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Gaining ground: School choice advocates poised to make greater strides with State House support

  • Students Aaron Goudreault (front), 19, and Brandon Jaffe, 18, do classwork at CSI Charter High School in Penacook late last month. The students at CSI set their own schedules. Xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Junior Michael Olivero, 16, tests his robot at TEAMS Charter School in Penacook on Feb. 23. Olivero is writing code that instructs his robot to follow a curved line and move specific distances. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Senior Cory Logsdon, 17, builds a robot gear box as part of his senior project at TEAMS Charter School in Penacook on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. Olivero is writing code that instructs his robot to follow a curved line and move specific distances. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Student Robbie Crane, 20, takes notes while watching an online biology lecture at CSI Charter High School in Penacook on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Student Robbie Crane, 20, takes notes while watching an online biology lecture at CSI Charter High School in Penacook on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Cory Logsdon, 17, builds a robot gear box as part of his senior project at TEAMS Charter School in Penacook on Feb. 23. Olivero is writing code that instructs his robot to follow a curved line and move specific distances. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Junior Michael Olivero, 16, updates his robot via his computer at TEAMS Charter School in Penacook on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. Olivero is writing code that instructs his robot to follow a curved line and move specific distances. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Junior Michael Olivero, 16, tests his robot at TEAMS Charter School in Penacook on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. Olivero is writing code that instructs his robot to follow a curved line and move specific distances. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Saturday, March 04, 2017

On Tuesday mornings at the TEAMS Charter School in Penacook, students get to try their hand at robotics.

Brandon Golec, a senior, places a four-wheeled modular robot on the ground and turns it on. The robot moves forward, following a black line scotch-taped to the floor. Success. Next up is Michael Olivero, a junior. But his robot swings dramatically from side-to-side while moving forward slowly.

“It’s overcorrecting,” he said, picking up the whirring, struggling robot.

“It’s an iterative process,” Dan Larochelle, the instructor, encouraged him.

Larochelle is also the advanced manufacturing chair at Manchester Community College, and he said the problem-solving and programming skills the students are learning now will be marketable – robots are using just this sort of technology to navigate streets and warehouses.

By the time Larochelle is done talking, Olivero has it figured out. And it only took “49 attempts and failing to listen to basic instructions,” he jokes.

The learning process at TEAMS on this day mirrors the growth of New Hampshire’s charter schools in recent years – there’s trial and error, a need for ingenuity and ultimately forward momentum. After years of steadily gaining ground, school choice advocates are poised to make even greater inroads, nationally and locally. And here in New Hampshire, choice has the staunch support of the governor, the commissioner of education, and Republican leaders at the State House.

The number of students in charter school is still relatively small in the Granite State – but it’s growing. It’s increased more than six-fold in the past 10 years, with 24 schools now currently operating with a little over 3,400 students collectively.

Each charter typically opens with a particular type of curriculum or student in mind. Some revolve around science, others reading – even the Western canon.

But one type of charter has also emerged as a strategy for getting kids struggling to make it through high school on a path to graduation, and three such charters exist in the Capital region. They’re CSI and TEAMS in Penacook, and PACE Career Academy in Allenstown.

CSI is for older students – 17 to 21 – many of whom have already dropped out once. TEAMS serves at-risk kids with an interest in science and engineering, and PACE takes at-risk students mostly from towns east of Concord. Here’s how, despite scant resources, they’re making it work.

A shoestring budget

Both CSI and TEAMS rely on adequacy payments from the state for the bulk of their funding, although the schools also received federal start-up grants to open. That means the schools get about $6,600 per student to operate, and that’s it. Traditional public schools get less from the state, but make up the difference with local property taxes, and spend, on average, about $15,000 per student.

The result is a bare-bones operation: no cafeteria, no extracurriculars (although students can partake at their home high school), and online-heavy instruction. Most notably, both schools rely entirely on part-time staff, including for its teachers.

At CSI, the director, Jim Gorman, said the school is on decent financial ground. They’ve been able to recruit almost all retired teachers, who don’t want benefits anyway. And students don’t need extracurriculars, because they’re often living independently and busy working or taking care of children. Its enrollment has also been healthy.

“We’re luckier than schools who operate more conventionally. Because the funding isn’t enough to run a school in the conventional sense,” he said.

At TEAMs, director George Rogers is eyeing his budget a little more nervously. The school has a relatively niche target demographic, on top of being in a relatively remote location. That’s meant it’s been tough to recruit as many students as the school had hoped.

