MANCHESTER, NH – Manchester West High senior David Chestnut remembers hearing a distinctly unconvincing pitch from a college recruiter during a giant assembly about why he and his classmates should go to college.
The recruiter tried to get the high schoolers excited about the idea of coming to his campus. But as Chestnut looked around, he saw that few of his classmates were even paying attention, let alone interested.
This wasn’t surprising to him, though. Chestnut thought the assembly was just as ineffectual as the other nudges the school’s guidance counselors had sent encouraging students to go to college, mainly through email and intercom announcements.
Those guidance counselors had their work cut out for them. As of 2017-18, federal data showed that each guidance counselor in the Manchester School District served an average of 278 students. The statewide average is one counselor for every 568 students across all grade levels.
“It’s an assembly line,” Chestnut said. “They are trying to prepare you in the most generic way possible.”
Unfortunately, the generic doesn’t fit a student like Chestnut, the son of Filipino immigrants who didn’t graduate from college in America.
“My mother is a first-generation immigrant. She was the first of my family to attend college but she never graduated,” Chestnut said. “So when I was growing up in America with a single mother, it was very difficult for her to juggle her jobs and my education.”
Cases like Chestnut’s could be one of the reasons that, between 2016 and 2019, an average of just 43.7 percent of Manchester West’s students enrolled in a post-secondary program immediately after graduation — significantly lower than the statewide average of 56.1 percent.
The numbers get worse at other New Hampshire high schools. Newport, Farmington, Pittsfield, and Nute are all below 40 percent, while the post-secondary enrollment rates for the top-performing schools were nearly double that of Manchester West, with Bedford, Windham, Souhegan, and Hollis-Brookline all above 75 percent.
As conversations continue around how to improve New Hampshire's school system, the root cause of these educational disparities is heavily debated. So, too, are the measures used to track them, such as standardized testing and college enrollment data. And opinions differ widely on addressing the gaps, from increasing investment in the public system to expanding private "school choice" options.
Education experts agree that the breadth and depth of learning experiences students have access to can affect their outcomes at school. But there is little hard data to tie specific opportunities to those outcomes — making arguing for them that much harder.
Data does show that students’ experiences in New Hampshire public schools can vary widely, based primarily on where they live. Educators and policy experts say these inequities are partly tied to how much a community invests in opportunities for students, in and out of the classroom.
When talking about education, any given policy's success or failure is usually determined by standardized test scores. These numbers, which directly measure the students taking the test, have also become one of the most popular ways to rate the quality of each teacher, school, and district -- but they are also deeply controversial.
The state Department of Education’s iReport website, which offers data-driven snapshots of individual schools or districts, relies heavily on standardized test scores to describe the quality of instruction -- as did the iPlatform’s predecessor site, which offered profiles of each school, school administrative unit or SAU, and district. These scores show that some New Hampshire districts perform far better than others.
For educators, these test results come with high stakes. Since the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, the federal government has tied education funding to standardized testing. The later Obama-era Race to the Top program encouraged educators to double down on standardized testing to measure teacher effectiveness.
The stakes for some students on these tests are also high, sometimes determining their future in school and beyond.
"In order to take — in a lot of our schools — foreign language classes, you have to have a certain score on an English NWEA test," a type of standardized assessment, says Carisa Corrow, a former teacher and owner of Educating for Good. "And those two things are just not the same conversation. So you're locking kids out of opportunity, and learning a different language, because they can't do well on a standardized test. That's not meaningful to them."
Critics have raised concerns about racism and implicit bias in standardized testing, citing its close association with psychologist and eugenicist Carl Brigham, one of the fathers of modern-day educational testing in America.
Brigham wrote that the "decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro." He helped develop both the SAT and AP testing programs.
Proponents of standardized testing have countered that despite their many shortcomings (and misuses), the tests are an important tool for educators because they allow for comparisons between students in a single year and over time. This lets educators tweak their curriculum each year based on what the tests show their students understood.
Controversy aside, the testing goes on. State and federal laws require New Hampshire school districts and public charter schools to assess students annually using a standardized assessment. This year’s tests are scheduled between March and June.
OPPORTUNITIES IN THE CLASSROOM
Despite the focus on test scores, some educators and scholars say that what matters most is not the test scores themselves, but what's hidden behind them. This starts with the breadth and the depth of instruction that each school can afford to offer.
"It's become increasingly apparent that it's not so much an achievement gap as (a) lack of opportunity to achieve," said Patricia Gandara, research professor of education and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California Los Angeles.
