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ED Commissioner visits, praises LHS



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Kendra Bailey, a junior at Littleton High School, presents an anti-bully wristband and petition to State Education Commissioner Virginia Barry. Superintendent Tommy Stephens looks on in the background. Jeff Woodburn. (click for larger version)
April 21, 2010
LITTLETON—Five weeks ago, the New Hampshire Department of Education (DOE) dropped a bomb shell on Littleton High School, naming it one of the state's worst schools. Last week, Dr. Virginia Barry, the commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education, came to the school to see for herself.

After touring the school, meeting with students, administrators and school board members, she said she was impressed with what she saw. "Littleton (High School) is a great place," she said. When specifically asked if she agreed with the Littleton's decision to forego the Federal money and institute its own, less dramatic improvements, Barry responded, "Yes, from what I saw today. I think so."

While the much-disputed process that put LHS on the struggling schools list was created by the federal Department of Education, not the state, Barry didn't defend the process.

Littleton officials, led by State Rep. Brien Ward want to remove LHS from the list because the data was scant and dated. The "Struggling Schools" initiative is aimed to give money to a dozen of the state's consistently low performing schools based upon standardized math and reading test results for the 2007-08 school year. "We live in a democracy. We're always improving," Barry said and added, "It is what it is."

Ward, who serves on the House Education Committee, and Executive Councilor Ray Burton, are pressing the State Department of Education to remove Littleton High School from the "Struggling Schools" list. Ward argued that the criteria used, 2007-2008 New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) reading and math scores, is not a true measure. By looking at the previous nine years of testing, the time since the inception of NECAP testing, Ward said that data draws a different picture of the condition of LHS. In this time period, Ward reports LHS was in the bottom 40 percent in the state, but not the bottom 5 percent." He also said the data shows clear, consistent improvement, and that never has LHS failed to achieve AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), which is what the state Department of Education uses as its basic measure of schools.

In 2009, LHS students did very well on NECAP tests, Ward said, "Eighty percent were proficient." Compared to the rest of the state, he said, "That's just off the charts."

Ward had nothing but praise for the state Department of Education's attention to Littleton's request, noting that he has worked their testing data guru Michael Schwartz.

"We're just looking for a fair and equitable ranking," he added, regardless of where LHS falls.

The five school board members, Superintendent Tommy Stephens and LHS Principal Al Smith met with Barry Tuesday, April 13 in the cafeteria of LHS while scores of oblivious students were eating their lunch, visiting with friends and some had iPod buds in their ears and were listening to music. The school district's decision to challenge LHS's placement on the list of the state's consistently low performing schools was not addressed publicly. Barry, of Bridgewater (between Plymouth and Ashland) said she understands the community from her years at Plymouth State University.

School Board Chair Art Tighe told Barry the district needs to leverage the DOE's expertise, more than additional money, to address some of the more challenging issues like bullying.

"This community supports education (by voting for increased school budgets and bonds)," he said, "They're telling us to—do it. Get it done." But he expressed frustration as to how to stop bullying. "We're spinning our heads on bullying. What can we do?" Barry said there are no simple answers because bullying often happens surreptitiously outside of the purview of the teachers and administrators. She offered to coordinate resources.

School Board member John Simon referenced the tough economic situation and the cut backs in state support for education. Barry agreed that there are pressures to be sure; noting that her budget was recently reduced. She added that presently, 76 percent of the state Department of Education was funded by the federal government. "That's huge," she said.

The issue of establishing a consistent national curriculum was introduced by School Board member Dianne Cummings. Barry agreed with the importance of such uniform standards, but said doing it is a "complicated process." She added "In New Hampshire it is all about local control." Barry also blamed the teacher's union—N.H. National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers—for not promoting such standards.

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