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Dunbarton residents hear proposals for sending students to Goffstown, Bow

Roughly 200 people filed into the Dunbarton Elementary School gym last night to hear what it would mean and fully cost to ship their students to Bow rather than Goffstown beginning in 2014.

Parents, residents and a handful of students sat quietly for nearly two hours as the Dunbarton school board read through cost spreadsheets, legalese and detailed curriculum comparisons of the two proposals, and then fielded questions from the crowd.

The meeting was primarily informational, and questions stuck mostly to specifics such as classroom makeup and contractual obligations should Dunbarton move to Bow. The town will vote whether to renew its pact with Goffstown – where it sends middle and high school students – or sign a new one with Bow at its annual school board meeting this spring. The winning agreement will take effect July 1, 2014.

Despite the formality, an occasional comment was made, hinting at an array of perspectives within Dunbarton, which has been weighing the Bow proposal for more than a year.

“I have children who have gone through both programs,” Dunbarton resident Robert Tavis said. “We used to live in Bow and both were in high school there. One excelled. The other was lost – just really struggled. When we went to Goffstown, they were wonderful. They had a team and they worked with my daughter. She needed help and she got it at Goffstown.”

Karen Elsasser, a Dunbarton resident with a child in the sixth grade, said she saw that last year the middle school in Goffstown was ranked 46th out of 124 New Hampshire middle schools, while Bow’s was ranked fifth. “Every time, you talk about the high school,” she said, directing her comment to Goffstown Superintendent Stacy Buckley. “I’m not an educator – and I don’t claim to be one – but I know numbers, and the middle school is ranked 46th rather than fifth. That seems like a no-brainer.”

On paper, the two proposals offer a similar per-pupil cost to Dunbarton – between $9,000 and $13,000 depending on grade level and year. Goffstown is by far a larger district than Bow – last year its middle school had 908 students compared with Bow’s 472, and its high school had 1,191 students compared with Bow’s 522.

When asked about the philosophy used at his high school, Bow Superintendent Dean Cascadden pointed to the uniqueness of the program.

“It’s a very different school. It was built on the philosophy of heterogenous grouping. There’s no honors track, no middle track. All our students are put into the classes as part of a mixing,” he said, adding that students who wish to take on honors level work within a class are allowed to do so.

Cascadden also noted that many of the classes offered at Bow incorporate multiple subjects and therefore count as a kind of “double” class, with more students and multiple teachers and grades. “We don’t just teach chemistry and biology,” he said. “What we really teach is the scientific method. You take two years of ‘science’ rather than specific subjects. It’s different than what you’re probably used to. I know when I came in, I didn’t exactly know if this was going to work. But I can tell you I have become a believer in the last six years.”

Before the meeting Cascadden suggested that, at this point, much of the process is out of his hands.

“We’ve run all the numbers and now it’s a matter of getting out there and answering people’s questions,” he said.

Bow is vying for the Dunbarton population to make up for a steady enrollment decline. Since 2007, the high school has lost about 22.5 percent of its student body. Bringing in Dunbarton’s students would ensure the longevity of its current structure, Cascadden said.

“It’s not like a do or die for us, but we’d definitely like them to come over, because one, they are very similar to us, and two, they are going to allow us to continue offering students the best program possible,” he said.

Dunbarton residents will now tour the districts’ middle and high schools and hold another public forum. Meanwhile, the state education department has approved both proposals and each must also be approved by Bow and Goffstown voters separately before heading to Dunbarton.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319 or at jblackman@cmonitor.com)

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