MANCHESTER - Xander Larson wasn’t trying to build a better mousetrap. He was trying to move one.
The Nashua teenager and his classmates at one of Manchester’s six charter schools built toy cars with mousetraps, attaching wheels to harness the force to move the vehicle and providing a lesson on force, velocity and friction.
“I can physically attach a memory to something I did, giving me some way to remember it,” said Larson, a sophomore at Spark Academy of Advanced Technologies.
Larson, who previously was homeschooled, was among nine teenage boys digesting an electrical fundamentals class before lunch in the only New Hampshire charter school housed in a community college. Students at Spark get earlier exposure to possible career paths and can earn college credit while in high school.
“They like using their hands but have no idea on how to make a living,” said Karen Pringle, who teaches that Spark class at Manchester Community College.
Spark students often work on projects and in groups.
“They can feel out jobs to use the pieces that they like,” Pringle said.
New Hampshire is home to 29 operating public charter schools with 4,545 students. That population is still a small number compared with the 159,088 in public schools, according to data on the state Department of Education’s website. Two new charter schools, in Keene and Lancaster, are expected to open by fall 2022.
The schools are situated in a variety of locations. A charter school operated out of the Steeplegate Mall in Concord before surrendering its charter in February. Two others are tenants in the same Manchester building as the New Hampshire Union Leader.
“Charter school developers look to lease facilities in real estate that is available at the time of their search, and which will meet their specific facility needs,” said Tyler Gouveia with the state Department of Education.
Putting a charter school focusing on advanced technologies in a community college made sense, according to Dan Larochelle, an MCC department chair as well as a founder and technical consultant at Spark.
“A lot of equipment wasn’t being used. We have space in our lab for additional usage of that equipment. Rather than duplicating it, why don’t we leverage that?” said Larochelle, department chair in advanced manufacturing and a full-time professor at MCC
“It’s just a synergistic relationship,” he said.
Home to homeschoolers
Spark is a family deal for the Larochelles. Son John is a sophomore in the school.
“I always say you put your money where your mouth is,” Larochelle said. “If it’s good enough for my kid... .”
Dan’s wife, Jennifer, is Spark’s operations manager. Their younger son, Kyle, will arrive at Spark this fall.
Spark, which leases six classrooms at MCC, receives $7,188 per student in state aid, as well as grants and donations to operate.
Now in its second year, Spark teaches 35 students in two grades — all but two who are boys. About 60% were homeschooled, a quarter came from public school districts and the rest moved from other charter schools, according to Spark Director Denis Mailloux, who functions like a principal.
“There’s something about a student that has chosen homeschool that finds this really appealing,” MCC President Brian Bicknell said. “I think the culture they establish at Spark is a good fit for students who have been historically homeschooled.”
Mailloux, a former principal at Trinity High School in Manchester, said he expects to add at least 30 new students this fall.
“If COVID hadn’t struck, I believe we could have had 30 coming in last year,” he said.
The school, which doesn’t charge tuition, is working toward offering grades nine through 12, with the fourth offered beginning in fall 2022.
According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there are about 7,500 charter schools with 3.3 million students across 44 states and the District of Columbia.
The Manchester Education Association and a spokesman for the Manchester School District didn’t respond to requests for comment on Spark.
Advancing to a degree
In New Hampshire, high school students may be eligible to take community college courses earning them high school and college credit at the same time through the Running Start program. Thanks to a state scholarship program, students can take up to two dual credit courses per academic year for free if the classes are in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math classes.
Spark offers to cover the cost of college courses taken beyond the scholarship programs. Students may graduate with industry-recognized certificates and a good chunk of credits for an associate’s degree from MCC.
“At Spark, we get them into technology classes as freshmen, so by the time they’re getting into their fourth year, they’re really workforce-ready,” Dan Larochelle said.
Students at Spark can study manufacturing, robotics, mechatronics, cybersecurity, computer science, welding and HVAC.
Larochelle said, “there will always be a big demand for advanced skilled technicians in New Hampshire” with many companies offering to pay the tuition of workers to extend their education.
Part of Spark’s mission is to help students become problem-solvers.
“I’m not trying to get them to learn a ton of curriculum,” Mailloux said. “I’m trying to get them to become critical thinkers.”
Employers want to hire critical thinkers; they can teach new hires the content of the job, he said.
Working toward working
Last week, students participated in a weekly virtual career exploration series featuring Graphicast, a Jaffrey company that uses graphite mold casting technology to produce precision metal parts.
Learning earlier in school “gives them an opportunity to create career pathways for themselves that will be fulfilling and satisfying their interests (unless their parents or school counselors insist that college is the only way to a successful career and give the student no choice),” company president Val Zanchuk said in an email afterward.
He said he didn’t push them to consider joining his company of 24.
“I explained that small companies provide great opportunities to develop and perfect your craft and to be part of a small and effective team that gets stuff done,” he said.
Jared Palmer went to Raymond’s middle school but didn’t want to attend the local high school.
“I like learning in groups and projects, and that’s what they pitched during an open house, so that’s why I chose the school,” said Palmer, 16, a sophomore.
“You get to experience what it is rather than just hear about it” from teachers lecturing, he said.
Bicknell said that’s what impressed him about Spark.
“What I see Spark providing them is the ability to dig right into what they’re fascinated by,” he said.
“These are students that are out there that have a passion for things like robotics, how things work and taking a hands-on approach,” Bicknell said. “So it’s design-build, it’s build, repair, troubleshoot, fix, fine-tune.”
Bicknell said work-based learning is valuable for their future.
“It’s connecting what they do now to possible work opportunities or careers down the line,” he said. “Students able to make those connections typically are able to perform at a higher level.”
Sophomore Raden Chretien came from a different charter school and likes the format at Spark.
“It’s very hands-on, something I’d rather do,” said Chretien, 14, from Manchester.
After Spark, he said, he will “see if I can go with a company and get in the workforce.”