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Paul Feely's City Hall: Expect a call if your child is absent from or late for school

April 08. 2018 2:26AM
Superintendent of the Manchester School District Bolgen Vargas (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER FILE PHOTO)

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School officials are set to launch a new system Monday that officials hope will improve student attendance figures across the Manchester school district.

Forrest Ransdell, principal at Middle School at Parkside, has been busy for months heading up a small committee tasked with improving student attendance at city schools. According to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bolgen Vargas, data shows approximately 25 percent of Manchester students were "chronically absent" last school year. According to Vargas, the district considers a student "chronically absent" if they miss three or more weeks of school.

"Manchester already offers the least amount of instructional time in this region, yet we serve the most vulnerable population," Vargas tells school board members in a memo. "When a first-grader has attendance issues it is not a student problem but a family, school and community issue."

The district plans to use the SchoolMessenger service - currently used for school delays, cancellations or other special messages to parents - to communicate with parents quickly regarding student absences.

"It is so important for us to have accurate data, and also to communicate with families in an effective manner," Ransdell told school board members recently.

Beginning Monday, families will receive an automated phone call and/or email through the SchoolMessenger service anytime their child is absent, unexcused or tardy.

Ransdell said the system should allow for late buses, thereby avoiding unnecessary calls to parents.

"By the time the attendance data is run, it's about 10:15 to 10:40 (a.m.), so we have time to make sure that we have all of our attendance data clarified and as accurate as possible," said Ransdell. "So things like missed buses and things like that are accounted for in the process."

Vargas said the attendance data collected as part of the system is secure and is not used by any organizations other than the school district.

Calls will be placed to the phone number of record, listed as the "home phone" on student records. In cases where no such phone is listed, calls will be placed to the primary number of the first contact listed in the district's student information system.

"You will not get a phone call if they skipped an individual class, but they will use the phone call if they're absent all day," said Ransdell.

"The missing of individual classes is an administrative activity that is handled through the disciplinary process. You should be contacted for that kind of interaction, but it won't be a SchoolMessenger call."

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Last week aldermen unanimously approved a request from City Clerk Matt Normand to apply for grant funding from the Norwin S. and Elizabeth N. Bean Foundation and the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program (LCHIP) to fund necessary repairs to the City Hall bell tower.

Normand also received board approval to apply for a grant of up to $10,000 from the New Hampshire State Library Conservation Plate Grant Program to restore "historic and one-of-a-kind audio recordings" of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen and committee meetings dating back to 1969.

"These recordings offer insights into meetings that were not documented in the official minutes, since transcription was not verbatim during those years," writes Normand in a memo to aldermen. "The materials are in desperate need of conservation treatment, and due to the obsolescence of the recording media used, digitization is required so the audio can be accessed."

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The Manchester school district is one of two school districts in the country - the other being Pearl City-Waipahu Complex Area in Hawaii - that will benefit from $2 million in grants awarded to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE). The money will be used to fund three years of research on implementing project-based learning into local classrooms.

BIE received funding for the project from five philanthropic partners, including $1 million from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and additional funding from the Bezos Family Foundation, Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Barr Foundation, and New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

"This grant will provide authentic, experiential learning opportunities for students to collaborate, solve problems, improve their communication and master the academic content," said Vargas. "Our students will be able to demonstrate their knowledge in numerous ways, allowing for deeper learning, student engagement, and ultimately an increase in academic achievement."

In project-based learning, projects become the primary route to knowledge and skills, rather than an accessory to learning. Typically, projects feature real-world context, incorporate standards-based tasks and tools, and tap students' interests. Students share their project work publicly by explaining, displaying, and/or presenting it to classmates and others.

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Each year the Campus Compact for New Hampshire - a statewide consortium of college and university presidents and private-sector partners - presents the Presidents' Community Partner Award, given to "a non-profit organization (that) has enhanced the quality of life in the community in meaningful and measurable ways."

This year the Saint Anselm Community Partner Award will be given to the Manchester school district for "the strong support of the Access Academy after school program" and volunteers from the college placed in city schools.

The award will be given during the Presidents' Awards Ceremony at the Grappone Center in Concord this Tuesday, April 10, from 12-2 p.m.

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Congratulations go this week to Gail Dubois, a paraprofessional at Highland-Goffe's Falls Elementary School, who received a 2017-2018 "LifeChanger of the Year" award at a surprise ceremony during a school-wide assembly recently. The award includes a $3,000 prize, split between a $1,500 individual cash award and a $1,500 donation to her school.

Dubois was selected as a LifeChanger of the Year from a pool of more than 825 teachers, administrators and school district employees nominated for the award from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. She was nominated by principal Susan Matthews,who cited her many contributions to the students and atmosphere of the school.

LifeChanger of the Year is a national program sponsored by National Life Group that annually recognizes and rewards K-12 school district educators and employees who make a difference in the lives of students by exemplifying excellence, positive influence and leadership.

Dubois trains an English cream golden retriever named Remington, who she brings to Highland-Goffe's Falls every Friday to serve as a therapy dog. Each week, Dubois and Remington visit students and staff throughout the school who are in need of a little extra love and care.

National Life Group recognized "the calming presence and positive attitude" Dubois and Remington bring to the school.

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Weekly curbside collection of yard waste in the city resumes tomorrow. Materials must be placed at the curb for pickup by 7 a.m. on your regular trash-collection day. No individual branches or stumps greater than three inches in diameter or three feet in length will be collected.

Yard waste must be placed in biodegradable paper bags, bundles or barrels with a city orange yard-waste sticker affixed to it. Weekly collections will last six weeks. Visit for more information.

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter. Reach him at

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