Category Archives: Education

Special Carnival Honors A Very Special Girl

Last year, all Leah Rondon wanted for her 6th birthday was dinner with her parents and brothers, and Peachwave for dessert.

This year is different. Leah was killed in August, just a few days before starting 1st grade. Her death devastated her hometown of Ansonia — and Bedford Middle School, where her mother Colleen is a much-loved science teacher.

Leah Rondon's 6th birthday treat.

Leah Rondon’s 6th birthday treat.

Leah’s birthday is soon. To honor her memory — and give something back to others — her family will celebrate with a carnival for elementary school children.

It will be held next Saturday (February 6), from 12-3 p.m. The site is Kolbe Cathedral — the Bridgeport High School where Leah’s dad, Henry, is principal.

The carnival includes games, food, raffles and entertainment. Kids everywhere (and their parents) are invited. Admission is free — but money spent on tickets for individual events will go to a scholarship fund, for a senior girl at Kolbe hoping to attend college.

Colleen says: “We hope this will be a great time for kids and their families, during an otherwise dreary and cold time of year. We are ready to memorialize our daughter in a happy and positive way.”

The Rondons’ world was rocked when Leah — riding in a wagon at a friend’s house — was struck by a car. They knew that joyous occasions like Thanksgiving, Christmas and Leah’s birthday would be tough.

“Leah was always having fun,” Colleen says. “We have so many memories of her enjoying the regular routine of a child’s life: going to school, playing in the yard, attending camp, competing in soccer, basketball and softball.”

Leah Rondon

Leah Rondon

In just 6 1/2 years of life, Colleen says, Leah made her mark. “She was fun-loving and joyful. She made other people laugh and be happy too.

“Having a carnival to provide some fun for other kids continues to bring those joyful memories to us. Raising money to help high school students continue their education is a bonus.”

Most students at Kolbe Cathedral need help for college.

Colleen hopes that the girl who receives scholarship help from the carnival will be like Leah: someone who loves school, is involved in it, and is genuinely kind to others.

And like Leah, she will be a winner.

(If you can’t be at the carnival on Saturday but would like to help, there is a “Donate” button on the upper left side of the Kolbe main home page: http://www.kolbecaths.org. Hat tip: Julia McNamee)

 

 

Zoe Brown: “I’m Glad I’m A Spring Admit”

Last March — a couple of months before graduating from Staples High School — Zoe Brown got the legendary fat envelope from the University of Southern California. That’s the good news.

The bad news: She would have to wait nearly a year. Her acceptance was for spring.

Zoe described her reaction — and what’s happened since — on her well-written, entertaining “IMO” blog. Her words should be read by every Staples senior waiting for their own college news — and everyone else in town too.

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Knowing that I would not start college at the same time as all my friends was scary and upsetting. I knew I should have been excited, but I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed, even cheated.

Could I still make friends? Find my place? Graduate on time? What was I supposed to do for a whole semester? Should I turn down my dream school for one that offered me admission in the fall?

But after finishing up my fall semester at Santa Monica College — a highly ranked community college — I realize that being admitted in the spring was a blessing in disguise. I learned so many lessons and went through so many new experiences that I never would have if I’d started school in the fall.

Zoe Brown, hiking in the Los Angeles hills.

Zoe Brown, hiking in the Los Angeles hills.

This past semester I lived in an apartment building off campus, with 3 other girls.

With no meal plan, I bought my own groceries and cooked (more like “managed to throw together”) my own meals. With no resident assistant or instruction of any sort, I learned to deal with any issue independently.

I learned through clogged toilets, growing mold and festering food that I actually have to clean my surroundings thoroughly, like with a sponge and some special foam scrub.

And from my free time and the 3,000 miles separating me from my parents and most of my friends, I focused on putting myself out there to meet new people.

Most importantly, I also learned to enjoy spending some time with someone who will always be there for me: myself.

Zoe Brown, browsing at The Last Bookstore.

Zoe Brown, browsing in a bookstore.

Being a spring admit forced me to branch way outside my comfort zone.

