by Thomas P. Caldwell
FRANKLIN — The former chair of the N.H. State Board of Education brought his 10,000 Mentors program to Franklin on Oct. 20, but the principal of Franklin High School said the city already is on board.
Fred Bramante told the Franklin School Board about his initiative as president of the National Center for Competency-Based Learning, which he founded after leaving the state board. The program seeks out local mentors who will be able to assist in bringing meaningful and appropriate academic experiences to students who might not do well in traditional classroom settings.
Bramante spoke of his own failed education in which he placed 206 out of 212 students and got rejection letters from every college he initially applied to. He finally managed to get into Keene State College where he studied science which led to a job as a science teacher; but his real love was music, so he opened a record store. It grew into the Daddy's Junky Music Store chain, one of the largest such chains in the country. But when people came to him for interviews, he could not understand why they were interested in someone he still viewed as "not too bright".
He finally realized that the problem might be with the schools themselves and that, with a different approach, people like himself might excel or at least would be able to complete their education, rather than dropping out. Figuring out the problem became an obsession for him and he got Craig Benson's ear when Benson was running for governor. (Bramante himself was Republican candidate for governor in 2000.) Once he was elected, Benson named Bramante to be the chair of the Board of Education with the charge of questioning everything.
The board first took up the school calendar, with Bramante asking why it was based on 180 days of school. He learned that 180 days was set in 1906 after a Carnegie-sponsored symposium at Harvard University determined that the way to standardize teacher pay was to base a full-time position on 180 days of service, with students earning credit for completing 120 to 150 days of instruction.
"It's not about time, it's about learning," Bramante said. "Instead of time and place being the constants and learning being the variable, we decided to hold the kids to a higher standard of learning, and that would be the constant. The amount of time, and the place — the school — should be the variables. So since 2005, New Hampshire has said you don't have to go to school 180 days. If you can demonstrate competency, you can get the credits for graduation."
Bramante also said the old grading system, using A, B, C, D, and F, is not appropriate. "This being able to pass with a C or a D has got to go," he said. "If it's a required competency, that is the level we should be holding the kids to. We don't care how you get it done; if you want to learn geometry by building a house, that's okay. You just need to show mastery of the required competency."
The 10,000 Mentors program offers help to school districts electing to seek out local talent to help students reach those competencies. "We clarify the mentors' role and provide examples of what will demonstrate mastery," Bramante said, noting that Manchester was the first school district to sign on and Monadnock has followed.
Franklin High School Principal Richard Towne said he has had several conversations with Bramante over the past 15 years and "We're on a par with what he's talking about. We're one of the leading schools in the state when it comes to offering extended learning opportunities. We're developing not only additional arts programs, but in a bigger sense, we're creating connections with businesses. There is a lot of interest in this small city, and people are willing to donate time, money, and resources to work with our kids. It's part of our mission to provide opportunities outside of the school walls."
Towne noted that many Franklin students reach the 20 credits needed for graduation in their junior years and, through a cooperative agreement with Lakes Region Community College, they are able to spend their senior year earning college credits, at a reduced fee.
"If we do this right," Bramante agreed, "we can make college cheaper for a lot of kids. They might be able to get their high school credits by their sophomore year, and embed college courses into the high school so they graduate with an associate's degree. All of that is possible."
Schools working with the NCCBL 10,000 Mentors project provide funding through direct appropriations, title funding, grants, and fundraising efforts. "We are having conversations with others, similar to our conversation with Franklin, with no strings attached," Bramante said. "If districts are interested in having us help them, we are happy to have the conversation."