Category Archives: Education

Ruben Guardado: An ABC Scholar’s A+ Speech

Yesterday, “06880″ readers were inspired by a speech from Khaliq Sanda. The A Better Chance scholar spoke movingly at Saturday’s ABC gala about his 4 years in Westport.

Khaliq’s fellow senior (and roommate) Ruben Guardado also awed the large crowd. Today, “06880″ readers will be similarly moved by this outstanding young man’s words. He said:

Last year, I did my junior research paper on Che Guevara. I wrote a quote that meant a lot to me in one of my notebooks. Now, as I look back on the last 4 years, it’s become even more meaningful. “The road to success,” Che said, “is pictured as one beset with perils but which it would seem an individual with the proper qualities can overcome to attain the goal. The reward is seen in the distance; the way is lonely.”

Of course, Che was talking about revolutionary struggle in Cuba and elsewhere. But I realize now that I’ve traveled the road he described.

Ruben Guardado delivers his speech at the ABC gala with confidence and poise.

Ruben Guardado delivers his speech at the ABC gala with confidence and poise.

I was a little nervous when I first came to Westport, but I was ready to dive into the world headfirst. I had visited Staples in 8th grade, and it was literally awe-inspiring. It seemed like the perfect place to go to school, but I knew that it would mean leaving behind everything – and everyone – I knew.

I grew up in San Diego, in the barrio, where everyone was Hispanic or Latino. My heritage was pretty unremarkable because it was the heritage we all shared. We didn’t think about it or talk about it. We just took it for granted: we all spoke Spanish, we all ate tamales at Christmas, we all went to quinceañeras when our cousins turned 15.

Then I moved here. And hardly anyone was Hispanic or Latino, and no one spoke Spanish — although a lot of people were trying to learn it. No one ate tamales at Christmas, and instead of quinceañeras everyone went to bar mitzvahs. Suddenly my heritage became pretty remarkable, even to me. And that is probably the most important aspect of my experience as an ABC scholar. Being here has enabled me to grow and change — but also to become more myself.

Graduating seniors Ruben Guardado (right) and Khaliq Sanda pose with Anthony Soto, the gala MC, and the 1st Westport ABC alum to earn a graduate degree.

Graduating seniors Ruben Guardado (right) and Khaliq Sanda pose with Anthony Soto, the 1st Westport ABC alum to earn a graduate degree.

When I first got here, my day-to-day interactions with the kids who became my friends, the teachers who taught me, and the adults who cared for me highlighted the differences between us. The weight of it all finally hit me. I walked around with a large lead ball in my stomach. But even though I was homesick, I had the support of my family and the A Better Chance community.

In time, I found my place in the school community, and I found activities I enjoyed and people I really liked. I stopped seeing my peers as a monolithic group of teenagers, and I started seeing them as individuals. And I think that the same thing happened to them: they stopped seeing me as a Hispanic kid and started seeing me as Ruben, who happens to be Hispanic.

It has totally been a 2-way street. We have shared and borrowed from each other’s cultures. And now I am proud to be Ruben, who happens to be Hispanic and who happens to wear Sperry Topsiders, which I can guarantee you no one in the barrio wears. When I wear them home on break, I definitely get some funny looks. But I am kind of proud of them. They are proof that I am part of 2 cultures now. I am San Diego and Westport.

As a junior — feeling more secure — Ruben chose Che Guevara as the topic for his research paper. He learned that despite his flaws, Che had a vision to help the unrepresented and oppressed. Ruben also learned that his culture is filled with leaders, pioneers, writers, artists, scientists and musicians.

Ruben thought that engineering might be a way to address some of the problems he saw in San Diego and elsewhere. He understood the importance of working together, to help others. He repeated Che’s quote: “The reward is seen in the distance; the way is lonely.”

But, Ruben continued: My way has not been lonely. Even at the beginning, when I first got here, I never felt alone. I always knew there were people who were with me every step of the way.

Volunteers for the A Better Chance gala included Staples students. The signed Joe Namath jersey on the wall was one of many auction items.

Volunteers for the A Better Chance gala included Staples students. The signed Joe Namath jersey on the wall was one of many auction items.

He thanked past and present ABC chairmen Steve Daniels and Eric Seidman, house parents Desiree and Titus McDougald, house cook Merrill Boehmer, many volunteer drivers and tutors, and his host family: Nancy Yates, Bob Andrew, and their sons Sam, Ben and Eli. Then he said:

Although only one member of my family is here, I would like to thank my dad, Ricardo, who was the motivation for everything I did. My brother Raul and sister Viri were always waiting for me to get home so we could get back to bickering, which — strangely — I missed while I was away.

