April 29, 2010

Planning Board asked to "think big" in developing TIF

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – A workshop detailing the possibilities for development of the Route 28 Tax Increment Finance district included thinking outside of the big box store.
Central to the project, which covers some 250 acres of shovel-ready real estate along Route 28, is a tract of land still referred to in casual discussion as “the Wal-Mart site,” a throwback to a development plan by the chain store giant that fell through a few years back.
Despite persistent rumors that Wal-Mart's plans may be back on the drawing board sooner than later, Stu Arnett, who is guiding the process of economic development for this particular project, said Wal-Mart has yet to make any formal offers. Meanwhile, designing several land use options – with and without a 140,000-square-foot big box store – is prudent.
Referring to various options presentation by designers Alan Saucier and Bill Flynn of Saucier & Flynn Landscape Architects of West Lebanon, Arnett pointed to the possibility of creating a configuration smaller office units – could be for medical office use, or office condominiums with living space on top. Also in the mix of possibilities were a hotel, a garden center, a coffee shop, and several smaller chain stores.
The puzzle the Planning Board must wrangle with is how to deal with the pockets of unbuildable wetlands that run through the entire tract.
Saucier and Flynn had a plan for that as well. After some consideration, the green space actually can be viewed as an asset rather than a liability, or referred to as “undevelopable,” said Saucier during the presentation.
“It has inherent value as open space, and here you can see how the open space begins to connect to the larger open spaces within the town,” said Saucier, pointing to a color-coded TIF map.
“One thing we're going to challenge you to think about is how that open space can be treated, giving property owners a value added feature, and not just a place to dump storm water,” Saucier said.
Walking trails that connect from one lot to the next could actually be attractive to businesses that are universally becoming more health conscious, an aspect of the proposal that resonated with several Planning Board members, including Maureen Heard.
“Many companies now are having wellness initiatives, and this configuration would encourage companies to come here if they had the ability to offer their employees the open space for walking or jogging at lunch time,” Heard said. “Our country has realized obesity and health issues are terrible problems. All this open space connected could be used for a multitude of things. It could be marketed as beneficial to a company that wanted to move in.”
While Saucier and Flynn pointed out that they designs presented were more food for thought than set in stone, board member David McPherson wondered whether building, given the glut of already available office space might be redundant – and more enticing for prospective companies.
“My concern is we are really a north Boston market, and just outside your area you're looking at, along Tsienneto Road, there's a new office medical building and an addition being built next to it, “ McPherson said.
He referenced several similar business park developments in the region that are losing tenants and floundering economically, and asked who Arnett felt might be looking to build when there are plenty of abandoned spaces to choose from.
“There are still significant advantages for some companies, especially those that are privately owned,” Arnett said. “And unlike some of the larger buildings that have become less functional, we're talking about smaller spaces, allowing someone to do incremental growth. This plays to the New Hampshire advantage.”
Arnett also told the board that having several plans drawn up is a necessity, should a potential buyer want to see what's available.
“If someone comes in tomorrow and says I want to do 'Option 1,' they're perfectly allowed to do it, so we wanted you to know there are now some options,” Arnett said.
Flynn said it's impossible to guarantee that developers will flock to Derry, but it's important to do everything possible to entice them.
“It's difficult to understand what the future trends are going to be. This is the first year Wal-Mart is going to close more stores than they will open. The whole retail industry is in flux. The concern would be by building that big box up there, there's less flexibility. We're looking at how to recapture suburbia, which is one of the big trends in development right now,” Flynn said.
He told the board not to lose sight of the great opportunity posed by the diversity and flexibility of the TIF district – green space and all.
“We have to operate under the knowledge that it's a competitive time, and there are other communities looking for investors to take their money. So it's important for you to identify a theme, an identity that sets the bar to attract development,” Flynn said. “We're asking you to rethink what this TIF could be. Think of it as an asset to the community, and not just another development piece.”

April 28, 2010

Girl Scouts honor commitment to community

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – It's Friday night at First Parish Church, and the Brownies are plentiful. No, it's not another church supper.
It's a Brownie Badge Blast involving about 50 pint-sized Girl Scouts-in-training who have been assembled and organized for this“girls night in”sleepover by two ambitious Cadettes.
Julia Toohey and Isabel Silveira have invested nearly two years of their young lives in this moment, which will culminate with a Silver Award – the highest honor a Girl Scout Cadette can achieve.
Part of the process included putting down on paper what they wanted their legacy to their community to be – the purpose of a Silver Award.
“We really wanted to give back to the Girl Scouts,” said Julia, a seventh-grader at Gilbert Hood Middle School. “It's meant so much to us.”
“Yeah, we've both been with Girl Scouts since Daisies,” said Isabel, a seventh grader at St. Thomas Aquinas.
What they've learned about Scouting is that it engages you in your community, teaches about leadership and, occasionally provides an opportunity to make a sign that says “Office Staff Only” and then put it on a door and go behind that door to make executive decisions.
We're talking big decisions, like under what circumstances to you get to blow your Official Brownie Blast whistles. (The answer is anytime you want, because you're in charge.)
Whistles and executive privilege aside, Scouting helps you gain people skills, said Isabel, and it motivates you to explore your world.
“It just helps you be a better person,” said Julia, opening the door to exit the executive office where two Boy Scouts are waiting for instructions on when to serve the pizza.
“We're running the kitchen tonight,” said James Toohey who, when questioned admits his indentured servitude to a church full of Girl Scouts has little to do with his eagerness to lend a hand.
“Our sister's running the sleepover,” said James.
“And our mother's one of the Troop leaders,” said his brother, Joseph.
Girls started arriving for the sleepover already in their pajamas, wearing their Brownie vests over top of various combinations of silky pink and/or purple sparkly animal adorned sleepwear, dropping their gear and a menagerie of stuffed animals in a hallway before joining together in the room off the kitchen, for opening ceremonies.
Cadettes Aleigh Mouser and DeLeah Barker served as color guard, bringing in the American and Girl Scout flags and the girls joined together in the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by some giggles and squirms, as Julia and Isabel explained the evening activities. Brownies would earn a “Try It” badge for rotating around four different activity stations and trying something new – origami, making your own jigsaw puzzles, food pantry, and two crafts – and two mathematical puzzles – tanagrams and mobius strips.
In a brilliant management decision, James and Joseph would be serving pizza in shifts at one of the tables in the rotation, to keep the chaos to a minimum.
“Ta-daaaa,” said Amanda Foley, 8, who had just completed her “tanagram” in the shape of a robot, as Allie Izzett, 8, completed her creation, which looked something like a bridge.
At the mobius table, Ashley Cierri and Angela Colindres were imagining their circular looping paper shapes were conveyor belts.
“Right now we're just pinching them,” said Ashley.
“Yeah, pinching them and then twirling them,” Angela said, rotating her bright yellow mobius conveyor belt between her two index fingers.
The evening was not all arts and crafts and crowd control. Julia and Isabel asked each Brownie to bring some canned goods to be donated to the Sonshine Soup Kitchen. For every can, a Brownie earned a raffle ticket for a chance at a fun prize.
But the canned goods would also serve as a central facet of the program at one of the activity tables – a volunteer from the soup kitchen came in to talk to the second and third grade girls about what a food pantry is and why they need so many donations.
“A lot of times kids are asked to bring cans to school for the food pantry, but we realized a lot of times, especially the younger kids, don't really know what that means,” said Julia.
One more thing Isabel and Julia learned about planning a major event that involves feeding hungry kids: Donations are awesome.
“Dunkin Donuts donated six dozen fresh donuts. I was totally expecting day old donuts,” said Julia.
“I know. Can you believe they actually just gave us six boxes of fresh donuts? That was so great of them,” said Isabel. “This really is going to be a blast.”

