A Snapshot Of Manchester's Changing Schools

Oct 8, 2014

Manchester Central High School
Credit Geoff Forester, NHPR (file photo)

There's been no shortage of high-profile debates over the school system in New Hampshire's largest city.

In recent years there have been concerns about class sizes, academic standards and funding, to name just a few. And this week the Manchester Education Association voted against a proposed four year labor contract with the city.

A new report from the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies looks at how these issues and others have affected Manchester’s schools over the past decade. It’s called Manchester’s Education Benchmarks. The center’s Deputy Director, Daniel Barrick, joins All Things Considered to look at the report’s findings.

A lot of changes in the Manchester school district over the past decade – starting with demographics. What’s different in the makeup of the student population?

A number of things. One, it’s a more diverse student population. You’re seeing a higher share of African-American, Hispanic and Asian students. That’s happening across the country, certainly, and in New Hampshire, but that rate of change in Manchester is quite unique compared to the rest of the state.

You’re also seeing an increase in low income status among the student population- in other words, a greater share of students who are coming from households living at or close to the poverty line. That’s measured by the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, the federal lunch program. Again, that’s a national and a statewide trend, but in Manchester in large part, you’re seeing the number quite higher. In the most recent year for which we have data, about half of Manchester kids qualify for free or reduced lunch.

One of our goals was to take this data and present it in such a way that we could have a broader conversation in the community – that when information about standardized test scores or graduation rates come out, that it’s not just either, the superintendent and the principals did a good job or a bad job, but saying, as a community - Manchester businesses, nonprofits, parents and residents – what role do we all play in trying to ensure that kids in the city are getting a good education and being prepared for a successful life?

What are we seeing about standardized test performance in Manchester?

One of the things we looked at was what’s known as student subgroups - the achievement gap between kids from low-income backgrounds performing at lower rates. That’s been consistent over time, and the gaps remain steady. It’s similar for the gap between white students and nonwhite students, particularly African-American and Hispanic students.

And again, this is not a Manchester phenomenon. This so-called achievement gap has really bedeviled policymakers in education for years across the country. But I think understanding that some of the highest-growing student populations are maybe not achieving at the same rate that the district might want them to, understanding that phenomenon in light of the demographics, is really important.

And in light of the city’s very vocal debate about standardized tests and academic standards.

Right. In a lot of areas, New Hampshire, like most states, has a statewide education policy. The way we fund schools in New Hampshire is pretty standardized. When you have a district like Manchester, with a very unique set of circumstances, a very unique population within the state, are there areas in which a statewide policy – for instance, around funding – might not be meeting the goals of a district like Manchester, which has such a unique population and set of circumstances. That’s one of the [questions] I think is coming out of this [report].”

Now that the city has these benchmarks, what are the questions you’d like to see come up in the conversations about where Manchester schools go from here?

One is early childhood information – how well do we know the kind of access that young kids and their families have to quality day care and preschool and good public health services? Because so much is happening in those first three, four, five years that, as a state, we just don’t have a very good grasp of that.

The other thing is trying to understand and better link this career and college readiness, as kids are leaving the public school system – really trying to foster those links and those connections. This is a big effort – there are a lot of businesses in Manchester committed to trying to improve the skills and knowledge and preparedness of kids, but really trying to link that postsecondary data and those policy decisions to what’s going on K-12. There seems to be a lot of interest there as well.