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Keene school board trims budget plan ahead of public hearing

The Keene Board of Education voted Saturday to move a $68.8 million budget plan to voters for discussion and scrutiny at a public hearing Tuesday night.

The board voted 7-2 for the figure, which included $360,000 in cuts recommended by the finance committee, according to its chairwoman, Dawn Mutuski.

Her committee received a $69.2 million administrative budget request as a starting point and, she said, ultimately decided to:

* Reduce funding for the Wilson Pond Dam project from $450,000 to $250,000. In October, the board voted to repair the dam only if an entity agreed to take ownership after its rehabilitation. In the absence of such an arrangement, Mutuski said, the project’s budget was dropped to the amount needed to remove the dam. If the board receives an agreement for someone to take ownership of the dam by Tuesday night, she said, the money could be added back.

* Cut $100,000 from the buildings maintenance department, which had planned to use $120,000 to upgrade door security keycard access for doors, rather than traditional locks. Mutuski said the committee believed the technology, which would be new to the district, could wait another year, considering other increases in the budget. She said the board left $20,000 so the department could finish the work it’s already started on the project.

* Trim the money allocated for replacing Keene High School’s track at Alumni Field by $60,000, leaving $290,000 for the project. After learning that the vendor could use a 3/8-inch surface material rather than half an inch, like Keene Middle School’s track, Mutuski said the committee opted to budget for the alternative that was less expensive but still safe.

Mutuski said the school board agreed with the finance committee’s recommendations and also found an error that, when corrected, removed another $3,700 from the proposal. In the Cheshire Career Center’s budget, a $4,700 line item for furniture and fixtures should’ve read $1,000, she said.

The $68,865,207 draft operating budget proposal, which is half a percent lower than the administration’s request, still includes money for a district-wide workplace safety position and a behavioral interventionist at the middle school, as well as a $1.1 million increase in special education costs.

The proposal headed to the public hearing is a 3.2 percent increase over the $66,758,527 operating budget voters approved last year.

The operating budget figure, typically one of the first articles on a warrant, doesn’t include any new employment contracts, which are voted on separately. If those contracts are approved, the costs are added to the coming year’s operating budget and incorporated into the budget in following years.

This year’s warrant is slated to include four contracts with labor unions, if successfully negotiated: the Keene Educational Office Personnel Group, the Keene Clinical Service Providers, the Keene Custodians and the Association of Keene Tutors. It’s unclear how much each of these contracts would cost because negotiations are still pending.

The school board’s public hearing on the proposed 2020-21 budget and other warrant articles will be Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Keene High School’s auditorium. Voters can discuss and amend the budget and warrant at the deliberative session Feb. 8.

Competency-based learning takes root in Bay State

MELROSE, Mass. — This cozy suburb just outside of Boston is home to an idyllic New England downtown and schools good enough to draw young families in droves. Students perform well above the U.S. average and do better even than their peers in similarly wealthy school districts, a study found.

At no point in recent memory have Melrose public schools been failing. But the outgoing superintendent, Cyndy Taymore, is four years into an effort to fundamentally rethink traditional schooling here.

The model is known by several names, including proficiency-based education. That’s what they called it in Maine, where in 2012, state officials mandated that every district adopt it, and then in 2018, abandoned the requirement. The state’s boomerang confirmed for many critics that proficiency-based education was a failure. But for Taymore, it proved only that Maine went about it all wrong.

In Melrose, like Keene, they’re calling it competency-based education, and it’s moving full steam ahead.

Competency-based education demands a shift away from traditional teaching, testing and grading. Students get more control over what and how they learn and take more responsibility for their progress. Teachers define what competencies students should master and support them toward proficiency, even if it takes a while. Teachers also change their grading policies. Students don’t get extra points for doing homework or participating in class. Competency-based education demands that teachers separate “habits of learning” from academic achievement.

Last year, Melrose served about 3,900 students. Among them, just under 12 percent came from economically disadvantaged families, slightly more had some type of learning disability, and 4 percent were English-language learners. These groups historically lag behind their peers in test performance. Taymore believes competency-based education can better support struggling students, but her commitment to the model is also about getting all children ready for the modern workplace and an unknown future.

“I can no longer say to a kid, ‘If you follow this path, four years after you graduate, you will be in this field,’ ” Taymore said. “Because I can’t tell if that field will exist, or if it does, what it will look like.”

Competency-based education is Taymore’s way of injecting more self-directed learning, communication and problem-solving into Melrose classrooms. And it also forces teachers to respond to individual kids’ needs.

