If you watch Manchester school board meetings on TV, here’s the usual lineup.
Cute grade-school kids lead the board in the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a bunch of students who get recognized for achievements in athletics, band, academics and volunteering.
Then “the public” gets to speak for three minutes. Usually, it’s the same cast of characters: Teachers’ union president Sue Hannan, parent activist Jim O’Connell, the Central High kids who want a student on the school board, a couple of washed-up pols.
They get ignored, and the cute kids become proof positive that all is well with city schools. Which means board members can delve into their favorite topic — petty political bickering.
Last week was different — well, at least when it came to the public-comment portion of the program.
Three Wilson Elementary School teachers spoke bluntly about problems at their center-city school. Their students aren’t the ones leading the school board in the Pledge of Allegiance or accepting a certificate from the mayor. Their students come to school inadequately dressed for winter and leave not knowing if they’ll have a meal that night.
Their classes are too big. Their students are missing out on extra help. They’re acting up and lashing out. And their teachers are burning out.
Here’s what the three teachers said:
“We did not choose to be verbally abused, sworn at, hit, kicked, punched, kicked in the face, stabbed or bitten. We did not choose to have our personal items stolen or destroyed,” said 15-year Wilson veteran Shannon Signor. Eighty days into the school year, Signor said, and teachers feel unsupported, unsafe and angry over what’s happening to their students.
The four paraprofessionals for the entire school are constantly getting pulled away from the special education kids they are mandated to be working with, said Johanna Dickson, a teacher with eight years experience. Those kids then act up and teachers get hit. “The need will only increase as we continue to get more students raised in this current drug epidemic,” Dickson said.
Meredith Doyle, a teacher in her third year, hates calling in sick once because she knows there won’t be a substitute to fill in. When a teacher does call in, the sick teacher’s students get split between other classes, which can mushroom to 40 kids. “There are students I have taught who are being influenced by drugs, alcohol and gangs. We all know we have a drug crisis that is looking these children in the face every day,” Doyle said.
They gave a lot of facts: the 465-student school lost a teacher position this year. Two first-grade and two second-grade classes exceed state-recommended sizes.
About a third of Wilson kids don’t speak English as a native language. About a quarter are under an Individual Education Plan. And large majorities are not proficient in English, math or science, according to test scores.
All said that school Principal Polly Golden and Assistant Principal Michel O’Rourke are doing the best they can.
Hannan, the union president, said teacher safety is what concerns her the most. Most teacher assaults take place at schools such as Wilson and Webster that host programs for kids with emotional behavior disorders, she said.
“It happens everywhere, but it doesn’t happen as often at most schools as it does at some,” Hannan said.
The school district confirmed most of what the teachers said in an email. The sizes of four classes exceed state standards by one or two students. But they’re significantly higher than the city’s goal of 20 to 22 kids.
The school is short one paraprofessional, which means behavior support provisions of some IEPs aren’t met, the email said. “The school does the best every day to cover children who are most in need of additional supports,” wrote Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas.
The school officials agreed that students get farmed out to other classes when a classroom teacher calls in sick. They disputed the number of additional Wilson students this year. The district said it’s 21, not the 33 cited by Signor.
A small percentage of teachers are assaulted by students, Golden said. And some get discouraged. “Yes, some days they are, but we have an amazing staff and they work hard every day” Golden wrote.
Vargas disputed Signor’s use of the word “stabbing.” The closest to a stabbing was a kid throwing a pen and hitting a teacher’s nose, Vargas wrote. He said teachers and principals have to do a better job describing the “incidents.”
To sum it up, one teacher threw in a bit of hyperbole, but most of their statements were correct.
So what happens now? Probably nothing.
Everyone’s expecting the Manchester Proud effort and the search for a new superintendent to transform city schools. For example, before the Wilson three spoke, North End parent Michael Delaney, the former New Hampshire attorney general, told the board it was refreshing to see the community rallying around its schools.
The Wilson three had their own ideas: pay paraprofessionals and substitute teachers more to attract more people. Aggressively recruit and advertise the positions. Convince aldermen to lift the spending cap. But all that involves money.
“A lot of people said it would be a waste of time to come and speak tonight,” Signor said, “but I knew in my heart I had to try.”