Lisa Swett, John Higgins, and student Jordan

Lisa Swett, John Higgins, and student Jordan

We like to think that education as a “gateway” is open to all, but the reality is that for some that gateway is hidden, slams shut as they approach, or just won’t open at all.

Many young people struggle to find their own way to that gateway. However, there is a man who knows where that gateway is and, furthermore, has the key to unlock it.

He is John Higgins, executive director since last July of the six-year-old Ledyard Charter School (LCS) in Lebanon. As I spoke with Mr. Higgins in his office on the third floor of the Whipple Building overlooking Colburn Park, it became increasingly evident that his passion is to try to help every person “find that gateway.”

Ledyard Charter School Executive Director John Higgins at his desk ready for the day; LCS teachers Wendy Tucker and Matt Stuart with their students in the common room; students Cam, Jordan, Devin, Nick, Ethan, James, and Gage

Ledyard Charter School Executive Director John Higgins at his desk ready for the day; LCS teachers Wendy Tucker and Matt Stuart with their students in the common room; students Cam, Jordan, Devin, Nick, Ethan, James, and Gage

I watched him during our interview interact with the students as they came into his office with various questions, problems, changes to schedules…. He was open and engaged. He cares for the students and speaks with them with respect, openness, and enthusiasm. He smiles and has their trust and respect. It was a joy to observe that.

I was first introduced to Higgins a few months ago when he visited and spoke to the Rotary Club of Lebanon. He was passionate and clear about his enthusiasm for LCS, and he was eager to share this with our Rotary members. We learned that LCS “is a public school designed to serve high school students who are looking for an alternative to the traditional public school.”

Higgins, 46, came to teaching from the corporate world. He was the director of sales at Pepsi for their Northern New England operations, but feeling the need for major changes in his life, he entered the field of education. He taught at Kearsarge for 13 years as a special education case manager and classroom teacher. He came across the LCS opportunity on a job-posting site, applied, and was hired.
“It is clear there is a true need for LCS, and continuing to gain support from our community partners is essential to our success,” he said.

LT-March-1-bHigh school is a challenge even for those who are well prepared and come from the ideal environment.

“LCS is often asked why our students are so different from their peers who thrive in traditional high schools. The difference is what we call the ‘curveball.’ It is that event or circumstance that throws a young person’s world upside down,” he said. “Our students have experienced a variety of curveballs, and we provide an alternative education for these students, as well many other teenagers who simply need a different approach to learning.”

Students who do not find success in a traditional high school might turn to Ledyard Charter School to find that “gateway to life-long success” that may have eluded them in the past. They might be more successful at LCS due to its more individualized, hands-on approach, and classes on average of fewer than 10 students.

When students understand there is an alternative place for them that offers a welcoming atmosphere where they can feel safe, not be judged, find help for their individual needs, and have peers with this same mind set, they will be better able to achieve their personal goals. These goals might be as simple as earning a license to be a successful auto mechanic, or finding his or her “stride” and being put on the path toward achieving a master’s degree in nursing after high school.

“The foundation of our school lies in our belief that fostering healthy relationships – with self, with others, with community – must be a priority,” says the LCS website. “We ‘grow good people’ at LCS, and we are proud to send them into the world, knowing they will be happy, healthy, successful young men and women who value community and what they may do to contribute to help make the world a better place.”

LT-March-1-cThe Mission of LCS is: “A robust personalized course of study, the application of 21st Century concepts, skills and dispositions to real-world problems, the authentic performance of mastered competencies, and meaningful relationships with the adult community through personal advisors, mentors, apprenticeships, and hands-on service learning.”

The school was conceived and started by former Lebanon Superintendent Mike Harris and officially chartered in 2009. There were only eight students at the beginning.

There are now 40 students enrolled in LCS. Each takes the New Hampshire state-required subjects and credits (a minimum of 20 to graduate) that will enable them to receive a high school graduation diploma, the same as for any high school.
Charter schools in New Hampshire receive $5,400 per student per year from the New Hampshire Department of Education, whereas traditional public schools receive more than $15,000 from state and local sources. All New Hampshire residents may attend the school free of charge; Vermont residents may apply and must pay tuition.

Higgins explained that the sending schools from around the community and state are not required to share the cost of the student. He explained the rest of the expenses needed to meet the requirements of the students are raised through grants, private donations, and foundation support.

LCS staff and faculty include Executive Administrative Assistant Lisa Swett, Student Support Coordinator Michelle Lutz, Outdoor Education and Social Sciences teacher Matt Stuart, Art and Language Arts teacher Wendy Tucker, and Stephanie Gregory, who supports the math, science, and technology programs.

The Ledyard Charter School Board of Trustees comprises eight members of the Upper Valley. Current members include Lauren Morando Rhim (chair), Steve Zuckerman (treasurer), Elizabeth Bailey (secretary), Michael Harris, Martha Parker, Kevin Purcell, Chris Rhim, and Lauren Seifert.
Higgins expressed thanks to the private donors who over the past years have become tied to the school through their generous support. “The Byrne Foundation has been incredibly supportive of the LCS,” he said. “There are so many people and organizations that have been involved in making a difference at LCS, and we are so thankful for their continued support, as well as new supporters and volunteers.”

Students at LCS don’t just stay within the physical walls of the school. LCS partners with Second Growth, Dartmouth College, Whaleback, Hartford Area Career and Technology Center, and more to give students a variety of real-life learning experiences. When students see the real-world applications for the knowledge they are gaining in school, their commitment and success grow.

To learn more about Ledyard Charter School, visit LedyardCharterSchool.net, stop by their location at 2 West Park Street, Suite 300; write to Executive Director John Higgins at P.O. Box 327, Lebanon, NH 03766; call (603) 727-4772; or email JHiggins.LCS@Gmail.com.

by Betsey Child
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