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Keene School District grappling with education change

As Keene High School works toward implementing a competency-based education model, some parents in the Keene School District are showing trepidation about the changes that could come with it.

About 50 people attended a “questioning session” on the topic at the high school Tuesday night, which Principal James F. Logan said was scheduled after a group of parents reached out to him with concerns.

Under a competency-based education model, students must show they have mastered a competency — or learning goal — before moving on to the next goal in a given subject. The N.H. Department of Education requires in its minimum standards for school approval by the state that schools move to competencies.

Keene High has been in the process of researching and beginning to incorporate aspects of competency-based education for the past three years, according to Logan.

But fears surfaced at a June 11 meeting of the Keene Board of Education, where several parents spoke during the public input portion of the agenda. They said they were worried about information that had been provided to teachers listing upcoming changes to assessment and grading at the school as part of the shift.

Those documents, obtained by The Sentinel through a right-to-know request, indicated the school would eventually eliminate GPA, class rank and traditional grading. One document included changes to be implemented as early as the upcoming school year, such as eliminating midterm and final exams.

But at the June school board meeting, and at Tuesday’s session, Logan said no final decisions have been made about assessment changes. He added Tuesday that the dates on the documents were initial target dates that are no longer applicable.

“It’s up for discussion. The staff has spoken up, we have a committee working on it. Listen, I understand everybody’s got questions. Nothing’s solidly written in stone here,” Logan told parents at the June meeting. “Everything’s up for discussion.”

Andrew Tremblay, a parent of two children in the district, said at that June meeting he felt the district hadn’t adequately communicated with parents about the potential changes.

“So I think we just wanted to open a dialogue and conversation of, what has been the decision process, where are we in the decision process, what opportunities do we have as parents and citizens to be able to have input into this for our kids?” Tremblay said.

Another parent, Jessica Pierannunzi, said in June she is concerned that doing away with GPA and letter grades could hinder children’s academic progress and even discourage high-achieving students.

“I think just to make it clear, we understand that competency-based education is not a bad thing. This is something that is more the assessment, and the way that students will be receiving a report card,” Pierannunzi said. “In conversations to date, it has not been provided to us what that will look like, and that’s a big piece of the puzzle.”

Those concerns were echoed at Tuesday’s session, though few answers were offered, as Logan said staff would take down questions and post answers on the high school’s website as soon as possible.

He reiterated that shifting to a competency-based education model is a long process, and noted that a school committee has been researching the topic for several years.

“We don’t expect this to be a cakewalk moving forward; this is huge. This is a big shift on how we’re going to do education at Keene High School,” Logan said. “But at the end, I think that we have to keep in mind we’re doing what is best for our students, and we’re not going to make the wrong decision for our students.”

Parents asked questions for a little over an hour Tuesday, many of them focusing on how and when changes would take effect. Many raised concerns about how changes to grading would affect college admissions and eligibility for scholarships, as well as whether honors or advanced courses would still exist under a competency-based model.

Jon Perry, an English teacher at the high school, said he’s seen a number of new education models implemented at Keene High over his 27 years there.

“For me as a teacher, the big philosophical change [with competency-based education] is a switch from just ‘what do you know’ to ‘what can you do with what you know?’ And for me, educationally, that makes a ton of sense. The reporting piece — that’s kind of where we are right now,” he said. “How are we going to report this out so that it makes sense to everybody?”

Attendees also wanted to know what type of professional development would be provided to teachers, noting that students had come home with conflicting information based on what staff told them. Some parents said their children were emotional about the issue and no longer felt motivated to try in school because they thought grades wouldn’t matter.

Logan responded that he would make a point to clarify with students where the school is in the process at assemblies at the beginning of the new year.

Keene is not the first Monadnock Region district where parents have pushed back against efforts to implement elements of competency-based education. In the fall, parents in the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District began raising concerns about new grading protocols rolled out as part of an ongoing shift to such a model.

In that district, parents questioned whether the new system, under which academic performance is graded separately from “work habits” such as effort and preparedness, would mean less accountability for their children. Others praised the school district for moving toward what they described as a more tailored approach to learning.

Logan said answers to more immediate questions about competency-based learning at Keene High, such as whether any changes will be implemented next year, will be posted on the school’s website,, early next week. Additional information about competency-based education at the high school is available at

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff 

Keene State College students Olivia Weber and Matt Rakowski look over the mural depicting acclaimed Keene muralist Barry Faulkner on Church Street as they tour the Walldogs murals on a recent evening. This mural was one of 16 that artists from all over the world painted in the Elm City late last month during a multi-day festival.

