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NH Families Continue Using EFAs to Flee Failing Public Schools

Manchester mom Saverna Ahmad knew her children needed a lot more than what they were getting at their public high schools, but she didn’t have a lot of options.

“At other schools, my kids had to go with the pace. They were bored,” she said.

Manchester’s school district is struggling to educate all students, whether they need advanced courses or remedial help. In some cases, the district is failing. 

When the New Hampshire Department of Education released the mandated list of Comprehensive Support and Improvement Schools — the lowest-performing five percent of all schools in the state receiving Title I, Part A funds — three of these failing schools are in Manchester: Beech Street School, Henry Wilson Elementary School, and Parker-Varney School.

The state DOE has identified 19 schools across New Hampshire as Comprehensive Support and Improvement Schools, including high schools with a four-year graduation rate of less than 67 percent. Those schools are now eligible for a share of $3.7 million in additional federal funding.

“To help aid with continued progress, the New Hampshire Department of Education will offer ongoing reviews, technical assistance, and monitoring to support each CSI school with its improvement efforts,” said Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut.

In Manchester, the Middle School at Parkside, Southside Middle School, and Manchester West High School are all in the Department of Education’s Targeted Support and Improvement plan.

But until recently, working parents like Ahmad had limited options if their children were attending failing schools like these. Both her children, now teens, are gifted and ready for advanced classes that are unavailable in Manchester’s school district. In fact, the only solution her son’s teachers could come up with was to simply graduate him after his sophomore year in high school and get him into college.

“I don’t want him to go to college at 17,” she said. “As a mom, I don’t think he’s ready to graduate.”

Ahmad knew there were schools in and around Manchester that could offer her son and daughter the education they needed, but she couldn’t afford them. Private school tuition was simply out of reach until Ahmad learned about the Education Freedom Account program.

“I didn’t know this kind of thing existed until Shalimar (Encarnacion, with the Children Scholarship Fund NH) reached out, and now I’m an ambassador,” she said.

New Hampshire’s EFA program awards need-based grants to families they can use to pay for tutoring, necessary educational hardware, extracurricular classes, private school tuition, and home school supplies. For Ahmad and her children, it meant a lifeline to opportunity.

“Coming from a salary where you don’t have much, it allows us to give the kids a break, and they can grow and enjoy their education,” she said. “As a mom, it makes me feel like the kids are where they need to be.”

It may not take a mathematical genius to understand that as Manchester’s public schools continue to fail students, more families like Ahmad’s are going to seek another solution. This year, EFA enrollment went up 20 percent to 4,211 students. Of that total, 1,577 students are new to the program. 

“It has been three years since the launch of New Hampshire’s successful Education Freedom Account program, and it is apparent that New Hampshire families are taking advantage of this tremendous opportunity that provides them with different options and significant flexibility for learning,” Edelblut said.

But EFA’s popularity is a problem for state Democrats and their teacher union allies. Meg Tuttle, president of the New Hampshire NEA, wants families in public schools to stay put.

“Taxpayer funds should be spent to resource neighborhood public schools to ensure they are desirable places to be and to learn, where students’ natural curiosity is inspired,” Tuttle said in a statement.

According to data from the Department of Education, New Hampshire’s EFA system is cost-efficient. Taxpayers are handing over a little more than $22 million this school year for EFA grants, about $5,255 per student on average. The cost per pupil for public schools is close to $20,000, sometimes more. If all the EFA students switched to public schools, it would increase taxpayer costs by another $63 million.

Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington, a Democrat running for governor, promises to end the EFA program if elected and kick all of the students out of the school of their choice. Poor parents who want to send their kids to private schools would be out of luck.

“We don’t take taxpayer dollars to subsidize private schools,” Warmington told WMUR.

Both of Warmington’s children attended the elite Tilton School for secondary education, an independent boarding and preparatory school in New Hampshire. Tilton charges $38,500 for day school and nearly $67,000 for boarding school.

Warmington is a retired partner with the prestigious and politically connected Shaheen & Gordon law firm. Her husband, William Christie, is a partner at the firm. Partners in law firms maintain part ownership and take a percentage of the firm’s overall profit.

The EFA grants are available to New Hampshire families who earn no more than 350 percent of the federal poverty level. For Ahmad, EFA means her children have opportunities to succeed in school and in life. These are opportunities she could not afford on her own.

“It levels the playing field,” Ahmad said.

Somersworth Mayor Truant from School Job

Fall is here, and students are back in their classrooms, but Somersworth’s Assistant School Superintendent Dana Hilliard is still not in the building.

Hilliard, who is also the city’s long-time Democratic mayor,  was scheduled to return to his school job Monday after months of leave over alleged unethical conduct. That was until last week, when 94 percent of the local teachers union, the Somersworth Association of Educators, voted against him coming back.

There are currently no calls for Hilliard to leave his elected position as mayor despite allegations of conflicts of interest. In Somersworth, the mayor and city council have the final vote on approving the school budget, meaning Hilliard essentially votes to pay tax dollars to himself.

“If he were a Republican, people would be after his hide,” said Ken Hilton, a Republican who made an unsuccessful bid to unseat Hilliard.

The union’s no-confidence vote does not have any force of law on Hilliard’s job. But the resolution makes clear the tension in the community over Hilliard.

“I do not have confidence in Dana Hilliard’s ability to be an effective leader in the Somersworth School District,” the union’s resolution reads. “I do not want Dana Hilliard to return to work in the Somersworth School District because his history of behavior shows that he makes it more difficult for educators to achieve the District’s mission, which is ‘to inspire all students to excel, to develop a thirst for knowledge, and to teach the essential skills necessary to be caring, contributing, and responsible individuals in an ever-changing world.’”

