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Manchester West High closure on the table

New Hampshire Union Leader

February 23. 2013 10:12PM
Manchester West High School. (BOB LaPREE/UNION LEADER FILE)
School redistricting proposal report
The following is from a report titled “2013 Manchester School District Redistricting Proposal.” It appears on Page 8 as Recommendation No. 3.

-- High School Attendance Areas: With current enrollment numbers, there is capacity to consolidate the three (3) high schools into two (2) buildings (Central and Memorial). The consolidation would allow for the introduction of a new educational model for Manchester High School-West.
• Any attempt to implement a consolidation plan as well as introducing a new educational model requires a comprehensive plan and the appropriate vetting of the concept.
• No adjustments should be planned for the 2013-2014 school year.
• The setting date for consolidation and implementation should be for the 2014-2015 school (year).
• The consolidation would place the percentage of capacity in the high 90th percentile for both schools. This is aBody Bold/List Bold: not No character style: sound practice.

MANCHESTER - It can be found nestled in Page 8, embedded within Recommendation No. 3, of the redistricting report that was quickly written this year by outgoing school Superintendent Tom Brennan.

School board members - especially vocal West Side member John Avard - caution that nothing has been decided. But the words have reverberated throughout the West Side, which worries its landmark high school may close within two years.

"With current enrollment numbers, there is capacity to consolidate the three (3) high schools into two (2) buildings (Central and Memorial)," the report reads.

West Side residents and school board officials point out that the report cautions against the consolidation and stresses that nothing has been decided.

But worries undeniably exist, given last month's under-pressure resignation of West High Principal MaryEllen McGorry, difficult school budgets and an ongoing dispute with Hooksett over city high schools.

"I don't know what to think of all the publicity," said Pauline Roth, a treasurer with the West High booster club. "It's pretty sad when you read about West and it's all a negative."

West High is the smallest of the city's three high schools. It schools 1,167 students, according to enrollments provided Friday by the school district. Of those, 143 are from neighboring Hooksett, which has said the city is in breach of its agreement to properly educate Hooksett high school students. The town wants out of the contract and wants to enroll its children in schools outside Manchester.

"Today, I have ruled out closing West, but I'm only one vote on the school board," Mayor Ted Gatsas said Friday. He also said there's no telling what the future will hold.

Ask him about West, and Gatsas talks about Hooksett. He said the tuition agreement calls for the city and Hooksett to discuss making West the designated high school for Hooksett, but those discussions haven't taken place. He said Hooksett needs to stop approving transfers to schools outside of Manchester. And he said the town should rescind its letter of breach.

Gatsas said many options exist for West. He mentioned turning the school into an academy, one of the suggestions in a 2007 report that was written after Bedford exited West. None of the recommendations were ever implemented.

He said West could become a STEAM academy - one where science, technology, engineering, arts and math are emphasized. "Certainly, we would want to make it the best high school in the state of New Hampshire," he said.

West Side residents said they embrace their school with as much pride as parents and students of Central and Memorial.

Gary Therrien, president of the West High Booster Club, said the media is not a fan of West.

But the school has its good points: A lacrosse coach recently restarted the program and raised enough money to purchase equipment. West is home to the city's only four-year theater program, which traveled to Scotland for a competition last summer. And West is also home to the city's only Junior ROTC program.

Therrien said he doesn't think the city will close the school, but it would be a detriment to the city.

"Most students at West walk to school because of its location. Many students that now get to play sports would not be able to at the other schools because they have only played for a year or two," he said. "Closing West is an easy solution as opposed to redistricting the city."

Avard said closing West would affect 1,000 students. He said West is not half-empty, as many believe. It also is the magnet school for autistic children and children with emotional disorders; they need smaller classes than the average student, he said.

He also disputes recently publicized remarks that school board committees unanimously approved recommendations on what to do about West. The Manchester school board recently told Brennan to go forward with revisions to elementary school boundaries, but neither committee has acted on the recommendations that involve West, Avard said.

"It's an open question," Avard said. "There's no set plan being brought forward saying this is what they're going to do."

The report does cry for action.

Manchester school enrollment is down about 1,500 from what it was seven years ago.

Over the next nine years, city school officials see little change in city school K-12 enrollment, which will vary from 15,243 to 15,705, according to projections. At present, 549 of those students are Hooksett high school students, most of whom attend Central or West.

The report notes that in 2007 recommendations were made to convert West into a charter school, a magnet school or an academy.

Both Therrien and Roth have a simpler notion: redistrict city high schools to even the population and bring more students to West. As a smaller school, West has lost girls' field hockey and lacrosse, Roth said. And Avard has fought a recent plan to set minimum class sizes, worrying about the effect on West.

However, both the 2013 and 2007 redistricting proposals said it would be difficult to move students who live east of the Merrimack River to West High. School locations and water barriers restrict boundary adjustments, the reports say.

The 2013 redistricting proposal notes that Northwest Elementary is overcrowded, and it encourages a fresh look at controversial 2007 recommendations for the West Side. Those called for:

-- Turning the three West Side elementary schools into early elementary schools (pre-K through Grade 3).

-- Converting Parkside Middle School into an upper elementary school (Grades 4 through 6).

-- Hosting Grades 7 through 12 at West High School.

Physical barriers would have to be erected at West to keep the middle school students separate from high school students, Avard said. He's no fan of the idea.

"What are you correcting? What are you fixing?" Avard said. "It's not going to improve West, it's going to shuffle students from one school to another."

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