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Mark Hayward's City Matters: City's schools no longer a draw

September 30. 2016 11:39PM
David Cawley Middle School in Hooksett (Melissa Proulx/Union Leader Correspondent file photo)

A LUSH spruce green — the color that conjures up fantasies of a cool, dark forest on a sweltering summer day — is one of the school colors of Cawley Middle School in Hooksett.

It’s easy to understand why. When Cawley opened 13 years ago, there was no question where its graduates would attend high school. Most would head to Central High School in Manchester, home of the Little Green, which is, not surprisingly, the same shade of green as Cawley’s.

In a subtle way, the color allowed for an easy transition when the suburbanite teen ventured into the big city for an education.

While the colors remain the same, the exclusivity is gone.

Four years ago, the long-standing deal between Manchester and Hooksett — that Manchester’s Central and West high schools would educate Hooksett high schoolers — started to crumble over issues of overcrowding, school spending and politics.

Manchester is not the first community to see this. Across the country, parents of means and education abandon city schools for the ’burbs. Bedford, Auburn and, the latest, Candia, have done so.

In Hooksett, at least one foot remains in the city.

That’s because of Hooksett’s unique approach to high school education. Cawley students and parents get to decide what high school they want to attend, and Hooksett pays $11,200 per year for each student’s high school education.

Nine days ago, Cawley held a high school fair, and eight high schools sent representatives.

In this marketplace of education, Manchester schools are like landline telephone companies, struggling to hold on to their traditional customer base.

Last month, only 37 Hooksett kids entered Manchester Central or West as freshmen, out of Cawley’s 2016 graduating class of 175. Most Hooksett students, 94, opted for Pinkerton Academy in Derry. For several, Manchester schools weren’t even a consideration.

“Unfortunately, Manchester’s focus isn’t always on the school system,” said Hooksett resident Rob Dennis, who graduated from Memorial High School and married a Central grad, Michelle Dennis. Michelle mentioned the previous overcrowding and lower test scores of Manchester schools.

Their son Aidan was taking a shine to Londonderry High School. (And choosing Londonderry will have its consequences; Rob Dennis admitted Aidan’s odds of getting a car improve if he selects Londonderry, which is 16 miles from Cawley.)

Kim Knight said her daughter attended Hillside Middle School for one year; then the family moved to Hooksett, drawn by the expectation they would be able to choose their daughter’s high school.

“I felt my kids weren’t getting what they needed (in Manchester),” she said. Her daughter appears to be headed to Pinkerton Academy, she said, “which has so much to offer.”

It would be hard to make that judgment based solely on the presentations at the high school fair.

Like most schools, Pinkerton administrators gave a slideshow and a sales pitch.

“There’s a certain grittiness of Pinkerton students. They respond to challenges well,” said dean of students Derek Lee.

He spoke in the Cawley cafeteria, a bright room with windows, clean floors and low ceilings that gave a sense of intimacy to the 10 or so families who listened to one of his presentations.

Across the hallway, Central was in the dimly lit, cavernous gym. A jazz quartet of Central students played in the corner. Tables were crowded with artwork, science projects and student publications.

The school even offered swag — toy-sized footballs and soccer balls sporting the Little Green logo.

Central students from Hooksett did a lot of the talking. Emily Boilard, a Central sophomore, told about using her rudimentary Spanish-speaking skills to communicate with a fellow student with rudimentary English-speaking skills.

“It’s kind of fun being around people different from you,” she said. She spoke to about three sets of parents.

West High was a victim of bad timing. The day of the high school fair, police arrested a student who brought an unloaded gun into school. Two administrators sat alone with no one to speak to; by the end of the night they had migrated to the gym to hang out with their Central cohorts.

Hooksett mom Lisa Gowern moved to the town 12 years ago. She met families whose kids went through Central High School. For years, she heard about Central pride and Central success stories.

“That’s still a draw for us,” she said.

As the jazz musicians courted her daughter, she all but admitted they would select Central. “Our life is based around Manchester. Our work is here, our doctors are here,” she said.

She spoke carefully. Contentious high-school deals have been on the Hooksett ballot for each of the last three years, and the Manchester vs. Pinkerton bloodletting is only starting to heal.

In the end, the Hooksett choice system is probably the best that Manchester can expect.

In 2003, Bedford residents decided to build their own high school and left West a shell of what it once was. More recently, Auburn and Candia have exited Manchester schools and signed exclusivity deals with Pinkerton.

So Manchester won’t get all the Hooksett students. But it will get the ones who want to be here.

“I’m not saying one (school) is better than the other,” said Charles Littlefield, the superintendent of Hooksett schools, who engineered the current choice system. “One’s the best school for your youngster.”

Mark Hayward’s City Matters runs Saturday in the New Hampshire Union Leader and He can be reached at

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