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Granite State schools reveal their 'special sauce'

New Hampshire Sunday News

March 17. 2018 8:57PM
Bartlett, home of Josiah Bartlett Elementary School, was among the first to fund full-day kindergarten, and its town meeting voters just approved funding a public pre-school program. (Kurt Erickson)

Joe Voci, principal of Josiah Bartlett Elementary School

New Hampshire school administrators who are struggling to raise standardized test scores while controlling their per-pupil costs might want to look north for inspiration.

Students in some North Country schools are defying expectations, scoring higher on standardized tests than some of their peers in wealthier communities down south.

'Looping' in Bartlett

Joe Voci has been principal of Josiah Bartlett Elementary School for 23 years. His students performed better on the Smarter Balanced tests last year than students in Bedford and Windham.

Voci said his school's "secret sauce" is team teaching and early education.

The school uses a "looping" model: teachers keep their students for two years. Voci said research shows that by doing so, schools can pick up three to five months of extra learning time.

"So I think those scores come from really getting to know your kids, really knowing what they're good at, their strengths, and kind of concentrating on those things they need to improve on," he said.

The town was one of the first to fund full-day kindergarten and at the recent town meeting, residents voted overwhelmingly to fund a public preschool program. "That early intervention is huge," Voci said.

It's about "equalizing the playing field," he said. In the past, kindergartners who did not attend preschool "came in behind and stayed behind."

"It shouldn't matter whether a child is born rich or poor," Voci said. "It shouldn't matter where in New Hampshire a child is born. That shouldn't affect their educational opportunities."

Preschool key in Milan

Even farther north, Milan Village Elementary School students excelled on standardized Smarter Balanced tests in the 2016-17 academic year, according to state data. The school district also has one of the lowest per-pupil costs in the state ($11,836); three in 10 students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches.

Paul Bousquet is superintendent of SAU 20, which includes the Dummer, Errol, Milan and Gorham-Randolph-Shelburne Cooperative school districts. He said, in his view, the staff is the key ingredient that makes a school successful.

Bousquet also believes Milan's decision to start a public preschool about 10 years ago is critical to the school's success. By the time they start kindergarten, kids are ready, he said.

With 120 kids from pre-K to grade six, there's one teacher for each grade, so the small class sizes allow for individualized learning. And teachers are encouraged to try different approaches with different students, he said.

'Working smart' in Gorham

Students at Gorham Middle and High School had good SAT scores last year. Principal David Backler said he's deeply invested in rural education and is proud of his students.

"We really want to support them to get anywhere they want to go," he said. "Our vision is for every student to go from our doors to a meaningful post-secondary experience."

For some graduates, that could mean Dartmouth College; for others it's the new millwright program offered at the community college in Berlin.

As soon as students arrive in sixth grade, Backler said, "We really start working with these kids to develop their skills and their passions pretty early."

There's already a strong work ethic in the North Country, Backler said. So it's about helping students "understand that the difference between where they're at and where they want to be is work," he said.

Gorham Middle and High School has about 250 kids in seven grades; the small size makes it easier to get to know each student, he said.

There aren't as many resources available so the school has to work harder to offer robotics and other programs that kids want. But there have been some welcome surprises, such as the MIT-educated engineer who retired to the area and volunteered to work on STEM projects with the students, Backler said.

It's not about how much wealth a community has, he said. "It's about supporting students and working smart and working hard," he said. "I think so much is about making sure every student knows every day that every professional in the building is there to support them and is a resource to them."

Small numbers, high costs

It's not all rosy up north. Many communities pay far more to educate their kids than school districts south of the notches, but test scores remain below average.

Bruce Beasley is superintendent for SAU 7, which includes Clarksville, Colebrook, Columbia, Pittsburg and Stewartstown - "God's country," he calls it.

He cautions against reading too much into test scores in districts with small student populations. If only a handful of students take the SAT, for instance, and one does poorly, he said, "it has a significant impact on the score."

That's the case in Pittsburg, where there are only about 100 students in the entire school district, kindergarten through 12th grade; this year's senior class has just eight students.

Pittsburg spends $31,767 to educate each high school student, according to state data, but its SAT scores are among the lowest in the state.

The good news, Beasley said, is that the towns in his SAU "are willing to sit at the table to talk about the future of education in this area."

