STEAM Ahead and the future of Manchester

Fresh off his re-election earlier this month, Mayor Ted Gatsas joined with former Mayor Bob Baines (who prior to his time as mayor was the longtime principal of West High Schol) and  other community leaders to announce an innovative plan called STEAM Ahead NH to improve educational outcomes at West. The program, which will begin next fall, could also eventually attract students from outside the West Side, including elsewhere in Manchester and potentially surrounding towns. That could also boost West’s enrollment, which has declined since Bedford opened its own high school in 2007.

STEAM is a twist on the familiar STEM acronym–adding the arts to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math that are increasingly in demand, especially in a city that is home to the “Silicon Millyard.” The initiative is an academy and laboratory-based program within West that will prepare “students for the challenge of meeting the daily needs of this dynamic, diverse, and richly complex community.”

Beyond its potential to better prepare students for college and careers, and to turnaround a struggling high school, STEAM Ahead is a new educational model for New Hampshire, and one that fits the collaborative ethos of the state. Rather than relying solely on the resources of the Manchester School District, STEAM Ahead is a collaboration with higher education (specifically the University System of New Hampshire and Manchester Community College) and the local business community (beginning with founding partners Dyn and Silvertech). The program will allow students to earn up to a year of college credits tuition-free and, in the words of Dyn CEO Jeremy Hitchcock (who, like this writer, is a graduate of West), “help develop our own students into the workforce of tomorrow.”

Former Mayor Bob Baines & Mayor Ted Gatsas discussing STEAM Ahead on Girard At Large.

LivableMHT has in the past criticized Mayor Gatsas, who saw a closer-than-expected victory on November 5, for failing to articulate an overarching vision for the city. We applaud the mayor, though, not only for stewarding such a visionary program for the one of the city’s most struggling schools, but for waiting until after the election to avoid any perception of politics in announcing it.

We still think Manchester needs a strong unifying vision going forward, but could STEAM Ahead be the first step in getting there? As he begins his third term, there’s an opportunity for Mayor Gastas to use STEAM Ahead not only as a means to improve education in the Queen City, but as a model for other projects throughout the Manchester.

While LivableMHT still disagrees with the tax cap, we don’t see it being overridden or repealed any time soon, so Manchester likely faces an ongoing revenue shortage. That makes it more difficult to provide a better education for city students, public transit for families and workers, and projects that are likely to attract businesses, residents and visitors. The lack of funding makes it difficult to invest in Manchester’s future, and the mayor even seemed to acknowledge that in dismissing the suggestion of his mayoral opponent, Alderman Patrick Arnold, that the city finally develop its long-discussed Riverwalk.

A transit stops in Portland, Ore. sponsored by a local business – photo by Jeramey Jannene

But what if the City entered into similar partnerships with the local business, education and non-profit community on projects ranging from transit to street beautification to large-scale endeavors like the Riverwalk? Unlike STEAM Ahead, these partnerships could involve shared funding with sponsorship and other opportunities for the private partners. The City is already doing this on a small scale with its Adopt-a-Spot program to landscape and maintain several small parks, medians and other public spaces. Surely, a more beautiful, more accessible city with major attractions like a Riverwalk would attract more businesses, more residents, more students and maybe even tourists, which would benefit both the community as a whole and the private interests that might partner with the City to  get there.

STEAM Ahead is already an exciting program for its potential to turnaround education in Manchester, but it could also be a model for civic betterment throughout the city in today’s era of limited public resources. And using that sort of public-private partnership to realize a more vibrant Manchester seems to fit with the political philosophy of a mayor who has defined his time in office as a practical but frugal  steward of the Queen City. Here’s hoping that STEAM Ahead is the beginning of Mayor Gatsas proving us wrong about his status as a visionary for the city.

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