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Christopher Thompson's Closing the Deal: A revealing day spent in Manchester schools

By CHRISTOPHER THOMPSON
December 17. 2017 12:43AM




This will be the third time I've written about an experience I had during the Leadership Greater Manchester program. Based on how things have gone, I can't guarantee this will be the last.

Last Thursday was Education Day for the class of 2018. The day was focused on familiarizing our class with the strengths and challenges that exist in the Manchester School District, as well as exposing us to the higher education opportunities in the city.

I was educated in Manchester public schools from kindergarten through high school and am very proud of that. I was very much looking forward to seeing a side of Manchester schools that I never have, and that definitely happened.

Our day started off at Beech Street School, which serves approximately 600 students in kindergarten through fifth grade and is located in the center city, next to the JFK Coliseum. There couldn't have been a better place to kick off the day and give us a true sense of what is happening in Manchester schools.

We spent time getting a tour of the school and meeting teachers and also had a great discussion with the principal, Dr. Christine Martin. She explained some of the unique challenges the school faces and really put things into perspective for us.

About 90 percent of the students at Beech Street School receive free lunch because of their family income levels. Think about that. It's unbelievable. Ten percent of the students are homeless, and the school also sees a lot of children come and go. Comparing this year to last year, 130 students left the school and 133 new students entered as new registrations or transfers. They come from 24 countries and speak 20 different languages.

Dr. Martin said her day often starts with watching the students come into school; she looks down at their feet to make sure they have socks on. I couldn't believe it. Apparently, it's not uncommon for kids to show up to school with no socks in the middle of winter.

While the school and its students certainly have challenges that many can't fathom, it's not all doom and gloom. Within the school, you have people who are extremely passionate about making a difference in the lives of the children. The teachers are absolutely amazing and so are the other staff we met, such as the social workers and people who manage after-school programs for the students.

The teachers and staff chose to work at Beech Street School. They could teach anywhere, and this is where they decided to make a difference. I have the utmost respect for people who put the needs of others before their own. They are special people and truly inspirational.

During the discussion, one of my classmates asked Dr. Martin what people could do to help. Martin said they can always use clothes, especially in the winter. She explained that kids often have accidents at school and don't have a changes of clothes. Pants, sweatpants underwear, socks, hats, gloves and jackets are all high on the list of things the school and its students need the most. Of course, school supplies are needed as well, as teachers often spend their own money buying supplies for students who can't afford them.

Following our time at Beech Street School, we had the opportunity to meet Dr. Bolgen Vargas, the superintendent of the Manchester School District. We had a great conversation, and Dr. Vargas fielded numerous questions from our class. Some of them weren't easy, and I was impressed with his vision and plans for the schools and students. The main message Dr. Vargas delivered was that collaboration is needed. They can't do it alone and really need support from the community. And this is where businesses and community leaders come in.

A lot of people have a negative perception of the Manchester School District, and there are many reasons for that. However, be cautious about what you read and hear. It's not all negative, and there are a lot of great things happening that you may not be aware of. The teachers and administrators are dedicated, passionate and hardworking, doing everything they can with the resources they have.

As for Beech Street School, please do me a favor. The next time you are shopping, pick up a few extra pairs of children's pants, socks and underwear and drop them off at the school. Do whatever you can. If you're not in the mood to shop, mail the school a check or drop off some money. Every little bit helps. It will go a long way and will be very much appreciated.

Christopher Thompson (chris.thompson@talientaction.com) is the vice president of business development at Talient Action Group in Manchester and writes Closing the Deal weekly for the Sunday News.


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