Westport — where over 90 percent of the population is white and most people live comfortably, even luxuriously — is nothing like Santa Monica College. Here I met just about as many Asians and Hispanics as I did whites.

I met a girl who was admitted to New York University, but had to turn it down for financial reasons. I met a boy from Maryland who lives on his own, and works full-time at a real estate agency. I met a woman 3 times my age who is going to school for the first time, and a boy who knows everything about gangs.

At SMC I discovered that there is so much more outside the bubble that was my hometown and my high school. I’d heard about it before, and I’ve traveled a bit in my lifetime. But until now, I’ve never lived in a place where I could see what else is out there.

Zoe Brown: California girl.

Zoe Brown: California girl.

If you’re at USC, chances are you worked hard throughout high school. If not, you must have worked hard in some other way.

I worked so hard straight through my 4 years of high school that I never had time to do so many things.

Being a spring admit and having so much more time than a normal college student allowed me to cross many of these things off my to-do list.

I had time to explore Southern California in every way – from getting lost on hikes and cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway, to buying books for $1 at The Last Bookstore and doing an overnight trip to Laguna Hills.

I had time to start this blog, to write for other publications, and to actually read books for my own pleasure. Most importantly I had time to breathe, and realize how grateful I should be for where I am today.

Yes, sometimes it sucks to be a little behind socially, and live a walk away from all the on-campus happenings. When it does seem to suck, I try my best to remember that I still made it to the school I dreamed about for years. There’s no reason to be anything but thrilled and proud about that.

Anyway, what’s one less semester, when I’ve got the whole rest of my life to keep FIGHTING ON! with the Trojan family?

(To read Zoe’s full story — and the rest of her blog — click here.)

Even before officially enrolling this spring, Zoe Brown enjoys a USC football game.

Even before officially enrolling this spring, Zoe Brown enjoys a USC football game.

Board Of Ed Eyes Innovation Fund

Westport’s schools are among the best in the country.

One Board of Education member thinks he has a way to make them better.

Last week, Mark Mathias presented his colleagues with a new idea: an Innovation Fund. The aim is to give everyone — from the superintendent, Board of Ed, administrators and teachers to the town’s 5,500 students and residents — a chance to offer ideas for education. And then act on them.

Mathias’ Innovation Fund would cost $1 million per year. Funds would go to a project manager; a committee to evaluate applications, oversee projects and assess results, and of course to the projects themselves.

The Innovation Fund could also match grants from outside sources — Kickstarter, GoFundMe, DonorsChoose, or a foundation, company or individual.

The Fund, Mathias says, could offer increased opportunities for student outcomes and teacher development; help attract and  retain superior staff, and make Westport even more attractive for families.

The community would also see the potential of teachers and students unleashed to invent, design, build, engineer and create. Meanwhile, businesses could join with schools to leverage resources.

The Westport Maker Faire taps into creativty and energy, for people of all ages. Mark Mathias would like to see a similar push for innovation in our schools.

The Westport Maker Faire taps into creativity and energy, for people of all ages. Mark Mathias would like to see a similar push for innovation in our schools.

For example, Mathias sees teachers experimenting with different techniques of engaging students; the results could then be compared. Students could request equipment for a maker space, building materials for a community project, or equipment for a new sport. Administrators could come up with an idea to better manage maintenance, equipment or energy, while teachers and students might collaborate running an actual company.

“I have no idea what people will actually come up with,” Mathias says. “But I am constantly amazed at the level of energy and creativity of everyone in Westport — including our children.

“The point is, we need to tap into the enthusiasm and ideas of our entire community, yielding learning experiences far beyond the classroom that prepare students for life beyond Westport, while attracting and retaining the best staff and teachers and continuing to make Westport this preferred place to live.”

He acknowledges that funding the Innovation Fund may prove challenging. The Board of Ed will discuss and vote on the item at its next meeting (Monday, February 1, 7:30 p.m., Staples High School cafeteria).

 

Cody Thomas: “Kids Are Amazing”

Two days after the death of Cody Thomas, Staples High School students recalled him as one of the most caring and committed teachers they’d ever had. 