April 27, 2010

Rotarians zap space invaders, make way for garden

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – A Saturday work crew of volunteer Rotarians is on the attack, yanking and sawing and digging and hauling all the Oriental bittersweet and multiflora roses that will fit into a dump truck.
“These pine trees have been strangled by non-native invasives,” said Blanche Garone, of the Derry Garden Club. She is overseeing the work on the grounds of the Greater Derry Boys & Girls Club, part of a National Garden Club effort to “Beautify Blight,” by planting and cultivating community gardens where once only weeds grew.
Last year a large vegetable garden was planted with a grant through Harvard Pilgrim Health Foundation and, despite a tough growing season, kids from the Boys & Girls Club managed to harvest a decent crop – the pea pods were prolific – which they parlayed into a variety of tortellini dishes.
This year, the plan is to expand the garden to include hydroponics, with a grant from Paul Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang Foundation. Getting ready for spring planting meant getting at the root of the problem plaguing the future garden space: weeding out the space invaders.
Curly bittersweet vines were crawling up tree trunks and just starting to bud as the workers, armed with chain saws and heavy duty yanking gloves, got to sawing and yanking.
Free state guide to non-native invasives,
Garone said the club has learned a lot about the invasives particular to New Hampshire through Doug Cygan, an invasive species coordinator fothe State Department of Agriculture. He's on a mission, making the rounds to garden clubs around the state to educate and eradicate invasives.
“He came and did a lecture at the municipal center, which helped us get started,” Garone said.
They will also launch a hydroponic garden using cocoa fiber instead of soil, and pvcpipe instead of a garden pit, all with some expertise from Sticks and Stones Farm in Center Barnstead.
“I thought it would interest the older kids, to understand how hydroponics works,” Garone said. Bouncing off the invasive plant theme, she explained that proponents of hydroponics believe it's a solution to improving the world's food supply, eliminating the risk of soil-borne disease and E.coli.
Bigger garden space will mean more kids can get their hands dirty this year. To help, Garone said the Garden Club is hoping to enlist students from Pinkerton Academy's horticulture class.
“We are also going to try composting this year – this is a good time for them to learn about gardening and composting. It's exposure to these things – and then harvesting and cooking what they've grown – that gives them something, hopefully, they can take with them, and maybe even continue at home, or in their own lives,” Garone said.

Newest Derry officer fulfills lifelong dream


Union Leader Correspondent

DERRY – Kids are impressionable, which is why hanging around the good guys is not a bad idea. It worked out well for Jonathan Imperial. On Friday, he was sworn in as a Derry Police Officer.
“When he was about 4, there was a break-in at his grandparents' house down in Saugus (Mass.,)” said his dad, Michael Imperial. “His cousin was a police officer and was the one who came in to investigate. Jon knew that day. He watched everything his cousin did, and from then on it's all he's wanted.”
Although Imperial, 22, doesn't remember it so vividly, he knows he has always wanted to be a cop – and having former Londonderry Police Chief Joe Ryan as a lacrosse coach and mentor throughout high school just reinforced his career goal.
It was Ryan who recommended Imperial for a spot at Westfield State College, where he majored in criminal justice, with a minor in sociology.
“He worked really hard to finish college early so he could qualify for this job,” said his mother, Cheryl Imperial. “He asked his professors if they were all on board with his plans to graduate in April, and all of them said yes, but one – so he dropped that class. He finished on Good Friday."
A 2006 graduate of Londonderry High School, Imperial played varsity football and ran track, while working at the Londonderry Market Basket.
The swearing in ceremony Friday was brief, but Police Chief Ed Garone spoke from his heart as he urged Imperial to take in the moment and remember it always.
Now he will spend 14 weeks training at the Police Academy before hitting the streets of Derry, which he said he's looking forward to patrolling.
“Coming from Londonderry, I don't know the layout of Derry yet, but I know the people – and there are a lot of good people here,” Imperial said. “This is a dream come true for me, it really is.”
Also there to celebrate his big day were both his grandmothers, his grandfather, an uncle on his mom's side, and aunt on his dad's side, his sister, Nicole Imperial, his longtime girlfriend and high school sweetheart, Rachel Oleson, and her parents.
“His goal was to have a job by the time he graduated from college. He pushed himself to figure out what didn't know and what he needed to work on, and then learn it all so he could pass the test, and he did it. We couldn't be prouder of him,” said Imperial's father.
EDITOR'S NOTE:  Officer Imperial's graduation from LHS has been corrected from the original version posted. Thanks to "Anonymous" for calling the error to my attention, and thanks for reading. CR