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Elsie 'Talu' Robertson, a change agent who advocated for others, dies at 80

Editor’s note: Elsie H. “Talu” Robertson of Keene died on July 4 at the age of 80. What follows is a profile of her that The Sentinel published in its Extraordinary Women magazine in 2015, when she was one of 17 area women to receive that honor.

Elsie Robertson, 76, has been a brave voice for the marginalized and oppressed throughout her life. An agent of change, Robertson, who prefers to go by the name “Talu,” was influential in shaping the region and state’s child abuse and juvenile justice programs and educational policies, serving as a guiding force in the development of the N.H. Division for Children, Youth and Families and in educators’ understanding of learning disabilities.

She boldly paved her own way in order to help others. The first nurse at Elliot Community Hospital to have a bachelor’s degree in nursing, she trained under her mentors there and became a pediatric instructor. A joint program with the Head Start program in Keene opened her eyes to the issues of learning disabilities and child abuse and neglect.

To even receive that bachelor’s degree — from Keuka College in her home state of New York — was an act of overcoming adversity. Robertson married her husband, Tim, at the start of her senior year of college, which was unheard of for an all-women’s school in the 1960s. Before they married, the president and dean of the college met with her father to decide whether they could give her permission to marry. The dean told her that they didn’t want to allow it, but decided to grant their permission after her father told them that she would just “go and do it anyways,” and realized that they couldn’t afford to expel her.

While working at Elliot, she received a call from a friend who was resigning from the N.H. Commission on Children and Youth and had submitted Robertson’s name in her place. This position would be her introduction to the world of politics, and while she says she weathered it because she was naïve, Robertson excelled because of her tireless dedication to being an advocate for children. “Four children in the childcare system died in a short space of time, and a horse died of maltreatment,” she remembers. “More money came in in donations from people wanting to help the poor horse than to help the abused children. It just blew my mind.” She revamped the state’s fragmented child and family services division and eventually became chairwoman of the commission, which would evolve into the Division for Children, Youth and Families.

Going from nursing to politics was a leap that she embraced. “It was fine, because I can’t stand injustice. Nursing guided me, and what helped me be successful was my concern for kids and the fact that they need a fair shot to grow up and be healthy, happy and independent,” she says.

Robertson cites her mother, who grew up in abject poverty and died from pneumatic fever when Robertson was 16, as a major influence. “Because she had to work, my sister and I learned very early on how to clean and cook. She made it very clear that whatever we chose to do with our lives, we must choose something that will enable us to live independently of any man,” Robertson says.

These experiences shaped a new chapter in Robertson’s career — helping children succeed in school. After seeing one of her three children struggle to complete his work in middle school, despite his advanced math skills and high test scores, Robertson became interested in the field of gifted education. She taught a continuing education program at Keene State College, and after a position with the N.H. Task Force on Child Abuse, received her master’s degree and doctorate in human services and applied behavioral science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “I don’t throw the word around often, but it was life-changing,” she says of the program.

In addition to her research on gifted underachievement, she was particularly affected by a program called “Issues of Oppression,” taught by Bailey W. Jackson, who would become dean of the School of Education and a good friend. The program dealt with racism, sexism, homophobia and public perceptions about people with disabilities at a time when those issues were just beginning to be looked at in the Legislature.

She brought the lessons of the “Issues of Oppression” program home to Keene, when, amidst the controversy of the 1990s, she was an outspoken advocate for LGBT issues as a board member of the Keene Unitarian Universalist Church.

After graduating from UMass, Robertson became the director of the experienced education program at Antioch University, where she was a consultant to teachers of all grade levels, retiring in 2003.

“I’m humbled and honored to receive this award,” she says. “Horace Mann said, ‘Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.’ If I have a mantra, that’s it.”

They finally built a better ketchup bottle and soon it's going to be everywhere

Remember when ketchup turned upside down? Or when half gallons of milk grew plastic screw caps on their sides? We are resistant to change in food packaging, attached to our squeezy honey bear, Toblerone’s triangular prism, the resealable paperboard tube that houses Pringles’ neat stack of hyperbolic paraboloid chips.

But what if there’s a better way? (Seriously, try going back to doing the pinchy-pully motion to open the cardboard wings of a milk carton without mauling things.)

Something new is coming and soon you will scarcely remember when it didn’t exist. It’s called the Standcap Inverted Pouch. Daisy brand sour cream led the charge, debuting their Daisy Squeeze in 2015: a soft-sided, inverted wedge shape with a flat, flip-top dispensing closure on which it sits jauntily. It rolls down like a toothpaste tube, uses gravity as an assist and minimizes the introduction of oxygen, thus slowing spoilage.

And now the pouches are coming fast and furious: Chobani whole-milk plain yogurt, Original Uncle Dougie’s organic barbecue sauces. A major player in the guacamole business will debut its version Aug. 1.