The roots of that concern are evident in an article Thomas — who began his career as a journalist — wrote for CT Mirror in December 2014, after his 1st year in the classroom.

Describing teenagers, Thomas said:

Kids are amazing — way more incredible than most adults. The students I teach are wonderful, brilliant, and creative. If they don’t always act that way, it’s because of some undefined deadening effect caused by school.

Cody Thomas, at Staples High School's graduation last year.

Cody Thomas, at Staples High School’s graduation last year.

I hope to always be able to work against the negative and to restore hope in our school systems. Can a naïve, young teacher change the life of one student? Probably not, but he or she can hope.

On my first day of teaching, I went over classroom procedures and emphasized the fact that I expected students at 16 to be mature most of the time. “Most of the time,” was key to my rhetoric.

“I’m 24,” I told them. “I’m not mature all of the time.”

Despite an entire world of influences pulling me in different directions, I wanted my classroom to be a place for taking risks. Treat kids like adults, and more often than not they will act like adults.

An email from superintendent of schools Elliott Landon to parents earlier today said that Thomas’ death has been declared a suicide.

(Click here for the full CT Mirror story by Cody Thomas.)

Staples Mourns Cody Thomas

The Staples High School community reacted with shock and grief to the death of Cody Thomas. The popular English teacher died yesterday in Fairfield. He was 27.

Thomas had a strong connection with students of all abilities. He was also admired by the staff of Inklings, the school newspaper he served as co-adviser.

Cody Thomas

Cody Thomas

Thomas — a graduate of New York University’s Arthur Carter Institute of Journalism — wrote for the Stamford Advocate before becoming a teacher. He was also an editor at a rock journal, and played in local bands.

Social media was filled with praise, from current and former students. A Staples grad wrote:

— Thank you for helping a self-conscious anxiety-ridden nerd come out of his shell.
— Thank you for introducing me to Faulkner and Joyce and DFW, while still assuring me there’s just as much intellectual thought in an episode of Futurama.
— Thank you for calling The Black Keys “angsty white girl music.”
— Thank you for always asking if I was alright junior year, when days could be especially depressive and lonely.
— Thank you for coming to my first show. Middle section. 4th row. Your girlfriend seemed nice.
— Thank you for encouraging and proofreading my writing, even when it wasn’t for your class.
— Thank you for defending my writing, even when it clashed with others.
— Thank you for inspiring more students in your few years at Staples than many teachers would be lucky to recall in decades worth of teaching.
— Thank you for accepting my advice that you are not a “porkpie-hat guy.”
— Thank you for always encouraging me to do better, that, like everyone else, there was potential in me.
— Thank you for inspiring me to pursue writing professionally.
— Thank you for being more than a teacher, but a true friend.
— Thank you for coming to lunch with me that day in November. It meant the world, and it was good to know you still wore the same goddamn tennis shoes.
— Thank you for accepting our birthday card, I’m sorry most of the people who signed were 1) made-up, or 2) C-list celebrities.
— Thank you for that hug the last day of classes senior year. I heard your voice crack and a small sniffle as you said, “Good luck man.” After two years with you, I knew I would never need it.

Mr. Thomas. Cody. I love you. And there’s no way I will ever forget you. Rest in peace, you magnificent, magnificent dork.

Bob Selverstone Asks: “What Do You Stand For?”

Generations of Staples students from the mid-1970s through early ’90s remember Bob Selverstone’s Values Clarification course.

It earned them 1/4 credit — but what they took away was far more important. In small groups — then together in a large one — students talked, thought and wrote about what they believed. And why.

Faculty and parents joined the classes. Clergy came too. The Values class — and its follow-up, Human Sexuality — were some of the most meaningful, even life-changing, parts of Staples students’ educations.

Dr. Robert Selverstone

Dr. Robert Selverstone

“Personal growth is so important,” Selverstone — who has spent 35 years as a psychologist in private practice in Westport, and was named an Outstanding Educator by Planned Parenthood — says. He is proud that, while teaching part-time at Staples, his courses may have been the only ones of their kind in an American public high school.

If the Values Clarification course sounds like something you wished you’d taken, you’re in luck. This March, Selverstone will offer them through Continuing Education.

