At the start of this spring semester, Manchester’s three high schools are launching two new initiatives around computer-based learning.
The first retrofits computer labs designed exclusively for the state’s online charter school. The second provides remote instruction via Skype for classes where not enough students have signed up. The funding comes from local business donations. That lightens the burden on taxpayers. But many wonder if these reforms are the best use of corporate dollars.
At Manchester Memorial High School, students drift in to their first-period economics class.
They don’t sit at desks.
Instead, they park themselves around a conference table and face a 70-inch TV screen. A teacher from another Manchester high school beams into this class and one other across town
"Yeah, I don’t know what’s going on over there. We’ll probably have to cancel it and go back."
It’s only the first few days of this trial with distance learning.
And teachers are still ironing out the glitches.
Senior Autumn Schmidt isn’t sure what to expect.
"It’s kindof weird, but it’s something you have to get used to. And we only have six students actually in our class. And we see the other students at different schools and the teacher is trying to teach us and I don’t know how we’re going to interact and stuff."
The teacher’s warbled voice projects into the room via Skype.
"What is economics? Do any of you have an idea of what economics is?"
Superintendent Tom Brennan says this remote learning is part of a district-wide agenda to go beyond the traditional classroom setting.
For example, students can use a computer lab during a class period to take courses from the Virtual Learning Academy charter school.
And they can then finish the work on their own time. And if they want to design their own assignments to learn a particular subject, Brennan says that’s OK, too.
"Why not dedicate all that energy that’s directed toward Facebook into geometry or project x or y and give them credit for it because they’ve mastered it. As far as reform, it’s about opening up the doors 24-7, 365 days a year, and allowing students to grow at their own pace, which is something that’s long overdue."
"In these particular initiatives, we are suspicious they are not well planned and they are a knee-jerk reaction to the drastic underfunding of the Manchester school system."
That’s Jim O’Connell. He heads the advocacy group, Citizens for Manchester’s Schools. He says he supports the district’s use of new technology and its initiatives around distance learning.
But he wonders if this so-called solution is a way to save money on teachers. O’Connell refers to a scant budget that spends less per student than the majority of other districts in the state.
Last year, Manchester laid off more than 90 teachers, resulting in classes that often exceed 30 students. But Brennan doesn't think this program will increase teacher layoffs.
I don’t think teachers are going to lose jobs. I think teachers will have to be retrained. Also, I think there needs to be a requirement that you can’t do this solely through technology.
But whatever technology is required costs money. Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas is trying to fill the education funding gap with donations from local corporations, and that money goes in part to distance learning.
So far, he’s raised $37,500 from businesses. In exchange, they get a perk:
"What we’ve done is implemented advertising in schools. These three companies, the Scravinos Dunkin Donuts franchisee, Dyn and Quirk Auto, will be able to advertise in the schools. It’s a five-year period they can advertise for."
What that advertising will look like is still up in the air. And Jim O’Connell says not all parents are convinced advertising solves the budget crisis.
"If it is necessary, and that’s the only way of providing education to the students in Manchester, it’s a regretful and retrograde step."
Meanwhile, at Manchester Memorial, high schoolers in the video conferencing room acclimate to a rocky start. If students don’t grasp an economic theory because of technical difficulties, at least they have the old standby: the hardcopy textbooks.