April 26, 2010

Reading is FUNdamental at EDMES

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Getting kids to read can sometimes be like getting them to eat their veggies; you have to resort to bribery every now and then.
Gingras groupies cheer on their teacher.
So, as a result of their impressive intake of books – every student at East Derry Memorial Elementary School met the recommended weekly allowance of reading – the entire student body was served up a decadent helping of teacher shenanigans on Friday.
“We told them that each grade level had to read all week, and any grade with better than 85 percent participation, their teacher would compete in a tricycle race,” said Cathy Strople, the school's reading specialist.
It was easily the big event of the marking period, a Teacher Trike Race Reading Grand Prix of sorts, with two qualifying heats and a final raceoff, pitting the two winners against school Principal Tom Poliseno.
“No way. No waaaay,” said Poliseno, protesting an adult-sized tricycle wheeled to the starting line by one of his staff. He was wearing a hand-painted dayglo “Born to Tri” T-shirt, and a Sesame Street safety helmet that teetered on top of his head, held in place with an elastic chin strap.
Students lined both sides of the gym, some of them waving signs in support of teachers, all of them lost in the high-test chanting that echoed throughout the gym, the volume accelerating as the teachers in the first heat mounted their trikes and waited for the whistle.
Racers included: Kindergarten teacher Lauren Goldsmith; teacher aide Linda Reinelt;
Grade 2 teacher David Townsend; Grade 3 teacher Linda Wells; Grade 4 teacher Jen Gingras and Grade 5 teacher Paul Williams.
Several of the teachers valiantly tried to maneuver the miniature bikes by pedaling. Williams managed to qualify and take the big win using a technique that was described as “not exactly fair” by one teacher, who requested anonymity. However, Strople confirmed he was within the “one foot on your trike at all times” rule, and the win was good.
The final battle, between Williams, Poliseno, and Goldsmith, ended with a bit of suspense, when Williams reached the finish first but waited for the others to catch up before gliding through the yellow tape and snatching victory from Poliseno.
Poliseno was a good sport about the loss, although he suggested that if Williams ends up with an extra recess duty, for the record, it's pure coincidence.
Ultimately, of course, the motivational fun was meant to underscore the efforts of the students, who are eager readers – the school's 2010 New England Common Assessment Program scores show 85 percent of students are reading at “proficient” or “proficient with distinction” levels, a 10 percent improvement over last year's scores.
Poliseno credited Strople for her innovative and creative response to the students' good work.
Strople credited Poliseno, for making it so easy to find new ways to embarrass him in front of the students – something that's always done in the spirit of school mascot EDD: the Owl – with respect, responsibility and safety.
“Sure, it's fun to put Mr. Poliseno on the spot. But really, I'm just happy that the kids love to read,” Strople said.

April 25, 2010

Still Trying to be Safe at Home

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Next month Bjorn Bruckshaw will lace up his running shoes and make sure Dawsen, his service dog and running companion, is well hydrated. Then, he will take a deep breath as he gets in his truck and heads to Boston for the inaugural Run to Home Base 9k, facing his first two hurdles – traffic and crowds.
Since returning from war, Bruckshaw also avoids crowds and fireworks, and worries that “bad guys” may be lurking in parked vehicles as he drives.
Bruckshaw is running because the cause is dear to his heart – all proceeds go to a new program at Massachusetts General that treats veterans of war in Iraq and Afghanistan who, like Bruckshaw, have suffered traumatic brain injury or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I heard about the run from a friend of mine who works at Mass General, and wanted to do it because I know how it is. I see a therapist two times a week and have been going to rehab every day for the last year and a half,” Bruckshaw said.
Nine years ago this May, Bruckshaw enlisted in the Army. He was 18 and aimless, having just graduated from high school. His father, a former Army man, thought a stint in the military would give him direction.
Before he finished basic training, terror struck New York's Twin Towers, and his orders to deploy with the 82nd Airborne Division were written.
He endured the 18-month deployment – and a direct hit during his shift patrolling a Pakistani guard tower by a rocket-propelled grenade. He was one of three from his unit injured that day.
“It tore my arm up, there's a lot of nerve damage. I can't really feel it,” says Bruckshaw, lifting his left arm and running his right hand along the scar tissue. “And it threw me. My brain was rattled.”
However, Bruckshaw completed his three-year military obligation and was discharged. He headed home to Warwick, RI, and tried a few civilian jobs, but nothing seemed a good fit – not after jumping from airplanes for a living. So he decided to join the Rhode Island National Guard.
He went to dental school in Texas on the GI Bill, where he was just about to graduate when he was deployed, this time to Iraq, with a field artillery unit – chosen mainly because he already had combat experience. Although he had never thought seriously about the prospect of seeing action again, Bruckshaw spent the next year in combat.
By 2007, the war had escalated. Bruckshaw worked with prisoners and joined convoys under the constant threat of firefights and rocket blasts.
“There were points where I was getting afraid to go out, to be around other people. I was having nightmares. Some days I wouldn't eat because I was afraid to leave my bunk to go to the chow hut. Finally, I told one of my commanders, who took me to see a chaplain,” said Bruckshaw.
That chaplain wasn't assigned to his unit, and told Bruckshaw he couldn't counsel him for that reason.
“He handed me a golfball and said, 'Do you like to play golf? Here, go hit a golf ball.' I needed to talk to someone, but no one wanted to talk to me. My peers were making fun of me. It got so bad that I started to call home and just cry and cry and cry. I felt let down by the system,” said Bruckshaw. “I still get let down by the system.”
He returned home to Rhode Island in 2008, initially relieved and hoping to get back to his life.
“My girlfriend of seven years had cheated on me, and was pregnant by another man. My parents were getting a divorce. My uncle had died, and no one told me. So one night I almost drove off the Newport Bridge, but my car got stuck,” said Bruckshaw.
He was admitted to a hospital psychiatric unit then transferred to the Veteran's Hospital in Bedford, Mass, where he spent 18 months. Eight months ago he was matched with a service dog, a black lab named Dawsen, through the Canine for Combat Veterans program administered by NEADS, which provides specially trained animals for the deaf and disabled.
Dawsen can turn on light switches and provide a warm muzzle to comfort him, as needed now that he's living on his own. Six months ago he moved to a small apartment in Derry with a room mate he met while hospitalized.
“Having Dawsen is helping me in that, plenty of days I don't want to get up or go outside, but because of her, I have to,” Bruckshaw said. He recently got a companion for Dawsen, a bassett hound puppy named Jackson.
I just want to find a way to be normal again,” Bruckshaw said.
Bruckshaw is fortunate for the help he's getting. While an estimated 300,000 of veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan with lingering symptoms of depression or stress disorders, only about half seek help.
Complicating Bruckshaw's recovery is the tangle of red tape he's stuck in. He says he's been told his benefits have been reduced because service records from his first deployment are “lost.” He recently had to drop out of a criminal justice program at Middlesex Community College because his education allowance was cut.
Lost records and benefit disputes are a growing problem not at all unique to Bruckshaw, said Chrissy Stevens, of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit policy and action group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
This is a common issue, especially one that comes up from veterans making the transition from (Department of Defense) benefits to VA benefits,” said Stevens. Her organization estimates hundreds of thousands of veterans are forced to wait months – sometimes years – for full benefits and disability compensation, stuck in a system that is overwhelmed and antiquated.
Filling in the gaps and creating new avenues for service is why supporting the Home Base Program at Mass General Hospital is so important, said Dr. Mark Pollack, the hospital's chief medical officer and clinical and research leader from the post traumatic stress disorder program, and Run to Home Base coordinator.
The tragedy is, while help is available, many don't get it. They may feel stigmatized, so a great part of our work has to do with outreach,” Pollack said.
The innovative program was really a direct result of the Boston Red Sox 2004 World Series win, Pollack said.
A traditional part of winning is that teams go to the White House and also to visit Walter Reed (Army Medical Center). It was during that trip that some of the team owners met soldiers recovering there, and were really moved – so moved that they made a commitment to doing something,” Pollack said.
They formed a partnership with Mass General to create a unique program that not only treats veterans, but offers services to families, Pollack said.
We sometimes forget that the families of our service men and women sacrifice an awful lot. When their loved one returns from war suffering with depression or anxiety, by extension, many husbands and wives, parents and children have difficulties coping, too,” Pollack said.
For Bruckshaw, doing something to help the cause is part of his own healing process.
I want my life back. One of my goals as a kid was to be a good husband and father one day – I feel that will be difficult now. Dating is hard. I've had a girl say she didn't want to be with a guy who had a service dog. Others don't want someone who's been in the military. I spend most of my time playing softball,” said Bruckshaw, who plays in several different leagues to keep his mind and body occupied.
“I can't say the good days outweight the bad, but there are enough good moments in a day now that I don't feel like driving off a bridge,” said Bruckshaw. “I've come a long way, but I still have a long way to go.”
There's still time to register for the May 23 Run to Home Base. Go to www.runtohomebase.org.

