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August 21. 2013 8:56PM

Mark Hayward's City Matters: A new principal heads to West High


West High School principal Christopher Motika at the central office of his new high school. 

THANKS TO OUR temperate climate, we New Englanders experience the life cycle every year.

The abundance of summer, the repose of autumn, and — of course — the rebirth of spring. Poets and artists always look to spring as the proverbial season of renewal and rebirth.

But if you're between the ages of 6 and 18 (maybe a little older), the season of rebirth begins over these next two weeks. Time to jettison the foibles of the last school year and aim for an autumn of better grades, a starting position on the football team, or that student council seat.

And rebirth begins especially this year at West High School. The city's most troubled high school hopes to emerge from a year of faculty problems, poor student performance and rumored closings into a new day.

That new day begins with a new principal — Christopher Motika, a former assistant principal at Nashua North High School. He is 33, closer in age to his students than veteran teachers.

"He loves being around kids. His energy level meets or exceeds theirs," said David Ryan, the Nashua North principal who, by coincidence, is leaving his job to become assistant superintendent in Manchester.

He said he's seen Motika don a pair of sneakers and shoot basketball with kids if it will convince them to return to or stay in school.

"Chris likes to work with the student who has the least amount of advocacy because he wants to provide that advocacy for them," Ryan said.

The first year for a new principal should be pretty straightforward. Let the students know you're the boss. Get to know the faculty and the student leaders. Attend the big (and little) games, as well as school concerts and plays.

Of course, that is part of Motika's job description. But his checklist includes the school's dropout rate, which at 14 percent is the worst in the state. Then there's that nagging, intangible problem of West's self image.

"A lot of (his job) is culture and environment, bringing a sense of community back to the school," said West Side school board member and parent John Avard.

A Nashua native, Motika said his five years as assistant principal at Nashua North prepared him for the West job. He said the school's portion of minority and working class students resembles that of Nashua North.

Over the summer, he's lured back seven dropouts with promises of altered schedules or alternative learning models such as the VLACs computer-based courses. He has a folder with the background of another 80 dropouts on his desk.

When it comes to the school climate, not much has to change, Motika said. Rather, perception is the problem. Great things are happening at West, he said, and it's a matter of celebrating that. That makes his No. 1 job as West cheerleader.

"I'm a really positive person," Motika said in his office this week. "People have been shocked I'm still smiling seven weeks into the job."

Ryan and Avard are pleased with what they've seen of Motika already. He's met with Forrest Ransdell, the principal of the West Side's Parkside Middle School. He's met with former West principal (and mayor) Bob Baines. (Motika said he hasn't reached out to MaryEllen McGorry, the West principal forced from her job last school year for undisclosed reasons.)

And Motika and his wife have stolen a weekend evening to drive around the West Side to get a feel for the community. (Motika lives in Hudson and said he and his wife have talked about moving. They're not sure where.)

Jessica Weiss, a West English teacher, likes Motika's emphasis on academic and professional improvement. She said his youth should make him approachable to students. And he is an outsider; historically, Manchester leaders select insiders for the job of principal.

"He brings a freshness to the management of the school," Weiss said.

No one doubts the potential exists for West. Dust-covered plans at the central office call for converting West into a magnet school. It already hosts the city's only Junior ROTC program and a nationally recognized theater arts program, Avard said. He wants to see more magnet programs developed.

But there is a downside. With an exit plan now in place for Hooksett, voices will likely resurface to close West, which at 1,200 students is the city's smallest high school.

Avard said that won't happen.

But it will be easier to close West if dropout rates remain high, test scores stay low and school spirit remains as flat as a day-old mylar balloon.

If Motika succeeds, Avard acknoweldges, the notion of closing West goes away. And Avard, whose passion for West runs deep, said he is impressed with Motika.

"He's going to polish that gem over there," Avard said, "You watch, it's going to shine."

Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and on UnionLeader.com.


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