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November 13. 2013 11:40PM

Kids will earn college credit at Manchester school

MANCHESTER — Tuesday's school board meeting took place at the Internet technology company Dyn, in a large room surrounded by computer consoles, along with a miniature golf putting green, a climbing wall, video games, and other amenities one might expect to find at a Silicon Valley firm.

It was a fitting setting for the unveiling of a new initiative that aims to provide students at Manchester High School West — which has struggled with low test scores and other challenges — with the inspiration and skills to thrive in the modern economy. And the founders of the program hope it could serve as a statewide model.

The program is called STEAM Ahead New Hampshire. It takes the familiar STEM acronym — for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — and adds Arts. The program will enable students at West to earn up to a year of college credit (at no cost) in those subject areas, by taking courses at local colleges, specially adapted courses at the high school, and through real-world experience at participating institutions. Dyn and the Palace Theatre were cited as examples. The organizers also unveiled a new website: steamaheadnh.com.

Executives from Dyn and SilverTech, the Manchester-based digital marketing company that is also playing a lead role in the effort, have been meeting with district officials and state higher education leaders for the past year. The goal is to have the program in place next fall.

In announcing the program Tuesday, Mayor Ted Gatsas and Superintendent Debra Livingston were joined by executives from Dyn and SilverTech, the chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire, and the president of Manchester Community College.

Dyn founder and chief executive Jeremy Hitchcock was a 2000 graduate of West High, and he said his involvement reflected his commitment to the Manchester district, which has come under increasing criticism from both state education officials and its sending towns.

"I think sometimes the business community says, 'Hey you need to fix it,' but they aren't always the most willing participants," Hitchcock said at the meeting. "It's not just finances; it's the time, the effort, the helping, that will allow us to all be successful."

Since its founding, Dyn, which is headquartered in the Millyard, has grown into one of New Hapmshire's most celebrated high-tech companies, with more than 250 employees. Hitchcock noted that he and other employees had started or were starting families. "We're very interested in the long-term success of the school district," he said.

Gatsas said that former governor John Lynch had recognized the program's potential. "We're doing things here — maybe not as quickly as some would want — but I'll continue to work with folks. Maybe everyone will stop talking about STEM, but STEAM instead."

Robert Baines, the former mayor and West High principal, is taking a lead role in coordinating the effort. "So dreams will continue to come true at 9 Notre Dame," he said, referring to West's address. "I've never seen anything like this."

Todd Leach, the chancellor of the state university system, said it's participating in the program because it had the potential to address larger demographic problems facing the state.

"We have an emerging workforce problem in the state," he said. "We have an aging population and nearly half of our high school graduates leave the state... We need new policies, and STEAM Ahead is the exact kind of innovation we need to solve the problem."

In addition to earning college credits, students will be able to gain direct admission to Manchester Community College and the USNH colleges.

The program was well-received by the school board, although Ward 9 board member Art Beaudry asked if it would be open to students at the city's other three high schools.

Superintendent Livingston said the program would be limited to West students in its first stage, but that "the vision is to eventually have these opportunities for every student in the district."

Gatsas said he would seek business partners to support the program, which would also help district teachers pursue advanced degrees to teach college-level courses.

Both Gatsas and Leach also emphasized the role the program could play in addressing the rising college costs facing parents.

"If families can save $50,000 for one year of college, that's something that is incredible," Gatsas said. tsiefer@unionleader.com


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