July 14. 2018 6:14PM

Paul Feely's City Hall: Declining student enrollment puts challenges in perspective

By PAUL FEELY


Barry Brensinger is one of the founding members of Manchester Proud. (Courtesy file photo)

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School administrators recently met with members of the Manchester Proud group to give a presentation on city schools and the community, including demographics, academic achievement and attendance.

The group defines itself as a "citizens' coalition" committed to uniting the Queen City behind a vision for city schools where students, families and the community feel "supported, engaged, and proud to make Manchester their home."

"We had a very engaging and productive discussion about the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats we are facing," Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bolgen Vargas wrote in a memo to school board members. "The set of data we presented provides a good starting point to support the work of Manchester Proud on behalf of the district and the Manchester community."

The data presented offers an interesting look at the district:

- Student enrollment has dropped 16.5 percent, or 2,688 students, from the 2007-08 school year to 2017-18. By comparison, the state of New Hampshire overall saw the number of students enrolled drop 11.2 percent, or 22,444, during the same time frame.

City preschool and kindergarten programs have 15 percent more students in 2018 than 2008. City high schools have seen the largest drop in enrollment - 34 percent - over the same time period, with 12th grade reporting the largest decrease at 43 percent.

Across the school district, enrollment has dropped 5.6 percent from 2015 to 2017. The biggest drop came at the high school level - 497 students, or 10.6 percent.

The U.S. Department of Education projects by 2025, New Hampshire public school enrollment will decrease to 159,100. Proportionally, based on these projections, the Manchester school district will decrease over 11 percent to approximately 13,000 students.

District attendance figures show roughly 22.6 percent of students in the 2017 school year were truant - equal to more than 30 half-days absent from school.

High schools reported the highest level of truancy, with Manchester School of Technology home to the largest percent increase from 2016 to 2017.

Charter school enrollments have been increasing. Charter school enrollment in New Hampshire has grown 205 percent from 1,162 students in 2012 to 3,543 in 2018.

Manchester students enrolling in charter schools has increased from 325 to 1007, a 210 increase over the same time frame.

Overall, the Manchester schools have experienced significant changes in their student population over the past 10 years:

The percentage of students eligible to receive free and reduced lunch has climbed from 36 percent to 58 percent while the percentage of students eligible for English language services has climbed from 8 percent to 14 percent;

Meanwhile, diversity has grown in the city with the percentage of students of color (all races except Caucasian) rising from 24 percent to 43 percent.

Barry Brensinger, design principal at Manchester-based Lavallee Brensinger Architects and one of the founding members of Manchester Proud, said members of the group appreciated the time and effort school officials put into compiling the data.

"We appreciated that they assembled and shared this work since it's so important that we have an accurate understanding of the current state," Brensinger said last week. "In our view, however, this is just one part of a much larger process. To really know what's going on we will spend much of the next year in a community engagement process in order to achieve a shared understanding."

Brensinger said Manchester Proud is making "remarkable progress."

"We have three work groups actively underway, and several others being formed," Brensinger said. "We're working on a comprehensive communications plan and will soon have some more news to share."

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Members of the aldermanic Committee on Lands and Buildings have backed a proposal from Intown Manchester to make medians along streets in the Millyard more "colorful."

Sara Beaudry, executive director of Intown Manchester, pitched the concept to aldermen at a recent meeting, which aims to better connect the Millyard to the Elm Street corridor by adding "bright, interactive art to increase walkability" between the two.

"The concept behind it was we hear a lot about the Manchester Connects group," Beaudry said. "One of the things people want, in talking to some of our stakeholders in the Millyard, is how to make a connection between the Millyard and downtown. We have a lot of tech companies in the Millyard. While it is not the most aesthetically pleasing walk from the Millyard up, this was just a way to kind of brighten the way."

According to Beaudry, the proposal involves adding bright colors to the two medians on Canal Street outside the Brady Sullivan parking garage. Intown Manchester would work with an artist and seek outside investors for the artist's stipend and materials, working with a budget of $5,000.

Beaudry stressed there would be no cost to the city.

"This would be funded by Intown through private sponsorship," Beaudry said. "It is not part of our existing operations budget."

Beaudry said Intown Manchester has been involved in a similar project - the Utility Art (U-ART) program - where local artists transform old utility boxes into examples of public art.

Some aldermen initially expressed concern with the proposal.

"I love the idea of adding artwork, especially to the downtown area where there are a lot of people walking around," Ward 6 Alderman Elizabeth Moreau said. "I am just concerned with the excessive use of the color, especially on those roads there when people are speeding by and whizzing by. It might cause a distraction."

"If they are one solid color I would think it wouldn't be a distraction," Alderman At-Large Joe Kelly Levasseur said. "With all of the signs that we have and the lights and the high volume of traffic, you are not talking about busy colors or anything."

Levasseur also raised the issue of who would be responsible for maintaining any artwork on the medians.

"The issue is obviously plows hitting them and a lot of snow and salt on the ground and whether that will do anything to the paint and if they will have to be repainted every year," Levasseur said.

"One of the things that we did with the utility art boxes, because of the weather that we have, was the person who painted it is responsible for that piece for a year," Beaudry said. "They can certainly do it for longer but we would reserve the right to redo it if it wasn't being maintained. I think there is nothing worse than public art that has gone by the wayside. The upkeep is really very important."

Levasseur suggested painting one or two median locations as a sort of trial for a year.

"Maybe do one along Canal and see what it looks like, and how it works out and how much damage the snow and salt do," Levasseur said.

Committee members voted unanimously to approve moving ahead with the project. The proposal goes before the full Board of Mayor and Aldermen this Tuesday for a vote.

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at pfeely@unionleader.com.