Taymore grew up in the Massachusetts coastal town of Marblehead but spent most of her career in urban districts serving students who entered school behind and had to fight to catch up. Those contrasting experiences made her believe that one-size-fits-all educational systems don’t work.

When she arrived at Melrose in 2012, she started granting flexibility: If students wanted to take a third language but didn’t have time because of other required classes, she let them take it online. If a student was particularly interested in a topic not offered in an existing course, she suggested an independent study.

By 2015, Taymore decided she needed a system with an organizing principle. She did some research and discovered that competency-based education was becoming popular among innovative educators. She saw its promise and started to convince people in Melrose that transforming their already high-performing schools was worth the effort. She plans to retire in June, but four years into her signature initiative as superintendent, Taymore sees a district on its way to a new normal.

Margaret Adams, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, is leading much of the district’s professional development relating to this shift. So far, she said, some teachers have completely bought into competency-based education, and many more are experimenting with elements of it. A few are waiting to see if it’s a passing fad. “That group is smaller than it was last year,” Adams said.

Adams is one of the people making sure Taymore doesn’t push too hard. When Taymore wants to charge ahead, Adams tells her to remember Maine. There, teachers and entire schools resisted top-down mandates.

“In order for this to succeed, I’ve had to be patient,” Taymore said. That’s not exactly her style. Taymore is brusque and obviously irritated that children’s potential can be stifled by adult resistance. But she acknowledges — dryly — that she is fortunate to have two assistant superintendents who temper her.

Adams is focusing on slow, systemic changes. Coaches for all grade levels help teachers try elements of competency-based education as they’re ready. Voluntary book groups expose the district’s educators to new ideas. Teachers get time to observe their Melrose peers; some travel to classrooms in other states.

In a profession plagued by a revolving door of ideas to improve schools, competency-based education seems to be striking a chord in Melrose. “Teachers are very receptive to the student-centered piece,” said Meghan Lewis, a 4th-grade teacher. “It’s really getting back to why we became teachers: the students.”

For their part, students broadly appreciate the changes. Some like getting to talk more in class as teachers prioritize collaboration; others like getting to choose which elements of an assignment to tackle first.

Olivia Mone, a high school senior, likes that teachers offer support while giving students greater responsibility. Mone transferred to Melrose High after spending her freshman and sophomore years at a private school.

“A lot of the classes here are more self-led,” Mone said. “With your teachers, they’re not talking at you. It’s more of an open conversation.”

There are many educators, though, who started out skeptical. Melanie Acevedo was a teacher during the 2014-2015 school year when Taymore tapped her for an exploratory committee to research the model and its results. Acevedo wasn’t sure it would work with her 4th-graders, who didn’t strike her as especially independent. “How was I going to give up so much control and ownership of education to them when I couldn’t get them to follow the directions that I was trying to get them to do?” she wondered.

Acevedo read more about competency-based education and saw it in action in schools in New Hampshire and Maine. Eventually, she became one of the first Melrose teachers to experiment with it. She created menus so kids could choose their own learning activities and ceded control to students. Her first attempts fell flat. Students didn’t know how to make good choices, and the choices Acevedo gave them weren’t based on specific goals or learning targets. They were more about giving kids fun options.

“It helped reinforce some of the naysayers because they said, ‘No, see? They can’t do it,’ ” Acevedo said.

She learned from her early mistakes and now works as an instructional specialist to help other elementary school teachers clear those hurdles. Acevedo sees teacher buy-in as evidence that competency-based learning is working in Melrose. “I don’t think anyone would continue if they weren’t seeing as good or better results,” she said.

Adams is keeping an eye on standardized test scores. Before beginning its transition to competency-based learning, Melrose was outperforming the state on every standardized test, in some cases by double digits, and, in most subjects, scores were going up. But 8th-grade science scores were frustratingly stagnant — until the reforms gained steam. After years with only a stubborn half of students meeting or exceeding expectations, 54 percent met that benchmark in 2018, and 60 percent in 2019. Adams ties these gains to competency-based education.

Taymore is also monitoring how many more students take upper-level courses, how many pursue independent studies and how many take advantage of nontraditional learning opportunities.

After four years, she has made a solid case for why Melrose should adopt competency-based learning and has evidence of its positive impact on students. Adams has made sure all teachers can get the professional support they need to implement it. And even with Taymore on her way out, Ed O’Connell, chair of the district’s school board, believes Melrose’s course-correction will last.