For some, this lack of opportunity can be traced back to inequalities in school funding, as illustrated by an ongoing school funding lawsuit filed by the ConVal Regional School District. That lawsuit alleges that the state failed to fulfill its obligation to fund an adequate education for students, putting some students at a disadvantage when they go on to work or college.
Because schools in New Hampshire rely on local property tax revenue, a community's property values and socioeconomic makeup can significantly impact how much funding is available for education. The state provides a base amount of funding per student — $3,786.66 for 2021-22 — plus additional money for specific populations, such as English language learners and students receiving free and reduced lunch. Covering the rest of the annual school budget is up to local taxpayers.
The amount schools spend can vary widely — in 2016-17, Pittsfield spent about $16,000 per pupil, while the Rye district spent roughly $20,000 and the Moultonborough district spent more than $24,000 per student.
And in 2018, Pittsfield had to cut its world language teacher, along with a woodshop teacher and extended learning opportunities coordinator, because of budget constraints. Meanwhile, in Rye, students begin learning a new language as early as kindergarten, and in Moultonborough, students can choose between French, Spanish and Latin, depending on their grade level.
After working in the Manchester School District for four years, Chris Potter says he has seen first-hand the negative impact of insufficient funding.
"We're relying on these public-private partnerships to fill in the gaps — we've got Velcro University and FIRST Robotics trying to make up a difference that should be covered by the state — and even that's not adequate," said Potter, who was elected in November to represent Ward 7 on the Manchester Board of School Committee.
For example, in the elementary school where he worked as a tutor, he said the school struggled to provide adequate social-emotional learning programs, which help students understand and manage their emotions. He also saw some of his best colleagues leave the district for better pay and more support elsewhere.
Amy Allen, the Manchester School District's assistant superintendent of teaching, leading, and learning, also said that funding limits the services that her district can provide. For example, the high cost of AP classes has usually meant that schools could only allow AP classes to go ahead if each had more than 15 students -- a high bar for some schools to reach in specialized subject areas.
"I've definitely had to advocate for myself in trying to take advanced courses," Chestnut said. "I tried to take AP chemistry last year, but there weren't enough students and there wasn't enough funding to even hold the class."
However, for the first time this year, Allen says that the cost barrier has been partially overcome. The change is thanks to remote instruction, which allows schools to cross-enroll students in virtual classrooms and thereby offer AP classes to more students overall.
Chestnut was quick to point out that educational experiences like these are better in person.
OPPORTUNITIES OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM
Some advocates say that in-school solutions alone won’t solve the problem, though, arguing that inequities students face at school are compounded by those they experience outside the classroom.
Enrichment opportunities like extracurriculars and after-school programs are important for students' development, and have been shown to help improve social skills, mental health and academic performance.
But these opportunities are inaccessible to the majority of students. For every Granite State child enrolled in an after-school program, there are two more waiting for a spot, according to the Afterschool Alliance.
"It's even harder if you have a child that has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or has a disability," Kimberly Meyer, project lead for New Hampshire Afterschool Network, said. "Trying to find inclusive programming is such a challenge."
Low-income communities, especially in more rural areas, may not have a local organization with the capacity to mount an afterschool program, Meyer says. Federal resources are available, such as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative, which offers grants to support afterschool and summer learning programs in high-poverty schools. But struggling schools often also lack the resources to navigate the rigorous application process for these grants, according to Meyer.
And until all students have access to enrichment outside the classroom, inequities will persist, according to Meyer.
"The middle and upper-class communities or families have always been providing afterschool [opportunities] for their kids," Meyer said. "Their children are often the ones who are in soccer league and lacrosse league and piano practice and art classes and karate."
CLOSING THE GAPS
The state's funding formula for education has been under discussion for decades, stretching back to the Claremont cases of the 1990s that ruled New Hampshire has a constitutional obligation to fund an "adequate" education. And some districts, including Manchester, are taking steps to improve enrollment of marginalized students in advanced learning opportunities.
Still, change can be slow-moving.
"What happens is, those are structures that serve other students quite well," said Amanda Lewis, director of the Institute for Research on Race and Policy at the University of Chicago, Ill. "And so the adults, parents, community members whose kids are being served well by the current system really resist any kind of change."
Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut believes the state has made strides in improving access to educational opportunities. He pointed out that New Hampshire recently purchased access for all Granite State students to Discovery Education, an online K-12 learning platform with pre-planned lessons for educators, as well as interactive activities and videos focused on science, technology, engineering, math, social studies and coding. The program, funded with federal COVID-19 relief money, aims to help combat pandemic-related "learning loss."