Five Hours, Five Goals

Jim MacEachern points to a downtown map during a discussion at yesterday's Civic Profile.
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Yesterday's five-hour Downtown Civic Profile workshop drew nearly 50 residents and resulted in five solid goals meant to enliven the town, both economically and physically.
Key discussion points included sprucing up the general appearance of Broadway, and putting serious thought into the kinds of businesses that should be included in the mix.
Aided by Michele Gagne of UNH Cooperative Extension and a small army of grad students from the SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, Vt., participants first took in a slide show of Derry over the years, as a way of considering the past in the process of moving forward.
Five groups were then dispersed throughout the town municipal center, to consider: aesthetics and visual themes; entertainment, food, culture and recreation; making the town more pedestrian friendly; being more business friendly; and traffic and parking.
Participants spent the next two hours brainstorming, with the common goal of isolating the best ideas of the day, which were then rated in terms of how much impact an idea had and how feasible it would be to implement.

Most populated was the “business friendly” group, driven by the town's current thrust toward economic development and the prospect of finally building an Exit 4A, which would channel traffic more directly in and out of Derry.
Group member Lori Dunkerley, who moved to Derry about five years ago because of its convenient location between Massachusetts and Maine, said now that she is a mom, she'd like to see more family-friendly businesses downtown.
“I wish I could pop my daughter in her stroller and go downtown to grab a bite to eat and just stroll,” said Dunkerley. She works in Lowell, Mass., and said that town has done much to redeem its downtown – and might serve as an example for Derry.
“They've done a lot to revitalize Lowell, which certainly still has issues – but I've seen some dramatic changes in the last decade,” Dunkerley said.
Newly opened Halligan Tavern was cited as a positive addition. But the recent loss of the Blackberry Bakery, and the persistence of several vacant storefronts remains a problem. Some mentioned the need for good anchor stores – like a Trader Joe's or other specialty or grocery store, a coffee shop or other business to add more variety while complementing existing businesses.
After much discussion, the group zeroed in on the need for a downtown merchants group, to enhance communication among business owners and put some of their better ideas into action.
Other priorities identified by the groups:
Improving facades of existing businesses, perhaps providing incentives to business owners; develop a year round farmer's market; improve crosswalks and extend existing brick sidewalks; and building a multi-level parking garage.
A few groups talked about the need to renovate an abandoned pet store near the busy intersection on Broadway at Crystal Avenue, which is an eyesore, and working with the Friendship Center – a non-profit organization that provides support and meeting space for various addiction-recovery groups – to find an alternate location.
“It's good to have, but it's the wrong place,” said Jim MacEachern, a member of the Planning Board. He and others in the group said that because group members often stand in front of the store to smoke, or park motorcycles outside, it can give off an intimidating vibe.
Planning Department Director George Sioras said he has spoken with Friendship Center director Bob McFarland, who has expressed the need for moving to a larger building, but because they are a non-profit entity, money for rent is an issue.
“We know it's a problem, and we would like to do whatever we can to help,” Sioras said.
He said overall, given the meeting was held on a glorious Saturday morning, and coincided with the start of school vacation week, the turnout was good.
He pointed out a series of conceptual renderings on display, commissioned more than a decade ago to show how the downtown might look with enhanced facades or renovation of existing storefronts.
“They are still relevant – and a few of the existing businesses, like Darren's, modeled their facades after the renderings,” Sioras said.
“And this one,” said Sioras, pointing to a quaint-looking structure on a familiar section of Broadway. “This is where the gas station next to Benson's is. (Owner) Brad (Benson) is actually going to use this as a model when he builds a new retail space there. So in a way, it's like some of these drawings are finally coming to life.”
Once Gagne assembles the information from the workshop, a follow-up meeting will be held May 17 at Adams Memorial Opera House from 6 to 8 p.m. to share results with the public and continue with an action plan.


