LGN spent the day learning about different education options available to the community and their challenges. The day began at Microsociety Academy Charter School. What was apparent as the panelists spoke was the impact of the pandemic. No age group is untouched by the effects of the past two years. Two challenges that are faced right now are staffing shortages and mental wellness. As a result, emotional health has taken the forefront and there is a focus on social learning for students across every grade level in all schools. Programs are focusing on the social element as a key part of the curriculum where previously this was more prominent for those children who displayed concerns. There are also now more courses available for emotional assistance as well as dealing with feelings of anxiety. In addition, trauma training is available for teachers and there has been an increase in social workers in public schools.
The discussion on Early Childhood Education was led by Elizabeth Witmer, Director of Early Childhood Education, YMCA and our LGN peer Jaime Marchand, Early Childhood Lead Teacher II, Adult Learning Center.
Both panelists spoke about the challenges they face now as a result of the pandemic and how they have continued operations during the height of it. Pre-school is an important stage in a child’s development socially and with the interruption to school they are already seeing the effects. When places like the YMCA and ALC opened again, they experienced more behavioral issues than before. Jaime and Elizabeth contribute this to limited socialization due to social distancing and the overall pandemic.
Staffing has also been a challenge which has resulted in longer waitlists and reduced classroom capacity. In an effort to entice people to join the field, there is a focus on promoting awareness of how rewarding a career in early education is. Often pre-school is thought of as daycare which is the furthest from the truth. These are important years for a child’s development and also create the foundation for their school years. In addition to looking for staff who want to inspire young children, companies are reviewing their salaries and benefit packages in an attempt to attract new hires.
The Nashua school district has over 200 vacant positions and they face an uphill battle trying to not only attain new quality candidates but also retain their current staff. They find less people are going into this industry and the burnout is real after the past two years. The retirement numbers have doubled and building up morale is difficult. Teachers need to feel supported and have the ability to interact with kids. This conversation sparked an idea involving ways to create a career path for industry employees who could teach a class in their field. This could assist with openings by allowing individuals to earn certification by other means such as experience.
Garth McKinney, Interim Superintendent, Nashua School District and Jennifer Bishop, President, Nashua Board of Education shared with us their perspective on Public Education in Nashua. There are 19 schools in the Nashua District consisting of Elementary, Middle, High School, and an alternate school. They spoke about another challenge faced by the education industry- funding. When a law is put in place or a requirement created that affects a public school in Nashua, the district is responsible for finding the funding to implement it. Very little of the funding public schools receive comes from the state, they rely on their own city or town.
There was a discussion on a couple of upcoming bills and how they would impact Nashua students. There is a push to reduce the curriculum to only the core subjects and also expanding recess, PE, and lunch every day. These types of bills do not consider the school day and offering an equitable education. They also faced difficulty and endured challenging board meetings surrounding the mask mandates and other restrictions as a result of the pandemic including remote learning. These interactions highlighted teamwork, communication, and problem-solving. While also aiming toward collaborative decisions and understanding both sides of the debate.
The kids are happy to be returning to in-person classes and the mask mandate was recently lifted. The new superintendent begins in July and there is no pause in the work to be done. Jennifer talked about a couple of silver linings from the pandemic. Everyone is much more engaged in the process and with more people involved it can create change. As they move further from restrictions, they want to look at what worked and find ways to implement them into their current practices. Is there a way to incorporate the flexibility of delivering class lessons remotely and in-person depending on what works best for the student? Jennifer hopes to solve this question among others.
There are also several non-traditional education choices for the Nashua community. For this panel we heard from Amy Bewley, Extended Learning Opportunities Coordinator, Academy of Science & Design, Jason Strniste, Principal, Bishop Guertin High School, Jennifer Cava, Director, Academy of Science & Design, Marisa Dardagiannopoulos, Career Center Coordinator, Nashua School District and another LGN peer Susannah Williams, Curriculum Coordinator, MACS. State-approved charter schools are offered to the community tuition-free. However, there are also many choices that are not free and generally have a lottery system for selecting attendees. These schools can offer a unique experience and provide a focus on college prep. To graduate from ASD, students must pass college-level calculus and statistics. These schools are mission-driven and receive funding in different ways compared to the public schools.
These schools are also not limited to only Nashua residents and have students from the surrounding towns. Some even have kids who travel an hour to attend. There are many CTE courses offered in public schools as well and Marisa connects students to these opportunities. These classes offer college credit and provide jobs and internships for students on a different pathway and who may not be applying to college after High School. During the last period at MACS, students create a micro-society. They hold positions in their community and spend their own currency. This experience prepares students to thrive in their life and develop independence and leadership. Students bring in real-life experiences, and bring bills to their student government. They quickly determined there was no place for pan-handlers in the hallways.
The pandemic also offered the opportunity for these schools to re-evaluate and ensure they are delivering everything they promise. Charter schools do not offer their own sports teams which is a unique challenge for their students who want to participate in sports. They can join their district’s team but often the timing of events and practices make it difficult to attend.
During lunch, we heard from LGN Alumni Scott Flegal, Board Member, Nashua Education Foundation and the foundation he founded. A few times a year they fundraise and distribute funds to teachers who have projects they want to accomplish but no budget for it. Scott said one challenge he faces is marketing. Often, teachers do not know they have funds to give out and do not apply for the program. He is hoping he begins to see more applications with schools returning to some “normalcy”.
The next part of our day brought us to Rivier University. Where we continued our day on Education learning more about Higher Education and other educational training programs. Marieke Martin, Dean: Hellenic American University, Lucille Jordan, President, Nashua Community College joined virtually and Daniel Reagan, Associate Dean, UNH Manchester and Dr. Diane Monico, PH. D, Rivier University joined in person. They discussed the importance of higher education and its link to increasing employment. Did you know a person changes jobs 4 times in their career. College offers the space, time, and opportunity to discover what matters to them. College produces a population more accepting of opinions due to the experience and skills developed while pursuing a degree.
With companies starting at higher wages to offset staffing shortages students are pursuing careers earlier vs attending school exclusively. Each college offers some type of in-person class and online class. However, the pandemic helped introduce a hybrid schedule at Nashua Community College where a student can attend in person or choose to learn remotely, directly in class. This differs from courses that were designed to be taken solely online. This hybrid schedule allows students to stay home if they are not well but feel they can learn that day. It has been difficult for colleges to maintain international students with the different restrictions and they are hoping to see that lessen as we move further away from the pandemic. As we heard earlier, collaborative leadership was prevalent while working through the past couple of years. Fostering trust and bringing people to change and difficult decisions.
To end the day, Mary Peters, Job Development, My-Turn, Jay Yergeau, Director of NH Electric Operations, Wendy De Penasse, Assistant Director of Academic & Career Advising, Rivier University, Kerrie Dahl, Alternate Director of Academic & Career Advising, Rivier University spoke about the different options available to individuals who do not pursue a college degree. Someone can enroll in the linework certificate program at the community college in Manchester and graduate with a great opportunity of being hired at Eversource. A career with endless potential in a craft field with a great base salary. There are also Boot Camps available at the community college that partner with different companies and facilitate getting a job upon completion. For individuals who may need additional support, My-Turn works with them to remove as many obstacles as possible and will assist with funding as well. These programs get you started in a trade such as LNA and root for your success. If an employer is looking for new talent, there is an application, Handshake, which creates a partnership with different employers to recruit staff.
As we work to get on the other side of the pandemic, there is renewed focus on providing counseling services, programs for wellness monitoring, telehealth opportunities, and communication on emotional awareness. As well as looking for ways to increase staffing overall.
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