"Essentially what Discovery Education does is that there are no longer any 'have or have-not' districts in the state of New Hampshire when it comes to high-quality instructional materials," Edleblut said. He added, "They don't have an economic disadvantage, they don't have any demographic disadvantage, they don't have any subgroup disadvantage in terms of bringing the very best resources to bear for those students."
But Potter, of the NH School Funding Fairness Project, was skeptical about the program’s potential impact.
"No single set of instructional resources will make up for the disparities I witnessed in Manchester. ... We can't even offer enough money to hire a sufficient number of subs to cover every class when teachers are absent; students are split up into other classes, sometimes with 50 kids in a room," Potter said in an email. "'Discovery Education' isn't going to solve that problem; education funding reform will."
The commissioner also highlighted his department's Learn Everywhere program, which offers academic credit for approved out-of-school experiences such as jobs and extracurricular activities, and the YES! Every Student program, which provides scholarship money for tutoring and support services.
Asked if he sees tension in his role between supporting public schools and supporting initiatives that focus outside of the classroom or on alternative education models, Edelblut pushed back on the idea that solutions must be created within the schools themselves.
"These inequities, these disparities that we're talking about have been persistent and long-standing," Edelblut said. "And the very system that now is interested in correcting them has been involved for four decades in sustaining them, and generally has expressed a resistance to change that might change that."
From Edelblut's perspective, those potential changes might include the state's new Education Freedom Account program, which aims to make it easier for students to access alternatives to public education. Enrolled families are expected to receive an average of $4,600 a year for alternative schooling, and the scholarship fund has 1,635 participants as of November.
But critics of the program have raised concerns about the funds diverted from public districts, as well as affordability for families, since the amount won't fully cover tuition and transportation costs at most private schools. Opponents have also questioned the program's price tag, estimated at $6.9 million, though lawmakers allocated only $129,000 for the plans in fiscal year 2022, according to the New Hampshire Bulletin.
"Programs like the freedom accounts and other kinds of voucher programs weaken the general public school system," said Woullard Lett, vice president of the Manchester NAACP.
He added, "If public schools are not performing, then they need to be held accountable, and the actions taken to hold them accountable should be restorative, reparative, constructive, rather than punitive."
And some students in Manchester are taking up the mantle of inspiring that transformation themselves.
For the past few years, Chestnut has been a member of Youth Organizers United, a Granite State Organizing Project subgroup dedicated to improving Manchester's schools. The student-led group has written a report on English learner (EL) programs in the district, advocated for adding a student representative to the school board and surveyed students about classes they'd like to see added to the curriculum.
After graduating, Chestnut decided to take a gap year, to figure out what he wants to do, where he wants to go to school, and how to pay for it. He wasn’t able to figure that out with his overworked guidance counselors, who are responsible for more than 250 students each.
Chestnut doesn’t feel prepared for college as his time at Manchester West comes to an end.
“I feel like I could have done more. I could have done more if I had more resources,” he said.
He doesn’t fault his teachers; he called them “tremendous.” Chestnut just wishes he had access to more of them.
– Collaborative Data Editor Johnny Bassett and Editor Rosemary Ford contributed to this report
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.
Next week, a look at vouchers in New Hampshire. To get a preview of what’s next, watch Collaborative reporter Nour Habib discuss the project on the latest episode of NH PBS’s The State We’re In.
Help us tell the story
As we continue our examination of education and equity in New Hampshire, the Granite State News Collaborative and its partners would love your help. We want the community to drive our work.
We’re forming a private Facebook group called Teachers Off the Record, a space for educators and journalists to discuss what’s happening in New Hampshire’s schools.
We’re also hosting a variety of listening sessions with educational professionals and others with a stake in the Granite State’s educational system.
For students, we've developed an informal survey to gather ideas about what's working and what isn't in New Hampshire classrooms.
As part of the series, we will be releasing studies and data that we’ve gathered about education in New Hampshire. We’ve created a Data Library to make this information easier to share and understand. Each piece of information comes with details about where it comes from and what we did with it.
We hope that these efforts will inform our reporting and help us understand what families, students and schools want from education in the Granite State — and what they need to make the system work for everyone.
To become involved in guiding our coverage of education inequity in New Hampshire, contact Granite State News Collaborative engagement reporter Nour Habib at firstname.lastname@example.org.