And last but not least, the most important person throughout this entire process: my mother, Teresa, who was my inspiration, as well as a great friend when I needed someone to talk to. Thank you all for always being there and for supporting me in everything that I do.

Ruben paused, took a big breath, smiled, and concluded:

I’ve learned many things during the past 4 years, but the most important thing I’ve learned is who I am. As much as this has been a journey of miles, it’s been a journey of self-discovery.  I am who I am because of all of you.

Thank you.



Westport And Diversity: Staples Students Have The “Write” Stuff

Today’s “06880″ theme is diversity. There’s more of it in Westport than you think. Stories posted in the past few hours include Khaliq Sanda’s stirring speech reflecting on 4 years here as an A Better Chance scholar, and Clay Garner’s career as a Westport teenager-turned-Chinese-musician-star.

Of course, another story noted that Westport’s wealthiest neighborhood — Coleytown — is 91.7% white, 3.1% Asian, 2.7% Latino and 0.9% black.

TEAM-Westport-logo2Recently, TEAM Westport — the town’s multiculturalism committee — joined with the Westport Library to sponsor an essay contest. High school students were invited to reflect on the fact that 30 years from now, racial and ethnic groups currently in the US minority will collectively outnumber whites. Students were asked to describe the benefits and challenges of this change for Westport as a whole, and themselves personally.

25 students responded. Tonight the winners — as judged by Westport educator Dr. Judith Hamer; Yale University’s Patricia Wei and teen services librarian Jaina Lewis — were announced. And celebrated.

The young writers addressed a host of challenges. Many were optimistic, even inspired.

Top prize — and $1,000 — went to Staples junior Megan Root. Her tremendously insightful essay — titled “Diversity: The Maestro of Innovation” — explored what she misses by living in a community that is 93% white. She knows that while her teachers pose many important questions, she does not hear answers from a variety of perspectives.

First prize winner Megan Root is congratulated by (left) TEAM Westport chairman Harold Bailey, and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe.

First prize winner Megan Root is congratulated by (left) TEAM Westport chairman Harold Bailey, and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe.

Megan described the value of “a symphony of ideas.”

It’s a little like being able to hit new keys on a piano, shifting your hands and stretching your fingers so you can play different octaves. Every starts in the middle C position. It’s easy and comfortable and you learn the basic skills.

But all the interesting music, the songs with real power, make you strain for the high G and reach for that low F. Entering a majority-minority world is like starting to reach for those far-off notes.

It will be a challenge, unfamiliar and uncomfortable, but ultimately it will open up a whole new book of music. No one wants to be stuck playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Taught by the maestro of diversity, I hope to learn Mozart and Vivaldi.

Megan looks forward to being exposed to more diversity, as the population changes. “I don’t think I can really complete an education in life until I join bigger, more varied conversations,” Megan wrote. “America’s diversity means access to culture and traditions and ideas from every corner of the globe.”

Eliza Llewellyn reads her award-winning essay.

Eliza Llewellyn reads her award-winning essay.

Eliza Llewellyn — Staples senior, and class valedictorian — won 2nd prize, and $750, for “No Longer 91 Percent.” She’s grown up in a multicultural family — part Welsh, part Chinese — and has hope for America’s future.

“Beyond economic strength, a mix of ethnicities will make us more tolerant and empathetic toward others,” Eliza said. “Rather than recoiling from a gay couple or crossing to the other side of a street from a black man in a hoodie, we can learn to see these individuals as people rather than a blanketed ‘other.’”

She concluded, “I am more than a Westporter, or even a Chinese-European. I am a citizen of the world.”

Third prize winner ($500) Kyle Baer was less optimistic. In “Westport: A Bubble Refuses to Pop,” the Staples junior wrote that Westport’s near-total whiteness “sets Westport back from the rest of the nation in terms of its cultural richness.

“To be stuck in an upper-class, all-white town in the coming years will be a significant disadvantage to students. We have little choice but to evolve, or risk losing our appeal as a family-friendly town. Yet the path on which Westport is headed shows, as of yet, no signs of diverging.”

Kyle is right: Westport is homogeneous. But — as the very fact that he won a prize by writing about diversity, in a contest sponsored by his town’s multicultural committee — shows, at least we’re looking at that path he says we’re on.

