City funding restores HOPE as community youth services program to reach at-risk kids

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Matt Courchesne works with a student at West High School during one of the last days of the HOPE NH program in June of 2018. Photo/Carol Robidoux

MANCHESTER, NH – Tuesday marks another new beginning for the HOPE NH program, which is now funded by the Board of Aldermen as a youth services program. It will convene at the West City Library twice a week.

HOPE stands for Helping Our Pupils Excel, a simple concept for one of the city’s toughest issues – reaching the hundreds of students district-wide at risk of failing, before they do.

These are students who lack the layers of support that are supposed to be there, woven together to provide a safety net. If you’re a parent and you’re employed, financially stable, living in a decent neighborhood where you have put down roots, and you have the time and inclination to keep up with your kids’ progress in school, attend school functions, check homework, praise your kids for their successes and reward them for good report cards, maybe take them to Disney for vacation, then you probably can’t relate.

A year ago, West Principal Rick Dichard gave Matt Courchesne an impossible assignment. He placed 15 kids with the kinds of discipline and attendance records that rendered them lost causes into the HOPE pilot program. Courchesne was up for the challenge, because he’d already learned everything he needed to know about lost-cause kids.

After 10 years in the trenches, Courchesne believes there’s no such thing as a lost-cause kid, not when there is someone in their corner who cares. Courchesne has been that guy for more than 100 students, and counting.

Although he earned his college degree in history, Courchesne discovered soon after he graduated that he had the heart of a mentor. After working in a state-funded mentorship program through the YMCA back in 2003, Courchesne had found his niche. He was assigned to work with students at Southside Middle School, and stayed on as a designated volunteer to keep a similar program going, even after the funding ended.

Courchesne stopped volunteering at Southside when his own child was born – he was needed at home and financially, couldn’t continue to work at Southside for free. Some part of his situation seems to have created a cloud around Courchesne. Nobody’s had the courage to address it publicly, but several school board members have mentioned “past issues” in their defense of canning the program earlier this year. Vice Chair Art Beaudry objects to the fact that Alderman Dan O’Neil is Courchesne’s uncle.

Courchesne says it was his uncles, in particular, who stepped up to support him when he lost his father at the age of 12. They are the men who taught him the value of having a mentor when his own safety net gave way, someone to hold him accountable, to make sure he did his homework, went to school, and didn’t fall through the cracks.

Nobody from the board has ever invited Courchesne to address their concerns. They just killed the program, and restricted Courchesne from returning to the West campus. No valid explanation.

Hold that thought.

It’s important to point out that many of those original students from Southside have made it through to graduation – and beyond – thanks to the unyielding support of Courchesne and the HOPE program. He kept showing up for them as he could, even though it wasn’t his job anymore. That’s because HOPE is founded on a couple of simple mantras that Courchesne impresses on students, because they are the mantras he has learned to live by:

“Relationships, resources and opportunities,” is one. “Respect builds trust. Trust builds loyalty,” is the other.

Over the years, when he wasn’t working his day job at the Puritan Backroom, he was talking to local employers to find jobs for his kids. Relationships. Resources. Opportunities. He was coaching kids by phone, text message, or at community gatherings on everything from good decision-making to what respect looks like – for their parents, teachers, employers and friends. Trust. Respect. Loyalty.

He’s never had one complaint. Not from a kid, or a parent. Only gratitude.

Back to the demise of HOPE as a pilot program for improving outcomes for at-risk students. Despite the many success stories relayed during public comment at city meetings over the past few years from students who’d benefitted from his support, the HOPE program was rejected by the Board of School Committee last August. The stated reason was that HOPE did not “follow the school district’s procurement code” for in-school education programs.

Paperwork, dollar signs and bureaucracy.

But truth be told, HOPE became a “political hot potato” in a power struggle between the school board and aldermen.

The rub here is that Courchesne spent the past couple of years trying to get his program approved by the school board. He jumped through all the hoops laid out for him – become a non-profit, they said. Get a school administrator to back you, show us some data, bring us a proposal. He did everything asked of him.

Flashback to April of 2017. HOPE came before the joint committee for funding, and was told the well was dry. Alderman Bill Barry told Courchesne –  in front of his school board counterparts Lisa Freeman, Leslie Want and Sarah Ambrogi –  that if the school board couldn’t find money in their budget, try coming before the aldermen at the end of the year for possible Community Improvement Program funds.

So that’s what Courchesne did, and in December of 2017, aldermen agreed to foot the bill for the pilot at West with a $15,000 grant – the same city funding pool that supports other programs for at-risk kids, like the Big Brothers/Big Sisters, 21st Century Learning, Waypoint, Boys and Girls Club, Girls at Work, and Kids Cafe. None of them educational programs. All of them, meant to help weave that safety net.

Aldermen unanimously agreed that if Dichard was sounding an alarm, someone should respond.

In May of 2018, HOPE made another pitch for funding before a joint committee of the school board and aldermen, this time with data from the pilot. Confusion ensued. School board reps were incredulous that the “process had been circumvented” and the program was in place “without their knowledge.”

In the end, the school reps told Courchesne that while his program sounded nice, they were now stuck “between a rock and a hard place” because the kids were relying on him, and they couldn’t fund the program – budgetary constraints.

By August, the school committee pulled the plug on HOPE during a closed-door meeting. Several school board members expressed dismay. They said they had no idea HOPE had been approved and operating at West, although one school board member, Want, who serves on the joint school/aldermanic committee, had visited the program in action and was a strong supporter. The two others on the joint committee – Freeman and Ambrogi – were also there when Barry invited Courchesne to seek the CIP funding months earlier, but said they did not know it existed, and apparently did not report back to the full board. 

