MANCHESTER, NH – The lingering question for Matt Courchesne is “what’s next” for the H.O.P.E. program, after the Manchester Board of School Committee voted in August to cut all ties with the mentorship program that was serving 15 “at risk” students at West High School.
The answer he keeps coming back to is to find a way to keep it going, for the kids.
“We are trying to figure out how to fix this. If the original process was not properly followed, we are eager for an opportunity to go through the process. We would like to do that as quickly as possible. We’re losing time with the kids at West,” says Courchesne.
The program, which has existed in various formats for the past decade in city schools, at times on a volunteer basis, finally got support from the public sector in January, when the Board of Aldermen approved a pilot version of the program at West High School. It was funded through city Community Improvement Program funds after the Board of School Committee opted not to fund the program, citing a “strapped” budget.
However, that move by aldermen was regarded by the BOSC as “overstepping their bounds.” The school committee voted on Aug. 13 to sever ties with the program – without having a supplemental plan in place for the 15 students who were part of the pilot. The students, hand-picked last fall by West Principal Rich Dichard, are students in dire need of services.
As you can read below in the April 12, 2017 minutes of the Special Joint Committee on Education, during a pitch for funding for H.O.P.E. for the 2017-2018 school year, Courchesne was told that the school district was “strapped,” and Alderman Bill Barry suggested the group seek alternative funding through the city’s CIP program, which they did.
Individualized Learning at West
The program was presented to Dichard after Courchesne was instructed by the joint board of aldermen and school committee that he needed “buy in” from a principal. Dichard took a hard look at the program’s history and after working out some parameters with Courchesne, agreed that a pilot program at West might be the last best hope for a small group of students in danger of dropping out.
West by far has the highest drop-out rate among the district’s high schools, according to the state Department of Education.
“We’re trying to change the way we approach learning at West through a more personalized approach so that each student has an individualized experience with individualized learning so they are ready for a career or college and, without question, Matt’s program aligns with that philosophy and vision,” says Dichard. “So do we cancel everything because the process was wrong? We know there was a miscommunication between the BOA and BOSC. Can’t we work through that somehow?”
So far, there has been no discussion about reinstating the program, or what an alternative program would look like.
When school started Sept. 5 there was no H.O.P.E. program available to those students, which is something Courchesne is hoping to remedy. He says he just wants to do whatever is necessary to bring H.O.P.E. back to West to continue the good work and positive impact the program began having last school year.
Respect, relationships, cultural reform
Courchesne describes Helping Our Pupils Excel NH (H.O.P.E. NH), a 501c3 in good standing that has liability insurance, as a resource designed to help students reach their full potential in school and beyond; a resource for making not only better students, but better, more productive, more compassionate members of society.
“It’s more of a cultural reform initiative than a curriculum. It’s about relationships. There’s been a shift since we were in school. Not enough respect is being given toward others or self. With a diminished sense of mutual and self-respect it is difficult to build trust. Without trust it is difficult to create positive relationships, which in turn limits access to resources and opportunities. That’s one of the biggest problems we see, and one that we’re trying to address with the students,” Courchesne says.
He says what he’s learned in 10 years of working with students who are struggling the hardest– socially, academically and in general – is the need to provide students with as many support systems as possible.
Data collected from the 2018 pilot at West demonstrates that H.O.P.E. was having a positive change. Courchesne describes how the program launched in January.
“We got a copy of the students’ schedules and went and talked to them about the program. All said they were interested. We then gave them a packet to get their parents permission to work with them. Once we had that, they were assigned to a class that supplemented their study hall period. There we helped them with their homework and started to build our relationships with the school. Administration thought the case load we had was tough, but we exceeded expectations,” Courchesne says.
“There are so many other influences in life that are out there today. Being a kid is hard. Being a parent is also hard, as I’m now experiencing myself. We have to get more adults involved and taking action — and buying into what we’re doing,” he says. “It’s not just about your kids; it’s about all our kids.”
