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Litchfield parent wins rare school-choice case

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 20. 2018 10:29PM

Tracy Chen at her home in Litchfield on Saturday. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

In a rare reversal of a local school board’s decision, the State Board of Education has ruled that a high school sophomore who moved to Litchfield last fall after her father died can continue to attend Pinkerton Academy in Derry because it would be academically and emotionally damaging to force her to change schools.

The case highlights the high burden of proof parents must meet in order to win manifest educational hardship cases — in which a parent argues their child will suffer by attending their assigned school — and how far some local districts will go to avoid paying out-of-district tuition.

“In my year on the board, it was the best articulated case by a parent for her child that I’ve seen,” State Board of Education Chairman Drew Cline said. “She’s not an attorney, she had no legal help, she was doing it on her own, and the school district had a hired lawyer.”

Parents in these disputes can rarely afford legal representation while districts are almost always represented by attorneys.

“I think it’s a factor in explaining why parents don’t usually win before the state board,” Cline said. “They’re terribly outgunned ... it’s a terrible imbalance.”

The student in this case began attending Derry schools when she was 6 years old. Her father had moved to the town and bought a condo within walking distance of Pinkerton Academy specifically because he wanted her to attend the school, the student’s mother, Tracy Chen, said in an interview.

When her father died unexpectedly in October 2017, the student began living exclusively with Chen in Litchfield. At the end of the year, Chen thought it would be simple to ensure her daughter’s education would go on undisturbed.

“She’s been in Derry all her life, since grade school, and she’s doing so well,” she said. “That’s not trivial, that’s not easy to accomplish, and I really want her to be her best. Changing schools right now, that’s just not good for her.”

While Pinkerton offered 11 advanced placement classes, Litchfield’s Campbell High School only offered four. During hearings over the student’s enrollment, the Litchfield School Board suggested she take the additional classes online or at community colleges, according to records from the state board hearing.

But more insulting to Chen, and surprising to Cline and the State Board of Education, was the district’s argument that her daughter’s excellent academic performance at Pinkerton — she is a straight A, high honor roll student — despite the loss of her father was evidence that she would suffer no educational hardship moving schools.

The Litchfield School Board also contested the medical expertise of a psychologist, who had met with the student and determined that moving schools would damage her mental health and come with “absolutely no positive outcomes.”

“I understand the circumstances and the board was very compassionate about the loss of her dad,” said Brian Bourque, chairman of the Litchfield School Board. “As we explained to her mother, it’s not unusual that that happens to many children.”

The board believed that Litchfield’s smaller setting would be more nourishing for the student, he added. Now, Bourque worries that the State Board of Education’s decision has set a precedent that could lead to an exodus of students, and the accompanying state funding, from certain districts.

School districts receive money from the state for each student within their system. When a student living in that system receives permission to attend an out-of-district school, the home district still bears the cost of tuition but receives none of the benefits for its own schools.

That loss feels even more acute in a situation like the Litchfield case because the district was asked to pay for the education of a student who never had, and never would, set foot in its schools, said Todd DeMitchell, a professor of education and justice studies at the University of New Hampshire.

“The student didn’t attend Litchfied,” he said. “Litchfield then incurs an expense that it did not have before for that student.”

For Chen and her daughter, though, the decision was about maintaining the status quo, not changing it. Chen said she was on the verge of tears after learning on May 10 that the State Board of Education had overturned the district’s decision.

“There is justice in this world, there are kind people ... I’m glad I did it, for my daughter and for other parents in special situations,” she said. “Even if they can’t afford an attorney, they can do it on their own.”

High schools Derry Litchfield State Government

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