August 25. 2018 10:29PM

Back to school doesn't mean business as usual in Granite State

New Hampshire Union Leader

Principal Rick Dichard poses in the new Velcro University classroom at Manchester West High School on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

As students prepare to return to school in the coming weeks, they'll encounter not only new things to learn, but new ways in which to do it.

The 2018-2019 academic year will see a raft of changes, from the expansion of local high school programs that take students outside the classroom to new statewide standards for kindergarten and computer science. Many of the new initiatives are aimed at accommodating the different ways students absorb knowledge and creating direct pathways from high schools to careers.

"Right now, what we're hearing from higher education and our local businesses and community members is that our students aren't being prepared. My reaction to that is 'OK, well you tell us what you want and we'll gear our practices toward making sure the students have the skills you want,'?" said Richard Dichard, principal of Manchester High School West, which is rolling out a new program called Velcro University. It will allow 14 students each semester the chance to learn hands-on from the Manchester-based company and compete for internships and potentially future jobs.

"I think we're looking at an education system that was set up for industrialism, the industrialized age, and we're not in that age anymore," Dichard added. Velcro University, which the school committee is expected to approve in time for the new year, is part of the district's efforts to "shift from the traditional model of teaching to a more project-based, hands-on model of teacher," he said.

This will also be the first year Manchester teachers start school the same day as students due to a labor dispute.

Project-based approach

Other districts are also expanding their creative vocational offerings.

Hinsdale, for example, has seen great success from its extended learning opportunities program, which allows students to work with professionals in fields of their interest, guide their own studies, and demonstrate their progress cumulatively, rather than in a single test, according to Karen Thompson, the program's coordinator. So for the new school year, the district will be adding more teachers to the team that works outside the high school with students.

"It pushes the learning outside of the building and allows students to get involved in businesses and work experiences," said Frank Edelblut, commissioner of the Department of Education. "That's really exciting because it will really help the transition" from high school into careers or higher education.

The shift toward project-based learning and away from rote memorization is positive, said Paula Salvio, chair of UNH's Department of Education, so long as schools continue to provide broad educations and don't turn the programs into narrow pipelines for specific jobs.

"I think vocational arts is crucial; we should all be involved in teaching the vocational arts," Salvio said. But "I believe the dichotomy between the humanities and the vocational arts is misguided. ... I love when my students can make things that have meaning and use-value."

Security, kindergarten

Many schools will boast physical changes when students return, thanks to state grants for security infrastructure.

The Legislature has allocated nearly $30 million for such improvements, and more than $18 million has already been assigned for various projects.

Due to the security implications, the details of the improvements are not public in most cases. But districts have invested in surveillance systems, radios, lockdown systems, secure vestibules, and other equipment.

There will also be large-scale changes for students beginning at the kindergarten level, as legislation passed last session requires all districts to adopt play-based curriculum.

The standards encourage creative learning through open-ended tasks that don't have to be completed at desks and aren't judged by teachers.

"It's really to focus more on social learning, learning engagement, more activity for kindergarten students," said Carl Ladd, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association. "I think there was a real fear that, because of the increased academic standards, there was too much pressure being put on kindergarten students."

While students may not see the full fruits of the efforts this year, beginning in 2018-2019 districts will also start to develop computer science curriculum based around another set of statewide standards.

Previously, there was no state guidance for computer science education and how it should be integrated into different subject areas, said Drew Cline, chairman of the state Board of Education. There was also no certification specifically for computer science teachers, so many of the courses were taught by math and science instructors who took it upon themselves to develop curriculum.

The standards call for districts to begin with simple computer science classes at the elementary level that will build throughout the students' school career so they are ready to live in an increasingly digital world.

"You start out with absolutely the most basic building blocks of programming and then by high school you'll really understand how to create algorithms, how to program, how to identify good programs and bad programs, and how to do it in a practical way that will make you employable," Cline said. "That's not the only goal, but it will give you a skill that's valuable."