Kyle Baer with his proud grandparents, Ed and Pearl Baer.

Kyle Baer with his proud grandparents, Ed and Pearl Baer.

(Click here for Megan Root’s essay; here for Eliza Llewellyn’s, and here for Kyle Baer’s.)

Khaliq Sanda Thanks Westport; We Should Thank Him

Saturday night’s A Better Chance gala was — as it always is — one of the most emotional, warm and beneficial (as in fund-raising) nights of the year.

Hundreds of Westporters mingled with ABC House graduates, and were gratified to hear updates on their highly accomplished lives. There were silent and live auctions. The food was excellent.

Khaliq Sanda, speaking at Saturday's A Better Chance gala.

Khaliq Sanda, speaking at Saturday’s A Better Chance gala.

But the highlight of the evening — as it always is — was a pair of speeches by current Staples seniors. Khaliq Sanda and Ruben Guardado talked about their difficult journeys to, and through, Westport. They graciously thanked all who had helped them so far, and promised to help others who follow them.

They spoke humbly, with honesty, insight and power. They stood tall and proud. They awed us. For all they have given us, we are profoundly grateful.

Here is part of what Khaliq said:

Almost exactly a decade before I was born, President Reagan stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” He was speaking literally about the barrier that separated East and West Berlin. I want to talk about metaphorical walls.

When my parents were in their 20s, they emigrated from Cameroon to the United States. Their motivation was the same as most immigrants: they wanted their children to get the kind of education that is unavailable in the country they come from. Their move to a strange and unfamiliar country — through checkpoints and gates and then up and over an invisible wall — was a sacrifice that I think about every day. My parents’ American lives and the fact that I am standing here in front of you today are proof that these walls can be scaled. But climbing over them requires more than just the usual factors, like perseverance, determination, adaptability, hard work, and good luck. It requires, above all, a human ladder to help you vault over the barricade.

It was not easy for Khaliq to enter Staples as a freshman. He did not know a single person, but every classmate seemed to know everyone else. “I was on one side of the wall,” he said. “Everyone else was on the other.” He wondered if the next 4 years of his life would be like that.

He found refuge in — “of all places” — Karen Thomas’ geometry class. Her dedication to teaching — and to him — was profound. Khaliq found other “amazing” educators at Staples — Heather Colletti-Houde, Will Jones, Christina Richardson, Suzanne Kammerman, and more — and he flourished.

Other strong arms lifted him up.

My host family, the Mathiases, was indispensable. Kim and Mark, your compassion, care, and willingness to make me a part of your family are the greatest gifts you could have given me. Nick and Nicole, you are the younger brother and sister I always wanted but would have treated really badly if you actually were my younger brother and sister. This way is better: I love you and I like you. If you ever need me, know I’m only a phone call away.

Khaliq Sanda with his host family: Nick, Kim, Mark and Nicole Mathias.

Khaliq Sanda with his host family: Nick, Kim, Mark and Nicole Mathias.

Khaliq also thanked the resident directors at ABC House; his fellow residents; ABC board members and volunteers, who provided a home away from home, rides and much else.

He spoke of his bonds with Michael Newman and the Peer Advisors group. In fact, he said, Michael is the reason he wants to study neuroscience. He thanked Kim Freudigman, for helping him reach his dream of studying at a university he once would never have dreamed of applying to.

Then, the once friendless Khaliq — now one of the most popular students at Staples — said:

If you’re going to climb a really massive, imposing wall, you’re going to need to stand on the shoulders of giants — young giants. There is absolutely no way I would have been able to make it through this program without my best friends and their families. Roscoe Brown, Grant Heller, Cooper Shippee, Jeremy Langham, Austin Nicklas, Joey Schulman, Charlie Leonard, Henri Rizack, Eliza Yass, Annie and Lauren Raifaisen, Elizabeth Colwell, Emily Korn, Elizabeth Camche and Caroline O’Brien — thank you. You have been there for me through thick and thin. When I have needed someone to talk to or share a laugh with, you were my first choice, my early decision. You have been crucial in my life beyond what any of you will ever understand or I could put into words. Without revealing anything that could get us all in trouble, let me just say… I don’t think there’s been a single dull moment.

Khaliq Sanda at a formal dance, with great friends Roscoe Brown, Emily Korn and Elizabeth Camche.

