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October 27. 2012 11:20PM

Ted Siefer's City Hall: Parents put focus on number of students failing algebra


 
It turns out parents may have their fingers more closely on the pulse of education than do their elected representatives on the school board.

Last week, the board’s Curriculum and Instruction Committee took a field trip to Southside Middle School. The idea was to give parents a chance to express their concerns about curricular matters directly to the superintendent and the board. And we quickly learned that the Manchester School District has a math problem.

One of the bearers of this bad news was a familiar face, Jim O’Connell, the outspoken parent activist and founding member of Citizens for Manchester Schools, the group that has been advocating for more school funding.

He said he had been told at a Central High parents council meeting that nearly 200 freshmen at the school — close to a third of the class — failed algebra last year.

Other parents chimed in to criticize the district’s math programs, in particular Everyday Math, the curriculum used through Grade 5. The program emphasizes patterns and games over old-school methods, such as memorizing the times tables.

District officials acknowledged there very well may be a lack of coordination in math teaching as students go from elementary school to middle school and then on to high school, where the problem culminates in their poor performance in algebra.

Principals at the city high schools have since confirmed that large numbers of freshmen — between a quarter and a third — have been failing algebra in recent years. This newspaper will report further on the problem on Monday.

Superintendent Tom Brennan said he is going to be meeting with his team and principals over the coming weeks to figure out what can be done about the problem.

Brennan seemed to be a lot more appreciative of the feedback from the parents than the kind he typically gets from the school board.

He said he’d like to see more such meetings in the community.

“I think it was one of the better meetings,” he said, referring to Tuesday’s session. “Even with the small number of people, it generated questions that need to be answered.”

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Brennan proposed an interesting question at another subcommittee meeting last week: Why are there clocks in classrooms?

Like so many school board discussions these days, the context for Brennan’s query, at a meeting of the Building and Sites Committee meeting, involved money. How can the cash-strapped district pay for a laundry list of school repairs, from broken clocks and intercoms to pot-holed parking lots?

It turns out repairing those old clocks — with the red second hand that surely has held the attention of countless school children for countless hours — is very pricey.

“In this day, with all the devices we have, I don’t understand why we need to have clocks in the classroom,” Brennan said. “Perhaps we can have a conversation about that.”

He recalled a sign that a teacher had posted as a message to his students that read, “Time is passing, are you?”

Brennan called his clock question rhetorical, and in some ways the list of maintenance issues presented by the principals of Memorial High, Southside Middle School and Weston Elementary on Tuesday was also rhetorical.

Many of the items have been on the schools’ wish lists for some time, and school board members weren’t inclined to spend money on the problems. Among the requests were new lockers and fixing cracked floor tiles at Memorial, a new intercom system at Southside, and a new coat rack at Weston. There may at least be some money for one of the oft-cited problems at the schools: repairing pot-holed parking lots and cracked blacktops. The subcommittee is looking at taking $350,000 in bond money designated for the parking lot at the district office and using it for paving problems at the schools. The assumption is that this will pass legal muster, unlike an earlier attempt to use the money to hire more teachers.

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There has been an empty seat at school board meetings for the past several weeks. Ward 4 board member Roy Shoults has been laid up. The good news is he is feeling better and expects to be attending this week’s meetings. The bad news is he still doesn’t know what exactly is wrong with him.

He said he has developed a “dropped foot” — it’s difficult to lift his foot off the ground. And he’s been fatigued and has lost about 30 pounds.

So far, all the tests he has had at the hospital have indicated he is in good health.

“I feel at this point that I’m a perfectly healthy invalid,” he said.

The freshman board member says the problems began about six weeks ago, after he moved into a new apartment. He thinks the exertion triggered his condition.

He’s steadily been feeling better, and he is able to move around now, at least enough to get him to board meetings.

“Mentally, I don’t have any problem, but this has led to my being more frustrated, since I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong with me,” he said.

Here’s hoping we see Shoults at school board meetings again soon.

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Who knew? Mayor Ted Gatsas made his acting debut last weekend, appearing last Sunday in a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire center on Beech Street.

The mayor would most certainly make a good Tevye, but it was just a cameo, he said.

He came on stage as the village mayor, complete with sash and hat, appearing alongside the constable and the priest.

Gatsas said, modestly no doubt, that there was “some applause” when he came on stage.

So did the mayor catch the acting bug?

“Trust me, I’m not quitting my day job,” he said.

.

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Ted Siefer may be reached at tsiefer@unionleader.com. Follow him on Twitter: @tbsreporter.

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