PODCAST: New Year, New Chapter

In this episode of School Talk, a conversation with Reaching Higher’s Policy Director, Christina Pretorius, about the upcoming Legislative session, and a story about 2021 Teacher of the Year, Danielle Boutin, and the support network she’s helped create for families at Ledge Street School in Nashua.


I’m Sarah Earle and this is School Talk. In this episode we’re looking ahead to the New Year. First up, a conversation about the 2021 Legislative session — which promises to be anything but dull, at least for people who get a thrill out of LSRs, Committee meetings and things like that. Christina Pretorius, Reaching Higher’s Director of Policy, is one of those people. She’s here today to discuss what’s in store for education this year at the State House. 

Thanks for joining me, Christina. 

Thanks, Sarah, it’s great to be here. 

So first off, you’ve been nerding out on education policy for a while now. What’s the draw?

Well, I grew up in New Hampshire. I went to New Hampshire public schools, and I went to UNH-Durham for my undergrad and graduate degrees. So I’m a product of public schools here in New Hampshire. I’ve also really come to recognize the importance public education plays in attracting and retaining families in our state and in really being the great equalizer for all children. I strongly believe that each and every child in New Hampshire should have the opportunity for an amazing public education, a world class public education, and so that’s what I’ve really committed by career to, is to ensuring that all children have that opportunity. 

So, as those of us who receive your lengthy, impassioned texts know, there are some pretty big issues on the upcoming legislative agenda. Can you walk us through the highlights? 

Yes, it will be an interesting session for sure. First, we still aren’t clear on what the session will actually look like — will they meet in person?  Will there be a hybrid model? Will it be fully remote. Nobody seems to know for sure at this point, but we do know that the House will meet in person on January 6 at UNH. 

And then, there are the LSRs themselves, the Legislative Service Requests. When I look at the ones that have been filed and that have been published, one trend that really sticks out to me is the lack of bipartisanship. We’re not seeing the same cooperation between parties as we’ve seen in the past. I think you can ask anyone who’s been around for a while, who will tell you that one of the great things about the State House and the people who are there is that, sure, people can disagree about policy or ideology, but there used to be this great spirit of cooperation and respect for the good of the state. We’d see some common ground in the session, collaboration between parties, and when we look at the LSRs, we’re not really seeing a lot of that this session yet. There is still time, so maybe we will see some more cross party signing on of bills and things like that, but I think it will be interesting to see how the session progresses, and obviously, the pandemic limits lawmakers’ (and the public’s) ability to meet up with colleagues, chat in the halls, really build the goodwill that makes this entire process so great and so valuable. I really hope that this won’t be a lasting effect and that we can see some of that bipartisanship, some of that goodwill return. 

So, when we think about themes, we’ve seen a few major ones. I think that the major one will really be school funding. It’s something that the Legislature has been talking about for a while now. There was the Commission to Study School Funding, that wrapped up its work in the past couple of weeks, and we are seeing a lot of LSRs coming through from a number of state Reps and state Senators around funding an adequate education and playing with that formula to try to get it right. 

So one of the bigger reasons that school funding is projected to be a really larger issue is that there are projected to be a lot of cuts — automatic cuts, not anything that lawmakers would do. There’s the Fiscal Capacity Disparity Aid that expires at the end of this school year. There’s the enhanced Free and Reduced Lunch Aid, that expires at the end of this school year. And then we’re finding that one of  the unintended consequences of the department’s efforts to bring meals to all students in New Hampshire, which has been tremendous — they’ve delivered, I think it’s been over $6 million meals during this pandemic — they should be applauded for it. But schools are finding that they’re not getting the return of applications for the Free and Reduced Price Lunch programs, which is understandable, whether it’s because they’re getting it anyway or because of the nature of the remote learning environment where they’re having trouble getting all the forms in general. 

But those forms, that Free and Reduced Lunch program form, is a big bucket in the school funding formula. So some schools are finding that about half of those eligible are returning those forms, and so that will translate next year into impacts in their state funding because Free and Reduced Lunch is a major part of the school funding formula. The state does provide additional resources to schools with kiddos who are eligible for Free and Reduced Price Lunch. And so all of those combined make for a really dire situation for a lot of schools, for a lot of communities, and for local taxpayers in general. So I think that this year a lot of the focus will be on how do we provide our schools, our communities, and our taxpayers with the resources they need to meet student needs effectively with all of these other programs?  

