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Hillside home to smallest middle school classes in Manchester

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 17. 2014 11:00PM

MANCHESTER — School district officials are puzzled that class crowding has been largely eliminated at Hillside Middle School while remaining a major problem at the city’s other three middle schools.

Nearly 80 classes in the middle schools are crowded by the state standard of 30 students per teacher. The greatest number of crowded classes, 37, is at McLaughlin Middle School, according to enrollment numbers shared with the school board last week. There are 23 crowded classes at Parkside, and 17 at Southside. Only two classes at Hillside exceed 30 students.

The head of the Hillside Parent Teacher Organization, Jim O’Connell, is also the president of school advocacy group Citizens for Manchester Schools. Last year he was outspoken in calling on city and school officials to address the crowding issue. The discrepancy in middle school class sizes led one school board member last week to speculate the “squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

O’Connell said on Monday that he had no explanation for why classes were considerably smaller at Hillside.

“Clearly the administration is aware we keep close scrutiny on what’s going on at Hillside,” he said, adding, “I was appalled to hear the numbers were as high as they were at the other schools.”

24.2 kids in math classes

District officials did not initially release the class size data to the public, but on Monday they provided numbers to the New Hampshire Union leader that were largely the same as those released to the school board last week. The numbers show a significant difference between the average class size at Hillside and the other schools.

For example, the average math class at McLaughlin, excluding special education-oriented courses, is 30 students, whereas at Hillside it’s 24.2. Assistant Superintendent David Ryan said neither he nor Superintendent Debra Livingston knew why class sizes at Hillside were lower.

“We were not part of the administration team that worked on the staffing plan last year,” Ryan said in an email. “We began working on next year’s staffing plan in January and feel confident in our approach to ensuring reasonable class sizes that meet the state’s minimum standards for school approval.”

The district recently hired two substitute teachers who have been placed in crowded English and Math classes at McLaughlin to “team teach.”

The school board has urged the administration to use part of a $830,000 budget surplus to hire more middle school teachers.

Hillside’s active PTO

Compared to the other middle schools, Hillside is located in a well-off part of the city, north of Bridge Street next to Derryfield Park. Hillside is also the beneficiary of an extraordinarily active and supportive PTO. Last year, the group raised $32,000. O’Connell said he believed the group may have surpassed that amount following its annual fundraiser on Friday.

“We had a huge turnout, lots of parents, and that includes a significant number of elected representatives,” O’Connell said.

But O’Connell stressed that the PTO’s support went toward computers and technology at the school, not staffing.

Compared to the other middle schools, Hillside is moderately more wealthy, less diverse and has fewer non-native English speakers. Hillside is 69.5 percent white; 46 percent of its students receive free or reduced-price lunch, according to state Department of Education data. McLaughlin, by comparison, is 63 percent white; 51.5 percent of students receive subsidized meals.

Large classes have proven to be one of the district’s most vexing issues, prompting leaders in Hooksett and Candia last year to take steps to end its high school tuition contract with the city.

A showdown at Hillside in the fall of 2012 set the stage for what would become the dominant issue facing the school board that year. O’Connell informed media outlets that two classes at Hillside had more than 40 students and might pose a safety hazard.

Mayor Ted Gatsas at the time defended school staffing levels.

Citizens for Manchester Schools has not pressed the issue of class sizes so far this year. O’Connell said CMS wanted to give the new administration a chance to “solve the problem.”

“I’m disturbed by the fact that when we weren’t screaming at the public representatives of the city ... they sat back and allowed the problem to fester,” he

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