MANCHESTER, NH – Justine Dube was one of about 50 people who came out to Memorial High School Wednesday night for the first of two Manchester Proud town hall-style public meetings.
Dube, born and raised in Manchester, is a 2009 West High School graduate, and a preschool teacher for the district.
“These kids are amazing. They come from things I can’t even imagine in my own life,” says Dube, describing her students as eager learners despite the difficult circumstances many have already endured as children of immigrants or refugees, or situational poverty. She teaches at Bakersville Preschool at the Bishop O’Neil Center.
“I see kids coming to school now at 3, ready and eager to learn every day. But something happens as they go on,” says Dube. “They lose that eagerness.”
She came out to hear more about Manchester Proud, both as a parent and a teacher. She says she left impressed with the presentation, and wanting to know more.
“I had great teachers at West. It’s not about the teachers. I think the problems in our district are financial,” says Dube. She thinks it’s good that a group like Manchester Proud wants to work with the community to help fix the school system.
“It needs fixing,” says Dube, noting that teachers are still working without a contract.
She is also a single mother of an 8-year-old. Her son attends private school. It was a difficult call for her to make, she says.
“I’m a major supporter of Manchester schools,” says Dube, who explains that as a teenager she chose West over Trinity after attending Catholic schools, and had “the best” experience there. But when it came time to enroll her son in school, she was advised by her previous experience as a teacher in the Manchester district. Her son would require an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) in public school. Dube says he currently gets the individual attention he needs in a private setting.
“I send my son to Saint Benedict Academy – and as a single mom, I pay for it, but it’s worth it to me. I made that decision, not because teachers are lacking in Manchester, but due to the funding, support and back-up the teachers have at Saint Benedict.”
Dube spoke during the meeting to reinforce her observation that kids come into school eager and excited about learning. She is hopeful that a new vision for Manchester schools could include helping students to retain that enthusiasm.
Barry Brensinger, a Manchester Proud founding member and “champion,” began the meeting with a summary of how Manchester Proud evolved – formed by a group of local business and education leaders 18 months ago who, in casual conversation, recognized they shared mounting concerns over the need to improve city schools.
Brensinger said the hope was that they could privately raise some money to support their effort and somehow engage the community in learning more about the existing value of city schools – and how to make them the best they can be for all students.
“Our real mission was a process of community engagement to build a vision for our schools that is lasting,” for years and decades to come.
The end game will be to present an aspirational yet realistic and executable plan for approval by the district, and then to begin implementing it.
To get there, Manchester Proud mobilized a core group of volunteers who have spent months in small group sessions laying groundwork for the next phase, which will begin in earnest in mid-February when a larger Community Planning Group is assembled through an application process open now through Feb. 5.
It also goes forward under the guidance of 2Revolutions LLC, a national virtual education “design lab” with offices based in New York City, Burlington, VT, and Denver, CO, that specializes in educational transformation, hired unanimously by Manchester Proud after sifting through a pool of applications, to help chart the way forward.
Adam Rubin, founder of 2Revolutions, assisted Brensinger in fielding questions during the meeting. He said the goal is helping Manchester live up to its potential.
“Manchester is such an amazing city with so many assets already, and such amazing potential – and it’s not playing to its weight. It has the potential to be a world-class district and it’s within grasp, but it will take honest conversations,” Rubin said.
According to the company website, the name 2Revolutions is derived from “the deliberate integration of two forces that are reshaping the education landscape” – social change and the labor market. The company’s mission is helping communities build learning models that address 21st century shifts in culture and commerce unique to their community’s resources and vision.
2Revolutions has worked with the Manchester School District already, with positive results. The company was hired to lead the redesign of Manchester School of Technology from a part-time tech school into a full-time technical high school.
They also partnered with Parker Varney Elementary under the guidance of then-principal and now assistant superintendent Amy Allen, helping shift the school culture and its philosophical approach to teaching and learning with a methodical process that included project-based learning. Once implemented, Parker Varney went from being one of the state’s most critical “schools in need of improvement” in 2011 to School of the Year in 2015, earning a New Hampshire Excellence in Education Award.
Rubin applauded the thousands of people already participating in the process through surveys, volunteer groups and workshops for “rejecting the status quo” at a time when cities around the country are seeking solutions how to make public education more relevant to their communities, and meaningful for students.
Rubin is a former educator and father of four, who said that while strategic planning happens a lot, it can often result in a lot of big ideas that go nowhere. His company will support the process of implementation guided by the “experts” that already exist in Manchester – teachers, parents, school officials and students.
A design lab “helps give birth to new ideas and innovation,” Rubin said.
“We believe the answers are in the community,” and that a cookie-cutter approach cannot meet the unique needs of a city like Manchester. What works in Akron, Ohio, can’t be imported here, he said.
Their process has already begun with a data-driven snapshot of five key elements – teaching and learning; finances; government; agencies and non-profits already engaged with education; and operations.
After all of that is assessed, the design stage begins.
Guided by qualitative data and research 2Revolutions will assess what’s working and what’s not, and then provide a set of recommendations.
“Finally, we will be telling the stories of what’s possible through the mouths of students, families and educators,” Rubin said.