What’s behind the pivot? Some is financially driven: In the first year of its pouch, Daisy reported a 69.7 percent increase in sales (despite charging about 25 percent more per ounce than for the traditional tubs).

But according to Ron Cotterman, vice president of corporate innovation and sustainability for the packaging-solutions company Sealed Air, some of the drive for innovative packaging is a turn away from glass. He says in the past decade there’s been a shift for three reasons: One is the cost of transporting and storing a heavy product, the second is the perception of safety (consumers fear breakage and shards) and the third is that there are not a lot of end markets for the glass. There has been a significant shift away from municipalities recycling glass because of the enormous cost associated with it.

“Part of it is consumer-driven,” Cotterman says. “But it’s also about sustainability. Walmart has its Project Gigaton goal to avoid 1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases from the global value chain by 2030. And Amazon aims to make half of its shipments carbon neutral by 2030.”

The race is on to replace heavy, bulky cans and jars with flexible packaging that can be stored flat for shipment before being filled.

That flexible standup pouch requires significantly less water, and produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other waste, says Evan Arnold, the director of product development and engineering at flexible packaging firm Glenroy, one of three companies that collaborated on the pouch.

“I just spoke at the Association of Dressings and Sauces technical meeting in Louisville and I asked everyone if they wanted to save the world. And I meant it, kind of,” Arnold says.

Fine, world-saving. But let’s talk about flips, drips, lips and other quotidian woes. There’s the jerking motion required to coax a viscous liquid down the neck of an upright glass or hard plastic bottle (and the anguish of an unexpected deluge), then the wrist-flick flip back upright so gravity halts the flow. There’s the goo that accumulates around the lip and cap of a regular bottle. And there’s the vexing last 10 percent of a product that clings stubbornly to the container’s innards, taunting you and wasting your money.

Aptar is the company responsible for the Standcap’s silicone dispensing-valve technology. Regular inverted bottles with dispensing valves have a re-intake of air after you squeeze (like a shampoo bottle). Aptar’s invention dispenses and cuts off the product without introducing air. According to Rob Johnson, chief executive of Original Uncle Dougie’s, this feature dramatically extends shelf life.

But there are other reasons companies might be shifting to this kind of package. It’s about a cultural shift, taking a product like sour cream from an ingredient (the anchor to a casserole or coffee cake) to a condiment.

“All of the research going on would validate this,” Johnson says. “More and more people are using dipping sauces as a way for people to add flavor to food. A lot of restaurants are doing that.”

The New York Times took some heat several years back for suggesting that millennials were killing breakfast cereal because there was too much cleanup. There is validity to this: Younger generations don’t want to dirty silverware if they don’t have to. Thus, the condimentization of foods. Look for the Standcap soon for nut butters, salsas and jams, that Aptar valve adjustable for different thickness and chunkiness levels.

For now, the Standcap Inverted Pouch is a novelty that stands out, and up, in the condiment aisle. (The more elongated the package, by the way, the more consumers perceive they contain, so the Standcap may trounce squattier tubs for eye appeal.)

But companies may also be playing to consumer psychology. Products that reside in the door of the refrigerator see more action. A tub gets pushed to the back of the fridge and into Siberia, green fuzz and solitude its inevitable fate. This new technology’s upright design makes it door-appropriate, living cheek to jowl with heavy-rotation items. The Standcap Inverted Pouch may, in a sense, give companies a foot in the door.

Embattled British ambassador to US resigns

LONDON — After several days of intense criticism by President Donald Trump, who called the British ambassador to Washington a “pompous fool” and said his administration would no longer work with him, Kim Darroch today resigned his post.

Darroch had become embroiled in controversy after a cache of secret diplomatic cables were leaked to a British tabloid over the weekend. The memos from Darroch described the Trump as “insecure” and said that the administration was “inept” and “dysfunctional.”

Trump reacted by tweeting that Darroch was “wacky” and “a very stupid guy” and “a pompous fool.” Trump went on to insult outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May for her “failed Brexit negotiation.” Trump boasted that he told May how to do the deal, “but she went her own foolish way — was unable to get it done. A disaster!”

May said to Parliament today that she told Darroch that it is a “matter of great regret that he has felt it necessary to leave his position as ambassador in Washington.”

“Sir Kim has given a lifetime of service to the United Kingdom and we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude,” she said at the start of Prime Minister’s Questions.

“Good government depends on public servants being able to give full and frank advice,” she said, adding, “I hope the House will reflect on the importance of defending our values and principles, particularly when they are under pressure.”

In a letter to permanent undersecretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Darroch wrote, “The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like.”

The name-calling, between two close allies, took on a heightened tone because May will leave 10 Downing Street in a matter of days, likely to be replaced by former foreign secretary Boris Johnson.