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Manchester superintendent kills controversial redistricting plan following parental opposition

April 18. 2014 12:43PM

MANCHESTER — The city's school superintendent said opposition from parents was the major factor in her decision to kill a redistricting plan that would have turned elementary students out of a neighborhood school and turned a nearby middle school into a program from students from kindergarten through grade 8.

The plan would have turned the Jewett Street Elementary School into a city-wide pre-school and assigned students from kindergarten through grade 8 to the Southside Middle School.

Superintendent Debra Livingston said Friday her decision came after meetings with parents from the Jewett and Southside schools who were upset with proposed changes in their neighborhood.

"I am a listener and an analyzer and there came a point where I just could not see a way that we can make this work," Livingston said. "It's time to say thank you for your comments and move forward."

Jewett Street parents had rallied in opposition, organizing a Save the Jewett group and presenting their case to Livingston and other administrators.

Michael Porter, a Jewett parent, said the group was blunt in a session with the superintendent.

"We had a long meeting," he said. "I said until the Jewett Street closure was off the table, it was going to be very difficult to go forward in the process," Porter said. "She said she was not going to close her mind to anything."

Livingston said the input from parents was the primary factor in her decision.

"They made very good points as to why they wanted to keep their community school and were not interested in the K-8 concept," Livingston said. "After hearing that, we decided we would go in a different direction."

Some School Board members chimed in with opposition as well, although the plan did have some board support.

Member Arthur Beaudry represents Ward 9, which includes some students who attend the Jewett located in adjoining Ward 8.

Beaudry agrees that it was parents who carried the day on the issue.

"You have to give the credit to the parents who sent their children to that school," Beaudry said. "They definitely organized and went on social media and wrote letters to the superintendent and the school board and they were heard."

Livingston said the idea of a school covering kindergarten through eighth grade — with an age range from 5 years old to early adolescence — is not necessarily dead, but she realizes it can't be imposed on parents.

"Tomorrow we could have a group of parents come in and say 'we would like to try a K-8,'" Livingston said. "I have seen extremely successful K-8s, it's all in the design and the support of the community."

One problem for parents in the redistricting plan was that it was proposed as a way to alleviate overcrowding in some schools, and to find a way for the city to retire the 17 portable classrooms that now serve about 500 students. But, the parents said, it also included major changes in school philosophy.

"They were talking redisticting but what was being proposed was not redistricting, it was a massive re-configuration," Porter said.

Work will now begin to come up with another redistricting plan for the district.

Livingston said administrators will work on a revised proposal and then make presentations at neighborhood schools to hear what parents think.

Jewett parent Jimmy Lehoux said the parents who organized in opposition to the first plan will keep an eye on the redistricting process in the fall.

"We definitely can't relax," Lehoux said.

Beaudry said the decision to start over shows that parents can have an impact on the schools.

"It just goes to show that when people rise up to the occasion, they will be heard," he said.

The superintendent said her administrative team will take the sessions in the neighborhoods seriously, as an element in ending the years-long struggle over redistricting city schools.

"We sell it by getting input," Livingston said. "The more people that look at it, the better it would be."

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