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Charter School in Lebanon Finds Solid Financial Footing

  • As part of their community service, Ledyard Charter School students, from left, Nikolas Bouchard, Stephanie Uzarek and Taylor Coates help paraeducator Marta Bird, at right, unbox packages of flaxseed and wheat berries at the Upper Valley Haven's food pantry in White River Junction, Vt., on May 11, 2018. Bouchard, of Canaan, and Coates, of Hartland, are in the 11th-grade and Uzarek, of West Lebanon, is a ninth-grader. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • As part of their community service, Ledyard Charter School students Brandon Dellabough, left, and Tyler LaRocque pull juniper bush roots to create space for a new garden near the entrance to the Upper Valley Haven in White River Junction, Vt., on May 11, 2018. Dellabough is a sophomore and LaRocque a freshman at the school. Both are from Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Wendy Kozak, who teaches English and art at Ledyard Charter School, rakes leaves from raspberry bushes to make room for a bed of straw at the Upper Valley Haven in White River Junction, Vt., on May 11, 2018. Students and staff perform about 20 hours each of community service every year. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, May 21, 2018

Near the end of a recent tour of Ledyard Charter School in downtown Lebanon, Jason Dalton wasn’t committing quite yet to the idea of transferring from Hanover High School, where he is in 10th grade.

Neither did the Etna student dismiss the notion of applying for one of Ledyard’s tuition-free openings for 2018-2019, after nearly two years of struggling to stay engaged.

“My problem is staying in class,” said Jason, whose mother Wendy Dalton accompanied him on the tour. “I just get bored.”

John Higgins, the school’s executive director since 2014, had made a point of observing that subject classes at the charter school are kept short, while he led the Daltons through the school’s current home underneath the former Shoetorium store. Instead, after 20-minute periods of instruction students are encouraged to go work on their own in the computer lab or the kitchen or the robotics team’s work room or in various quiet spaces, such as one alcove full of beanbag chairs and student art.

“We try to keep things moving,” Higgins said. “We’ve found that anything longer than 20 minutes, they’re going to shut off. The hood’s going to go up.”

Some 40 teens — half of them from the Lebanon School District, a quarter from Mascoma Valley — have been moving around the space in this, Ledyard’s 10th year as an alternative for Upper Valley students who struggle with the standard educational format. Most doors stay open, even to offices, if they aren’t removed altogether.

Come September, the school will enter its 11th year with a budget of $485,181 (up from $437,638 this year), a new commitment of $4,000 a year for up to 25 students from the Lebanon district and continued pledges from Grantham and Mascoma. The Kearsarge Regional School District, three of whose high school-age students are attending Ledyard this year, is now considering whether to start chipping in toward the education of up to five students in 2018-2019.

With Ledyard’s financial footing more secure, Higgins is looking forward to focusing on helping students learn both in the classrooms and beyond.

“Right now, 40 percent of our money comes from fundraisers and grants — every year, consistently, to keep the doors open,” Higgins said. “Next year, it’ll be closer to 12 percent, with what’s coming from the districts. That makes a huge difference, giving us a sustainable business model. … It’s going to take a lot off my plate, and give me an opportunity to link with the community, the businesses and the nonprofits, to make this a long-term solution.”

The New Hampshire Department of Education provides its 21 charter schools, all of which operate independently from school districts, with less than $7,000 a year per student, in a state where average per-pupil spending is slightly more than $15,000 at traditional schools.

Lebanon’s then-superintendent Michael Harris was counting on more state support in 2007, when he and Lebanon High’s then-principal, Jim Nourse, sought a charter from the state to set up an entity separate from the school district. Ledyard opened in February 2009, with one teacher and barely a dozen students, all from Lebanon.

“That’s been a disappointment,” Harris, now a member of Ledyard’s board of trustees, said recently of the state support for charter schools. “It was never intended to be that kind of operation, as far as fundraising.”

Now that Lebanon is again helping with tuition, he remains optimistic about the school’s future.

“What I expected is not entirely what has come to be,” Harris said. “On the other hand, it’s not really far off. We needed an alternative for kids who, for different reasons case by case, could not or would not function within a traditional high school, who needed more nurturing and support.”

Among the beneficiaries is current Ledyard sophomore Sarah Contois, who attended Lebanon’s Hanover Street School during her elementary years and then hit a wall in Hartford.

