Follow up of original story published on February 19, 2022
Publisher’s Note: This article has been updated as of 3/23/2022 at 3:30 PM. Please see the italicized paragraph toward the end with new information.
MANCHESTER, NH March 23, 2022–Sources have confirmed that Sherri Nichols, the Manchester School District’s Director of Teaching and Learning, is leaving after clashing with Mayor Joyce Craig over the district’s new language arts program. Craig, who championed the new program during the recent municipal elections, apparently wasn’t a fan.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, several sources said the adopted program was opposed by Kris Pelletier, the district’s Elementary Literacy Curriculum Coordinator, longtime elementary school reading supervisor and running partner of Craig’s. Pelletier had been a proponent the reading program developed by the Literacy Institute at Leslie University. She is a long-term advocate of using controversial methods to teach children how to read, such as “close” or “guided reading” and was a proponent of using materials from Fountas and Pinnell. These approaches avoid using phonics and grammar and have been widely criticized. They have failed so convincingly that the Massachusetts Department of Education recently announced a grant program to replace these materials with “high quality” ones that actually work. (See graphic at left, below.)
Northwest, Weston and Bakersville elementary schools had been part of a pilot program, which had the district paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Leslie Literacy Institute (LLI) to implement its methods over a five year period of time. Then Superintendent Dr. John Goldhardt put an end to the experiment. Instead, Goldhardt wanted a phonics based program that actually taught the tried and true mechanics of reading and writing.
Goldhardt tapped Nichols to lead the effort to secure a districtwide curriculum in “Language Arts,” formerly known as “English,” not only replace the program used by Northwest, Weston and Bakersville, but also to install a standardized program across the district.
Goldhardt and Nichols insisted on a phonics based system, putting them at odds with Pelletier’s long held preference for programs that deemphasized phonics and grammar.
Sources tell Girard at Large that Pelletier complained to Craig about the direction things were headed. When Nichols refused, with Goldhardt’s support, to cave into Craig’s demand that the district adopt a program that Pelletier preferred, she became hostile to Nichols and even more so to Goldhardt. Insiders say that Craig became “downright mean” to Nichols, speaking to her in “very condescending and demeaning ways,” going so far as to criticize her presentations before the board and various of its committees.
Pelletier’s complaints to Craig may have been motivated by spite or revenge. According to those familiar with the situation, Goldhardt removed Pelletier from the group assembled to evaluate reading and writing programs, believing her championing the LLI program created a conflict of interest that brought an undeniable and undesirable bias to the process. In addition to being the point person for the Leslie experiment in the district and an advocate for its continuation, Pelletier had also worked for it.
In March 2017, then at-Large School Committeeman Richard Girard (R-Ward 2) (the author of this post) received an email (at left) showing that Pelletier was teaching an 8 week on-line course for Leslie University. Girard brought it to the attention of then Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas. Vargas confirmed the information was accurate but said he could do nothing about it because there was no policy barring Pelletier from working for the university, its contract with the district notwithstanding. Being a personnel matter, Vargas said he could not discuss the matter further. Sources say that Pelletier continued such work for the university and may still be working for it now. Girard at Large has not been able to confirm whether or not she is currently involved with Leslie University in any capacity.
(Thanks to information provided by a reader after this article was originally published, Girard at-Large can now confirm that Pelletier was still affiliated with LLI as recently as October 2021. She was a featured presenter at a conference it organized. We have uploaded the proof here. See page 12. We do not know whether or not her affiliation has continued beyond that conference.)
This, coupled with Goldhardt’s looking to leave, caused Nichols to start looking for positions outside the district. While she has been offered the superintendency in Springfield, Vermont, she must interview with and be approved by the Vermont State Board of Education before she can be officially hired.
Below are minutes from meetings in which Pelletier advocated for the various methods noted in this article. She and then Assistant Superintendent Dr. Christine Martin clashed with committee members who noted the continued decline in test scores on every test used by the district, notably in the schools experimenting with the LLI program, which are highlighted in red in the link below.