What makes this N.H. middle school so good?

The corridors of Hampstead Middle School, like those of most other public schools, are lined with lockers. But most of the 278 students who use them don't bother to lock them. They don't need to: Nothing disappears. On a tour of his eight-year-old school building, perched on a hill above this southern New Hampshire town of 5,000, principal Robert P. Little points out some of the other ``benchmarks'' he's proud of:

The bathrooms are essentially free of graffiti. Such comments as do appear are of the ``Paul loves Martha'' kind.

The scores of tools in the industrial arts room are hung neatly in an open case on the wall. Since opening in 1978, the school has lost only one hammer.

There are no bells. Class lengths vary, set by agreement among the school's 22 teachers. Even the lunch periods are flexible: If the menu features pizza, students need less time then they do for chicken, so they move on more quickly to their next class.

Students like coming to school. Absenteeism is a low 5 percent, and the school is small enough so that the staff quickly learns all the students' names.

When Hampstead students move on to nearby Derry for high school, they do better academically than their peers.

Hampstead Middle School, in fact, is an exemplary institution -- one of 257 public elementary schools selected last month by US Education Secretary William J. Bennett for special recognition. Mr. Bennett's list, chosen from 509 nominees nationwide, will be further winnowed after site visits this spring.

If Hampstead is any indication, his list should go a long way toward encouraging a nation troubled by the state of its schools. Here, after all, is a school that works.

But why? What's the secret? Part of its success would seem to be in the demographics of this community. Hampstead, located in the heart of southern New Hampshire's high-tech boom belt and within commuting distance of Boston, is growing so fast that only about one-third of the eighth-graders spent their entire educational years in the town.

The community's 10 percent annual growth brings in a lot of families seeking educational excellence in a semi-rural setting. So committed are they to education, in fact, that the town meeting just voted its teachers a 14 percent salary increase -- above and beyond the amount already agreed upon by contract.

The demographics of the state may figure here as well. New Hampshire ranks 50th nationwide in the percentage of 5- to 17-year-olds living in poverty and 49th in the percentage of minority enrollments. Among the 22 states whose students take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), New Hampshire places first.

But the statewide environment doesn't entirely explain Hampstead's success -- especially when you remember that New Hampshire is pretty low in some other measures, like per capita expenditure per student (ranking 38th) and average teacher salaries (48th).

So what makes Hampstead work?

One can point to the pride the students take in the school -- the sense they have that, in the words of physical education teacher Sandy Dorval, ``they are dealing with the quality stuff.''

One can point, too, to the support the school receives from the community, and to the bright and cheerful building.

But in discussions with teachers and administrators, one answer bubbles to the surface above all others: the provision for planning time among teachers.

In too many schools, says Mr. Little, there is a well-developed network of community relations but no in-school network beyond the daily notice or the bi-weekly principal's meeting.

At Hampstead, in contrast, the 22 teachers are divided into five teams. Each team meets once a week to talk about everything from the academic needs of particular pupils to the plans for relocating the recess area while the building is being reroofed.

``Everybody is on a team,'' explains music teacher Dillard Collins, who is part of what is called the ``Unified Arts'' team. Because of that teamwork, he says, the arts teachers are interested in one another's students and classes, and do interrelated activities.

The result: an almost palpable feeling of community within the school, evident to anyone who walks these halls.

First of two parts. Next: Value of community involvement. ``Perspectives'' is a Monday column.

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