Courchesne credits the relative simplicity of the H.O.P.E. program for its potential to affect positive, enduring change in our schools and in our community. He does not believe it necessarily requires a PhD to make a difference and help provide vital support for kids. The right person is simply the one who cares enough to act upon what many would agree is an increasingly difficult society to navigate.
Return on investment
Courchesne is also cognizant of the fiscal impact student support systems such as H.O.P.E. can have.
“Let’s talk about return on investment – specifically, 66 percent of kids at West graduate, which means one-third don’t. And to keep the math simple, we’ll say it costs $10,000 per year per student to get them to graduate, so in Manchester – excluding kindergarten – it costs $120,000 per pupil. The return on investment then is to get a high school diploma,” he says. “But if a kid drops out in 11th grade, that’s a loss of $110,000. That’s money wasted. The kids we were assigned to at West, that’s their situation. They’re the kids who, based on their transcripts, aren’t expected to graduate.
Courchesne is quick to add that it’s not an indictment of the teachers at West.
On the contrary, Courchesne speaks highly of the staff with whom H.O.P.E. collaborated. But all the effort and measurable progress begun last school year at West is now experiencing a major setback due to the BOSC decision to sever ties with the program, Courchesne says.
“The reason we want to stay at West is that it’s not just the kids – we’ve built relationships with teachers and administrators and guidance counselors – we hope we have shown everyone involved there sees what the program can do, and what a difference it can make. We believe in Manchester, we believe in West High School, and we believe we can help turn [the drop-out rate] around. We believe that together, we can make Manchester the best place to live and raise your kids.”
Courchesne also talked about the trend in the district of students graduating in five years rather than four.
“That’s an additional $10,000 cost to the district. We’re trying to stop that. We have some kids who are sophomores with two credits, and we’re going to get them caught up and graduate on time – that’s achieved through ELOs (extended learning opportunities), credit recovery, and maintaining their courses currently,” Courchesne says.
A huge part of the objective of the pilot program that was in place at West between January and June of 2018 was gathering data to support the anecdotal evidence of H.O.P.E.’s effectiveness for the additional 100 or so students who had participated in the program over the past decade.
“We have been doing this long enough where we are now beginning to see the long-term impact the program is having. We just went to our first student’s graduation at Plymouth State University. That meant so much to me, and not just because it’s my alma mater, but also because I had the chance to connect with another student who came to show his support. That particular young man is now a mail carrier and just recently bought a house. He has moved his grandparents in to live with him. We have three young adults who are working at Coca-Cola. They are living on their own and helping their families if needed,” Courchesne says.
“What we have developed here is a lifelong mentorship program. We have stayed in touch with nearly all of our original students that we began working with ten years ago. We’ve helped them find employment. We’ve helped get them through graduation. We’ve never left them. This is what H.O.P.E. NH is about,” Courchesne says.
He reiterates that the key to H.O.P.E. is building relationships.
“We’ve had this program running for 10 years and we’ve had many successes. Parents love it, the kids respond to it, and that’s because it’s all based on relationships, trust and loyalty. During the last school year we were able to track and provide measurable data that demonstrated the efficacy of the program,” Courchesne says.
The cost of the pilot was $15,000 for half a school year. The Board of Aldermen, impressed with the data presented by H.O.P.E., funded the program for the current school year, at $30,000.
Retention of at-risk students
Former Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long says he supports the H.O.P.E. program because it addresses unmet concerns within the school district – retention of at-risk students.
“It’s unfortunate that the school board has done what it’s done. The state in working with students at the Sununu Center advised the city to set up community-based diversion programs. If you check all our programs, they’re full – judges can’t send them, so to my way of thinking, number one, H.O.P.E. is a diversion program. And secondly, it’s preventive. Any time you take a high risk student and work one-on-one with them to better attendance and improve grades, it’s a win,” Long says.