Khaliq Sanda at a formal dance, with great friends Roscoe Brown, Emily Korn and Elizabeth Camche.

Without sounding boastful, Khaliq described his life in Westport: 10 AP classes, a job at Internal Medicine of Westport, volunteer work with the Key Club, “advocating for students on Student Assembly, and trying to maintain the façade of a well-rested, happy-go-lucky, not-a-care-in-the-world, totally color-coordinated teenager.”

He concluded by reaching back to his original reference to walls.

When President Reagan asked President Gorbachev to tear down the wall, East Germans and West Germans had been separated for nearly 30 years. You can imagine — I can imagine — what they were thinking: the people on the other side of the wall are not like me. Their lives are not like my life. Their problems are not like my problems.

A Better ChanceThat’s what I thought when I first moved here. From my side of the wall, Westport seemed like a picture-book town. The reality is much more complex. I feel incredibly fortunate to have lived here for 4 years, but I also feel incredibly fortunate to have lived in Queens and Lawrenceville, Georgia, and to have been born into my amazing family. We don’t have a Range Rover in the driveway, but there is always a home-cooked meal on the kitchen table. And our house isn’t 11,000 square feet, but it’s filled with the people I love most in the world, filled with laughter and joy.

My journey these last 4 years is similar to the one my parents took when they were only a little older than I am now: moving to a place unlike your home, starting over with no family or friends to support you, and having to stay strong even when things were rocky. I think my parents would say that every moment of their journey was worth it, and every day, I am amazed by how strong, courageous, caring, and wise my parents are. Mom and Dad, you mean the world to me, I thank you again for having the confidence in me, and I hope I’ve made you proud. I love you guys.

Thank you all for helping me climb over the wall.

Stay tuned for Ruben Guardado’s speech.




Staples Students Make History

Sam Cooke didn’t know much about history.

Staples High School students do. And a high-powered panel of experts is singing their praises.

logo (1)Last weekend, a couple hundred 10th graders from throughout Fairfield County presented projects at the “History Day in Connecticut” contest. Staples produced a phenomenal 30 gold, silver and bronze winners. They took every prize in 5 of the 8 categories, and placed in 2 of the other 3.

But they didn’t just win. One of the contest judges expressed amazement at the “quality of thought” from the Staples participants.

And a professor from Arizona State University — an awed observer —  said,”I wish my university seniors could display the insight these high school sophomores exhibited in their presentations.”

Many Westporters don't know that PT Barnum was a  very effective mayor of Bridgeport. Staples sophomores do.

Many Westporters don’t know that PT Barnum was a very effective mayor of Bridgeport. Staples sophomores do.

Students could choose any historical topic: local, national, even world.

Projects included the gun industry in Connecticut, child labor laws, the achievement gap, PT Barnum’s effect on Bridgeport, the Jewish history of Waterbury, the Interstate Highway Act and the Radium Girls.

Congratulations to Staples’ outstanding history students:

1st place: Sarah Benjamin, Jillian Kleiner, Madison Jarvis, Rebecca Oestreicher, Kyle Ratner, Nick Ribolla, Maddy Fodor, Angela Yu, Arjun Dhindsa.

2nd place: Jane Schutte, Miranda Saunders, Jon Dedomenico, Katherine Hertan, Ruth Kissel, Emma Finn, Talia Hendel, Aaron Samuels, George Menz, Jackson Daines, Raymond Chien, Simon Ginsberg.

3rd place: Emma Lederer, Caroline Suppan, Ben Goldstein, Eliana Aronson, Jennifer Martin, Susan Zec, Anna Eichhorn, Doug Raigosa, Georgia Fox.

(History Day in Connecticut’s regional contest was co-sponsored by Fairfield University’s Department of History, and the Graduate School of Education and Allied Professions. All students listed above advance to the state History Day Contest on April 26, at Central Connecticut State University.)

If your browser does not take you directly to YouTube, click here.


Jennings Trail Hits A Dead End

When I was in 2nd grade — just days after dinosaurs roamed the Post Road — my Burr Farms Elementary School class took the Jennings Trail tour of Westport.

We hit all the historical sites: Green’s Farms, where the 5 Bankside farmers first settled. Church cemeteries, where all the cool bodies are buried. Tiny Machamux Park, named by a young Sachem called “Chickens.”

The tour was led by Bessie Jennings, the 9th-generation Westporter who created it. To my 2nd-grade eye, she seemed at least 110 years old. She was probably 40.

