of the year.

He also said principals will be expected to be in the schools more over the summer and be involved in planning.

“The goal there was to start building our leadership at the principal level and really focus on leadership in our schools,” he said.

One of the most important initiatives currently under way is the strategic planning process that began this summer. The district hired Future Management Systems, a firm based out of Beverly, Mass., to lead that process.

Part of that strategic planning process will be to look at the district’s facility needs and create focus groups from the community to hear what they see as the biggest needs of the district, he said.

Two questions that need to be answered are whether redistricting is necessary and whether the district needs to close an elementary school, he said.

“I think that whole process is very important,” he said.

Hottel said meeting the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law continues to be priority for the district.

Nashua has had mixed results over the years.

Amherst Street Elementary School was able to get off the “in need of improvement” list last year, having made Adequate Yearly Progress two years in a row.

However, Mount Pleasant Elementary School is in the process of having to come up with a restructuring plan after being on the “improvement” list since 2003.

Hottel mentioned the school’s hiring of a new principal – Mary Frances Tintle – and the school’s work on analyzing test data as measures being taken to help improve student achievement there.

Hottel said the district is also working with the state on developing its corrective action plan, a requirement due to the district’s “in need of improvement” status.

The district is working with Mary Heath, deputy commissioner of education for the state, to come up with a memorandum of understanding to determine what measures have to be taken to comply.

“If we believe every student can really achieve at high levels then we have to find the way to create the opportunities so they can be successful,” he said.

Another round of testing will begin in October.

The school board will soon begin to look at the issue of whether leveling students should continue in the middle schools. Hottel said the current format could be more flexible but said he would want to see some form of “modified grouping” continue.

Within the leveled classes, there can be differentiated instruction, he said. The important thing is that teachers are addressing the individual needs of all students, he said.

“Do we need to have three levels? Do we need to have them in the way they are now? I don’t know,” he said. “But I know that we need some kind of grouping.”