Manchester superintendent projects optimism in 'State of the School District' speech

·2 min read

Sep. 16—Armed with a strategic plan and backing from city and private-sector leaders, Manchester school Superintendent Jennifer Gillis told teachers and administrators Friday she saw progress in city schools.

Gillis is beginning her first full school year as superintendent as Manchester, and school districts around the country, continue to deal with the impacts of COVID learning loss, staffing shortages and a shrinking student population. Despite those challenges, and the frequent changes in district leadership in recent years, Gillis said she thought Manchester schools are headed in the right direction.

"Despite being stalled by a pandemic, we are making great progress for our students, our staff and our community," Gillis said Friday afternoon at Memorial High School, during a "State of the School District" speech to about 100 district staff, city officials and members of the Manchester Proud organization.

Gillis introduced several members of the central office staff, who spoke about what they saw as progress in the district.

Longtime business administrator Karen DeFrancis said applications for free and reduced-price lunch were nearly as high as they were before the pandemic — a crucial benchmark to make sure Manchester keeps getting federal funding directed to schools that serve children from poor families. Assistant Superintendent Amy Allen spoke about expanding partnerships between the city's high schools and outside organizations that provide different learning experiences to students, such as a weeklong trip some students took to the Isles of Shoals this summer to study marine biology. Chief Equity Officer Tina Philibotte said Manchester students speak 61 languages at home.

Gillis said she would renew focus on the "strategic plan" created by Manchester Proud and accepted by the Board of School Committee in late February 2020. When she assumed the top job, Gillis said she was struck by all the competing goals and objectives placed on her office — but the plan, which incorporated input from public meetings, surveys and conversations with staff and school families, helped to organize those goals and set priorities, she said.

COVID-19 set the district back, Gillis said. But funding from three major federal COVID relief stimulus bills helped the district fund programs meant to help students bounce back, upgrade ventilation systems in older schools, add three days of training for teachers, buy laptops for students and technology for classrooms, and set up tutoring programs.

Gillis and Jim O'Connell, vice chair of the school committee, both spoke about the difficulty hiring school staff but highlighted a new contract for the district's teachers that makes Manchester more competitive with starting pay in nearby districts, hiring and retention bonuses for staff, and a minimum wage of $15 per hour for school employees.

"We are moving," Gillis said. "We are moving in a positive direction, ad proud of what we've accomplished in the past year."

jgrove@unionleader.com