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Shuffling students between Manchester schools meets with opposition

New Hampshire Union Leader
New Hampshire Union Leader

April 22. 2013 11:50PM

MANCHESTER - Nearly 300 students on the east side may have to attend different schools in the fall if a redistricting plan moves forward in the coming weeks.

However, these changes, presented by Superintendent Thomas Brennan at public forums last week, will depend on several variables, including the willingness of the Board of School Committee to establish a central preschool facility.

Another component of the redistricting plan is to develop a "feeder" system so that each of the four middle schools are attended by students from the same cluster of elementary schools. Currently on the east side, some elementary schools send students to all four of the middle schools. This proposal would not take effect until 2014, at the earliest.

The most immediate part of the plan - to take effect in the fall - involves moving up to 294 students on the east side and another 66 on the West Side. The reassignments are meant to even out the building capacity in the schools, which varies considerably. The plan would shift blocks of certain streets or entire subdivisions that Brennan has referred to as "attendance islands" to a neighboring school zone.

East side plan

Under the plan for the east side, 16 students on Spruce Street between Wilson and Maple Streets would be moved from Beech Street School to Wilson Elementary; 36 students would be moved from Wilson to Jewett School in the area bordered by Somerville and Silver Streets and Maple and Belmont Streets. Another 36 students who live on Manchester Street between Maple and Hall Streets would go from Wilson to McDonough Elementary; 68 students would go from McDonough to Smyth Road Elementary in the neighborhood off Wellington Road bordered on the east by I-93. On the other side of the interstate, 138 students in the neighborhood around Karatzas Avenue would go from Weston to a school or schools that have yet to be determined.

Brennan's proposals are available on the district website:

1,200 students

Brennan has stressed that the reassignments are not set in stone. They will depend both on the board's position on a central preschool facility and an examination of the 1,200 students that now go to schools outside their attendance zone.

At the urging of some parents, Brennan is undertaking the analysis of the 1,200 students this week. Brennan said he believed most of the students had a hardship or special education plan that merited their attendance of schools outside their zone. "But if someone was allowed to go to another school for no reason, I think we should identify those kids and move them," he said.

Doing so could free up capacity in some of the schools and eliminate the need to move students street by street.

Central preschool

A central preschool could also eliminate the need for many of the school reassignments, since it would free up considerable space in three of the four elementary schools where preschool programs are held. Jewett Street Elementary has been mentioned as a possible site for a central facility, although converting and operating the space would likely come at a significant expense for the cash-strapped district.

"There's going to have to be a new principal, and the electricity, heat; it's going to cost a lot of money for an operating budget," Ward 9 school board member Art Beaudry said.

Beaudry is also critical of the plan for a middle school feeder system. He said that the proposal, by shifting most of the students at inner city elementary schools to Southside, would contribute to segregation.

"Southside would be 70 percent minority, and McLaughlin would be 70 percent caucasian," he said.

At-large school board member Kathy Staub said any student reassignments should be weighed carefully.

"Schools aren't just warehouses; they're communities. If you're going to move a student from one place to another, there has to be a good reason, and it has to do with improving the delivery of educational services."

Similar views were expressed by parents at the public meetings last week.

"My granddaughter was like, 'I'm going to lose all my friends and teachers,'" said one of the people who attended the forum at Southside Middle School Thursday. "I don't want her with inner city kids who seem to have potty mouths."

'Kids are resilient'

Brennan acknowledged that redistricting is upsetting. "I think communities can be reestablished. It's often the parents who are the most upset. Kids are resilient," he said.

Several redistricting plans have been proposed over the past decade, and each has foundered in the face of community resistance and school board opposition.

Brennan, who is stepping down at the end of this school year, said he's aware that redistricting plans have come and gone.

"We keep talking about this, and then the next thing we know, we're back where we were, and we don't make those hard decisions. I have the advantage that I'm leaving. You're going to blame me anyway," he said.

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