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What one N.H. principal says she’s learned after a tough school year

Principal Paula Jones (center) speaks with the Manchester School District's bilingual liaison Jenn Wilson (left) and the district's chief equity officer Tina Philibotte (right).
Sarah Gibson
Principal Paula Jones (center) speaks with the Manchester School District's bilingual liaison Jenn Wilson (left) and the district's chief equity officer Tina Philibotte (right).

Schools across New Hampshire are letting out for summer. In Manchester, the state’s largest school district, this week marks the end of the first full year of in-person learning since before the pandemic.

NHPR spoke with Principal Paula Jones of Henry Wilson Elementary School at the beginning of the school year about challenges with staffing shortages and students transitioning back to in-person learning. NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley checked in with her to see how the rest of the year went. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Rick Ganley: I know you mentioned in the fall that some students were having a hard time readjusting to the rules and routines of school. So how did it end up playing out over the rest of the year?

Paula Jones: So I definitely think that we had students who did continue to struggle. I would say it didn't feel like a normal start to a school year until probably close to December.

Rick Ganley: So tell me about some of those challenges and then some of the solutions you came up with.

Paula Jones: So some of the challenges are kids just sustaining their attention. I think that with the pandemic, you know, they could sit on their couch, they could sit in their bedroom. Maybe there wasn't as much supervision as there otherwise would be. So I think just getting them used to sitting at a desk, you know, two feet on the floor, and kind of what it was like to play with other kids, because some of our kindergarten students had not interacted with other kids outside of their own home.

Rick Ganley: We've heard a lot over the last year about staffing shortages at schools. Many districts have COVID relief funding to hire more staff, but having the funding is one thing, hiring and finding qualified applicants, that's another. What's that like for you as a principal?

Paula Jones: It's tough. We continue to struggle with paraprofessionals, especially. And as you may or may not know, paraprofessionals typically support our special education students for whatever they need support in, in the classroom. And when that person is not there, now you have a classroom teacher with upwards of 25 students and no extra help in their room. And you could have four or five, six kids that, you know, have paraprofessional support in their IEP. And that's tough. It's tough for me to see that the children that need the support aren't getting the support that they need in the classroom. And the teacher is doing her utmost best to do her magic, and it’s hard. It's really hard. And it's hard to justify to parents. If you're a parent of a student who needs support, that's tough to hear that we just can't hire anybody, like the help just isn't there.

Rick Ganley: So I know you told NHPR earlier this spring that you were operating with just three paraprofessionals when you really were looking for ten. So how has that panned out?

Paula Jones: Uh, still the same. And as a matter of fact, I have someone who is retiring and then I have another paraprofessional who is leaving to do full time grad school work. So I am losing two people, and I'm scared. I'm hopeful. We've advertised on our Facebook page. I've advertised on my personal Facebook page. There's a $1,000 sign on bonus and a $500 bonus after you stay for six months.

Rick Ganley: Okay. So signing bonuses. You know, you're obviously reaching out through all the circles that you have. But what do you think needs to change going forward for schools to find more teachers?

Paula Jones: So it's funny. I don't have a teacher shortage, which I'm a little bit shocked by. I will say that as far as the paraprofessional realm, and I may or may not have said this in the fall, the rate of pay is probably the biggest thing that holds people back. And I know that the board and the school district are working on hopefully raising that. So I think that will definitely help. And then I think we just have to keep hammering home and getting the word out there.

Rick Ganley: You know, Paula, one issue that many schools are facing because of the ongoing effects of the pandemic is the notion of learning loss or the idea that students are behind with kids out of routine, not in class. Are you worried about the implications as time goes on?

Paula Jones: I think at some point we have to continue to move forward. I do think this year was super hard. I do still think we probably have another one to three years before we can get a baseline of exactly what we're still looking at. But my hope is that in the next two years we can get every kid where they need to be and moving forward with this philosophy of backfilling and the consistency of school, right? Having 180 days in school this year was phenomenal, right? Yes, it took longer to feel like a normal school year, but we got there.

Rick Ganley: So you're hopeful the kids can get back to where they need to be?

Paula Jones: One hundred percent, I think that we have phenomenal teachers in this district. I think that we have phenomenal support from the SAU. We know what we need to do. We just need to get it done.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.

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