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Manchester mayor, school board members fault report on minority students

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 13. 2014 11:54PM

Minority student enrollment agreement
Information about the settlement between the city and the Department of Education, with links to the resolution, can be found by clicking here.

MANCHESTER — Mayor Ted Gatsas and several fellow school board members are pushing back against a federal review that faulted the district for a lack of minority students in advanced classes.

At the same time, Gatsas is defending the administration’s early steps in pursuing “de-leveling,” the elimination of track-based divisions of a subject based on student scores and ability.

In a settlement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights last month, the district agreed to assess minority student enrollment in advanced high school courses and to take steps to boost their participation.

An investigation by the agency begun in 2011 concluded that black and Hispanic students were disproportionately under-enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

At Monday’s Board of School Committee meeting, Gatsas was joined by several school board members in criticizing the data.

“I don’t have any confidence in any report that has come forward. The numbers are slanted,” Gatsas said.

The report used 2010-2011 state data to note that black students, who made up around 7 percent of high school students, held 4.5 percent of the seats in AP courses; Hispanic students, who made up 11 percent of the student body, held no AP seats in two of the high schools and nine seats (6 percent) at Memorial. White students, by contrast, made up about 75 percent of total students, but held about 85 percent of the AP seats.

School board members faulted the report for using three-year-old data and excluding Asian students, who hold a significant percentage of the AP seats. Further complicating the picture is that many of the district’s minority students are refugees and immigrants who are learning English and adapting to a new culture.

Gatsas proposed the district perform its own analysis and respond to the Office of Civil Rights.

The board also engaged in a spirited debate Monday about leveling, after the administration announced plans at a recent school board Curriculum and Instruction Committee meeting to move forward with a “de-tracking” pilot program at one of the middle schools.

Ward 10 board member John Avard said he is adamantly opposed to eliminating advanced track courses.

“If we eliminate college prep — the thing driving kids to excel into a higher level — that’s not increasing opportunities for any students,” Avard said in an interview Tuesday. “This isn’t T-ball; not everyone is going to get a trophy at the end. I want to raise the bar and teach all to jump.”

Avard also noted that de-leveling had been tried in the middle schools.

“It doesn’t work,” he said. “It ends up with the whole class bogged down.”

But Gatsas defended the concept of teaching students of differing abilities in the same class.

“Guess what? I was in an advanced math class ... and I shouldn’t have been there. School is a lot like sports. The worst player on the team looks at the best and wants to be like that,” he said.

Ward 1 school board member Sarah Ambrogi said the board should take the disparities pointed out by the Office of Civil Rights and others seriously and not get “defensive.”

“We sit here as a very white board saying there are no problems in our district,” she said

At-large board member Kathy Staub said that the thrust of the report was for the district to take steps to make minority students more aware of the advanced track opportunities.

“Manchester is a changing place, and we need to be more agile about who we want in our workforce 10 years from now,” she said.

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