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Moving fifth-graders top concern at Manchester redistricting forum

By PAUL FEELY
New Hampshire Union Leader

February 21. 2018 10:40PM




MANCHESTER — Questions on cost and the merits — as well as feasibility — of moving fifth graders into middle schools were the top concerns raised by attendees of a public forum Wednesday night on the draft redistricting proposal unveiled last week by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bolgen Vargas.

Twenty-eight people attended the forum, held at the Middle School at Parkside.

Wednesday night’s forum was the first of nine such presentations planned across the district between now and March 28. The next two in the series take place March 7, after students return to class following February vacation week — at 7:30 a.m. at Webster Elementary School, followed by a second session later the same day, from 6 to 7 p.m. at Northwest Elementary School.

“Involving the community and addressing concerns during this process is critical for success of any plan,” said Dr. Vargas. “The feedback we receive will help shape the final recommendations.”

Vargas presented six draft redistricting recommendations to the Board of School Committee on Feb. 12 focused on:

• Replicating “personalized learning opportunities” in place at Parker-Varney Elementary School in West Side schools

• Establishes grades 5-8 middle school model, moving fifth-graders into the city’s four middle schools

• Reducing class sizes

• Adjusting the school feeder pattern to send Beech Street and Wilson elementary students to McLaughlin Middle School and Manchester High School Central

• Creating a preschool center in underutilized space at Memorial High School

• And repurposing surplus space at city high schools.

According to Vargas, early findings from a facilities study conducted by local firm CMK Architects show there is enough space in the four middle schools to accommodate students in grades 5 through 8.

Ward 12 Alderman Keith Hirschmann attended the forum, and asked Parkside Principal Forrest Ransdell if it was feasible to add 10 classrooms of 5th-graders to the school, as proposed under Vargas’ plan.

“The capacity of the building is around 900 students, and this would put us right around 900,” said Ransdell. “The configuration of the building as it currently sits would not adequately support the proposal. To segregate the building by grade would require moving between 30 and 34 rooms.”

Ransdell said he and other school staff are already looking at ways to accommodate 5th-graders at the school.

“We’ve identified seven or eight things involving building modifications that will be necessary to do this,” said Ransdell. “Some things will be very simple.”

Additional space created by moving fifth-graders to the middle schools will allow for smaller class sizes in kindergarten through fourth grades, Vargas said.

According to data presented by Vargas, Manchester High School Central is at 66 percent capacity; Memorial is at 75 percent capacity, West is at 50 percent capacity now, but is projected to be at 75 percent capacity after the district offices move there. In addition, all 14 of the city’s elementary schools are near 100 percent capacity, according to Vargas.

School board Vice Chairman Art Beaudry closed the forum by asking if any in attendance were opposed to having 5th-graders attend the middle schools. Not a single person raised a hand.

Vargas also discussed plans to establish a preschool center in surplus space at Memorial High School. Preschool students currently attend five elementary schools and the Bishop O’Neil Community Center.

According to Vargas, centralizing pre-K programs would allow for more collaboration between teachers, and therapists to use their time with students more efficiently. Vargas said the preschool center could also help streamline preschool transportation services, and reduce costs to the district.

Under the draft proposal, the O’Neil Center would remain open for preschool.

Vargas is scheduled to present the final version of his redistricting proposal to the Board of School Committee by early April.

Vargas said the plan would be to implement the proposal — if approved by the full board later this spring — in two parts. Part one, including the grades 5-8 middle school model and K-4 elementary schools on the West Side, could be in place by September 2018 at a cost of $1.5 million. Fifth grade moves to middle school on the East Side would happen in 2019 and 2020 under the proposal.

For a full list of scheduled redistricting forums, visit www.mansd.org.


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