Derry Business leads the way toward greener living

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – As bandwagons go, the Green Energy movement is certainly picking up steam. However, Brian Pellerin, manager of Freedom Renewable Energy, says installing energy efficient power systems and educating consumers about the overall benefits of greening their homes and businesses is all about raising the bar.
“The cornerstone of our company is a solemn commitment to quality and integrity. Because the products we install are built to last 30 years, we engineer every installation to exceed building codes. In that way our clients are assured of a return on their investment which, in most instances, exceeds 300 percent over the life of the product,” said Pellerin, who launched Freedom Renewable Energy four years ago.
From solar cells recently installed on top of the Fremont Public Safety Complex, to wind turbines for a modest and energy conscious homeowner in Newton, Pellerin said there's something fulfilling about leading the charge when it comes to renewable energy.
Freedom Renewable Energy supplies, installs, and maintains renewable energy technologies to residential, commercial, hospitality, and municipal clients,including wind, solar, geothermal, and co-generation (heat and electricity) solutions. They also offer biomass and micro-hydro products. A division of the company also conducts energy audits, which can be a cursory walk-through or a complete study involving the installation of a blower door for use with a thermal imaging camera, said Pellerin.
As his business steadily grows, Pellerin senses the excitement growing among local consumers as well, who see renewable energy as a win-win solution to the costly business of running a home or office.
“Renewable energy is a great way for homeowners to cut their utility bills and reduce our dependence on foreign oil and other forms of fossil fuels. Also, whenever we use clean energy from the sun, wind, or the earth's soil, we lessen our carbon footprint and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. Renewable energy makes sense for us, for our children, and for future generations. It's a great way to demonstrate good stewardship of the planet,” said Pellerin.
Financially, the annual return on investment from energy savings tops virtually any financial instrument out there, Pellerin said. On top of that, savings from energy can't be taxed, unlike taxes levied on dividends and interest.
“Our clients are pleasantly surprised when they learn renewable energy costs have actually come down during the past five years. With new innovations in technology, renewable energy is no longer the hobby of the rich and powerful,” Pellerin said. “Now all Americans can afford solar panels, wind turbines, and co-generation systems for their homes and businesses.”
Incentives currently in place through federal programs offer up to a 30 percent tax credit for various investments in renewable energy. The Public Utilities Commission and other New Hampshire utility companies are offering attractive rebate programs. Now is the time to invest, Pellerin said.
“Incentives are just that. In other words, they will be retracted once renewable energy has gained momentum. So now's the time to act, if you want the government to pick up part of the cost of your renewable energy system,” Pellerin said. .
Going into the community and doing installations or presentations at schools reminds Pellerin that what he's doing will have lasting and positive repercussions.
“We find the youth of America are really interested and excited about renewable energy. They love the technology. To them, it's cool. They also know it's their future. Kids know renewable energy will someday power their world and give them clean air to breathe and clean water to drink..” Pellerin said. “When we go to schools to talk about renewable energy, or when kids visit us on a job site as part of a class field trip, there's a lot of excitement. They see their future...and they like what they see."

April 22, 2010

Firefighters union steps up, gives back 2011 COL raises

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – It was the town's fire department to the rescue during last night's final budget workshop, offering to forego $130,000 in cost of living raises for fiscal year 2011 to boost the town's budget shortfall and maintain public safety.
At the top of the meeting, Chief Financial Officer Frank Childs showed the council a highlighted version of the budget figures, explaining that due to some lagging revenues, the budget was actually over the tax cap by $37,011 rather than coming in below.
“There are still some things that will affect the bottom line, like cycled inspections may pick up, current use and abatements, but this reflects what isn't happening out there,” Childs said. “Unfortunately, it is what it is.”
And with that, Fire Chief George Klauber took the microphone, and told the council that before he went over the $10 million Emergency Management budget, Derry Professional Firefighters President Michael Willinsky wanted to address the board.
“Our members are part of this community, we are your neighbors, our kids are in then school systems, we participate in your church services. We understand the financial situation the town faces,” Willinsky said. “We're here tonight to offer to work on an agreement to forego our cost of living raise for the next year period. With that money, we can maintain the daily staffing levels and keep station open.”
Willinsky was referring to a situation that arose earlier in the year that forced Klauber to reduce daily staffing in an effort to keep overtime costs down, which were running higher than projected. Klauber said at the time that, if slashing overtime was not enough to hold the line, the next consideration might be to close one of the town's four fire stations during off hours.
Willinsky said being involved in the budget process beginning last fall helped the union to prepare for whatever concessions it might want or need to make.
“We like to keep our fingers on the pulse of what's going on throughout the year, to make sure our people are protected,” Willinsky said.
The council, visibly surprised, went into non-public session with Human Resources Director Larry Budreau briefly to understand what the give back would mean to the budget figures.
“To me, it speaks volumes to the quality of the community we live in,” said Council Chair Brad Benson, once the workshop reconvened. “This is an extremely positive step the unions have taken to move us forward.”
Otherwise, the process of combing through the Emergency Management budget was without surprises. Council members questioned some of the budget increases, but found that most of them were due to vital equipment purchases or technological upgrades, which are unavoidable.
Klauber told the council that his budget came in at 1.8 percent below last year's budget, and that it reflected no new hires.
Following the meeting, Klauber praised his men for taking the initiative with the council – noting that past council/union relationships have not always been easy.
“I'm proud of them. Their concerns are my concerns. If we couldn't get relief, the potential for station closure was great. With what the town council accepted, and due to the union's generous offer, it allows us to move forward. I'd like to see this kind of relationship continue between labor and management,” Klauber said.
“It's not just about money – it's about having a working relationship. The union came to me in the fall – I don't know how often something like that happens, where a union will offer something like that, without being asked. But it truly reflects on the caliber of our firefighters, and their commitment to this community.”
A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for May 6 with a final review on May 11. Once all the flagged items are reviewed, the final budget should be ready for adoption by the council May 18.

Greenhouse growing is a gas

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Nothing is coming up roses for Tom Venhaus – mostly because there are no rose bushes growing in the Pinkerton Academy greenhouse. However, the Jet Star tomatoes are out of this world, and the impatiens are wasting no time as they progress from seedling to spectacular.
This particular day, Venhaus is spending the first part of his Greenhouse Management class watering the neatly planted rows and pots brimming with plantlife – from Red Soldier perennial astilbe to and Curly Wurly to several varieties of chili peppers and cucumbers.
Watering is crucial at this stage of the game, said teacher Michelle Nadeau. Pinkerton Academy's Horticulture Technology curriculum is one of several offerings within the Career and Technical Education program. Her students learn the art and science of plants.
“And I sneak in some math – like fertilzer ratios,” Nadeau said. “Kids sometimes wonder how they'll ever use something like that in real life, and ferilizer ratios is a direct application.”
The greenhouse heats up fast on sunny spring days and the seedlings are loving in, sucking nutrients and moisture from their little peat pods with great purpose, in an effort to be all they can be.
Jessie Wasner has been given a list of plants. One of the social studies teachers has placed a large order and he is hoping to take his seedlings home before spring vacation. As she gathers up his plants, Wasner discovers that Tiny Tim tomatoes would be hard to discern from Tumbling Toms, without good labeling. Fortunately her fellow students have that covered. Laminated signs are placed with their corresponding crop of seedlings, to keep the plants in order – and to inform the plant-buying public.
Everything will go on sale the week after school vacation at dirt cheap prices – $3 potted perennials and herbs, and vegetables $4 a dozen.
“We're doing mock sales today. They're getting used to the cash registers and practicing talking to people,” said Nadeau. “I say it every year, because it's true: they get a great sense of pride in this whole experience. It's like having their own business.”
Many students go on to UNH's Thompson School of Applied Science, which offers two- and four-year programs. Wasner and Venhaus have other career goals – she is thinking about graphic design, and he is interested in criminal justice.
Still, none of this is wasted on them.
“It's a life skill,” said Nadeau. “And I try to get a wide variety of plants – some of them exotic – so that they have exposure to all kinds of plants. Like these,” she says, stroking the tendrils of a juncus effusus, aka corkscrew rush, aka curly wurly, a decorative grass that prevents erosion.