“We are far enough down the road on this now and there are enough people putting their shoulder to the wheel in support of this, it seems to me that this is going to carry on,” he said, “regardless of who is in charge.”

In Australia, the air poses a threat; people are rushing to hospitals in cities choked by smoke

Jenny Edwards didn’t want to go back home to Canberra, the Australian capital. She added seven days to a five-day family vacation “specifically to stay out of the smoke.” But it didn’t matter.

Within a day of returning, her eyes were irritated, her chest felt tight, her head hurt and a small but persistent cough couldn’t clear a tickle in her throat. Three massive fires were still burning about 60 miles away, and even though the heaviest smoke had momentarily lifted, the misery of living in a brownish haze remained. Air quality in Canberra on New Year’s Day was among the worst of any major city in the world.

Australia’s bush fires have blanketed parts of the continent with pollution, affecting hundreds of thousands of people who are not in immediate danger from the flames. Government agencies and medical officials say distress calls, ambulance runs and hospital emergency room visits have surged. Even some federal departments in the capital had to temporarily shutter offices and tell nonessential staff to stay away.

Stores have seen an overwhelming demand for smoke filtration masks, and in recent days government officials have begun rationing them to particularly vulnerable people, including pregnant women, the elderly and those with chronic heart and lung conditions. On Facebook, residents have posted pictures of doors and windows sealed with thick tape in an effort to keep smoke out their houses. And 7News Sydney posted a “Ciggie Index” — the equivalent number of cigarettes each resident consumes daily from inhaling smoke. In east Sydney, it’s 19.

A key question lingers as the fires that began last year continue to burn, in some cases merging into megafires: What are the long-term health implications of so many people exposed to thick smoke for so long?

Wildfire smoke that lingers for weeks doesn’t just get into people’s eyes and the pores of their skin, researchers say. It enters their minds, settles in their thoughts and affects their mental health. That was a finding from studies following the deadly Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009, when both firefighters and residents suffered from post-traumatic stress.

“I’m predicting that the effect is going to be far greater than before because the fires have been burning for such a long time,” said Mirella Di Benedetto, a researcher and clinical psychologist at RMIT University in Melbourne. The 2009 fires were isolated to Victoria, but the current fires are burning nationwide, near Australia’s largest cities. “Even where there are no fires, smoke is moving down to these areas,” Di Benedetto said. “The air quality is really bad in Sydney. I think the mental health and physical health impact will be huge in the months to come.”

Little research exists about the long-term consequences of exposure to wildfire smoke, but Kari Nadeau and Mary Prunicki, scientists at Stanford University, are working to change that.

They’re closely following hundreds of people affected by devastating wildfires in California, taking blood samples and asking them about everything from their use of air filters to their psychological responses to the experience. Earlier research has linked air pollution from wildfires to a range of acute conditions, including asthma, heart ailments and strokes, but Nadeau and Prunicki hope to solve a deeper mystery.

“Are there irreversible consequences over time?” said Nadeau, director of Stanford’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research.

The work is urgent, Prunicki said, not only because existing research is limited, but also because the rapidly warming climate is likely to make the unprecedented fires in Australia only more common there and elsewhere around the globe.

“They are not going to go away,” she said.

In Australia, the smoke is affecting cities in unexpected ways. At one of Canberra’s public hospitals, workers kept the hospital’s exterior doors shut to keep smoke from clouding the hallways and patient rooms, said David Caldicott, an emergency room physician.

Some nurses wore breathing masks, and the smoke temporarily incapacitated some local MRI machines, he said. At his own house, the smoke detector kept blaring one day until Caldicott finally muffled it with a towel at 3 a.m.

In an arid country where residents are accustomed to a wildfire season, he said, the past weeks have been unlike any he has experienced. “It’s sort of like medicine meets ‘Mad Max,’ ” Caldicott said, referring to the vintage Australian action movie about a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future.

In the state of New South Wales, home to Sydney, health officials said emergency room visits for asthma and breathing problems increased more than 34 percent in the period from Dec. 30 and Jan. 5 compared to a year earlier. Ambulance calls for respiratory issues were also higher, about 2,500 compared to the five-year average of about 1,900. Similarly, hospital admissions increased to more than 430, surpassing the five-year average of 361.

