Although school board members won’t vote on Manchester Proud’s strategic plan for city schools until Feb. 20, the committee’s chairman is already touting the proposal.
Mayor Joyce Craig says she is “tremendously grateful” for the work done by the people behind Manchester Proud — “those who have invested money and significant time putting this together, because it is truly something our district and city wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.”
“The outreach to the community really is invaluable, and this is the first strategic plan the city has that is truly based on the community’s input, which I’m grateful for,” Craig said.
Two years ago, business and education leaders launched a group effort to improve Manchester’s public schools and make the district more attractive to young families. Work on a strategic plan entailed a community survey; door-to-door canvassing in all 12 city wards; 23 community-based listening sessions; and 39 school-based listening sessions with teachers, families, school support staff and students.
Highlights of the plan, presented to school board members last month, include:
• Creating a separate Manchester Schools Foundation, independent of the district, with a board of directors that has sole authority over private funds collected by the foundation
• Eliminating leveling, the practice of separating students into different classes based on their past performance. Critics contend it is a form of academic segregation
• Developing magnet schools
• Improving the school board “working culture” by adopting a “Kids First” policy, reestablishing the school board as a policy-making body and strengthening ties between the Board of School Committee and the Board of Mayor and Aldermen
• Increasing school board meeting efficiency by shifting to one business meeting a month and one meeting a month with public comment
• Reducing the number of school board members
• Increasing term length of school board members to three or four years and staggering elections to ensure the full board is not up for election at one time
• Removing the mayor as school board chairman
• Giving the school board student representatives voting rights (except for personnel or HR issues)
After reviewing the draft plan, Craig said she likes what she sees.
“As a parent I think this is really exciting,” Craig said. “I can’t remember a time where we’ve actually talked about opportunities like this. We know, we’ve known for years, that there are deficiencies within our district. But we’re talking about them, and talking about them in a way we’re going to make progress.”
One criticism of the plan seen on social media is that some of its recommendations are too “pie in the sky.”
Does Craig believe the vision laid out for the district is achievable?
“I think it has to be,” Craig said. “We need it. If we didn’t have bold aspirations I think we would be letting our students down. We need to think and do what’s best for the students in Manchester, and we now have a road map to do that and we have the leadership to get us there.”
A lack of trust in the district has been an issue, Craig said. one of the things to come out of the plan with Manchester Proud — and a topic of discussion at a recent Board of Mayor and Aldermen meetings — is that for years there has been a lack of trust in the district.
“We’ve got to build that trust back,” she said. “I think we’ve started to do that over the last couple of years with the work that we’ve done at the school district. ... For the first time in many years we’ve invested in our teachers. We’re putting in professional development, we’re making that a priority. We’ve invested the most money in 16 years in the school district, in technology. We brought language back to middle schools.We’re making progress, and we need to continue to show we’re making progress. We brought class sizes down.
“Some of the specifics talk about focusing on students, focusing on educators, and focusing on the district overall,” Craig said. “And there are some things making people uncomfortable, like getting rid of leveling. I liken that to moving the fifth grade to middle school. There’s going to need to be significant communication and proof, that if and when we do that we’re going to do it appropriately so that it benefits all of our students.”
Although adopting separate sections of the plan is an option, Craig hopes school board members take the big picture into consideration when they vote.
“I’ve been told it’s not all-or-nothing, but I think we should be looking at it as an overall plan, especially given the timeline that’s been set up,” Craig said. “It’s from now through 2022. And I think generally speaking, my opinion is, we could probably work through any objections in this plan and approve it, knowing it’s a living document and it’s not static — that we’re going to be making modifications.” within the plan. And again, working with our superintendent to make sure his vision and what he’s bringing to the table is integrated into the plan.”
The school board is expected to vote on the plan at a public meeting Feb. 20 at 6 p.m. at Manchester Memorial High School.
The proposed plan can be viewed on Manchester Proud’s website, www.manchesterproud.org. The website also contains a form for submitting questions about the plan. Questions will be accepted until Feb. 12, and answers are expected to be posted before the Feb. 20 meeting.