April 21, 2010

Funding for Drew Road culvert approved

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Money needed to replace a crushed culvert and washed out roadway will come from the town's “rainy day fund” to get the project moving, following a unanimous vote by the council last night to fast tract the Drew Road fix.
Public Works Director Mike Fowler brought the $450,000 project before the council last night, explaining that the corrugated metal 6-by-8-foot culvert that runs underneath Drew Road was crushed by the heavy flow of water during two recent storms, which washed out half of the road and caused heavy flood damaged to three properties on both sides of the road.
A hydraulic study showed that a 16-by-20-foot concrete box culvert would be necessary to handle the 50- to 100-year storm flows, Fowler said.
Replacing older bridges in town has been an ongoing process, Fowler said. In 2001 five bridges were approved for Bridge Aid through the state Department of Transportation, allowing for 80 percent reimbursement of engineering and construction costs. The final two bridges – Fordway and South Avenue – are scheduled for repair between this summer and sometime in 2011.
Drew Road was originally scheduled for repair in 2012, but town engineers have determined the project could not be delayed further.
“The unfortunate part is that the state doesn't have ample funds to fund it right now, so we will get reimbursement when the funds are available. In a case such as this, where they will allow us to 'advance build' in 2010, we may not get reimbursed until 2018 or 2020,” Fowler said.
Councilor Neil Wetherbee asked if there were other bridge projects in town in danger of failure. Fowler mentioned three which are on the short list for future repairs – North High Street at Franklin Street, Rockingham Road east of Bradford Street and Tsienneto Road off Route 102.
But state funding for such projects is limited, Fowler said.
“A few years ago we tried to get hazard mitigation funds, so we're looking for alternate sources all the time,” Fowler said.
In other business, the council voted to authorize Town Administrator Gary Stenhouse to fill a full-time vacancy left by Derry Cable Television Director Barb Ellingwood, who recently retired after a six-month leave of absence due to health issues.
Although the station has been running relatively smoothly under the direction of full-timer Chris Martin and some part time staff, Stenhouse said demands on the staff would soon be increasing. The station was an important facet of Derry's outward image, particularly as it continues to promote economic development.
“We think it's a critical position to fill,” Stenhouse said. “We have a cable system here that should be the envy of the entire state.”
Councilor Kevin Coyle cast the only dissenting vote, saying that he felt the council should at least consider going with a part-time employee, if only to save on the added cost of benefits during a difficult budget cycle.
“We've gone six months without a full-time employee in that position, and our station hasn't suffered.” Coyle said.

April 20, 2010

Three budget sessions down, one to go

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRYWith three budget sessions down and one to go, the council continues to sweat the small stuff, hoping to find a way to ease the constraints of the tax cap on making ends meet.
Still to come, Thursday's Fire and Emergency Management departments, which represents the largest slice of the town's $40 million budget pie, at about $11 million.
Last Thursday's budget workshop focused largely on the assessor's office, which reflected the town's lack of revenues from building permits. With some new and pending projects on the horizon, Assessor Dave Gomez told the council that projections for improvements in those areas – due in large part to the draw of the TIF district – were a sign of progress.
One unexpected boost in revenue comes from the timber tax, which shows a 500 percent increase in revenues for 2011 over 2010.
“We have people cutting off the land, probably due to the economy, to make extra money,” said Gomez. He said historically, revenue from woodcutting died off in the 1990s, but with people looking for alternative heat sources in the past year or so due to oil prices, management of local forest land for selective cutting and farming has been revived.
Councilor Brian Chirichiello asked if Gomez thought the uptick in timber harvesting was too aggressive, but Gomez said he felt it was within reason, and didn't believe the trend would continue.
A four hour budget session Saturday dealt mainly with the $8 million Public Works budget, which oversees many of the town's services, including highway and trash services.
Highway Director Alan Cote responded to the recommendation made at the beginning of the budget process by Town Administrator Gary Stenhouse, that council consider slashing the highway maintenance budget by $400,000, which would stall the road paving schedule for at least a year.
Cote told the council that the cost of paving material continues to rise, having gone from $28 a ton in the 1980s to $75 per ton.
Council Kevin Coyle reiterated his concerns over making such a large cut to the highway department without a clear plan to recoup the loss in future budgets.
“That's a horrible idea, to cut $400,000 from a budget that should have $2 million. We'll never get that money back, never,” Coyle said.
During the session on Code Enforcement, the council left the workshop for a non-public session when discussion turned to personnel.
Water and Wastewater budget discussions mainly revolved around the potential for economic development by extending water and sewer south along Bypass 28.
Councilor Janet Fairbanks reminded the council that approval of the TIF district was an either/or scenario, which meant focusing the town's future development in that area before taking on another development project.
Tom Carrier, Deputy Public Works Director, told the council that part of his budget included the engineering costs for the future development of that area, a project that has been floated for years. He said having a “shovel-ready” project might help expedite the work in the event that more stimulus money became available. He explained that the town did not qualify for a recent round of ARRA funding, in part, for lack of a completed plan.
Councilor Joel Olbricht said the project had merit, and getting the engineering done sooner than later was a logical step forward.
The final budget session is scheduled for Thursday at the town municipal center, to look at the Fire and Emergency Management budgets.