“Middle school was very hectic,” Contois recalled during Ledyard’s recent meet-and-greet session. “I was trying to figure out where I stood. … The longer I was there, the more it was obvious that Hartford (High School) wasn’t going to work out. … I had issues with ADHD and other diagnoses, and I just fell through the cracks.”

At the suggestion of her mother, Contois applied to Ledyard. Almost as soon as she arrived — in those days, the school occupied a space two floors above Salt hill Pub on the Lebanon mall — she encountered “a quality of education I couldn’t get anywhere else,” Contois said.

“Before, I was missing a hands-on experience, a true one-on-one with my teachers. The teachers who are here want to be here. They want to see you succeed. … It gives students who have a problem with normal school a second chance.”

Grantham resident Hannah Crawford made the most of her second chance, graduating from Ledyard in 2017 — an outcome that prompted her mother, Thea Crawford, to continue serving on the board of trustees.

“She struggled through public school in Grantham,” Thea Crawford recalled. “They worked hard to help her, but she definitely didn’t fit in. We home-schooled her for seventh grade, and when she tried eighth grade at Lebanon Middle School, it was very hard, between adjusting to the social scene and learning differently. … When she got here, we figured out quickly that, this school was created for my kid.”

Current Lebanon High Principal Ian Smith has grown to appreciate how Ledyard supplements his school’s efforts “to meet kids where they’re at.”

“As a student here,” said Smith, a 1988 Lebanon graduate who taught at Lebanon Junior High and Hanover High, “I probably wasn’t as aware as I should have been about the effort made by teachers to make sure kids were making their way successfully through school. If you don’t have a kid who struggles, whether you’re a teacher or a parent, you have no idea how much effort is made to pull kids along. We are now more aware that some kids, for whatever reason, aren’t able to be successful in a traditional environment. Here in Lebanon we have a variety of tools, and we see Ledyard as one of those tools. It’s a significant part of the extended program that the Upper Valley community provides.”

It’s a tool that the Lebanon School District supported with tuition money for its first few years, and with access first to Lebanon’s former Sacred Heart Elementary School and then the former School Street School for classes. Harris said that the district stopped funding tuition on the assumption that the state would pick up a bigger share.

The operating deficits that resulted from that loss of support, while the student body grew, compelled Higgins, 49, to do more private fundraising than he would have liked, after coming to Ledyard in 2014 from the Kearsarge Regional School District, where he was a teacher and case manager. In addition to pursuing private money, Higgins has been overseeing students’ day-to-day needs and forming partnerships in the community — from nutrition classes taught by students from Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine to community service work at the Upper Valley Haven in White River Junction.

“People have a better idea that we exist now,” Higgins said, “but a lot still don’t know what we do. We’re still working to change that.”

With the Lebanon School District’s commitment to pay $4,000 per student for up to 25 students in 2018-2019, Ledyard will be bringing in another teacher, allowing current faculty member Wendy Kozac to coordinate curriculum and oversee instruction.

This spring, Higgins said, Ledyard will graduate 16 students. Through Friday, eight had formally applied to enroll for 2018-2019 — three from Lebanon, two from Mascoma and one each from Hanover, Claremont and Kearsarge.

Keeping the doors open has been a challenge for many charter schools around the state. According to the New Hampshire DOE website, five have closed for “lack of enrollment and finances,” most recently the TEAMS (Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, Science) Charter School in Penacook in 2017.

The state’s first charter schools — the K-8 Seacoast Charter School in Dover and the 7-12 North Country Charter Academy in Littleton — opened in September 2004. Although some have closed since then, new ones are opening in Concord, Manchester and Windham this fall.

Even amid Ledyard’s struggles to raise money, each year’s graduating class has given Michael Harris hope that its formula is meeting a need.

“There was one commencement I attended five or six years ago, when Lynne Grigelevich was still our director,” Harris said. “All of the kids, about 10 or 12 of them, spoke. Every one had had some sort of personal or family tragedy, something go really wrong or awry in their life. They thanked Lynne and the school for keeping them going.

“It’s a needy population. We seem to be getting closer to what the right target is with helping them take the next step.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304. Education-related news and announcements also can be sent to schoolnotes@vnews.com.