The Jennings Trail guide, available at the Westport Historical Society.

The Jennings Trail guide, available at the Westport Historical Society.

Generations of elementary school children have since taken the Jennings Trail tour. Most recently, it was 3rd graders. (2nd grade is now devoted to learning calculus, and compiling genome sequencing data.)

I say “most recently” because a while ago the tour morphed into a field trip to Wheeler House, the Westport Historical Society‘s very historic home. Each May, over a span of 2 weeks, 500 3rd graders toured the parlor, dining room, bedroom, kitchen and barn. Specially trained parent docent volunteers (wearing white-collared shirts, long black skirts and black shawls), and Staples High School senior interns (dressed normally), helped out.

At the end of the tour each child got an authentic piece of pound cake, freshly made by a volunteer parent. (That gift ended a couple of years ago; a couple of kids with allergies could not eat pound cake.)

This year though, the WHS field trip has been dropped too.

Long Lots Elementary School prinicpal Rex Jones explains that the social studies curriculum is being revised. Educators are still deciding which grade — K through 5 — is the best place to teach the history of Westport.

I hope a place is found for the WHS field trip. The parent volunteers were trained to not simply give answers, but to get children thinking about a different time, in a place still standing.

Third graders and parent docent volunteers stand happily outside the Wheeler barn.

Third graders and parent docent volunteers stand happily outside the Wheeler barn.

Ideally, the Jennings Trail tour will return too. There is so much to see and learn in Westport — tiny Adams Academy schoolhouse on North Morningside; stately Green’s Farms Church, a major meetinghouse in colonial days; the bridges that connected two sides of an important river.

Teaching kids modern-day skills is very important. But so is teaching them skills so they can examine the past.

Otherwise, they can never move forward.

TEAM Westport: Celebrating 10 Years of Diverse Progress

Growing up in Tennessee, Harold Bailey attended segregated schools.

The Supreme Court decided Brown vs. Board of Education when he was 6, but Bailey’s city integrated its schools s-l-o-w-l-y: one grade at a time. Not until 10th grade did he and his black classmates have the chance to attend school with whites — and even then, it was by choosing vocational offerings.

He and some friends wanted to be engineers. So they took drafting classes, adding as many academic subjects as they could. “That’s how we ‘integrated’ the high school,” Bailey — now a longtime Westporter, a business executive with IBM and other companies, and a former Brown University trustee — says.

Harold Bailey, today.

Harold Bailey, today.

White parents yelled; white students pushed the few black students into lockers. In late November, 1963 things came to a head. Everyone expected a big fight — but the next day, President Kennedy was assassinated. Bailey and his other friends talked to administrators when school resumed; things settled down.

Half a century later, Bailey recalls that “profound experience. It had a seminal effect on me.”

Realizing that racial prejudice has negative effects on members of the majority as well as minorities, he’s worked all his adult life to bring people together.

In the early 2000s, Bailey’s wife Bernicestine McLeod Bailey — owner of an IT consulting firm, and a Brown trustee emerita — talked with then-first selectwoman Diane Farrell about the need to address diversity in Westport. Local realtor Cheryl Scott-Daniels had the same idea, at the same time.

The "Jolly Nigger Bank," as described in the Westport Library exhibit.

The “Jolly Nigger” bank, as described in the Westport Library exhibit.

In February 2003, the Westport Library recognized Black History Month with a display of “black memorabilia.” Unfortunately, Bailey says, it was filled with “kitschy, offensive” items like a “Jolly Nigger” bank.

“There was no context,” he recalls. “Nothing showed how far we’d come.” Library director Maxine Bleiweis was away. When she returned, she immediately closed the exhibit. But damage had been done.

Bailey and other African American leaders in town met with library officials. (Bernicestine had just been named the first black library board member.) Soon, Farrell appointed a “Multicultural Steering Committee.”

The 16 original members — including Bailey and his wife — worked hard. Fairfield University professors led intense discussions on the history of race in the US. “We read 100 pages a week,” Bailey says. “We talked about the experiences of Chinese Americans, Hispanics and American Indians, and why Middle Easterners are considered ‘white’ here. It was intense.”

The group  evolved into TEAM Westport. (Member Ivan Fong came up with the acronym: Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism. Miggs Burroughs contributed the logo.) Farrell named it an official town commission. I was the 1st white male to join (representing the LGBT community). Al Puchala  and Nick Rudd followed.

