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School choice a tricky equation

With Hooksett looking for a new high school arrangement after declaring the city in breach of its high school contract, one of the most discussed and debated proposals is the so-called choice or multi-school option.

The desirability and logistics of multiple high school options are being debated, but with preliminary numbers starting to come in from a fact-finding committee, the answer to the very first question the proposal must pass is starting to become clearer: Can other schools provide room for all of Hooksett’s students?

The idea, which was first forwarded by the local activist group Higher Education Lifts People (HELP), involves signing contracts with several area schools to take a portion of the town’s students, allowing parents a greater choice of where their students may attend high school. Until now, the idea was largely theoretical, debated for its abstract merits and flaws.

The preliminary numbers put forward by the Hooksett School Board’s High School Options and Opportunities Committee, however, now offer a few concrete scenarios.

Hooksett currently has 686 high school students. Preliminary projections for the future high school population, based on the district’s long-range plan, put that number between 608 and 632, with a number as high as 832 also mentioned.

According to the committee’s preliminary findings, Pinkerton Academy can take all of Hooksett’s students; Bow High School can take 50 to 60 if Dunbarton’s students move there (as the two towns are discussing), or 160 if they don’t; Goffstown High School can take “about 200” if Dunbarton leaves for Bow, and “likely” none if not; Londonderry High School can take 300 students “and possibly more in subsequent years,” as the size of Londonderry’s lower grades are dropping. Bedford High School is out, having little interest in a contract. Concord High School has yet to offer any numbers, but Superintendent Christine Rath said the district is “very interested.” Pembroke has yet to fully respond to inquiries.

At first glance, the fact that Pinkerton can take all of Hooksett’s students seems to answer the question: Pinkerton, which has been the frontrunner for sometime as the town’s best single-school option, could simply take whatever load the other school’s could not sustain.

Seeking a deal with Pinkerton to receive a portion of Hooksett’s students, however, may prove trickier than with other schools. Pinkerton’s board of trustees is composed of what are called “member towns” – towns which send all of its students to the school and help to govern it. Should Hooksett send all of its students to Pinkerton, it in turn would become a member town.

Otherwise, however, Pink-erton limits to 75 the number of nonmember town students. In the last two years, member towns were asked to increase the number of non-member students attending Pinkerton. When the request went to the voters, however, the Derry board members rejected the increase.

Hooksett, in other words, would have to make a special arrangement with the town. Pinkerton has not made a firm statement one way or the other on the question, but noted that they were perfectly willing to discuss the idea.

“We would look forward to any conversation they wanted to have about that,” said Public Relations Director at Pinkerton, Chip Underhill. “Any options Hooksett would like to pursue, including those, can be brought to the table and we’ll see if we can find a way to make it work.”

Given this, the two committee members from the board, Trisha Korkosz and Michael Dubisz, have both expressed doubts about the multi-school option based on the preliminary numbers.

Should such a deal not be possible to strike with Pinkerton, however, is the multi-school option still viable? Taking Pinkerton, Concord and Pembroke out of the equation means Hooksett, if it contracted with the remaining districts, would have either about 460 or 560 slots available to it between the two or three schools, depending on Dunbarton –not enough, in other words, to make the multi-school option plausible.

What has School Board member David Pearl optimistic, however, is the phrase attached to Londonderry’s number: “and possibly more in subsequent years.”

“The thing to watch,” he said, “is whether their class sizes will drop as we send more students.” As Pearl notes, Hooksett will very likely not send its entire high school class to the new school(s) immediately: those who already started at Central will be able to continue there, and many, especially upperclassmen likely will.

In other words, Hooksett’s presence at its new school(s) will grow incrementally as eighth-graders graduate year to year. With Hooksett attempting to end its contract with Manchester by 2014, that means they’ll only become fully integrated in 2018.

Londonderry High School has a capacity of 2,100 students, with 1,827 currently enrolled, leaving room for just under 300. Their seventh-, sixth-, fifth- and fourth-grade classes are 396, 339, 321 and 323 students respectively. Aggregating the class sizes in the district’s early grades and assuming they remain stable, in 2018 Londonderry High will have an enrollment of 1,379 students.

By the time Hooksett would have to place an entire high school population, Londonderry could theoretically have room for a little more than 700 students, potentially placing the total number of slots at 860 or 960.

Even if these numbers do play out, however, other factors will have to be taken into consideration: transportation, tuition costs, the possible loss of a single high school identity and community, etc. Pearl is hoping to host a public forum in February with parents to discuss these issues.

“I would like to bring the parents to the table once we have the numbers so that we can really all together kind of talk through this and see what the options are,” he said.

Hooksett has filed a formal notification of breach of contract with the Manchester School District, citing the city district’s chronic classroom overcrowding issues as cause. Should the breach be upheld, the letter cited 2014 as the year the contract would end.

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