Resident Ed Sapienza asked how much sway Manchester Proud would have in decision-making, or on other factors that directly affect the district, like the city’s tax cap or potential for closing a school building. Brensinger responded that volunteers working with Manchester Proud as members of the community have as much input as any other member of the community.
“I think what’s important is that we’ve structured this so that the community as a whole are the ones who will direct and guide this process. I will tell you there’s no agenda on behalf of Manchester Proud, and our opinions carry no more weight in this process than anyone else’s.”
Brensinger also said that as a plan evolves for the school district, a financial model will be generated with the help of a financial consultant to examine all relevant factors.
Another question pertained to how involved the Board of School Committee and Mayor and Board of Aldermen will be in the planning process, since they control the budget.
Brensinger said regular updates have been provided to both boards. In order for change to happen, the resulting plan also has to be realistic and “practically achievable.”
Having a vision for a better school system without a plan is a familiar outcome in the world of strategic planning. Knowing how much the city is willing and able to invest in a new vision is an unknown factor, and will be based on research that will include how to fund whatever the final plan turns out to be.
“Our hope, our expectation, is when we get to that point this fall we all have an interest and we’re all invested in a way that is easy for both boards to accept the plan moving forward,” Brensinger said.
Another question had to do with buy-in from school administration and teachers. Brensinger pointed out that School Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas and assistant superintendents Amy Allen and Jen Gillis all were early adopters of Manchester Proud. Teachers and administrators, along with parents, city department heads and students, will be intentionally included in the make-up of the Community Planning Group. The New Hampshire Department of Education is also in the loop, and has a “permissive policy” in place for such local district initiatives.
School Board member Dan Bergeron asked how will Manchester Proud avoid “political complications” as it engages elected leaders in the process.
Brensinger said in the end, if city officials reject the strategic plan presented, Manchester Proud goes nowhere. So there is a conscious effort to keep politics out of the mix, and Manchester Proud will continue to conduct one-on-one sessions with board members to address concerns as they arise and “keep politics completely out of the process.”
Glenn Ouellette asked how Manchester Proud will make sure participants in the planning process include community members of economic and individual diversity. Brensinger said Manchester Proud agrees with the importance of inclusion, and is working toward a goal of having 40 percent of the Community Planning Group represent people of color to reflect the demographics of the school community.
Rubin reinforced to the group that the process is not so dependent on city leaders, but about a vision constructed by the community and supported by its leaders.
“Leaders will come and go – and you’re experiencing some of that now – but it’s ultimately about community,” Rubin said. He said his company is hired by a range of entities, from school districts and state education boards to foundations, and community-driven groups like Manchester Proud.
“What’s unique and exciting is that here the district and community are all on the same page. That doesn’t often happen. We go to places where there is a desire for change. At the heart of that desire is how to excite students about their education,” Rubin said.
“I’ve been an educator, an administrator, and an entrepreneur who became a consumer when I had children. And as a consumer, I’m radically dissatisfied because my school district does not instill a love of learning in my kids,” Rubin said. “I would love every kid to love learning,” that comment met with applause from the audience.
Beyond individual participation in work groups and volunteers positions by members of the community, Manchester Proud has established a “Champions Council” which provides the legal ability to contract with consultants like Rubin. Brensinger, design principal with Lavallee Brensinger Architects, serves as Manchester Proud’s Coordinator. Council members include:
- Dick Anagnost, President of Anagnost Investments, Inc.
- Robert Baines, former Manchester mayor and Director of STEAM Ahead NH
- Ellie Cochra, former director of philanthropy for the NH Charitable Foundation
- Kathleen Cook, Bean Foundation grant manager
- Mary Heath, retired educator and former deputy commissioner of NHDOE
- Talmira Hill, principal of T.L.Hill Group and education policy expert
- Will Kanteres, President, Kanteres Real Estate
- Frederic Loeffler, businessman and restaurateur
- Patricia Lynott, President of Southern NH University
- Pawn Nitichan, Vice President City Year Inc., Executive Director City Year NH
- Nick Soggu, Founder/CEO of Silvertech
- Arthur Sullivan, of Brady Sullivan Properties
Brensinger said Manchester Proud will work with community groups interested in organizing a listening session in their neighborhood or for their community group.
- Jan. 28: NeighborWorks Listening Session, 222 Cedar St., 5-6 p.m.
- Jan. 30: Manchester Proud Town Hall 2, West High School, 9 Notre Dame Ave., 6-7:30 p.m.
- Jan. 31: Student and Family Listening Session, The Bookery, 844 Elm St., 4-5 p.m.
- Feb. 4: Franco-American Listening Session, Dana Center Conference Room at Saint Anselm College, 100 Saint Anselm Dr., 6:30-7:30 p.m.
- Feb 5: Student Listening Session, Manchester Community College, 1066 Front St., 5-6 p.m.
- Feb 13: Student and Family Listening Session at Manchester City Library, 405 Pine St., 4-5 p.m.
- Feb 16: Student and Family Listening Session, Waterworks Cafe, 250 Commercial St., 12-1 p.m.
Editor’s Note: Manchester Ink Link publisher Carol Robidoux has participated as a volunteer on Manchester Proud’s Communications Work Group to assist in disseminating information to the public.