TEAM-Westport-logo2“We never wanted to preach,” Bailey — the 1st, and so far only, chair — says, as TEAM Westport celebrates its 10th anniversary.

“Our aim is to work with different organizations, in a way that’s natural for Westport. And to have fun.”

Over the past decade, TEAM Westport has hosted an event on the former slave ship Amistad, and sponsored discussions at churches and synagogues.

They organized speakers for Staples High School US History classes: men and women who lived through segregation, were interned as Japanese-Americans in US camps during World War II, and suffered discrimination as Hispanics.  One year, all sophomores saw the Westport Country Playhouse production of “Thurgood,” starring James Earl Jones.

TEAM Westport brought a jazz master to work with the Staples band, as well as a black chef, authors and playwrights. The group also worked on issues of integrity and race relations with principal John Dodig. Each year, TEAM Westport presents 1 or 2 graduating seniors with scholarships, in recognition of their work around diversity issues.

2013 TEAM Westport scholarship winners Rusty Schindler and August Laska pose with Harold Bailey and then-1st selectman Gordon Joseloff.

2013 TEAM Westport scholarship winners Rusty Schindler and August Laska pose with Harold Bailey and then-1st selectman Gordon Joseloff.

The group also partnered with the Playhouse during “Raisin in the Sun,” sponsoring 24 lectures and discussions on topics like race and housing, and talkbacks following other productions. This fall they’ll offer programming around “Intimate Apparel,” the capstone of the 2014 Playhouse schedule.

TEAM Westport has awarded “Trailblazer” honors to people like Andy Boas, who works with Bridgeport schools; former superintendent of schools Claire Gold, and longtime pediatrician Dr. Al Beasley.

TEAM Westport Trailblazers (from left) Andy Boas, Claire Gold, Dr. Al Beasley.

TEAM Westport Trailblazers (from left) Andy Boas, Claire Gold, Dr. Al Beasley.

Earlier this year, TEAM Westport organized 7 weeks of panels around the famed “Eyes on the Prize” series. The group is also sponsoring an essay contest for high school students, on the theme of America as an increasingly pluralistic country.

Some of TEAM Westport’s most crucial work is done out of the limelight. “If someone is treated the wrong way by a merchant in town, or there is some sort of incident in one of the schools, we can talk about it,” Bailey says. “Maybe we can help get a resolution. That’s so rewarding — especially as we see children grow.”

Looking back on 10 years as Westport’s low-key, but very important, official multicultural organization, Bailey says, “So many people have told us, after a discussion or event, how touched they were. They say, in various ways, that what we do has enabled them to connect the dots of their lives — and talk about it all. That’s when we realize we really are making progress, and moving in the right direction.”

Some TEAM Westport members in 2010, at the home of longtime supporter Ann Sheffer. Front row (from left): Dolores Paoli, Patricia Wei, Stephanie Kirven, Susan Killian, Amy Lin-Myerson, Catherine Onyemelukwe. Rear: Barbara Butler, Glenn Lau-Kee, Nick Rudd, Harold Bailey, Bernicestine McLeod Bailey, Stu Losen.

Some TEAM Westport members in 2010, at the home of longtime supporter Ann Sheffer. From left: Dolores Paoli, Barbara  Butler, Patricia Wei, Glenn Lau-Kee, Stephanie Kirven, Nick Rudd, Susan Killian, Harold Bailey, Amy Lin-Myerson, Bernicestine McLeod Bailey, Stu Losen and Catherine Onyemelukwe.

Longtime Westporters Pay Staples Tuition Grants Forward

When Richard Berkowitz served on Staples Tuition Grants’ board in the late 1970s, only a few small grants were awarded to graduating seniors. Board members quietly solicited donations from friends and neighbors.

In the early to mid-1980s — when Dick Fincher served on the STG board — a $1,000 grant was considered great.

Dick Fincher (left) and his son Doug.

Dick Fincher (left) and his son Doug.

Fincher recalls, “This was a period of very high unemployment. Interest rates got up to about 20%, for a short time. It was surprising then, as it probably is now, who in Westport had a financial need in terms of paying college expenses.”

Berkowitz and Fincher’s rewarding experiences serving on the STG board — helping students earn a college education — was noticed by their children.

“That sense of community drew me to the program. I’m following my dad’s lead,” says Dick’s son, Doug Fincher. He — along with Berkowitz’s daughter, Jody Beck — are now STG board members.

