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  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Nashua School District Superintendent Mark Conrad speaks with The Telegraph Editorial Board Tuesday, October 20, 2009.

  • Staff photo by Bob Hammerstrom

    Nashua School District Superintendent Mark Conrad speaks with The Telegraph Editorial Board Tuesday, October 20, 2009.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nashua schools chief takes long-term view

Since taking over as superintendent in Nashua this summer, Mark Conrad said he’s been asked several times whether he regrets taking the job.

It seems like a fair question, given the financial turmoil that Conrad unknowingly walked into after accepting the position. Conrad said his response is always the same.

“I say no because I see this from a long-term perspective,” Conrad said, during a meeting with members of The Telegraph’s editorial board Tuesday morning.

Conrad, who worked as the Nashua School District’s business administrator for 10 years before leaving for Bedford in 2006, said his focus since returning to the school district has been on bringing back stability and working to restore any public trust that has been lost following a series of financial management issues.

“I see that as an important part of what I need to be about,” Conrad said.

Conrad lives in Nashua and both of his sons graduated from Nashua High School North. He has said that he hopes to finish his career as the city’s superintendent.

With Conrad’s history of working with budgets, many have said the district hired the right person at the right time, including board member Sandra Ziehm, who was one of two members who voted against hiring Conrad.

While finances may be Conrad’s area of expertise and the most pressing issue facing the district, there are other areas, such as curriculum and staff development, that Conrad said will also be important for the school district to address as it looks to the future.

Conrad said there are already several initiatives underway designed to help improve achievement among students, including a literacy initiative and creating alternative ways for students to graduate from high school.

“I see a district that’s certainly struggling financially ... but on the other hand has some really excellent initiatives to improve student achievement,” Conrad said.

During the meeting, Conrad was asked about his position on leveling in the middle schools, an issue studied by district officials and one the Board of Education devoted several meetings to last year.

Leveling is the process of separating students by their perceived ability. Starting in the sixth grade, students in Nashua are separated into three different levels in the four core subject areas.

As he told members of the Board of Education during the interview process, Conrad repeated on Tuesday that he is opposed to leveling middle school students. Conrad believes grouping students into low-level classes at a young age can have damaging, long-term effects.

“When you begin saying to a student in fifth grade, ‘You’re in the bottom group,’ then that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.

But Conrad said it is important to remember that while he has previous experience in the city, he is still a new superintendent and is still getting acclimated to the district. Changing policy involves talking with people within the district about issues and concerns they have, and bringing those to the board. That may include discussions with the school board about leveling again, Conrad said.

District data has shown that special education students, minority students and students living in poverty are being disproportionately placed in the lowest-level classes. Data also shows that students in the foundation courses are failing those courses at a much higher rate than students in extension or honors.

When the issue came up at Board of Education committee meetings, both proponents and opponents of leveling spoke out.

Supporters believe leveling allows teachers to give more personalized instruction to students, but Conrad does not see leveling as part of a true middle school model.

“Personally, I do not agree with ability grouping and I would like to see the elimination of ability grouping,” he said.

District policy states that middle school and high school students must be leveled. Despite hosting meetings dedicated to the topic, the Board of Education never took any action on whether to modify that policy. Conrad said that within the next two months, he plans on bringing forward to the board a list of areas he feels need to be addressed and he said middle school leveling may be on that list.

“The more you can differentiate instruction within a single classroom, the more likely you’re going to be able to maintain high standards for all students,” he said.

Conrad was also asked about whether he would support exploring a merit pay model for teachers. Conrad said he isn’t yet sold on the concept and would want to see evidence that incorporating performance into compensation for teachers and other staff members pays dividends when it comes to student achievement.

Conrad said there would also have to be consensus on how to measure performance.

“We would need to work with principals and faculty members to come up with a set of benchmarks of how we measure success,” he said.

Conrad said the district is also in the process of developing a status report on the Phoenix Program, an off-site program for “at-risk” middle school students. The program was formerly known as the Academy of Learning and Technology.

Conrad said a report on the program would be presented to the Board of Education soon. The measure of success for the program must be whether students are able to show they are improving academically and whether they can transition back into the traditional education environment, he said.

Issues of truancy and poor performance at the school have to be addressed, he said.

He believes the program has been beneficial for many students who come from extremely difficult home lives.

“It provides them with an environment where they can be successful for the first time in their lives,” he said.

With regard to district finances, Conrad said he is hopeful the teachers union will accept the Board of Education’s request to renegotiate the terms of the final year of the contract and begin negotiations on a new contract.

Conrad is projecting a $4 million deficit for next year and said that without changes to contractual costs, staff cuts will need to be explored.

“We’re taking the approach that we’re going to look at every option available for addressing this,” he said.

While it will be necessary to make cuts next year, Conrad said there are areas the district must commit itself to putting more money toward. One of those areas is technology, which Conrad said is woefully underfunded. The district has 3,000 computers, but there is currently no budget for computer replacement, he said.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.