April 15, 2010

Council approaches $40 million budget

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – It is belt-tightening time, as the town begins to scrutinize its preliminary Fiscal Year 2011 budget, which comes in at $40,049,252.
During the first of four workshops held Tuesday night, Council Chair Brad Benson steered the council through a fairly smooth process that began with a preamble by Town Administrator Gary Stenhouse.
Stenhouse noted that the overall increase over last year's budget is about $100,000, and includes no staff reductions. Because the town's charter includes a tax cap, and there was no increase in the 2009 Consumer Price Index, the 2010 tax rate held steady, meaning some creative budgeting was needed to retain the current level of services, Stenhouse said.
“There are a couple of big things in the budget, something I've only done twice in my 38-year career in local government. First, to recommend the use of fund balance, which I've only done once before, and this year, I'm recommending a reduction in paving program,” Stenhouse said.
The notion of dipping into the town's $9.8 million reserves to the tune of $466,000 was met with mixed reviews. Town CFO Frank Childs reminded the council that they have already committed to shifting $450,000 from the reserve fund to cover the cost of repairing the Drew Road bridge, which was damaged during the past two floods to the point of critical disrepair.
Councilor Kevin Coyle cautioned that once the reserve fund is used for operating expenses, it's a trend that's hard to reverse. However, the consensus was that it might be feasible as a one-time solution, given the unexpected economic downturn, compounded by the restrictive tax cap.
Other contributing factors to the town's budget woes include a dramatic drop in interest income – down from more than $1.4 million only a few years ago, to about $150,000. Also, motor vehicle registrations were way off projections, by $500,000. Retirement costs for police and firefighters formerly shouldered at the state level were shifted to municipalities last year, which cost the town $106,000.
Ultimately, the council requested a run down on the fund balance for the past seven or eight years, to help estimate whether they would be risking the town's bond rating at a time when investors will be considering doing business here by borrowing from it. Childs said it's hard to predict how much weight a town's rating has on the overall financial picture, but reassured the council that the town's fund balance is considerably strong compared with other towns in the state.
Holding off on road paving for one year would save the town $400,000. Stenhouse pointed out that, should a second round of federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money be distributed, it could be used for paving.
The council went through seven departmental budgets during the two-hour session, including Administration, Health, Police, Animal Control, Information Technology, Planning and Cable TV, flagging items which might be expendable or could allow room for savings.
Newly elected Councilor Joel Olbricht was unable to attend the workshop, as previously announced during a council meeting, due to a prior commitment.
The next three budget workshops will be held tonight at 6:30 p.m. to look at Library, Finance, Town Clerk and Elections; April 17 at 8:30 a.m. to look at Public Works; and April 22 at 6:30 p.m. to look at Fire and Emergency Management.

April 14, 2010

Anime Club gives local teens creative outlet

Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – There is truly something for everyone at the Derry Public Library, including those obsessed with anime. Micha Arsenault, a self-described “fan girl,” the proper adjective used to describe devotees, arrived at yesterday's Anime Club “cosplay” party dressed to thrill, wearing animal ears and a tail.
Cosplay is shorthand for costume play – like being at a Star Trek convention with fans sporting Spock ears and speaking in Klingon, only here they're dressed like their favorite fantasy characters and speak to one another about the complexities of life in an alternate, action-packed, Japanese universe.
For Micha, it's all about Alphonse Elric, better known as The Fullmetal Alchemist, the lead character in a beloved anime series by the same name that has taken on a life of its own among enthusiasts of the art-driven genre here in the U.S.
If you still aren't sure you understand what anime is, think again: If you remember “Astro Boy” cartoons, or have purchased a deck of Pokemon or Dragon Ball Z cards for your preschooler, then you have had a hand in the proliferation of what was once commonly referred to Japanamation, which only really started catching on here in the mid-1990s.
That's about when Billy McLaughlin, 17, had his first encounter with a Pokemon character. Now he's hooked for life.
And although it didn't exactly bring them together, Billy said sharing his love for anime with his girlfriend of two months, Brittany Jacobs, 15, gives them plenty to talk about.
“I'd say I spend about 90 percent of my time doing something anime related,” said Billy. “It opens your eyes to other things, learning there's something beyond America.”
Brittany figures she's currently at around 95 percent anime saturation. She dabbles in drawing, and likes to edit existing characters to her own specifications. And she loves just sitting and talking with Billy about the anime series and characters they have a common appreciation for.
“I don't know why I love it so much. It makes me feel like anything's possible,” said Brittany. “And manga has a lot of big words in it, so I feel like I'm learning. I absolutely want to travel to Japan someday.”
Manga is best explained as a Japanese version of comic books, which follow the adventures of various characters with soap operatic detail who live in a fantastic world where everyone has a back story.
“In Deathnote Light Yagami is a kid who discovers the 'death note' dropped into the human realm by a shinigami. Those are death gods who write people's names on death notes,” explained Cecelee Young. “Light Yagami picks it up and starts punching all the criminals.”
She smiles and points to the character logo on her T-shirt.
It's OK if anime doesn't make a lot of sense, from the outside looking in; it's being inside that matters to these kids, who meet regularly a the library for anime appreciation.
“'Fullmetal' used to be my obsession, until my mom told me I had to find something else to do with my time. Now I write my own stories,” said C.S. Night, who stays true to her artistic alter ego by divulging only her pen name.
Spencer Mayotte, 16, explains that for most “fan girls” and “fan boys,” anime appeal is the combination of philosophy, morality and “just plain awesome action.”
“It takes you to another place, where anything can happen,” Spencer said.
“Cosplay is just a way of the anime life,” said C.S., tossing back her mane of long brown hair with a dramatic flick.
Oriana Theokas, 12, looks adorable in her cosplay getup, highlighted by a huge white hair bow and an oversized fan. She explains she's a vocaloid, a sort of generic robot that sings like a synthesizer.
She has brought along a collection of her own artwork.
“I just like how the characters look. I'm really interested in Japanese culture. I actually went there once, and hopefully I will get to go again,” said Oriana. “It's just so interesting to me.”

April 13, 2010

Pinkerton courting Auburn students

Union Leader Correspondent
With enrollment projections on the decline, the Pinkerton Academy Board of Trustees has decided to pursue a contractual agreement with the Auburn School District. Most Auburn students now attend Manchester's Memorial High.
"Ten or 15 years ago we had a contract with Auburn, which changed as the population of Derry increased," Pinkerton Headmaster Mary Anderson told trustees last night.
She said currently only a percentage of Auburn students attend Pinkerton, based on a formula that shifts with enrollment of students from sending towns of Chester, Hampstead and Derry.
Adding a fourth district under contract would boost Pinkerton's enrollment by upward of 300 students, which is key to maintaining not only lower tuition costs, but also the academy's current comprehensive curriculum, Anderson said.
Any agreement with Auburn would be phased in over time as existing contracts between Auburn and Manchester's Memorial High School lapse.
Derry Superintendent Mary Ellen Hannon said after the presentation she was most taken aback by the news that Pinkerton was looking to contract with another town.
"Having a contract with Auburn was certainly unexpected. I know we're sending fewer students, and the fewer students we send, the higher cost per student the tuition will be. As for the overall project costs, for me, it's all about cost. Let's do the math and see what the tax impact will be," Hannon said.
Anderson said even with the projected drop in student population, the state's largest high school is currently operating well over the accepted norm of 85 percent capacity.
Projected tuition figures submitted to the state Department of Education would put Pinkerton's per-student tuition at about $9,473 -- the fourth-lowest among the state's 17 districts and well below the state average of $11,573. Only Hudson/Alvirne, Salem and Manchester have lower tuition rates.

