As school begins, no HOPE for struggling students

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Matt Courchesne, founder of HOPE NH (back row wearing lanyard), with some of last year’s West High School students. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – The Board of Aldermen will hold onto $30,000 they designated for a pilot mentorship program at West High School rather than turn it over to the school committee, as requested.

That decision came during last night’s BOA meeting – along with accusations of “game-playing” and political retaliation on the part of the school committee, which voted on Aug. 13 to eliminate the Helping Our Pupils Excel (HOPE NH) program, a pilot designed to address delinquency prevention and intervention among at-risk students. 

When school starts on Sept. 5, the 15 West students who were beginning to find their way through the program will have no safety net, a fact that Alderman Bill Barry stressed during the board’s discussion.

“Not one of the school committee members who voted to sever ties with the program took the time to see it in action,” Barry said. “[The Board of Aldermen] invested $15,000 to the pilot to get it off the ground, and I went there several times to see it in action. I was impressed with what I saw,” Barry said. “The principal thought it was working great. The Student Resource Officer thought it was great. The kids were happy. Teachers were happy. These kids are going to school tomorrow and they won’t have Matt Courchesne or the HOPE program.”

Other Aldermen weighed in, including Barbara Shaw, who said she was “extremely disappointed” in the school committee’s action.

“The HOPE program came before us as a joint committee. We laid it right on the line, that we had some red flags. We told them to come back to us with data, and they did that; the data showed significant change and progress for those 15 kids,” Shaw said.

She added that she felt the move by the school committee was in retaliation for the aldermen’s decision to fund HOPE out of it’s Community Improvement Program, which funds other community-based supplemental programs, including those for at-risk students.

The HOPE program is not curriculum based, and students attend during a study-hall period. They do not earn education credits.

Alderman Elizabeth Moreau diverged from the majority of aldermen, questioning why the aldermen were second-guessing the school board’s action. She asked why the $30,000 couldn’t be used to fund more social workers. She also asked rhetorically “why we think we’re superior” to other boards, something which she called “obscene.”

Alderman Bill Shea said he was in favor of working together with the school committee to reinstate the program, acknowledging that the aldermen “may have violated something the school board put into effect,” that requires a request for proposals for amounts over $25,000.

Alderman John Cataldo said as chair of the joint committee on education, he felt there was agreement that a program like HOPE was desperately needed, and noted that communication breakdown between the boards is at the heart of the matter.

“I would support holding on to the $30,000 with the intention that we’ll give it to the school board when they come forward with an alternative program,” said Cataldo, a suggestion floated by Alderman O’Neil.

The board voted to do just that, although Alderman Barry said it’s unlikely they will find a comparable program with someone as singularly dedicated to helping students – who are otherwise on the edge of dropping out.

Not for that price tag, Barry said.

“I recently learned that over the summer, on his own time, Matt helped those students find jobs, and he made sure those students were meeting their summer requirements, checking in with teachers to make sure they were showing up,” Barry said. “The school board can say procedures weren’t followed, but I feel like it’s just an excuse to get rid of the program. Before HOPE, they had all the time in the world to instate an alternative program to help these kids. Why didn’t they do it?”

Handwriting on the wall: Some of the motivational “goals” expressed by students during HOPE sessions. Photo/Carol Robidoux

By all accounts HOPE NH had a successful run at West during the second-half of the 2017-2018 school year, which launched after the Board of Aldermen voted unanimously in Dec. of 2017 to fund the pilot program. Based on end-of-year data presented to the joint committee, credits earned were up by 58 percent, absences and tardies were down by 16 percent, and in-school discipline referrals were down by 40 percent.

West Principal Richard Dichard said he was interested in piloting the program and welcomed it once he researched it. He quickly identified 15 students back in September of 2017 in desperate need of help – students with chronic attendance and behavior issues which were jeopardizing their ability to earn enough credits to pass the school year. 

But there was no funding available in the school budget, as relayed to Courchesne by the joint committee in May of 2017. Barry suggested on the record if the school board did not want to fund it, perhaps the Aldermen could identify CIP funding, which is how the pilot program eventually was funded in Dec. of 2017.

Aldermen allocated $30,000 in the 2019 CIP budget to continue the program for the entire school year.

HOPE NH director Matt Courchesne, who had run versions of the program on a volunteer basis since 2007, last year sought to get approval for the program in its current form, as a non-profit organization. One of his talking points was the amount of money the district could save from out-of-district placements and reducing the drop-out rate, through utilizing HOPE as a retention initiative.

The program piloted at West in 2018 included in-class support from school resource Officer Kevin Bernard, as well as an employee from the city’s Office of Youth Services. Teachers would also drop in from time to time to provide some one-on-one help to students with homework.

Bernard submitted a letter to the joint committee in May detailing how Courchesne had organized a series of meetings between factions of female students who were involved in escalating physical altercations on school grounds, and he credited the HOPE program providing students with the skills needed to reach positive outcomes.

When reached for comment Tuesday night, Courchesne said he was not giving up.

“We are thinking about the kids tomorrow and their first day. We believe that the HOPE program is effective and we will follow whatever process is necessary to get back to the kids,” Courchesne said.

The school board’s vote to eliminate the program in August came after an executive session was called. Dichard was asked to attend. Courchesne was not invited.

Although a summary of the closed-door discussion has been unsealed, no verbatim minutes are available. Based on the narrative provided by the school district, some BOSC members objected to the fact that the program did not have school board approval and should not be operating in the schools without their say so.

Vice Chair Arthur Beaudry said he was “frustrated with the process,” and voiced concern that Courchesne is a nephew of Alderman Dan O’Neil.

Courchesne, 38, is a 1998 Trinity High School graduate who lost his father at age 11. He credits the adults in his life, including O’Neil, with showing him the importance of mentors who kept him accountable.

“The program is all about relationships, resources and opportunities,” said Courchesne during an interview in June. “For these kids, there’s a huge disconnect. Their parents aren’t necessarily asking to see their report cards. That’s where I come in. I’m giving them motivation to do the right thing. I’m someone to care, to hold them accountable, to help pick them up when they’re down.”


About Carol Robidoux 6324 Articles
Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!