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August 23. 2014 10:03PM

Nashua high schools taking on new programs, teachers


Charlotte Ave. Elementary School teacher Jackie McKnight, above, hands out new toothbrushes and notebooks to a crowd of children at Nashua's annual Back to School night at the Nashua Public Library. (BARBARA TAORMINA/Union Leader Correspondent)


 

Nashua High South Principal Keith Richard spent the past couple months in his quiet, empty school working with teachers and staff on the many new programs and initiatives that are coming to the city's school district.

Richard said it was a great summer, but now everyone is "ready to roll."

"The thing I like best about the first day back is just to have the halls filled with kids again," said Richard. "It's a great feeling because everyone gets a fresh start."

Richard and other school principals shared their opening-day optimism with students and parents Thursday at Nashua Public Library during Back to School Night, an annual celebration of the start of school which, this year, hits Tuesday morning.

Sponsored by the Nashua Chamber of Commerce, Back to School Night gave parents and students a chance to reconnect with friends and pick up fresh notebooks, crayons, pencils and other free school supplies courtesy of local businesses and community organizations.

Nashua schools are heading into a year of big changes, including the first round of the Common Core Standards-based Smarter Balanced assessment tests next spring.

The high schools are launching new Career and Tech Education programs as well as introducing E-Block, a scheduling change that will give students 35 minutes each day to receive extra help from teachers, to do make-up work and participate in enrichment programs.

Schools are testing out a new competency-based grading system that they hope to roll out in September 2015. Broad Street Elementary School is in the middle of a major makeover and the administration is fine-tuning its new evaluation process for teachers.

Nobody looked worried about all the change. Teachers, students and staff seemed ready to welcome it all.

"I think the biggest change will be the E-Block," said Nashua North Principal Marianne Busteed. "Students will finally have time to do something they want, whether it's to get extra help with a subject, take an SAT prep class or go to a club meeting."

E-Block moves all the things that have been traditionally scheduled for after school up to the middle of the school day so students with jobs and other commitments can participate.

"In terms of building a positive school culture, it's huge," said Busteed.

At the elementary and middle schools, teachers are working with newly-designed academic programs.

"We are focusing on student writing and math that supports the Common Core Standards," said Jackie Okonak, assistant principal at Broad Street Elementary. "We are working on how to help students become independent learners."

Superintendent Mark Conrad said the changes are part of a slate of long-term goals that have been several years in the making.

"The most significant change will be the implementation of the Smarter Balanced assessment tests," he said.

Some teachers, parents and members of the community have opposed the new tests, saying students have not had time to adjust to the new curriculum that will be the basis of the exams. Many worry that Nashua will see its student test scores plummet.

But Conrad and other Common Core supporters believe Nashua's students and teachers are ready for a shift to more challenging academics.

"It's going to be a long journey," said Conrad, who added that administrators aren't going to be looking just at individual test scores.

"We are thinking in terms of continuous improvement," he said. "We are staying with things and watching them progress."

Conrad said the district has hired 60 teachers, including two who will lead a new Junior ROTC Air Force program for students at both schools.

The district has also overhauled its Graphic Designs and Visual Communications programs, investing more than $100,000 in creating a new design center at Nashua High South.

There is also a new Hospitality and Hotel Management program.

Nashua took over the program at Brentwood School in Merrimack, and will be running a small program for 16 special needs students there.

Although changes in the district's grading system and report cards are coming, Conrad said this year, teachers will be working on the new grading behind the scenes. New report cards will make their debut next year.

Although there are thousands of moving pieces to orchestrate on the opening day of school, Conrad said on Tuesday morning he will be carefully watching the same thing he worries about every year.

"My biggest worry is the students and the busses," he said. "I am always making sure students are getting on the right busses and getting off at the right stops."


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