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March 20. 2013 10:11PM

Mark Hayward's City Matters: Hillside community steps up


 

Manchester schools have their problems.

Most everyone knows about crowded classrooms, tax-cap budgets and Hooksett's pending flight from city high schools.

Dismal? Of course.

But desperate? Perhaps not. For all the forces working to fray, if not tear apart, the city schools, others are emerging to keep them intact.

Two weeks ago, on a spring-like night, an energized PTO at Hillside Middle School hosted a first-ever fundraising bash that cleared $32,000 - money that will be devoted to technology acquisitions for the school.

The money was raised through ticket sales, sponsorships, auctions of donated goods and services, and a spur-of-the-moment $5,000 donation from a 1968 Hillside graduate.

Organizers said they had hoped to raise $15,000. "The money is an important piece, but the most important piece is the sense of community support, the feeling that the community is behind the school," said Jim O'Connell, the very vocal Manchester schools advocate who has headed the Hillside PTO for three years. "It shows what the community can do when it gets together."

The fundraiser was held at the Derryfield Country Club and drew notables and even some-time adversaries. They included Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas and Phil Sapienza, a Hillside teacher and one of the leaders in the Manchester teacher's union.

Also on hand: Attorney General Michael Delaney, WMUR meteorologist Mike Haddad, state Rep. Will Infantine and me. The father of a Hillside eighth grader, I've come to accept, even appreciate, the ups and downs of a school that has struggled through teacher arrests, a new principal and teacher losses but also band concerts, field trips and gymnasium-packing graduations.

The event included a tribute to Nancy Gati. A Hillside teacher for the past 31 years, she was involuntarily transferred to another school because of budget cuts. She is the first inductee into the Hillside Hall of Fame, which was announced that night.

Showing up in support of Gati was longtime friend Nick Vailas, a sports-medicine entrepreneur who was a member of Hillside's first graduating class in 1968. Vailas, the founder of Bedford Ambulatory Surgery Center, took the microphone and pledged $5,000.

"I actually had nothing to drink," Vailas said this week. But he said he got caught up in the moment.

"I'm a strong believer in private-public partnerships. We just can't expect taxpayers to foot the bill," he said.

He went on to say that Hillside and Central High School are special places. They reflect the immigrant experience that was present when he and his brothers went through Manchester schools, and they continue to do so, he said.

In a way yes, but in a way, no.

Hillside is second among the four city middle schools in the percentage of students with limited English proficiency - 11 percent last year. But Hillside boasts the lowest percentage - 43 percent - of students who receive free and reduced lunches, an indicator of affluence of student families.

So while the middle school has a good mix of New Americans, it has a healthy share of good-old money.

Could the other middle schools raise as much?

"I don't think it could be replicated throughout the district at that level," Superintendent Thomas Brennan said. He said some school PTOs are at the level of potluck dinners. Most nonprofit organizations with professional staff would be happy to raise $32,000 in a single night, he said.

But Vailas thinks the city's other middle schools could replicate such an event. The business community is generous, said Vailas, noting successful fundraisers for the Boys and Girls Club and CHaD.

"They can't step up until they're asked," he said.

As for O'Connell, he said the important thing is committed parents and teachers. He said the Derryfield event took nearly a year of preparation, and he praised the efforts of those who headed it up: Maureen Hamel and Lisa Walsh. And he gave a nod to principal Brendan McCafferty.

Next, the PTO will meet with teachers and administrators to see how the money can be best spent at Hillside. O'Connell mentioned smart boards and document cameras. Meanwhile, Gatsas has proposed debt-financing for $2.8 million for technology in schools next year.

The money would be spent on iPads, laptops, Wi-Fi expansion, teacher training and intercom systems.

So while $32,000 is just a fraction of such a big number, it represents a down payment, a down payment on community activism, at least at Hillside.

Mark Hayward's City Matters appears Thursdays on the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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