April 12, 2010

Pinkerton breaks ground, announces $23 million price tag

Union Leader Correspondent

DERRY – Construction has already started on the expansive Freshman Academy, a $23 million project on the fast track to completion by the fall of 2011. Last night the new building was the subject of a brief presentation to Pinkerton Academy Board of Trustees and some school board members from the three sending towns.

Although much of the territory covered was familiar, there were revelations – most notably, the price tag for the 130,000-square-foot academy, which comes in $6 million under the original cost of the project when it was first proposed in 2008. One difference is that a $4 million field project, included in the original plan was eliminated when the building plan was revived last fall.

“If ever there was a time to build a building, this is the time,” said the school's Head Master Mary Anderson. Her comments followed several Power Point screen shots detailing the financial end of the building project.

Financial Administrator Glen Neagle pointed to the current competitive climate among sub-contractors and a recent boost in the school's rating by Moody's Rating Service, along with some refinancing of existing debt, which amounted to a $2 million reduction in overall construction costs.

Based on just construction costs and related expenses, the change in tuition per student would be about $300, said Anderson. Other considerations like salary increases and merit pay would have to be factored in.

“This school is run like a business, and that makes a huge difference. We want to maintain the array of courses that make us what we are,” Anderson said.

The $23 million project will also rid the campus of its 40-year-old portables.

“All things considered, this is really at the heart of it. I want those portables gone,” said Anderson, who said she will be first in line when the bulldozer arrives.

Derry School Board member Ken Linehan said his main concern has always been the scope of the project, and what the long-term plan is for the school.

“If the student population is declining, why add space? Of course, we're past that point now,” said Linehan. “I didn't know what to expect from tonight's presentation. I came to learn, and I learned that the $23 million cost becomes more palatable than the original price tag of $33 million when the building was first proposed.”

April 9, 2010

The Write Stuff

Students at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School
participate in a First Annual Writing Day
Union Leader Correspondent

DERRY – Politicians and salesmen are the product of both nature and nurture, if you consider Jerome McColligan, a sixth-grader with a punchy vocabulary and a way with people.
He was focused yesterday on writing a persuasive speech, his workshop of choice during Gilbert H. Hood Middle School's First Annual Writing Day.
“I'm really good at twisting words and making people do what I want,” said Jerome, fine-tuning his prose while acknowledging that politics was on his short list of career goals. Using a worksheet as a guide, Jerome started his persuasive speech “with something interesting” as instructed:
“Know what I hate? When everyone comes to school all depressed and whiny about, 'Oh, I need to get up early...” began Jerome, whose topic was the importance of getting enough rest.
Ross McLean, eighth-grade language arts teacher, explained that the idea was actually created by the National Councilors of Teachers of English to help students discover the joy of writing across various disciplines.
“The actual day was October 20, but scheduling conflicts prevented us from actually using that day. Since then, the school's language arts department has been putting together activities for all grade levels in preparation for our own writing day,” McLean said.
By mid-morning the creative juices were flowing, along with the Oreos and Chips Ahoy cookies. Kate Bellefeuille, sixth-grade language arts teacher, wanted to set the tone for the day with positive reinforcement, snacks and a looping medley of Miles Davis tunes playing softly in the background.
“I like it to feel more like a celebration of writing rather than torture, which it can be for some students,” said Bellefeuille. She said challenges for the modern-day English teacher include teaching kids that abbreviated “text talk” is not proper English, and while 10 minutes may be long enough to enjoy a complete episode of “Sponge Bob,”, a good story takes time.
“Attention span is an issue for sixth-graders. Even those kids who are trying dramatic writing today. They have no trouble writing a good scene, but it's hard to impress upon them the value of spending time developing a story,” Bellefeuille said.
Nick Williams had filled the front and back of a sheet of paper to more or less complete his play, “The End of the World As We Know It,” in which a child, roughed up by a teacher and hospitalized, is released from the hospital and decides to celebrate by stopping by a carnival, only to be greeted by aliens, who destroy the planet.
“Yeah, I guess it's kind of dark – in a cool way,” he says with pride in his conceptual work of dramatic art.
Across the pod sat Stephanie Bartles, who was wrapping up her love story, “Falling In Love at the Movies,” involving a cowboy and a talkative girl. There is some movie theater drama and a lot of dialogue which ends, happily, in marriage.
Next to her, Catie Brown was expanding on a myth she'd penned outside of class, “Why It Rains,” about Amphitrite, wife of Greek god Poseidon.
However, it wasn't all aliens, cowboys and mythical creatures.
Students at the Picture Writing pod nicknamed themselves the “Comedy Central” table, creating fanciful and funny stories based on absurd photos.
“Mine is about mad crow disease,” said Shamus Doherty, laughing out loud at his inspiration, a photo of a man in sunglasses wearing an odd hat with a crow on top.
Nearby, Tyler Dow was struggling through a haiku about socks – a topic selected for him using a flip chart that scrambles up words and emotions, resulting in this:
I'm afraid of socks
Socks with holes scare me a lot
That is my worst fear
Nick Gravel was at the Expository/Procedural Writing pod, composing step-by-step directions on how to make a “robot fighter thing.” He had a small Lego model he'd constructed, and was using graph paper to neatly and precisely reconstruct his creation on paper.
“I like this kind of writing. It's actually fun,” he said.
Brook Wilson and Meghan DeCosmo were working hard at the Journalism table, a choice based on their mutual interest in writing factual stories as opposed to fiction.
“We like writing true stories. It's not hard,” said Brook, who flipped through a folder filled with writing prompts.
Ultimately, providing an opportunity for students to select a writing genre that sparks their particular interest, and then give them space to explore that interest is an ideal jumping off place for middle schoolers, who are still learning who they are, both academically and socially.
“I've tried to impart some real world connection for them as to the importance of writing skills,” Bellefeuille said. “As a language arts teacher, I may be biased, but this is critical, maybe the most important thing they need to be successful in their lives.”