Okay, interesting. Can you tell me some of the specific recommendations that the School Funding Commission has started turning into LSRs at this point? 

Yeah, so the bills haven’t been formally introduced yet, so I’m not sure what the specific bills will make it in, but we have seen one by Rep. Dave Luneau (D-Hopkinton), one LSR which I would expect to be the Commission’s recommendations into that bill. We’ve also seen a couple sponsored by Rep. Rick Ladd (R) from Haverhill, who — he was also a member of the Commission, and he had put some thoughts into some of the ending report, and I would expect some of his thoughts and his take on that yearlong work, what his interpretations were and his recommendations going forward in those LSRs. And we’re also seeing a couple of proposals from other people who weren’t on the Commission. Al Baldasaro (R) from Londonderry, Steve Smith (R-Charlestown), Barbara Shaw (D-Manchester), are also sponsoring LSRs relating to funding an adequate education.  

Okay, and can you tell me what’s reflected in any of those? Is it sort of a different point of view or just additional recommendations that kind of go along with what the Commission has recommended? 

Looking at the titles, there’s not a lot to glean from them, but if the past is any indication, I would expect there to be a couple that might change the funding formula. A couple of sessions ago we saw some bills go through that cut stabilization grants, that cut specific funding sources, and so where we’re going into this legislative session, where there are so many concerns about state revenues and that kind of thing, I would expect at least a few proposals to cut school funding, countering the Commission’s work, and going from there. 

Speaking of state revenues, I know we’ve been talking about that a lot among ourselves. What’s that looking like? 

The New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute has been doing some really great and interesting work around following the state agency reports, following the state committees in tracking state revenues, and in the beginning of the pandemic, things were looking pretty bleak. The revenues were looking not great because of the pandemic. But the Fiscal Policy Institute very recently released a report that said, the state revenues, they project them to be substantially better than suggested in some of the earlier indications. And so we’re seeing these state revenue projections be substantially better, but we’re also finding that individuals and families still aren’t in a great place. The Fiscal Policy Institute’s work around food insecurity has shown that the levels of food insecurity among New Hampshire families and individuals has remained pretty elevated for longer than national — it’s not recovering at the same rate, and so the number of people in New Hampshire who are food insecure have remained there for longer. 

So of course as we know the Legislature this year looks a lot different from last year, so I wondered if you might tell us about what that might mean in terms of things that are coming down the pipeline. 

The GOP has been really clear that they have two really big priorities. One of them is cutting business taxes, and the other one are vouchers, school choice programs. And so, the business taxes obviously have implications for the Education Trust Fund and the amount of money available for adequacy payments and things like that. They’re also been really clear about their push for voucher programs. They’re calling them Education Freedom Accounts. They have been really prominent in past sessions, in 2017 and 2018. There was SB 193, for those of us who follow this stuff really closely. 

So one of the major pieces that Reaching Higher’s analysis has found with voucher programs has been the impact on local taxpayers, because you’re providing that incentive for young people to leave their local neighborhood public schools, and if students are leaving and you’re providing that incentive, it does not reduce the fixed cost of the school. And so that money has to be made up somewhere, and that money will be made up through local property taxes. And so, we have found with previous programs that even a participation rate of 2 to 3% costs local taxpayers millions of dollars per year, while promoting severe inequities in the system. 

Okay so, vouchers were defeated in 2018, right? What might make this year different?

The party has been really clear this year that it’s one of their bigger priorities. They have told lawmakers to expect these bills to go through pretty quickly, and they have the majority in both chambers and at the Governor’s office. We can all but expect it to go through. It was defeated in 2018. There were a number of Republican members who recognized the cost to local taxpayers, and they were very open and said, “I can’t support this bill because it hurts my community that I represent.” But we’re not seeing that same argument this year. There seems to be much more of a commitment to the ideology of school voucher programs and school privatization more generally. We’ll have to see how it plays out, I think. 

So where does Learn Everywhere fit into this shift toward privatization? I guess the first Learn Everywhere program was approved by the Board of Education last week? 

Yeah, that’s right, they approved the first Learn Everywhere program for the New Hampshire Academy of Science, and legislatively there doesn’t seem to be much there. It’s already an approved program, the rules have already taken effect. You might be asking how does that fit? A program where students can get credit for things they do outside of the classroom? But the Commissioner, at a school choice event a couple of years ago in Dublin, was very clear that the purpose of the program is to cut programs and courses at local public schools, so this would be outsourcing public schools to companies, non-profits and that kind of thing. So it’s a really interesting part of the privatization effort, and one that we haven’t seen the effects of yet. 

