Republican Presidential candidates gathered at Londonderry High School last week to discuss Kindergarten-Grade 12 public education reform during the New Hampshire Education Summit, zeroing in on hot-button topics like Common Core and school choice.
Of the 800 people who registered for the event, about 550 attended the Summit throughout the day, with maximum attendance reaching 450 attendees, according to Matt Frendewey, communications director for the American Federation for Children, a non-profit that co-sponsored the event.
“From our perspective, it was extremely successful,” he said of the daylong Summit held on Aug. 19. “It was fantastic; we have nothing but praise and gratitude to the school, teachers and students who volunteered to help with this event.”
The American Federation for Children and co-sponsor The Seventy Four, a non-profit focused on Kindergarten-Grade 12 education reform, transformed the high school’s gymnasium into a television studio for the event, which drew spectators and members of the press from throughout the country.
School District Facilities Director Chuck Zappala, who worked with the company hired to produce the event, said he and members of his staff prepped the gym on Sunday, in advance of the Wednesday event.
“They showed up on Monday morning around 5 a.m. with about 30 people and two tractor trailers,” said Zappala, who worked to accommodate crews as they spent the following two days setting up the television studio. “Personally, I thought it went excellent.”
Zappala said there was only one hiccup – the air conditioner that crews brought in to cool the gymnasium during the event failed to start. By the time Zappala and the company hired to provide the unit got it running, the machine was playing catch- up, and the gym got pretty warm during the Summit.
After the gym was cleared, Zappala said he was happy to find no damage to the floors, thanks to interlocking panels the company laid down to protect the surface while hauling in big equipment.
Once the District is able to compile the costs for food service provided to attendees, the District’s work to prepare the gym for the event and a consultation with the District’s structural engineer, Zappala said he will submit to the American Federation for Children a bill for full reimbursement of labor.
Kicking-off the Summit was former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a long-time advocate for Common Core, who called for a broader debate about standards for student achievement.
Moderator Campbell Brown, an award-winning journalist who co-founded The Seventy Four, pressed Bush on how he could know states have high standards if every state has different standards.
“You know if a state has high standards because you have experts that know it, and if you assess to those standards faithfully – it’s not like pornography, where you know it if you see it. But clearly low standards – you know it. That’s what most states have had,” Bush said.
The former governor argued that higher standards, along with real accountability, school choice, ending social promotions and rewarding teachers for continuous improvement will raise student achievement.
Following Bush was Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, who was the only candidate speaking to have never directly influenced or implemented education policy as an elected official.
Fiorina emphasized the importance of local control and argued federal oversight is stifling creativity and ingenuity in the classroom.
She also called for “a top to bottom audit” of all education funding to determine where money is not being efficiently expended and where more funding is needed.
Fiorina spoke against teachers’ unions, saying “they are usually on the wrong side of these issues,” and emphasized the importance of using technology in the classroom as a tool to differentiate instruction.
“Technology is not a silver-bullet,” said Fiorina, noting technology could never replace teachers in the classroom.
“We’re not just preparing kids for a job, we have to be educating citizens. We have to be building their character. We need to expose children to art, music and philosophy,” she said. “We get so focused on preparing children for careers, we forget to feed their souls.”
Other speakers at the Summit were Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who expressed support for the Common Core standards; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who argued for more local control over education and described his support for Wisconsin’s voucher program to support educational choice; and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who said he is suing the federal government over Common Core and touted New Orleans’ all-charter school system as an example of educational choice increasing student achievement.
Closing out the Summit was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who changed his mind about Common Core after watching the policy fail in his schools for four years.
“You know who I found hated Common Core the most? Teachers, parents and students,” Christie said. “The thing that offended parents and teachers the most was they felt like decision making was being taken away from them.”
Local officials and residents who attended the Summit expressed pride the School District was selected to host the event, and students invited to volunteer and shadow members of the production team and press covering the event said they appreciated the learning opportunity.
Cindy Miller, a video production student at the high school, had the chance to go behind-the-scenes, watching production crews set up lights and equipment.
“It opened up many different potential careers to me,” she said.
The ability to work with the students and teachers and administrators to get a unique opportunity to see politics up close and personal was rewarding,” Frendewey said.
Students had a chance to meet candidates backstage and shadowed producers working for major television networks from satellite trucks.
“They got a really great working knowledge,” School Board member Leitha Reilly said of the students’ opportunity to volunteer during the Summit. “We talk about college ready, but what about career ready? These students were working behind the scenes and learned what it’s like to be out in the field for a few weeks. What a fabulous opportunity for students.”
The Summit also served as a unique opportunity for residents to learn more about the candidates running for office, and their positions on an issue that doesn’t always get as much time as issues like foreign policy and the economy.
Barrie Corey, a Londonderry resident who runs the adult education program for the Derry Cooperative School District, said she attended the event to hear what all the candidates had to say on the topic of education.
“Being a citizen of Londonderry, it’s great to see they chose this School District to host the event,” she said.
“I thought It was a wonderful showing of the town putting its best foot forward,” Reilly said. “Having lived in many different places, I don’t take for granted living in a place where we have the privilege of meeting political candidates and asking them questions in person. Just the ability to be able to ask a question of someone you may have seen on the news, it’s different when you ask them in person. It’s a privilege being in this state, and any chance to take the opportunity to engage the candidates and to get young people involved in the process is great.”
The Seventy Four and the American Federation for Children will host a second Education Summit in Iowa featuring Democratic presidential hopefuls.