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Alternative education center at Manchester's Stark House finds support

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 09. 2013 9:19PM

MANCHESTER — A proposed alternative education center had a mostly positive reception at a community meeting Tuesday at the site of the facility on the city’s North End.

New superintendent Debra Livingston joined Mayor Ted Gatsas in laying out the plan for the center, which would serve as an alternative school for struggling students in grades five through eight.

The meeting was held at 1234 North River Road, a state-owned facility known as the Stark House.

The building has been vacant for more than two years, and the state is willing to lease the building to the city for a dollar a year. The proposal is up for a vote at today’s Executive Council meeting.

Gatsas said he was hopeful the center could be opened by the fall, but he said this would depend on being able to reallocate the state Medicaid dollars that he wants to use to fund the center. No money in the district’s 2014 budget has been set aside for the facility.

In response to a question from a resident concerning the center’s cost, Gatsas said: “I always have the taxpayer in mind in any decision, but I think this is going to be beneficial to the community and the city and the kids. If we can start early, that’s going to be a burden we’re not going to see later.”

The center would serve an estimated 25 to 30 students in its first year.Another resident who said he recently purchased a home in the well-to-do neighborhood said the project “sounds great,” but he said speeding cars on North River Road may pose a hazard.

“If we can make this a school zone, it could be win-win,” he said.

Another resident raised the concern that the center would divert teachers from already understaffed schools.

Gatsas said it was possible that some current teachers would work in the school, but he said the district would apply for grants to hire additional staff.

Superintendent Livingston said such a center would likely require staff with specialized training.

“This kind of setting, the staff would be specially trained to handle kids who have a tough time, who academically are well behind,” she said.

Gatsas also sought to draw a distinction between the center and the nearby Youth Development Center, which serves students with major behavioral problems. He maintained that the center would function like a school and students would be confined to the grounds. “This is going to be about kids sitting down and learning the ABC’s,” he said.

Resident Michelle Papanicolau, who works as an adviser at Nashua High School North, said having a center that caters to middle school-aged children was “a smart idea.”“Sometimes students act out because they don’t know what’s happening in the classroom, so they act out to be the behavior problem, not the one who’s not smart,” she said.

The meeting was organized by Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig and was attended by several school board members, including Dave Wihby, Kathy Staub and Sarah Ambrogi, along with Alderman Pat Long.

Executive Councilor Chris Pappas, who represents Manchester, said he was confident the council would approve leasing the facility to the city.

“I just think it’s important to serve this need in Manchester, especially with the disappearance of CHINS that really hurt our community,” Pappas said, referring to state budget cuts to the Children In Need of Services program.

Pappas added, “This building is going to be taken care of in a way it hasn’t been in the past couple years.”

Gatsas said he was hopeful that the program could be up and running in a matter of months, but he said the first step was to get control of the building.

“The worst thing that could happen is we don’t do anything with the building and pay the state three dollars rent over the next three years,” he

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