Whether it was planned or a fortunate coincidence, the selection of former Union Leader Columnist and New Hampshire Public Television Host John Clayton to kick off Education Day at the YWCA in Manchester on December 9th was apt. John’s presentation on the history of Manchester was both entertaining and educational. It served as a wonderful start to the day, helping to connect the class to the place, as is the goal of the opening speaker each session day.
Like an engaged teacher or wise professor, John told a compelling story of Manchester’s history. He indicated the history of Manchester can be connected to the Merrimack River and the Amoskeag Falls. He called it the “crucible for the development of the city.” Native Americans depended on the falls and the fish that congregated at is base for sustenance. In fact, that name Amoskeag is roughly translated to “good fishing place” or “many fish.” John told us it was Samuel Blodgett who first built the system of canals and locks around the falls that helped promote development of Manchester and attract industry. Harnessing the power of the falls, Amoskeag Industries was born in the early 1800s. Clayton then guided us on a journey through the 19th and 20th century history of Manchester and the mills, including the fact that the fabric for the first pair of Levis jeans was manufactured in Manchester. John told riveting stories of economic and labor strife that helped shape and define Manchester, and would ultimately shape the city into the 21st century.
Along with the history of the city, John shared the stories of prominent “Mancunians” who helped shape America beyond the borders of the Queen City. This included Richard and Morris McDonald,the founders of McDonald’s; the Revson Brothers of Revlon cosmetics; Peyton Place author Grace Metalious; Iwo Jima flag raiser Rene Gagnon; inventor Dean Kamen; and Hollywood superstar comedian Adam Sandler, each of whom hailed from Manchester or called it home.
John concluded his tale by connecting Manchester’s history as a city built by immigrants to recent political debates about immigration in the city. This served as a good transition to the primary topic of the day, education.
Mary Heath, the Dean of the School of Education at Southern New Hampshire University, used experience gained from her long and varied career in education to provide an overview of K-12 education in New Hampshire. She talked about the structure of education in the state, explaining how the state is divided into school administrative units governed by elected school boards. Dean Heath said that education is transitioning from focus on grades to mastery of competencies. She asked the question: “How do we know the learning has happened?” One means to answer this question is testing, which Mary indicated has shown New Hampshire students are above average. For both the SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and the NECAPs (New England Common Assessment) show New Hampshire students scoring above average. Finally, Mary offered a vision for the future of education in the state. Whether the development of charter schools or the usage of technology in schools, Mary indicated education and the role of teachers is changing. “One size fits all” she said.
Associates then assembled for the brief walk to Manchester Central High School, just a few blocks from our meeting spot. When gathered in the high’s schools sprawling auditorium, we were introduced to Assistant Principal Forrest Ransdell. Mr. Ransdell gave a brief history of the school, noting that Central is the oldest and largest public high school in New Hampshire. It’s also the most diverse, with students from 60 countries speaking more than 30 different languages. Although prideful of the school and its students, Mr. Ransdell talked honestly about the challenges facing Central. “We try not to ignore our challenges. We confront them,” he said. He indicated that greatest challenge is attendance among students. About 10-15 percent of the students have horrible attendance, he said. He also talked about the dropout rate and how the administration seeks to intervene early in the student’s career, the development of gang activity, and drug abuse among students.
At that point, it was time to prepare for our classroom visits. LNH Executive Director Steve Reno, who serves as principal to our Leadership NH class, handed out classroom assignments. LNH associates were grouped in groups of 3 and assigned to classes as varied Algebra, Biochemistry and Genetics, and music performance. Mr. Ransdell led associates on a winding tour of Central, dropping groups in their classrooms along the way.
For associates, the classroom experience was as varied as the classroom topics themselves. In one classroom, associates watched students build models of DNA strands, an attempt to bring to life the a classroom lecture. In another class, associates watched in fascination the piercings and fashion choices of today’s teenagers. For many, the classroom visits were the first time they were back in high school since graduation and proved to a highlight of the day.
After returning to the YWCA and a nourishing lunch of sandwiches and soup (much appreciated on a cold December day), Education Day continued with a presentations by, and discussions with, LNH alumna John Shea of the MC2 Charter School Network, and Tom Brennan, superintendent of Manchester School District.
Brennan talked about the current financial challenges facing the MSD. Brennan reported the district is faced with the prospect of a $12.8 million budget shortfall while still needing to provide services to the district’s 15,500 students. With Shea, Brennan engaged associates in a provocative discussion about efforts to reform public education.
Following the discussion of primary and secondary education, the focus of Education Day turned to higher education with UNH President Mark Huddleston and Manchester Community College President Susan D. Huard. The two presidents provided brief overviews of their respective institutions. Both talked about the financial challenges they face following the adoption of the state budget in June. New Hampshire Technical Institute’s budget was cut by 20 percent, while UNH’s was cut by 48 percent. Following the cut, Huddleston reported, UNH now receives approximately 6 percent of its budget from the state government. He asked the question, “What does it mean to be a public institution without public funding?” Huddleston talked about the strategies for dealing with the funding cuts, indicating faculty and staff are going to need to be more productive.
Education day concluded with LNH alum and former chair of the NH Board of Education Fred Bramante and Meryl Levin, Founding Parent and Chair of the Board of Trustees of Mill Falls Montessori Charter School. The session was promoted as hearing from two people who saw something that needed to be done and did it. It quickly veered into a passionate discussion of the proposed education reforms, particularly Bramante’s energetic and spirited defense of his vision for public education.
The formal session day concluded with a reminder from Steve that served as the basis for education day: “The education of our youth is the foundation of the state.”
Following the formal conclusion to Education Day, many associates attended a reception with Leadership Greater Manchester at the offices of Devine Millimet, which was hosted by LNH alum Mark Broth, LNH ’11.