Well, it sounds like you will have a lot to keep track of in the coming months. And I know you’re going to be adding a lot of these great tidbits to our newsletter, so listeners, if you want to stay in the loop, make sure to sign up for our newsletter on our website, and thanks so much for joining me, Christina. 

Thanks, Sarah, it was great to be here. 

After the break, a story about NH’s 2021 Teacher of the Year, who has spent the past decade creating a support network for the families in her school community. 

As the school day gets underway on the Friday before Thanksgiving at Ledge Street School in Nashua, English Language teacher Danielle Boutin is in the school parking lot in jeans, sneakers, and a tie-dye mask, staging the weekly farmers’ market. She and her team of fellow teachers and volunteers lug grocery bags crammed with potatoes, onions, and carrots from the backs of SUVs and arrange crates of milk, boxes of pancake mix, bags of fish sticks, and the rest of the week’s bounty on long folding tables. On the other side of the parking lot, women in colorful skirts and a few men in jeans and sweatshirts, form a line. Behind the tables, on the edge of a raised bed filled with the brown remnants of flowers, a teacher helps a mother and daughter troubleshoot a laptop.

For many of these families, this weekly event has become a lifeline in a year of crisis and uncertainty. It’s one piece of a community support system Boutin and her EL team have knit together over the years, and it’s one reason Boutin recently earned the title of 2021 Teacher of the Year. 

Boutin: People fall on hard times, and sometimes you have no one to turn to, and sometimes if you’re in a brand new country you might not have a support network yet. You may not have the language, you may not know how it works. … 

Teaching new Americans is a calling for Boutin. Her first visit to an EL classroom, at Beech Street School in Manchester as part of her training at UNH-Manchester, confirmed it. 

Boutin: It was literally love at first sight. I knew after like two minutes in the room, I was like, ‘this is where I belong.’

Boutin started teaching at Ledge Street School 11 years ago as a long-term sub, and never left. 

One of 12 elementary schools in Nashua, Ledge Street School serves students from a wide range of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. More than 70% of the student body qualify for free and reduced price lunch, the second highest rate in the state.

Right away, Boutin began looking for ways to meet her students’ needs. 

Boutin: When I first came to Ledge Street I just noticed that there was a lot of small initiatives going in different ways. There wasn’t necessarily a common goal, if you will, in terms of the work that was being done. And then I also saw areas where I thought, okay … I see a problem. I think that I can help to kind of create a solution. So very early on we found that homework was a big issue, that kids were constantly being kept in from recess or they were feeling when they got into class that they had no idea what was going on because they couldn’t keep up with the homework, and a lot of the parents didn’t have the English skills to be able to help them, and a lot of times the older siblings weren’t always available. And so, probably within the first or second year at Ledge Street, we started a homework club. 

As they helped students with their academics, Boutin, along with Maria Barry, the school’s family engagement coordinator, began noticing that problems in the classroom had deeper roots.

Boutin: We just kept hearing the same — you know, there would be a discipline issue at school, or someone would be having a hard time with a friend, or there would be some reason why Maria had to make a call home for something, and Maria would be like, ‘oh can we stop in for a minute?’ And it would just be this issue that was so much larger than the disagreement on the playground. It went back to basic needs. You know: ‘We didn’t have clothing, we didn’t have food, and we thought we were going to lose our house tomorrow. … I couldn’t tell you the number of times that I had kids tell me, like, ‘I couldn’t come to school yesterday because, like, I didn’t have the sneakers. My brother needed them for gym class.’ That honestly happened to me like three or four times in my early years of teaching.

And so, a clothes closet was born, followed by a food pantry. Boutin, Barry, and, later fellow teacher Kayla Bassett, did everything themselves for a while: conducting clothing drives, spending long hours washing and sorting donations, and storing them in Bassett’s basement. Standing outside Market Basket to collect food donations. 

Barry, who I met as she was zig-zagging through the parking lot in a crocheted hat and leggings, chatting in Spanish with families navigating the tables of food, remembers the days before everything ran so smoothly. 

Barry: I remember just approaching my neighbors: ‘Okay clothing drive time.’ And then we’d set tables out in our cafeteria at conference time and have families just take what they needed. Or we had, like winter coats were donated, and so each kid went up onto the stage and picked out a coat and mittens, and it was just, it was haphazard, and… storage — I mean my office would be full, just clothes everywhere. I mean it was out of control. 