“A struggling student can get stuck in a cycle of failure, and the Board of Aldermen unanimously approved H.O.P.E. as a pilot, to prove out the theory that $15,000 was a good investment in a small act of prevention. We’re talking about 15 young lives hanging in the balance, between failure and success. The school committee is looking to stretch its suspenders – some object to the fact that Matt Courchesne is Danny O’Neil’s nephew, and they don’t like that. Some don’t like that he doesn’t have the alphabets behind his name. But he’s a natural with those kids. The bottom line is that it is successful. Matt’s delivering, and I don’t care if he’s homeless. If he’s doing the job, then the objections of the school committee appear to me to be personal.,” says Long.
The other thing that rankles the school committee is approval for a diversion program came through the Board of Aldermen, says Long, who adds that CIP money is also designated to the Office of Youth Services for similar outcomes
“Some members of the board of aldermen were frustrated with the school committee. We’d give them money to address some of the underlying issues students experience, beyond academics, and they’d do what they do with it,” says Long. “Some school committee members don’t believe they should be doing social services. The thing is – and I’ve had this very conversation with a committee member – you have a student who just watched his father get narcanned who has to get up and go to school the next day. Some committee members feel this isn’t their problem – we shouldn’t be feeding student breakfast or giving them shoes or sweaters, or whatever. That’s why H.O.P.E. rubs against the grain,” Long says.
“Matt is a very in-your-face guy, and maybe that was at the heart of some personality conflict at Southside, but it’s also why he doesn’t give up, and why he’s so effective with the kids. Somehow, some way he makes them feel important. For many of those kids, this is the last time in their lives someone will be getting paid to care about their best interests. After they turn 18, nobody cares and good luck – whether you end up unemployed, or homeless, or part of the justice system, it’s no longer anyone’s problem to try and fix,” Long says.
“Having a conversation with the School Committee would be a starting point in looking for compromise to bring back what we know benefits the students involved,” Long says.
Limbo for at-risk students
The money earmarked by the aldermen for H.O.P.E. remains in the city CIP fund. As far as the Board of Aldermen are concerned they would like to see the program reinstated. The Board of School Committee has yet to publicly weigh in.
Courchesne would like the opportunity to publicly address the school board’s concerns and continue what he’s started. So far, all discussion of H.O.P.E. and Courchesne’s role as director has happened during two closed-door sessions – one in June and the other in August. There are no verbatim minutes taken during executive sessions, and the summary notes are absent of any meaningful insight into the “issues” that have been broadly mentioned by Vice Chair Arthur Beaudry, and others.
“If we are given the opportunity to get four solid years of data with this group starting as freshmen and get them to graduate in four years, we will have so many more opportunities for funding. Prior to the funding by the alderman, private investors always wondered about the public funding. This year we received more private funding due to recognition we received from the city,” Courchesne says. “A public-private partnership in funding is key to a successful non-profit. We are not asking the Manchester taxpayers to fund the whole program. We have gone out and privately fundraised and in each case, we get those funds because of the positive relationships we build and the support of the city.”
One of the hardest outcomes of the Aug. 13 BOSC decision to cut ties with H.O.P.E. was the edict that Courchesne be banned from the high school. “Yeah, I’ve been banned from West. That means if we wanted to check on a student we can’t.”
However, Courchesne remains hopeful.
“We have something good here. We want to continue helping Manchester become the great city and community we know it can be, and we’re proud of all the kids. We want them to know we’re not going away,” Courchesne says. “We are doing our best to get back to them, but we are going to do it in a respectful manner. That is not only what we are teaching them, but showing them too.”
Below: Excerpt from the minutes from the April 12, 2017 Joint Board of Aldermen/Board of School Committee meeting during which H.O.P.E. made a presentation with the intention of being included in the 2017-2018 school budget. In this exchange you will read that BOSC Board member Lisa Freeman advised Matt Courchesne that the district was “strapped” for money, and Alderman Bill Barry suggested alternative funding might be available through the city’s CIP budget.