By Mike LaBella
---- — A top state education official said the renovated Haverhill High School has better technology than most Massachusetts schools, but warned that computers cannot replace old-fashioned classroom instruction by teachers.
“What you have in this school is sophisticated, compared to what lots of schools in the commonwealth have,” Mitchell Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said during a recent tour of Haverhill High.
Haverhill Superintendent James Scully said the high school’s goal is to have an iPad for every student by next fall. Chester responded that technology must be used wisely, that much of schools’ focus must remain on the value of the human element — discussions between teachers and students.
“Not all of us know what to do with this stuff or make it as impactful as it has the ability to be,” he said of the many electronic devices available for classroom use.
During the tour, Chester met with teachers and parents at Haverhill High and Tilton Elementary School. Asked about state cuts in funding to education, he said the state is spending about a quarter of a billion dollars more this year on kindergarten to grade 12 education than last year.
“I don’t see that commitment going away,” he said.
Haverhill schools are receiving about $4 million more in state money this year than the year before.
Kindergarten teacher Sandra Green told Chester she and others teaching at that level must truly focus on the classroom instruction that Chester said is a key. Green also told Chester that communities must expand preschool programs because many children entering kindergarten are not prepared.
“It’s tough to catch them up to where they need to be,” she said.
At Haverhill High, Chester poked his head into several classrooms, chatted with students in the halls, then met with a group of teachers, principals and other staff and parents for a question-and-answer session.
Technology instructor Thomas Lienhard asked about technology moving forward in the classroom. Lienhard said that in Burlington, where he lives, the high school has iPads in every classroom. Chester said there is no replacement for classroom instruction, but that he is still pushing for money from the state so communities like Haverhill can enhance their computers and other technology.
When the discussion turned to special education, officials said Haverhill faces a bigger challenge than most Massachusetts communities. The city has a larger percentage of students with significant disabilities than many other cities and towns, they said.
Chester said he is impressed that Haverhill tries to include special education students in regular training whenever possible.
“One thing I really like that I’ve seen here in Haverhill is a real coordination of regular education and special education, as well as regular education and ELL programs,” Chester said. “That to me is usually a marker that students are being given access to what the jargon calls the general curriculum and that to me is a really healthy sign.”
ELL, or English Language Learners, refers to students who are not proficient in English and need special training to improve those skills.
Maury Covino, retired special education director for Haverhill who continues to advise the city, told Chester that less than 1 percent of special education students in the district pass the Alterative Assessment MCAS. He said this is a concern because these scores affect the overall scores of a school.
Dianne Connolly, principal of Pentucket Lake Elementary School, told Chester that her building, because it is a newer one and is handicap accessible, houses many programs. Twenty-nine percent of the student population is special education, she said.
“It presents some challenges,” she said.
“The bottom line for me is, is it working?” Chester said. “Are kids benefiting or not benefiting?”
One thing that is working, some students said, is the commitment of teachers to preparing students for college or the workforce..
Chance Brady, captain of the Hillies football team, said he is thankful for the education he receives at Haverhill High.
“You’re challenged here,” Brady said. “I have great teachers who really want to make you progress and not just fly you by.
“Here you’re looking for adversity,’’ he said. “You’re not looking for the easy path. You’re looking for the hardest path because you know you can do it.”