It would seem communication between the special committee and the full board is lacking.

By September Principal Dichard was left to figure out what to do with the 15 students who were looking forward to regrouping with Courchesne. The school board had not considered this in August when they pulled the program.

By October, the school board was still without a replacement program, and charged Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas with bringing them proposals from three other organizations to fill the void.

By November the school committee was still at odds over the value of the HOPE program. Committee member Pat Long tried to reverse the board’s decision to eliminate HOPE. He told them that such programs are part of a flurry of initiatives supported by the Board of Education and other educational programs coming down the pike.

By December, Dr. Vargas reported that none of the entities he’d approached were interested. And it didn’t really matter, since Dichard had sent an email to the board that night letting them know he had moved on, and that the the Office of Youth Services – which has been in city schools for decades, primarily dealing with truancy and court-connected cases – would be picking up the slack.

School board member Ross Terrio offered up some stats he requested from Dichard as proof the program had failed.

The next day, Office of Youth Services Director Jon Donovan emailed a letter to the school board to make it clear that OYS is always around for crisis intervention and check-ins with kids already teetering on the edge of trouble, but it is in no way a replacement for HOPE (see his letter below).

Since then, the school committee has done nothing to consider the fate of the 15 students who, one year ago, were slipping away. They have not created an RFP to solicit new programs. They say they are satisfied that OYS is on the case. Committee member Rich Girard urged the board to show a little trust in Dichard’s judgement, that the kids are OK.

Too bad they didn’t have the same level of trust in Dichard a year ago, when he requested the HOPE program.

After December’s meeting, I asked Dichard about his message to the board, and about HOPE. He told me that he hasn’t changed his mind about the value of the program, and mentioned that the stats he provided Terrio were positive, all things considered, but taken out of context by the board and misconstrued by Terrio.

“I assured the board I’d do what I had to do to make sure our students get services, and that is what is happening with the help of the Office of Youth Services,” Dichard told me.

He said that the students at West who are most vulnerable, including the 15 he identified last year as most “at-risk” of dropping out or not earning enough credits to graduate, sadly are the ones who are most often affected by having the people and things that provide stability in their lives taken away from them.

“Unfortunately, the HOPE program became a political hot potato, and you should never mix education with politics. Otherwise, what you get is what you have right now,” Dichard said. “I want to be clear that my position on HOPE as a program itself and its effectiveness has not changed. But at this point, this is what a lot of our kids get in their lives already, this on again off again – why do this to them again? Part of the reason I wrote the email to the administration, knowing it was on the [Dec. 10 agenda was] because this issue needs to be off the agenda. We all have to move on.”

I asked him how the kids were doing.

“There are a few [of the original 15] who have moved on. Of the kids remaining, OYS is in contact with them and doing check-ins – these kids haven’t been left to fend for themselves,” Dichard said.

Currently Mario Pena of the Office of Youth Services makes his rounds at city schools, including West, where he spends a few hours daily catching up with all the students working with OYS, Dichard said.

“There’s no set schedule that he has, per se. At some point he’s in our building. They trust him and like him. He’s established great relationships with the kids, similar to what Matt was doing, but not on the same level. That’s at the crux of what we know about education – when a student finds an adult they know and trust, it becomes easier to educate them,” Dichard said.

Dichard believes early-intervention and prevention in elementary or middle school would help reduce the number of kids who reach high school without a safety net. But without a budget-funded program he can count on, it’s difficult to find a way to save the educational careers of students, like the 15 identified for the HOPE program at West, who were approaching a point of no return.

This is something Courchesne knows, too.

Last week aldermen approved $30,000 for the program, with some conditions. They want to know that someone is going to have oversight, and that they can track progress.

Courchesne is prepared for more hoops.

He’s been working with student interns from Northeastern University to help ramp up the program. Jon Donovan, from the Office of Youth Services, has stepped up to help oversee the program.

He’s been preparing for the past week by meeting with employers and lining up jobs for the kids that need them. Beyond that, he’s going to follow their lead and meet them where they’re at, as he always does.

“I’m happy the aldermen voted to fund the program. I didn’t want to make any promises to any kids before I knew we were getting funded,” Courchesne says.

He says that while it’s been disheartening at times, he’s still all in.

“I’m not giving up on them. I’ve seen too many success stories to give up,” he says of the students.

Our conversation turns to the recent headlines in the local paper, about fights breaking out at Memorial High School.  Not breaking news, for Courchesne. He is reminded of a similar situation about this same time last year, of “girl fights” at West. He pulls out some papers from his backpack to show me the protocol based on Adverse Childhood Experiences used by HOPE to work with the students who were involved in the fighting.

Through HOPE’s intervention, the girls got to understand one another in a different way, and found common ground. The fights ended.

“It’s not rocket science,” he tells me. “Respect builds trust. Trust builds loyalty. You don’t need a graduate degree to go to a kid’s soccer game. You just have to show up.”

Starting tomorrow, Courchesne will show up at the West Library twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 2 to 4 p.m. He’s not sure what will happen after that. He’s hopeful that some of the 15 students from West will find their way over, and that more will follow.

Having someone show up for these kids is half the battle.


For more information about the HOPE NH program, a 501c3 which works to improve attendance and academic performance while simultaneously reducing behavioral discipline issues, go to hopenh.org.


About Carol Robidoux 6222 Articles
Longtime NH journalist and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com. Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!