A bill is winding its way through the Legislature right now that would tie charter funding to how much traditional public schools are spending per student, bumping up adequacy payments to $8,200 in the first year. Gov. Chris Sununu in his budget has backed a similar proposal, allotting an extra $15 million to charters statewide over the biennium.

At his office at CSI, Gorman takes out his phone and calculates what that could mean for his school.

“We could probably make it with that,” he said. “That’s the difference for us.”

At PACE, the funding picture is a little different. The school is the only district-sponsored charter in the state, and is authorized by SAU 53, which houses the Pembroke, Allenstown, Chichester, Deerfield, and Epsom school districts. For students from those districts, PACE gets a little under $10,000 per student in tuition from their home school districts. For students that come from other districts – like, say, Concord or Hooksett –the school gets the lower state adequacy grants.

The extra cash has meant much less reliance on online coursework compared to TEAMS and CSI – and four full-time teachers, along with three paraeducators and two AmeriCorps members.

But even though he can offer full-time work, the school’s director, Martin Castle, worries recruitment could be difficult when one of his teachers leaves now that the economy is better.

Compared to traditional public schools, the school offers substantially lower wages. He estimates that his most senior faculty member could probably get $15,000 to $20,000 more a year in a traditional district.

Cheaper labor costs are also built in to the model. It’s why the charter was started in the first place.

“The public school system is based on a much higher cost for faculty than we pay. That’s one reason Pembroke said we need a charter school. They had looked at an internal alternative charter school and realized it was going to cost them a lot of money,” he said.

But staff aside, Castle said he’d like to see more funding to expand programming. A lot of his students would like to do some work around food and nutrition, but the school doesn’t have a kitchen. With extra money, he thinks he could put it in.

One-on-one

Both staff and students usually pointed to one-on-one attention as the school’s best attribute, whether at PACE, TEAMS, and CSI. Kids often reported having felt overwhelmed or ignored at their old school, where teachers just couldn’t stop to help them with dozens of other students commanding their attention. All three schools – like many New Hampshire charters – are tiny, with just a few dozen students apiece.

“Our engineering program is not unique,” Rogers said. “It comes down to a small environment.”

Take Jeffrey Reynolds, a student at PACE in his second year at the school.

By his own admission, Jeffrey used to get into a lot of trouble at Pembroke Academy. That’s why he figured the school’s administrators kept suggesting he try out PACE.

“I thought they were just trying to get rid of me at first. Just trying to get me out of their school because they didn’t like me,” he said. “But then I realized that they were just trying to help me out.”

When he’s asked why he got into trouble so much, he thinks for a moment.

“I just needed more help. They couldn’t offer that. So I’d give up on anything hard because a teacher wouldn’t come over to me for 10 minutes. I’d sit there holding my hand up and I’d get tired. So I’d just walk out,” he said.

At PACE, things are different. Jeffrey said he gets one-on-one support, and that teachers don’t rush him to move on if he doesn’t understand. For the first time in his life, he’s gotten on the honor roll.

“They want to help me. So I want to do better for myself,” he said.

Over at TEAMS, Bailey Brown echoes Jeffrey. TEAMS does basically all of its non-engineering coursework online, and she said that while it can be distracting to work online a lot, but that on the whole, she’s learning better than she would have otherwise.

There’s always a teacher in the room, and fewer than ten kids working on computers. When somebody gets stuck, they can ask for help.

“Smaller schools have always been better for me,” she said. “They’re more one-on-one. And CHS is humongous.”

Her classmate, Brad Bissonnette, agrees. Here, he’s not being “pushed through.”

“You can stop and actually figure out what you’re doing wrong,” he said.

‘Too much drama’

Larry Boucher teaches science and lower-level math at CSI. A retired teacher who spent time at the Merrimack Valley and Concord school districts, Boucher was initially reticent to come on board. He was worried the school would be a discipline nightmare.

“Boy was I wrong,” he said.

In fact, Boucher said, the “number one reason” students told them they’d left their high school was because they felt the climate there was dysfunctional.

“Usually it comes down to drama. Too much drama in the high school,” he said.

That’s exactly what Courtney Dion, a PACE student in her first year at the school, also said.

“I could not deal with drama at school, at all. That was a big distraction for me,” she said. That’s why she opted to homeschool for eighth and ninth grade before coming to PACE.

For Courtney, drama meant “a lot of unnecessary meanness” and “a lot of bullying.”

At PACE, Courtney said fights between students and bullying are shut down immediately by staff. And often, staff will stage a mini-intervention to make students work out their issues.

“You get called into Martin’s office. Things get talked through. The other person who you’re fighting with gets pulled in and you talk it out,” she said.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)