When Doug graduated from Staples in 1982, friends received grants. Some still live in town today.

Families he knew as a student continue to support STG’s named awards. There are nearly 100 of them, established by individuals, companies and civic groups.

The 2 newest named awards honor Ken Brummel and Westport Temple Lodge #65.

Ken Brummel

Ken Brummel

The Brummel award — donated by his daughter Lisa — celebrates a longtime educator. In 1964 — at just 28 years old — Ken Brummel was named principal of Bedford Junior High School. He later served 12 years as Westport’s superintendent of schools. He was widely admired as an innovator, and a strong supporter of teachers. He died a year ago, at 77.

The Temple Lodge has served the town since 1824. Freemasonry is the oldest fraternal organization in the world, with members dedicated to caring for those less fortunate and giving back to their community.

Staples Tuition Grants is not as old as the Temple Lodge — but few organizations are. STG was established in 1943 with a $100 gift from the Staples PTA. Last year it awarded $317,000 in grants to 122 students — graduating seniors, and alumni already in college — thanks to gifts from over 500 individuals, PTAs, civic organizations, local businesses, trusts and private foundations.

(To make a tax-deductible donation, or for more information, click here; email, or write STG, Box 5159, Westport, CT 06881-5159.)

Staples Tuition Grants new logo

Westport Teachers Teach The World

For 3 days in April Columbia University’s Teachers College will be the site of an international event. Educators from around the world will participate in the Global Learning Alliance‘s 2014 conference, on 21st-century education.

Hundreds of presentation proposals were submitted, from China, Singapore, Japan, Thailand, Korea, Australia, Finland, England, Canada and the US. Only 40 were selected.

But of those 40, an astonishing 5 came from Westport teachers. They represent all levels: high school, middle school and elementary.

Bedford Middle School 6th grade instructor Jeremy Royster will present “Truth- Sleuthing to Develop Global Solutions.”

Jeremy Royster

Jeremy Royster

That’s “a fun way to describe the search for evidence in conflicting reliable sources to support a reasoned conclusion about a given topic,” he says. Throughout the year, his students use their “truth-sleuthing” skills to challenge Dr. Jared Diamond’s claims that geography is the key to unearthing the causes of wealth and poverty in the world.

Participants in Royster’s workshop will study a region of their choice, using resources linked to his website to support or refute Diamond’s argument. They’ll also use his own students’ proposals intended to help some of the poorest countries in the world.

The goal of truth-sleuthing, Royster says, is to “encourage people to think more critically, deeply and broadly so that they will be better poised to improve our global society.” To that end, his students are well versed in critical thinking, global awareness, online research, presentation skills, creative thinking, innovation, entrepreneurship, and problem-solving.

He looks forward to sharing what he’s doing with educators from around the planet. He hopes too that they will offer him “a different cultural perspective on teaching in general.”

Other presenters from Westport include:

  • Staples math teacher Trudy Denton and grade 6-12 math coordinator Frank Corbo: “Transforming a High-Performing Mathematics Program to Meet the Needs of the 21st Century.”
  • Kings Highway Elementary School assistant principal Anne Nesbitt: “Elementary Math Education for the 21st Century: Transitioning From the Concrete to the Abstract.”
  • Bedford Middle School teachers Courtney Ruggiero and Alison Laturnau: “Bringing the  Common Core into the 21st Century.”
  • Elementary school teacher Hannah Schneewind: “Persuasive Writing and 21st Century Skills in a First Grade Classroom.”

Top educators from around the globe will be at Columbia in April. They come from places like Singapore and Finland — countries regularly ranked atop the lists of “best educated.”

And they’ll all learn from 7 of Westport’s finest.

Spectacular Student Challenge Seeks Special Donors

For the past 4 years, Staples High School students rose to the challenge of solving real-world problems, in real meaningful ways.

In 2010 they figured out how to make Westport a greener community. The next year, it was solving the obesity crisis. Then came a redesign of Staples itself, to prepare teenagers to be true global citizens. Last year, students helped the region prepare for — and recover from — future hurricanes.

These were not school assignments. They were problems students volunteered for. Working in teams of 4 and 5, they tackled them for 12 hours straight — from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. On a Saturday or Sunday.

Kids these days!