Four of Australia’s five largest population centers are experiencing the effects of the fires. At least 25 people have died, nearly 2,000 homes have been destroyed and more than 14 million acres have burned. So much smoke has been produced, there’s evidence that some is circumnavigating the planet and has reached South America, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Bush fires are a known trigger for asthma attacks, said Bruce Thompson, dean of the School of Health Sciences at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne. “This is a very significant health concern. Here in Australia, we’re making sure people are moving themselves from the outdoors as best they can,” Thompson said.

Inside bush-fire smoke, water vapor intermingles with tiny particles measured in micrometers. It also contains gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. Wood dust from exploded trees and chemicals from melted tires and scorched steel also hitch a ride.

Particles as large as 5 micrometers “stick in your nose; you wake up with a runny nose and itchy eyes,” Thompson said. Particles as small as 2.5 micrometers — known by researchers as PM 2.5 — are scarier, he said. “They can get to the very edges of the lungs,” Thompson said. “We had a coal mine fire a few years ago and it’s been demonstrated that four years after, children close to the plume had worse lung function. So this is bad.”

Smaller particles in smoke can hinder cardiac function in adults. Thompson said the developing lungs of children can be permanently damaged in varying degrees.

“The lung becomes inflamed, and you cough as the lung tries to adjust,” Thompson said. “The lung is bad at repairing itself. It tries to get rid of particles by making you cough, but it produces scar tissue, and you don’t want that in the lung because it changes the efficiency of the lung.”

Fay Johnston, an environmental health professor at the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Institute for Medical Research, said most people exposed to the smoke won’t be harmed — as long as the fires end soon.

“If the smoke goes away, a healthy person can withstand it,” said Johnston, who specializes in the health effects of bush-fire smoke. “Healthy people will come through it without any long-term harm.”

But relief from the yearly rainy season isn’t expected until February. Like other researchers, Johnston worries about what will happen if the fires continue, particularly for old and young asthma sufferers. “What’s the long-term legacy of it?” she said. “We really don’t know.”Few studies have delved into the consequences of long-term exposure to bush fires. Johnston and other researchers conducted the study Thompson referenced, on health impacts on children and mothers in the wake of a 2014 fire at a Victoria coal mine that burned for more than a month, blanketing the nearby town of Morwell with smoke.

Young children exposed to the smoke were more likely to get an antibiotic prescription in the year after the fire, and pregnant women were more likely to develop gestational diabetes, Johnston said.

Bin Jalaludin, a professor at the University of New South Wales and chief investigator at the Centre for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Research, said government officials and academics in Australia already have been brainstorming ways to study the long-term health implications of the “truly unprecedented” fires.

“What we want to look at is things like ER visits, deaths, hospitalizations, ambulance call-outs for respiratory problems, birth outcomes — do women who are pregnant and exposed to high levels of smoke, does it have an impact on the newborn?” he said. “It will take time, although we are trying to expedite it and get some of this work done quickly.”

Meanwhile, south of Sydney in Bowral, Peggy Stone said she’s fighting off feelings of depression. “We haven’t seen the sun for weeks,” she said. Farther south in Canberra, Jenny Edwards, who has asthma, made an appointment to see a doctor.

“I’m quite worried about the next couple of months,” Edwards said. “Air quality is so hard to predict with so many large fires in our region and the possibility of new ones starting.”

She’s thinking of leaving Canberra — again. But she knows that option is also risky because it’s hard to escape the reach of the fires.

“I am considering returning to stay with my mother-in-law near Lake Macquarie,” she said. “Mind you, there are big fires inland from there, and while staying there last week we had three small fires break out within 10 kilometers of us.”

Let there be daylight?
Let there be daylight? Brazilians tire of standard time

RIO DE JANEIRO — In a city filled with buff bodies, bronzed skin and cocktail cabanas, there are few sights more mournful to people than an empty beach on a beautiful day. But here it was again: sunshine pounding, aqua water undulating — and virtually no one in sight.

“Terrible,” grumbled Henrique de Rei as he arranged his beach stall on an empty beach. “What a waste.”

Behind him, up on a roadside sign above, the clock offered the only explanation he needed for the lonesome sight: 5:46 a.m.

In this latest chapter of humanity’s ongoing and continually controversial experimentation with time, Brazil, after nearly a century of begrudgingly changing the clocks every few months, has called off daylight saving time. “Even if it was only an hour, it messed with people’s biological clocks,” President Jair Bolsonaro reasoned when he signed the decision last year.