Hilliard went on paid leave this spring after district employees filed a complaint over his treatment of staff. Superintendent Lori Lane, also named in the staff complaints, also went on leave. Lane resigned this summer. 

Interim Superintendent Lou Goscinski declined to discuss details of Hilliard’s job status when contacted by NHJournal on Tuesday.

“He remains out on leave, but I cannot discuss the type of leave,” Goscinski said.

Goscinski confirmed Hilliard is on paid leave, meaning he is still collecting his taxpayer-funded school salary, which clocks in at more than $100,000 a year.

Hilliard declined to respond to requests for comment.

Hilton said Hilliard and his family are well-known and liked in the community, and the situation surrounding the mayor is sad. Hilton claimed that Partisan politics of power override what’s best for the city residents.

“Democrats never resign in disgrace; they just keep going,” Hilton said. “If you’ve no standards, who’s to say that’s wrong?”

An independent report found Hilliard and Lane yelled at and belittled staff members in private meetings after those staffers voiced opposition to proposed budget cuts at public school board meetings. One teacher told the investigator she was afraid of Hilliard. Other staff members said Hilliard was known to yell and throw things at people when he was angry.

Teachers also told the investigator Hilliard was mired in an obvious conflict of interest in his job and his position as the mayor. According to the report, Hilliard kept his elected city position in mind when he made budget decisions for the school. Hilliard would cut staff and programs at the school rather than make those cuts in the city or raise taxes, the report states.

Hilliard, director of operations for the district, reports to the school superintendent, not the school board. That means the board is unable to fire him. Lane could have fired Hilliard, and now Goscinski can fire him.

Hilton said there is still time for Hilliard to do the right for the people of Somersworth. It might be time for someone else to step into the city leadership role.

“I have been praying Dana would repent and choose to do what is right and good,” Hilton said. “You want to see good leaders in there.”

Prenda Kindling Fires of Learning, But NH Public Schools Take a Pass

Kelly Smith is on a mission to change how children are educated, giving them the tools they need to learn and strive for a better life.

Smith is the founder and CEO of Prenda, the microschool company that now has 30 learning pods operating in all 10 counties of the state. He told NHJournal he wants to break the mold when it comes to thinking about how children learn best. And, he said, he rejects the “mind is a vessel” model of education.

“If you think of it as ‘sit in this chair, and I will give you assignments and lessons and education. I’m going pour this into your head,’ that’s one model,” Smith said. And, he believes, it is the wrong one.

“The correct metaphor is a fire to be kindled. We’re asking questions, setting goals, saying, ‘What do you want out of life?’”

Education pods and microschools exploded onto the education scene during the COVID-19 lockdowns as frustrated parents sought ways to get organized, adult-led education for kids otherwise abandoned to “Zoom school.” And test results in the wake of the closed-classrooms lockdowns pushed by teachers unions showed they were an academic disaster.

On the other hand, a study by the Rand Corporation found students using the “personalized study” model similar to microschools experienced significant improvements, often surpassing the national averages in math and reading achievement.

But Granite State public schools are not interested in using the successful model to help their own students.

Prenda has thousands of microschools nationwide, all with the goal of leading children to learn and think and grow. The company works with local parents to set up the microschools by training the teachers, called guides, to lead classes of about five to 10 students per class.

Though similar to the homeschool cooperative systems many families use, Prenda offers a unique approach to increase motivation and engagement in students while also taking care of their emotional well-being and teaching them the ability to work with others. The Prenda approach, Smith believes, sets students up for a life of meaning and purpose.

“If humans individually and society collectively are going to get to where we are capable of, we’ve got to push through. We need learners. And so I’m inviting people, but again, it has to be a choice,” Smith said.

Prenda families tend to be people who hit a brick wall with traditional education, he said. Many of the parents have children in public schools, but they come to realize their child needs something different in order to thrive and be a leader for the future.

In the post-COVID era, parents are exploring the choices now available, choices many didn’t have just a few years ago.

“They’re making choices, and they’re thoughtful choices. These are the people that endlessly research whatever they’re going to do for their child’s nutrition, their child’s healthcare. Of course, they’re going to think about education hard,” Smith said. “I think the difference is, in the past, there wasn’t really a choice. It was just, ‘There’s only one thing I can do.’”

Prenda was introduced into New Hampshire using federal COVID relief funds as a way to help families close the learning gaps created by the pandemic lockdowns. Smith said the company initially tried to build partnerships with local school districts to build up learning pods that would work alongside the traditional schools. For example, Smith told NHJournal, they could set up microschools to assist students struggling in a specific subject, like math or science, to enhance the public school experience.

But Granite State public schools weren’t interested.

“One of the first things we did was we went to all the superintendents. I went to Mount Washington when they had an annual meeting. We talked to everybody,” Smith said. “They’d heard about microschools and pods, and there was definitely interest among many of the school leaders in the state. So, we’ve had ongoing conversations.

“Ultimately, there’ve been roadblocks, and we haven’t been able to get to a completed partnership with any of those,” Smith said.

Prenda’s learning pods can also be funded beyond the COVID program using New Hampshire’s Education Freedom Account program. The aim isn’t to replace traditional schools but to give parents choices to find what works best for their children.

“It really comes down to this decision to learn. What we’re doing is inviting people to be what we call empowered learners. And an empowered learner makes a choice. They say, ‘I’m going to learn things. I’m going set goals for myself,’” Smith said.