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Idea of closing West High weighs on Manchester officials

New Hampshire Sunday News

February 23. 2013 10:15PM

MANCHESTER - The decision to close a beloved school, much like a parish church, is fraught with emotion and weighty with tradition.

So it's not surprising that the most passionate opposition to any suggestion to close Manchester High School West comes from school board members who are alumni.

Still, even West's staunchest defenders say they are open to consolidating the city's high school population at Central and Memorial if - and only if - that means turning West into a magnet or charter school. Such a school might focus on the performing arts, for instance, or on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

"I think that would be great," said Jason Cooper, who represents Ward 11. "I wouldn't mind seeing that at all."

Cooper, a 1988 graduate of West High, opposes closing the school. "Just shuttering the doors? That's a no-no," he said. "There's a lot of history and tradition there."

But he said he also understands the financial arguments for change. "If we have a dwindling school population, things need to be figured out."

Any proposal to close West, as far as Ward 12's Roger Beauchamp is concerned, is "dead on arrival."

"As long as I'm on the school board, I would certainly not recommend the closure of West High School," said Beauchamp, West High Class of 1984. "There's too much pride and honor there for me to agree to something like that."

Beauchamp would be open to turning West into an alternative school that would draw tuition students from other communities. But he stressed, "I'm certainly opposed to having it closed and mothballed."

John Avard, Ward 10, who graduated from West in 1986, said he is open to exploring the "academy" model for the school, such as expanding the Naval Junior ROTC curriculum, or creating a performing arts academy.

He also favors redistricting to create an area on the east side of the Merrimack River as a sending area for West. But any proposal has to be designed to benefit the students, he said.

"Show me a plan that will make it better for the students, giving students more opportunities and enhancing their educational experience, I'm going to be all over that."

There's just one thing Avard is not willing to consider: closing West. "Absolutely no way," he said. "Not a chance."

Sarah Ambrogi, Ward 1, pointed out the redistricting report from outgoing school Superintendent Thomas Brennan Jr. does not recommend closing West. Instead, it says, consolidation "would allow for the introduction of a new educational model" at West, such as a charter, magnet or academy school.

"I don't think anybody ... is proposing closing West High School," said Ambrogi, who went to high school in Connecticut. "What we're really trying to do is figure out what makes the most sense."

The curriculum and instruction committee is also looking at a 2007 report on the "Future of West." Prepared by a school subcommittee, it proposed reconfiguring West into separate areas for Grades 7-8 and 9-12.

Nothing was ever done with that report, Ambrogi said. "So I think we're looking at this as an opportunity to go back and revisit good ideas that have come up before," she said.

Christopher Stewart, Ward 3, said he has not ruled out closing West. He said citywide enrollment has dropped by about 2,000 students in the past decade.

And the issue will become even more imperative once Manchester School of Technology (MST) is operating as a full four-year high school, he said. "The question is, does a school district with only 15,500 kids need four high schools?"

Stewart did not attend high school in Manchester, but said he understands the "huge pride around West." Still, he said, "As a school board member, my job is to look at things from 30,000 feet and move where the data take me."

And if Hooksett and Candia take their high-schoolers out of the city, he said, "it changes the dynamic drastically."

Roy Shoults, Ward 4, said closing West may become the only option, given the city's tax cap and threats from sending towns to pull out of their contracts. A native New Yorker who moved to New Hampshire after he retired nearly 15 years ago, he said he understands how emotional it is to consider closing a school.

But he said, "The citizens of Manchester voted for a tax cap, which reduces the money to the schools. Schools have to do something, and nobody wants any of the things that need to be done to make up for the money."

If there isn't enough money to operate all four high schools, Shoults said, "then you close one of them, and West would be the one you close."

Arthur Beaudry, Ward 9, said within a few years, MST is projected to have 800 students, which will mean fewer students at the other schools. "At some point in time, we are going to have to face the fact that we can't have four high schools in the city," he said.

And at that point, he said, "We're going to have to have a plan of what to do, and West makes the most sense."

Beaudry, who went to high school in Massachusetts, said he would consider closing the school. "It's going to have to be mindful of the residents on that side and the students on that side, but we also have to be mindful of all the taxpayers."

Debra Gagnon Langton, Ward 2, said it's not practical to consider closing West. She noted there are only 83 students in MST's freshman class. "The number of high school students in our city does not lend itself to two high schools," said Langton, a 1979 West graduate. "I think our high schools are overcrowded as it stands."

Still, she said she's "willing to listen" to proposals to turn West into a magnet school.

Brennan's redistricting report does not recommend any adjustments to the high schools for the 2013-14 school year, but suggests having a plan for 2014-15. And that means whoever replaces him is going to have to deal with redistricting early on.

"This is going to fall directly into the lap of the new superintendent," said Stewart. And he or she, he predicts, "is going to have his or her hands full."

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