Now, months later, every day brings another reminder of that decision as summer crests in Latin America’s largest country, and the sky clears at the unconscionable hour of 4:30 a.m., and early morning has the feel of high noon — minus, of course, the beachgoers.

Much of the world is increasingly considering whether it should follow suit. In the United States, the rush is on in statehouses and Congress to do away not with daylight saving time but to nix standard time, if anyone can agree on such a thing. “Making Daylight Saving Time permanent is O.K. with me!” President Trump tweeted last March. And on the other side of the Atlantic, the European Parliament voted last year to do away with all of the clock jiggering.

“Let’s end this once and for all,” urges an online petition in the United States that has collected 250,000 signatures. “End the madness.”

But many Brazilians, now months into the change, are here to say: Be careful what you wish for. Brazilians have never been shy about complaining about their country, whether it’s the crime, the social inequality or the corruption. Now, as days begin earlier than anyone can remember, they’ve added a new one to the list.

“Four in the morning and the sun is rising; I miss my deceased daylight saving time,” one person mourned on Twitter.

“ARE YOU HAPPY, BOLSONARO?” another asked.

“I never knew I liked daylight saving time until it was gone,” added a third.

In fact, a lot of people don’t know much about daylight saving time. There’s confusion over why it was established, how it works, even what to call it. Many contend, for reasons unclear, that it has something to do with farmers.

“It has nothing to do with farmers,” said David Prerau, author of “Seize the Daylight,” the authoritative account.

“I hear that all of the time, and it’s completely wrong,” he said. “It was the farmers who, historically, have always been against it.”

So if it’s not the farmers’ fault, whose is it?

According to Prerau, there are two major reasons the practice got kicked off. The first is happiness. Clocks were set forward in the spring because people enjoy having more daylight at the end of the day rather than at the beginning, when it’s wasted on a dormant populace. They’re set back again in the fall to give children enough daylight to get to school.

“You want to have daylight at the most usable time,” Prerau said. “That’s the most basic underlying thing. We can’t manufacture more daylight any day of the year, but we can move it around.”

The other reason is economics. The practice caught on a century ago, when lamps and lights were often the biggest contributors to electrical bills. The idea was to align natural light with the business day to reduce the need for lights.

But the economic explanation is quickly losing currency.

“The argument is not there,” said Matthew J. Kotchen, an economist at Yale who has studied the topic. What drives electrical bills now isn’t lighting — whose efficiency has increased greatly — but climate control. If anything, he said, heating and air conditioning get more pricey during daylight saving time. “What we found in the state of Indiana is that (daylight saving time) does significantly increase people’s energy consumption, by 2 to 3 percent,” he said.

It’s difficult to imagine two places more dissimilar than Indiana and Brazil. But the same logic applies.

“When they created daylight saving time, the habits of people were different,” said Frederico Araújo, president of the Brazilian Association of Energy Conservation Service Companies. “We didn’t have air conditioning or refrigerators.”

His organization published data in 2018 that showed how much energy the practice was saving in Sao Paulo, the country’s most populous state. The results were underwhelming: In four months, a state with 234 cities and 44 million people saved only enough energy to power one city with 1 million people for eight days. “It’s necessary to rethink daylight saving time,” the organization concluded.

Bolsonaro did. “It doesn’t save any money and messes with our biological clock,” he said last April. “We only have something to gain by keeping the hour where it is.”

Marina Pinheiro, a young professional in Rio de Janeiro, wasn’t too sure. “During the summer, I’ve always still had an opportunity to enjoy the sun by going to the beach at the end of the day.” No more.

The same went for Julia Reis, who in the beginning ignored the government and continued living daylight saving time, despite all obstacles. “The best thing I’ve done,” she called it in a piece for Vice’s Portuguese-language website. She said she knew an hour didn’t seem like much, but for her, it made all the difference. She lives in a poor neighborhood on the fringes of Sao Paulo where it’s dangerous to travel at night.

“I can’t arrive during the night because of all of the robberies,” she said. “When it was bright out, I could stay out longer.”

Some days it feels as if Brazilians — endlessly polarized, diverse and opinionated — disagree on just about everything. Now they can’t agree on the time, either.

Marcelo Carvalho sat on a bench near the water, smiling into the sunlight, enjoying a rare moment of peace on what would otherwise be a chaotic beach.

“This is the normal hour,” the 50-year-old retail worker concluded. The moment wouldn’t have been possible without the change. “It’s better this way.”

Then he lifted himself off the bench and, as the sun reached higher into the sky, went to work his early-morning shift.