Residents are proud of their local high schools, he said, and have resisted joining together to create a regional school. But school enrollments have dropped to half of what they used to be.

"When the Ethan Allen factory was alive, when the Balsams was alive, when the mills were alive, these communities were thriving," Beasley said. "Those days are gone. But we're trying to hold onto the educational model that was used with those students. ..."

He'd like to explore grouping students not by grade level but by skill level; he also would change how teachers use assessments. "If you look at not only what a student knows but, more importantly, what they don't know, then we've really turned the corner," he said.

Despite the challenges, Beasley said he's "pretty optimistic" about the future of education in his area. "People see there's an opportunity gap that exists between these students and the students that may be going to school in the southern part of New Hampshire," he said.

"So they're starting to understand that ... and at least they're going to sit at the table and talk about how do we overcome that."

Keeping it local

The highest per-pupil cost in the state is in Waterville Valley, where residents spend $42,586 to educate each elementary student.

Mark Halloran is superintendent of schools for SAU 48, which incorporates nine school districts including Waterville Valley. He said the high per-pupil cost is all about "the lack of economy of scale."

Waterville Valley Elementary School has just 21 kids in the entire student body, from kindergarten through eighth grade. It has three multi-age classrooms, grouped K through second grade; third through fifth; and sixth through eighth.

Each youngster has an individualized learning plan and the teachers work hard to engage every student, Halloran said. "It's an awful lot of work for the teacher; it's a special person who wants to teach in that circumstance."

While it would be cheaper to tuition the students to other schools, residents consistently have opted to keep them in town when the topic comes up, Halloran said.

"The community has said the school is vital to us having a town," he said. "The school makes us a community. So they make the determination they'd rather have the school and pay more."

It's not just the money

Halloran's SAU has nine school districts, each with its own elementary school and school board. In the mix are property-rich towns such as Holderness and Waterville Valley, and property-poor towns such as Plymouth, Rumney and Wentworth, he said. They all send their high school students to Plymouth Regional High. 

The correlation between test scores and poverty levels is not black and white, Halloran said. "We have kids who are free and reduced (lunch) qualified who do really, really well in school and go off and have great careers. We have kids that come from some nice backgrounds who sometimes don't do as well as other kids."

To him, the key is parental engagement. "I don't think there's any magic to it," he said. "If your parents are engaged and the kids are involved in the school, I think kids do well."

His local communities also set high standards for student achievement, Halloran said. "A lot of them make a lot of sacrifices with these property tax rates," he said. "I think the expectation of the communities is: We're supporting you, we say yes to these warrant articles; make sure that we're doing well."

It's not about how wealthy a community is, Bousquet said. "I think there is an advantage to having a lot of resources, but I think there's a lot to be said for ... the work ethic, the commitment, the total laser focus on individual students," he said. "I think that's a big, big part of it."

"There's a lot of pride up here in the North Country," he said.

Voci, the Bartlett principal, does not accept that poorer communities will have worse schools and lower test scores than wealthy ones. "Those are just excuses," he said. 

What works in Bartlett could also work in larger, more urban schools, Voci said. His advice: "Team 'em up. Break down the walls. Keep them for longer than one year."

"I think you have to take a look organizationally," he said. "You've got to form those relationships."

"It's a heart thing," he said.

2016-2017 SAT and Smart-Balanced Scores by District

INSTRUCTIONS - The report opens on page 1, S-B Math, to navigate to the other test results, hover over the chart and a control bar appears at the bottom. Select districts using the checkboxes to compare within a region or communities of interest. The vertical axis is a district's % of students receiving free and reduced meals. The horizontal axis is what a district spent per pupil. The size of the bubble is average score relative to other districts. Hover over a bubble for district information. The table below the chart provides additional details. Best viewed in Chrome.

Charter schools and public academies are excluded from these reports as Cost-Per-Pupil (CPP) data is not available for them. All results are based on 2016-2017 SAT Scaled Scores or 2016-2017 Smarter-Balanced Scaled Scores. No other tests were included. % of Free and Reduced (%FandR) meals in a district is based on Oct. 1st enrollment for grades K-12 and includes directly certified students. All students receiving free meals, reduced meals as well as free milk are included.

DATA: SAT Scores | Smarter-Balanced Scores | Click here for a fuller view of the report above in a window of its own.

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