Eventually, the team connected with a non-profit called Katie’s Closet, which built them a clothing closet in one of the classrooms and keeps it stocked with donations. 

Boutin: So there’s a lot less laundry in Kayla’s and my life, and there’s a lot less going through bags…

Over time, they made connections with other non-profits such as End 68 Hours of Hunger, the NH Food Bank, the United Way, and the local soup kitchen. 

Of course, there were obstacles along the way, too, including finding funds, time, and support for the programs. 

Barry: We had an administrator who wanted nothing to do with any of this.

That’s changed. The current administrator, Chas Miller, recently sang Boutin’s praises at a State Board of Ed meeting: “She’s progressive. She’s innovative. She’s everything that needs to happen in a school like ours,” he said. 

The impact of Boutin’s work has been profound and far-reaching. 

Boutin: Attendance is a big one that comes to mind. I definitely see a correlation between the clothing closet and the improvement in attendance. When a student’s able to come in and feel like they look like everyone else, or their clothes are clean, or they’re wearing those silly sequined shirts that they can brush up and down just like everyone else has…

Those small things matter, and they’re also a window into the bigger things.

Boutin: Sometimes the students that come to us, they’ve had atypical experiences. I mean, they’ve had significant trauma histories. They haven’t had an easy eight, nine, 10 years on this planet, and so they carry all of that with them. Sometimes I think my own learning curve has been — you know, in the beginning, like, why is that kid acting like that? Why are they misbehaving so much? Whereas now I approach it in a completely different way, and it’s through so much of this kind of community work that we’ve done that I’ve of kind of gotten a much better insight into what our families have experienced and where they’re coming from, and that maybe that behavioral outburst that happens every single day at the same time, a lot of times there’s a lot more going on under the surface. Sometimes by having clothing and food to offer, we’re able to start having much deeper and more meaningful conversations.

And once those bonds are made, they stick, says Bassett, an EL teacher who’s been working at Ledge Street, and with Boutin’s program, for about eight years. 

Bassett: One of the effects that we can see right now is we have high schoolers coming back to help us either in homework club or with our summer school who were here in elementary school. 

Boutin and her team have also set a cycle of giving in motion — or perhaps lent their muscle to a cycle that was already there.

Boutin: A lot of our families, they’re proud and they want to be part of the community, so we’ll always tell families, ‘oh when your kids outgrow their clothes, if you don’t have anyone to give it to, feel free to give us a call, feel free to drop it off. So we have a lot of families that, they may take clothes from the closet, but they’ll also donate right back to us.

Bassett: We do see some families, once their situation changes, they then help others. …Yeah, they needed help for a time. We all go through ups and downs in life, and so when they were maybe in a down someone helped them, and now they’re up and they can help the next person. 

It hasn’t been an easy year for Ledge Street families. 

Boutin: I mean it’s 10-fold. Families that have never needed before are in need now. A lot of our families are in the restaurant business. A lot of our families are in housekeeping and the cleaning industry. And a lot of those industries are the ones that have been hit, you know, the hardest. A lot of times when your skills in English might be limited, your job prospects can also be limited, and so it’s hard for them to just go out and find something else. 

When the pandemic hit last year, Ledge Street quickly mobilized, turning the food pantry into a weekly farmers’ market brimming with fresh produce, dairy and meat, along with non-perishables and bread. They’re now providing food to about 150 families a week, estimated Boutin’s father, Mike Boutin, who volunteers at the market. 

If there’s a bright side to the crisis, it’s the way it’s strengthened Boutin’s team.

 Boutin: I feel like through the pandemic, a lot of our efforts have really kind of pulled together. We’ve been able to almost kind of tighten the network, and I feel like I’m more aware now of what’s happening in the community. And I feel like now if a problem comes to me, instead of not knowing who to reach out to, I feel like now it’s like I have three or four different people that I know that I can make a phone call to, and that are able to help. And they were always there, but I think that’s probably one of the shining lights through all of this is I feel like we’ve gotten to have firsthand experience of so much of the work that’s already happening out there, and then figuring out how we can kind of work with them.

Thanks again to Christina Pretorius, Danielle Boutin, and her team, for joining me today. School Talk is produced by our intern Henry Lavoie. To stay up to date on education news, sign up for our newsletter at reachinghighernh.org and follow School Talk wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. We’ll catch you next month.