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Small groups begin tours of Manchester elementary schools

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 30. 2012 1:14AM
Ward 10 Alderman Patrick Arnold, left, and Ward 10 School Board member John Avard chat with parent Stacy Harrison during a tour of Gossler Park Elementary School in Manchester on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER - Teachers at three elementary schools welcomed a small group of parents Thursday for brief tours, providing a first-hand look at what is going on in their classrooms.

The parents' response was positive, marveling at how much the teachers are doing with resources limited by crowded classrooms.

"It's a great school district. We definitely have problems but I really liked seeing today the positive things that so many people have to say," said Stacy Harrison, mother of a kindergartner and second-grader at Green Acres Elementary.

Harrison was one of a few mothers who toured Gossler Park, Northwest and Parker-Varney elementary schools on the city's West Side. She also has two grown sons who attended schools in the district and said she is still pleased with the system overall, despite the tumultuous summer of layoffs and overcrowded classrooms that marked the opening of the school year.

School board member John Avard and Alderman Patrick Arnold organized the tours, which were approved by the school board over the objection of Mayor Ted Gatsas.

Avard, Arnold and Superintendent Tom Brennan were part of the tour group. Avard said he hoped to conduct another round in the future, keeping the groups small enough not to be a distraction to students and teachers.

The three mothers who toured all three schools and sat in on a roundtable discussion later in the day said while they expected more parents to participate, they were impressed by both the open-door look at classes in session rather than a traditional open house.

"I have nothing but praise for the elementary school teachers who have been working with my daughter. They have been fantastic - beyond expectation," said Audra McCollem, whose daughter attends Northwest.

McCollem, a special education teacher at Litchfield Middle School, said she feels for her colleagues in Manchester.

"These teachers do amazing things in their classroom. It's just impossible to meet all the needs of all the kids when you have so many present," she said.

Some teachers have expressed frustration because they feel they could be much more effective with smaller classes.

"I love my job. I love what I do. I love the people I work with. This is what I want to do," said Kelly Callanan, a fifth-grade teacher at Parker-Varney. "It's frustrating to me when I look out at the sea of students and it just breaks my heart sometimes because I can't get to all of them when they need my help. There's not enough of me to go around."

Callanan has 33 students in her class, 13 more than she had a year ago. Teacher Maura Lapointe also has 33 fifth-graders at Parker-Varney.

Lapointe said the number would be manageable if all the students are at or near the same level, but that isn't the case. There is also the issue of keeping that many 10- and 11-year-olds in line.

"I have 180 days to get these kids ready for middle school. And middle school is such a huge dramatic change from elementary school," Lapointe said.

Mary Lizie, whose daughter is a fifth-grader at Gossler Park, said she is happy with the education her daughter is getting so far, but worries about the future if programs like advanced-placement classes and other programs are not available at Manchester High School West in a few years.

"I'd hate to see that she and her classmates that could excel would not have the opportunity in Manchester," she said.

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