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August 29. 2012 1:07AM

Manchester students head back to school today


Weston School Librarian Betsy McCombs prepares for the start of school in Manchester today. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER — Following months of political turmoil over budgets, Manchester schools begin the 2013 school year today, with thinned ranks of teachers and larger classrooms for students.

School officials and teachers tried to put a positive spin on the school environment when interviewed Tuesday. But they acknowledged challenges and shortcomings for this year.

“It's kind of like I'm ready for whatever they throw at us,” said Tracy Muehling, a business and marketing teacher in her 12th year at West High School. “There's not much we can do about it. We just have to be here for the kids. They shouldn't have to suffer because of politics.”

The Manchester Education Association has said the school district has 153 fewer teachers and psychologists this year.

The middle and high school levels will be most affected, school officials have said.

Numerous classes will exceed 30 students — 160 alone at Central High School.

Meanwhile, larger class sizes at elementary schools have allowed officials to mothball portable classrooms at three schools.

“Everyone seems to be guardedly optimistic,” said School Superintendent Tom Brennan, who toured schools Tuesday. “I sense we're going to find a way to get this done. I don't like it, they don't like it, but their priority is working with children.”

As the largest school district in the state, Manchester counted 15,582 students as of last week.

Although classes will be larger, they will be headed by experienced teachers, who know how to handle large classes, Memorial Principal Arthur Adamakos said.

“When you're a veteran you know how to roll with the punches; they know how to do their best,” he said.

Most of his inexperienced teachers have been laid off, he said.

Students can expect to wait longer before getting tests, papers and other assignments back from their teachers. Delays can be expected most in English, mathematics, social studies and Spanish, the principal said.

Adamakos said guidelines call for feedback within 72 hours, but it could be a week or more.

He said larger-sized classes will also make it more difficult for students to drop a scheduled class and transfer to another.

At West High School, teachers said classroom study halls have been canceled, and students will attend study hall in the cafeteria.

In middle schools, language arts will be compressed to a single class, as opposed to the separate reading and writing classes of previous years.

“I actually see it as an opportunity for students to write about what they read in the same class,” said Assistant Superintendent Michael Tursi. “Now it's more of an integrated approach.”

Middle schools will make a separate reading class available to students who struggle with language arts, he said.

Fewer opportunities will be available in unified arts — the non-core classes such as gym, family-consumer science, technology and art.

While high school and middle school students will have opportunities for such classes, they may not have access to every year in school, Tursi said.

The English Language Learner program has undergone a few tweaks.

Two teachers have moved from Central to Memorial High school, which will allow Memorial to provide direct instruction to ELL students, Tursi said.

At Central, ELL students will be mainstreamed into math classes. Meanwhile, the district will take this year to review the entire program and curricula.

Advocacy groups have called for an elimination of a magnet school for ELL learners and faster mainstreaming into traditional classes.

Over the summer, city workers installed aluminum decking, stairways and railings outside the portable classrooms identified as potentially hazardous this past spring. Officials examined decks after a collapse at Beech Street School; several students were injured.

Kevin O'Malley, director of city facilities, said portables at Beech, McDonough and Green Acres were decommissioned because of larger class sizes.

That meant that space in the portables was not needed, he said.

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Mark Hayward may be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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