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More conflict in Manchester over Common Core

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 14. 2013 12:08AM
From left, Kathy Peterson, Deborah Olszta and Doris Hohensee protest outside a Manchester Board of School Committee meeting Monday over the Common Core education standards. (TED SIEFER/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER - Opponents and supporters of Common Core squared off at a Board of School Committee meeting Monday over the education standards that have become the center of a national debate.

Four area activists spoke out against the Common Core, arguing that it would result in the federal government imposing a uniform and unsound educational system on communities across New Hampshire and the country.

An official with the state Department of Education, along with the DOE's 2012 "Teacher of the Year," defended the standards - and detractors' arguments found little support on the school board.

Several conservative groups, including the state organization Cornerstone Action, have opposed Common Core. It has also recently drawn criticism from teacher unions as assessment tests have been rolled out.

Deborah Olszta of Manchester has raised concerns about Common Core with city officials since early March.

"Your schools are being bought out by corporations," Olszta told the school board on Monday. "Private interests have invested millions to promote their corporate values that are not our own community values."

Doris Hohensee of Nashua said, "Common Core has a United Nations and global corporate agenda for the workforce that seeks to undermine America's founding principles."

Olszta and Hohensee home-schooled their kids.

Ann Marie Banfield, who as education director for Cornerstone New Hampshire has spoken out against Common Core before the state Legislature, also addressed the school board.

Heather Gage, the director of the Division of Instruction for the state DOE, maintained that the Common Core State Standards would allow teachers a great deal of flexibility.

"This is not a curriculum," she said. "Think of these standards as road maps. How we're going to get there is up to teachers."

New Hampshire is one of 46 states that have adopted the standards for math and English language arts, which have been pushed by the Obama administration as a way to develop nationwide standards and benchmarks for student achievement.

Gage said that no federal money was or would be withheld to pressure states to adopt Common Core.

Teacher of Year

Bethany Bernasconi, the "Teacher of the Year" winner, said she felt more empowered under Common Core to do her job. "Common Core is grounded in research. What we know about how kids learn has changed, and we'd be remiss if we did not integrate that into our practice," said Bernasconi, a science teacher at Windham High School.

School Superintendent Thomas Brennan also defended the new standards.

"It's not a decision foisted on us by the DOE," he said. "Oftentimes there's this idea Big Brother is telling us what to do, but here we have an impassioned educator telling us what a difference it makes," he said.

Mayor Ted Gatsas sought to allay concerns that the school board would soon be asked to make radical changes to its curriculum.

Citing his experience as a state senator, he said, "I don think the process is as close to being completed as you might think," he said. "I don't think anybody is going to call Manchester and say, 'Here is a curriculum you must implement.'"

The campaign against Common Core also drew criticism during the public comment period of the meeting from Jim O'Connell, president of the civic advocacy group Citizens for Manchester Schools.

"As a simple statement of fact, parents representing the PTOs in Manchester have been involved in developing those standards," he said.

Common Core became a topic of debate for the city school board when last month it approved a nearly $84,000 contract for a Boston-based company to train teachers in the elementary and middle schools in the curriculum standards.

The board's Curriculum and Instruction Committee will also discuss the standards at a meeting later this month.

Under the New Hampshire Department of Education's plan, school districts this fall must begin "instructional shifts" in math and English to meet the Common Core standards. Starting in the 2014 school year, districts will transition to the Smarter Balanced assessment tests, computer-based exams that are to take the place of the NECAP statewide testing system.

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