In 2010, Emily Cooper and Rachel Myers used laptops and food to help make Westport a greener community. (Photo/Julia McNamee)

In 2010, Emily Cooper and Rachel Myers used laptops and food to help make Westport a greener community. (Photo/Julia McNamee)

The event — the Staples Spectacular Student Challenge — is actually far harder than my brief explanations above. The question is not revealed until the moment the contest begins. There’s tons of background, and lots of layers. The obesity question, for example, demanded research into causes, an understanding of societal impact, insights into future trends — plus the creation of a persuasive campaign, a “pitch,” and a research report convincing Westport to follow a healthy lifestyle plan.

Each team was judged on creativity and data analysis. Information had to be well organized, and bibliographically cited.  Visual and multi-media aids were strongly encouraged.

This was education at its finest: Students applied their learning across a wide variety of disciplines to solve open-ended, thought-provoking, real-world challenges. They had to research, analyze, synthesize data — and there were infinite shades of gray.

An all-junior team of (from left) Jack Cody, Baxter Stein, Katie Zhou, Melissa  Beretta and Max Liben take a well-deserved break.

An all-junior team of (from left) Jack Cody, Baxter Stein, Katie Zhou, Melissa Beretta and Max Liben took a well-deserved break last year.

Thanks to the generosity of donors like the Gudis Foundation, Melissa and Doug Bernstein, the Sylvan Learning Center and Green Village Initiative, prize money (used for college scholarships) reached $14,500.

But unless principal John Dodig — who founded the contest, and spearheaded its growth — can find new donors, Staples’ Spectacular Student Challenge will end.

“We are grateful to parents and organizations that have stepped up with generous donations over the years,” Dodig said. “But we should not have to rely on the same few people. I hoped that over time this would be seen as an asset and direct benefit to the business community in Westport. This event is, to me, a concrete example of what we want all high school graduates to be able to do when they become adults and enter the workplace.”

Dodig needs sponsors for the 2014 Spectacular Student Challenge — set for next month. Interested donors can contact him directly:; 203-341-1201.

That’s this year’s challenge.

(To read more about previous Spectacular Student Challenges, click the topic: hurricanes, 21st-century education, obesity, greener Westport.)

Max Berger Has Designs On Creation

Max Berger is an uber-talented designer. His products and sculptures interact with users in exciting new ways, while blurring the line between function and fine art.

In just past the couple of years, the Westporter has created a coffee table a bit higher than most, so folks can eat comfortably at it. The back panel is missing, providing 8 square feet of storage that can be accessed while sitting on a couch.

Max Berger - coach

Max has made a handsome water bottle with a sophisticated style that monitors and displays how much water you’ve drunk throughout the day.

Max Berger - Surge

He’s designed a 3-part steel candle holder that allows fire to dance between each level, while reflecting off the rusting metal.

Max Berger - steel candle holder

The collection is remarkable for its breadth, depth, creativity and curiosity. It’s even more remarkable because Max is just a college junior.

At Staples, he was influenced by Carla Eichler’s graphic design and Camille Eskell’s art courses. For college he chose the University of Michigan, because it combined a great art school with many other academic opportunities, along with Big Ten spirit.

A Bic pen drawing by Max Berger.

A Bic pen drawing by Max Berger.

En route to his BFA, Max spent 3 months at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Academy of Design. That solidified his desire to work for an industrial design firm.

“That field is “multi-disciplinary,” Max says. “You use art, architecture, graphics and a lot more to create physical solutions to human problems. There’s business involved too. It’s messy, and fun.”

Max’s greatest creation so far — The Cube — combines many of those elements. As part of the Integrative Product Design competition — a Michigan grad course in business and engineering that’s been featured on CNN and in the Wall Street Journal — he helped lead the winning team.

Max’s group designed and marketed the “Unit.” It’s a combination stool/storage solution.

Max Berger models the Unit he helped design.

Max Berger models the Unit he helped design.

Users buy a file online, and take it to their local maker space’s CNC machine (most colleges have one). The Unit requires no glue or nails; it takes 1 minute to build from plywood.

Once assembled, the stools stack into a multi-fuctional shelf. The top unit is customized with hooks for backpacks and coats; the bottom units are customized with shoe racks.

Max Berger - "The Cube"

Max is always looking ahead. This summer he hopes to intern with an industrial design firm in New York or San Francisco. As a senior next year, he’ll work on his thesis.

And then — well, remember the name Max Berger. You read it here first.

(To see more of Max Berger’s multi-faceted work, click here.)

Another side of Max Berger: his charcoal drawing.

Another side of Max Berger: charcoal drawing.