ANDROSCOGGIN VALLEY — For close to a year, a steering committee has been thinking about the future of education in the Androscoggin Valley. After collecting input from staff and students in both school districts, the committee has scheduled two forums next week to bring the public into the conversation.
“It’s time to hear from the community,” said committee chair Pamela Laflamme.
One forum is Tuesday, Oct. 23, at Berlin High, and the second is Thursday, Oct. 25, at Gorham Middle High School. Both open at 5:30 p.m., with registration and refreshments. The conversation gets underway at 6 p.m. and concludes at 8:30 p.m. Childcare will be available. New Hampshire Listens will facilitate both forums.
Last fall, the Berlin school district (SAU 3) was awarded a $94,155 grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to work with SAU 20 on a yearlong process to create a valley-wide vision for educating the region’s students.
The focus became “Imagining the Future of Education: How Can We Assure Excellent and Affordable Public Schools in the Androscoggin Valley for the years to come?”
“Over the past year, SAU 3 and SAU 20 have been engaged in an open dialogue focused on creating the best educational experience for all students in the valley,” said SAU 20 Superintendent of Schools Dave Backler.
The process got underway at the beginning of the year with the establishment of a large steering committee consisting of both superintendents of schools, principals, school board members, teachers from all the various schools, union representatives, and White Mountains Community College President Chuck Lloyd.
While there has been much talk about creating a single school district for the entire valley, Laflamme said issues with the state school funding formula rule that out for the present.
“We are hindered by issues around school funding,” she said.
Specifically, the legislature’s decision to gradually phase out education stabilization aid, which will mean a loss of approximately $5 million for the Berlin School District eliminates that possibility. She said if the funding formula is changed, the communities could revisit the issue.
So the committee has focused on ways to share resources and collaborate, in ways both big and small.
“Everyone seems open to this idea of working together,” said Laflamme. “We realize we have to do things a little differently.”
For example, the high school guidance counselors have coordinated school calendars and schedules to make it easier for students to take courses at either high school. Both schools have block scheduling.
The committee has looked at ways to share bus transportation to out-of-town events, but Laflamme said state regulations currently do not allow that. The committee also met with officials of the N.H. Interscholastic Athletic Association about some cooperative Berlin-Gorham sports teams. Laflamme said they discovered that is allowed for only a few sports like ice hockey. She said individual sports like skiing can have a single team with one coach but the students must compete separately.
Laflamme said she is working on an application for a second year of funding that would focus on advocating for changes in such regulations that would allow the two SAUs more flexibility.
For now, the committee has focused on expanding on the things the local schools do well, such as the Career and Technical Center at Berlin High, which includes students from both SAUs. The high schools also currently share some Advanced Placement courses. White Mountain Community College offers local high school students the opportunity to earn college credits taking special courses taught at the high schools through its Running Start Program.
SAU 3 Superintendent of Schools Corinne Cascadden said the steering committee held forums with teachers this spring and just sent a survey to all valley students in grades six through 12. In a briefing to the city council Monday night, Cascadden stressed that the committee is not talking regionalization or consolidation but is focusing on collaboration.
“SAU 3 and SAU 20 have a long-standing history of collaborative discussions. We encourage community members to participate in the upcoming forums to identify innovative and collaborative approaches in sustaining excellent educational opportunities in the Androscoggin Valley for all students. Community input is key in building an educational system that will, in turn, benefit all citizens,” she said.