By Tim McCarthy
Local education leaders say they want to improve Haverhill's schools and are seeking input from parents about what should be done.
School Committee members Paul Magliochetti and Raymond Serpina hosted the first strategic plan meeting last week to discuss their proposed improvement plan with parents and principals.
The 36-page plan outlines how the district can: Unite its 15 schools under a common set of standards, improve teacher skills, involve the School Committee more in day to day operations, and draw more money to schools through grants.
School Committee members and parents agreed the plan lacked three key items. They are: Creating a free all-day kindergarten program, introducing a middle school language program and better maintenance of school buildings.
The majority of parents who attended, some from the Haverhill Parents Saving our Schools organization, said the construction of a new Hunking Middle School and repairs to all Haverhill schools should be a top priority.
"It seems like we're hitting a brick wall when we talk about it," Rhonda Campbell, an organizer of HPSOS, said of efforts to gain support for money to build a new Hunking School.
Committee members said despite their agreement that a new school is needed, the odds of securing money for a new building through a tax increase would likely be impossible — unless supporters can convince voters to pass such an increase. In the past, Haverhill voters have opposed Proposition 2 1/2 overrides and debt exclusions for particular projects.
If Haverhill gets state money to build a new Hunking, the city would have to pay for a share of the project. Structural problems at the school, which is more than 50 years old, forced the city to move about 150 students out of the building a month ago.
Magliochetti said the City Council and Mayor James Fiorentini will likely support a tax increase only if Hunking parents manage to create citywide support for it.
"They won't vote for it unless the people are for it," he said.
Campbell, however, said she's experienced nothing but tax increases during her residency in Haverhill with little to show for it.
"I've lived here for 10 years," she said. "What difference does another (tax) increase make?"
Kelly Valasktagis, a fellow HPSOS organizer, said the group has tried to find grants and other funding sources, even on national television.
"We even applied to 'Extreme Makeover,'" she said of the popular TV show.
Haverhill High Principal Bernard Nangle, who helped to oversee the renovation of the high school during the past decade, said parents shouldn't expect any action from the Massachusetts School Building Authority for at least five years.
Magliochetti added the original Hunking plans shouldn't have ever made it past the drafting stages.
Parents, committee members and administrators agreed that all-day kindergarten and middle school language classes should come to the district.
Magliochetti, who has pushed for an all-day kindergarten program through his term, said the program would require at least $600,000 to pay for teachers and support staff. He expected money for the program to come only through cuts elsewhere in the school budget.
"Something has to give," he said.
Nangle, however, argued the district could make use of the flexible language in federal grants to pay for the program.
"Whenever you rob Peter to pay Paul, you suffer," he said. "It'll come down to paying the teacher to be in front of the students."
Magliochetti said he'd like to phase in the program over the next three to four years.
Discussions on how to reincorporate foreign language programs into middle schools resulted in two proposed solutions.
The first would allow students to sacrifice either a music or art class is favor of taking a language course. The second, proposed by Haverhill High Assistant Principal Beth Kitsos, would bus middle school students to the high school to take part in a freshman language course during the first period before returning to their middle school. Students who completed the program with passing grades would earn high school credit.
"I don't see a huge cost," Kitsos said.
Although parents and some high school administrators expressed some concern over mixing middle school students with older teenagers, proponents said they believe the proposal can work safely.
Another strategic plan meeting is planned for Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. at Haverhill High School.