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Manchester plan would put students in 'virtual' courses, could stem overcrowding

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 18. 2012 10:01PM

MANCHESTER - Could technology help solve the problem of crowded classrooms?

The district is poised to find out as soon as next semester, when it plans to offer "virtual" classes that students at the three high schools would be able to take without physically being in the same room as a teacher.

Superintendent Thomas Brennan has presented the plan to the Board of School Committee in the form of a report titled "Maximizing Educational Opportunities."

The plan calls for the creation of "blended classrooms," in which students could take courses through the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (known as V-LACS), and "remote classrooms," which would allow students at any of the high schools to participate, through an interactive computer monitor, in courses being taught at one of the schools.

Under Brennan's plan, students would also be able to take college-level courses through the University of New Hampshire-Manchester. In addition, Brennan said he hopes to establish a "Principal's Academy" in the summer through Southern New Hampshire University, to foster and train future principals from within the district.

The proposals are part of a reform agenda pushed by Mayor Ted Gatsas following an outcry over crowded classrooms and other problems in the early weeks of the school year. The problems have prompted Hooksett and Candia to reconsider sending their students to Manchester high schools. Auburn has already notified the district it will be withdrawing to send its students to Pinkerton Academy in Derry.

Brennan said he wasn't prepared to present a redistricting plan, a key component of the reform agenda, because he needs to confirm enrollment figures at all the schools.

"I think we are headed in the right direction," Brennan told the school board, referring to the technology initiatives.

Gatsas wholeheartedly agreed. "I want to congratulate you," he told Brennan. "This is a concise report that provides a direction to take this district in."

Brennan acknowledged that there were funding challenges in implementing the plan, which he estimated would cost close to $80,000, at the least.

The superintendent said he would look to the mayor to help raise outside funding for the program.

Gatsas said in an interview that he would do his best, and he noted that businesses had already contributed to support the district's search for a new superintendent.

He said he was hopeful he could get a computer company or store to donate some of the equipment.

"We can do advertising now," Gatsas said, referring to the new policy adopted by the school board allowing ads on campus. "Maybe (a business) can hang a poster up."

Brennan estimated the cost for the three "blended learning labs" at $30,000 for hardware and $43,500 per semester for three lab facilitators.

The labs would be run by V-LACS, in which 461 high school students are already enrolled. The blended labs are part of a statewide initiative to integrate the academy's online learning offerings into "brick and mortar" schools.

The other proposal, for remote classrooms at each of the three high schools, is estimated to cost $3,687, for special flat screen monitors and cameras. The cameras would be placed in an actual classroom at one of the high schools, allowing students at the other schools to participate remotely. It's not clear if there would be a supervisor in the remote classrooms.

The classrooms would enable students to take courses not offered at their high schools and would boost the enrollment in so-called "under-subscribed" courses.

Brennan did not provide an estimate for costs associated with operating the equipment or training teachers to do so. The district's roll-out of new computers has been hampered, in part, by the need to train teachers. The district's budget for professional development is already depleted.

Brennan said he plans to speak with representatives of the Manchester Education Association, the city teachers union, about the initiatives.

Ben Dick, president of the union, said he has some initial concerns about the proposals. "We all know we're down teachers, and we all know they might look for ways not to have to bring back teachers that we had at other times," he said. He added that virtual education is "not right for every kid."

Dick stressed, however, that he recognized the value of technology and that he was hopeful the program could be designed to create opportunities for teachers.

The superintendent said he intends to update the school board next month on the progress of the program.

Brennan is also working out details for providing college-level courses offered through UNH-Manchester, such as what times the courses will be offered. Options include during the school day, after school and Saturday. The cost to the district would be $3,500 to $4,500 per course, and there may be student fees, as well. The offerings likely will include introductory courses in business and computer programming.

Brennan hopes to have all three options available to students at the start of the next semester, Jan. 22.

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