West High School Career Day

Sgt. Karina Reyes of the United States Air Force gives a presentation to students during Career Day at Manchester West High School in March. Business and community leaders banded together as Manchester Proud finishes a plan to improve city schools.

MY THREE SONS moved around a lot as their mother and I chased better jobs to further our careers. One constant about where we chose to go was the quality of the schools they would be attending.

Our move from Florida to Colorado was driven in part by the knowledge we would be moving to a community that had superior schools to the ones we were leaving behind.

People take risks to improve their opportunities for advancement. But ask any parent about where they should send their kids to school, and you’ll start talking about test scores and graduation rates.

I doubt that came up much when my mom was raising four children on her own on the West Side of Manchester. She didn’t have much choice to move somewhere else, but lucky for us we attended schools that had some great teachers.

Those schools still have great teachers, but social and demographic changes over the past few decades have created new challenges for teachers and administrators in the Queen City.

Fifty-seven percent of the school district’s 14,000 students are minorities, and 58 percent receive free or reduced lunch. Twenty percent of students are English learners, and 90 languages are spoken. While diversity has been championed as a badge of pride at schools like Central High, students increasingly come from homes struggling with poverty, language barriers and other social issues that affect their ability to learn.

That’s the backdrop for Manchester Proud, a group founded by business and education leaders that is developing a plan to improve local schools and attract young families to the city.

Representatives of Manchester Proud and 2Revolutions, a national education-design nonprofit, met with current and incoming Board of School Committee members in November to discuss elements of a strategic plan for all 22 schools.

The group held community events throughout December to finalize its recommendations, and plans to present a draft that includes the proposals with the greatest support to the school board on Jan. 27. Manchester Proud will return with the final version at 6 p.m. on Feb. 20 at Memorial High School, when it will ask the board to formally adopt the plan.

Manchester Proud was founded about 2½ years ago when a group of business and education people gathered around a conference room table to talk about ways to improve the city.

“The one thing that everyone agreed is that the schools need some help,” recalled city native Bill Kanteres during a recent conversation about Manchester Proud at the Union Leader’s offices. “I was at that table because my day job is the real estate business, and it’s the No. 1 question we get from buyers: How are the schools?”

After the school board authorized the group’s work in May 2018, Manchester Proud held about 350 community meetings over the next year, says Barry Brensinger of Lavallee Brensinger Architects, who serves as coordinator.

“The whole notion was what would distinguish this plan was that it would truly be driven by the community. It wasn’t a group of educators or business folks or anyone coming to the table with a predisposition of what the plan should be,” Brensinger said.

Members of Manchester Proud spent countless nights talking about the issues and analyzing an assessment completed by the group’s consultant in cooperation with the district. Then they came up with “hunches” — things they think could help make the school system better, he said. Among concepts that have been raised is creating magnet schools to attract families back to the district.

Proposals are grouped under teaching and learning, finance, governance, community partnerships and organizational effectiveness. The public can review the ideas and vote on the ones they like best at votemanchesterproud.org.

“There’s been some misconception in the public that we hired an outside consultant to come in and tell us what this plan should look like. The grunt work has been by 29 Manchester citizens representing everything from students to teachers to principals to parents, to social service agencies,” Brensinger said.

Manchester Proud will appear before a Board of School Committee that has a different makeup than when the group started. Four incumbents lost their seats to newcomers after the November city election. Members are hoping the support of Superintendent John Goldhardt will help ensure its adoption.

“The final plan could never work unless the district has ownership of it,” Brensinger said.

Mike Skelton, CEO of the Greater Manchester Chamber, praised the work of Manchester Proud for offering the first plan to improve the city’s schools that the community can embrace. He alluded to the challenge ahead, noting the district has 14,000 students and 2,000 employees spread across 22 different school sites — “all that are supposed to work together.”

A good school system pays dividends that continue long after students graduate and move on with their lives, affecting property values and a community’s quality of life. More importantly, they have a profound impact on the future of each and every student.

This conversation was initiated by former Manchester Mayor Bob Baines, who showed up at our offices the day before and offered some background on how Manchester Proud came to be and how much is at stake for the Queen City.

I could hardly deflect his request: Baines was my principal at Manchester High School West. And when you get a call from the principal’s office, the only answer is “yes.”

Mike Cote is the business editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. Contact him at mcote@unionleader.com or (603) 206-7724.

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