“What Do You Stand For? … And What Won’t You Stand For?” is the name of his offering.

“The roads you take — and those you forgo — reflect your value,” Selverstone says. “Which path do you choose? Sometimes the decision isn’t so easy.”

He describes an exercise he uses with groups ranging from 8th graders to summer camp staffs. The scenario involves an engaged couple, a raging river, and sex. Plus concepts like friendship, honesty and purity.

Though everyone in a class may look homogeneous, when they discuss the scenario they realize their beliefs may be very different. Then the talk turns to ideas like: Who has the “proper” values? And how do we live those values?

“Self-awareness is the most important part of nearly everything we do,” Selverstone says. He is a master at helping even the least self-aware people start to think about what matters to them.

As a Staples student 30 years ago, Westport’s new director of continuing education Ellen Israel took Selverstone’s Values Clarification course. Recently, she invited him to teach it again.

Continuing ed website

“I love doing this stuff,” the energetic, ever-smiling Selverstone says. “I love the immediate feedback. And I love that the potential for positive impact is so huge.”

Adults of any age — “20 to 80,” he says — are welcome.

“It’s not therapy,” he notes. “But it is therapeutic. Everyone should spend some time thinking about ideas they may never have consciously thought of.”

As for Selverstone, he’s thought often of the groundbreaking classes he taught in high school.

“Staples has always been a delightful place,” he says. “Now I’ve got a wonderful chance to go back there — and give back.”

(“What Do You Stand For? … And What Won’t You Stand For?”) will be taught on 4 consecutive Thursdays, from March 10-31, 7-9 p.m. For more information, click on www.westportcontinuinged.com or call 203-341-1209.)

 

Jesse Nusbaum Sculpts His Own Path

The University of Connecticut men’s and women’s basketball trophy rooms are filled with awards. National champions amass plenty of hardware.

But the most intriguing items may be a pair of Husky heads. The eye-catching sculptures are the work of Jesse Nusbaum.

The Weston native presented them to UConn coaches Geno Auriemma and Kevin Ollie recently, in honor of the Huskies’ twin national championships in 2014.

University of Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma, with Jesse Nusbaum and his Husky sculpture.

University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma, with Jesse Nusbaum and his Husky sculpture.

The sculptures are worth quite a bit. One day — perhaps soon — when Nusbaum becomes nationally known, they’ll be worth even more.

The 25-year-old is already gaining a reputation. A little over a year into his career, he earned an invitation to last month’s prestigious Art Basel Miami show. He’s on the fast track — though his favored artistic medium requires patience and time.

Growing up, Nusbaum says he was “a jock.” A black belt by age 7, and youth soccer and basketball player, he was an All-State baseball player at Weston High. Except for an injury, he might have done the same in wrestling.

But he also worked with rock, soapstone, metal and pewter in the school’s art classes. “It felt so natural to me,” he says.

Horse, by Jesse Nusbaum.

Horse, by Jesse Nusbaum.

Nusbaum’s father is a noted lawyer, and Jesse grew up with the expectation of law school. He graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2013 not with the political science degree he had started, but as a studio art major.

After studying a year for the LSAT, he entered Charleston School of Law. “The dean loved that art degree,” Nusbaum says proudly. “He thought it was great I was using my brain in a different way. He saw me as very creative.”

It did not take long, though, for Nusbaum to realize a legal career was not for him. “I had no passion for it,” he says. “My mentors from Muhlenberg knew I was miserable. ‘You have a gift for art,’ they said. ‘Don’t waste it.'”

Without telling his parents — “it would crush them,” Nusbaum says — he requested a leave of absence. The dean supported him. “Follow your heart,” he told the aspiring artist.

Nusbaum went to work in his Weston studio. His specialty is animals. His style is hyper-realism. Each piece is intricately, intensely detailed — sometimes including actual animal parts, like bull horns and teeth.

Jesse Nusbaum at work in his Weston studio.

Jesse Nusbaum at work in his Weston studio.

“Although my hands are the tools to make a sculpture, 90 percent of the work comes from  my mind,” Nusbaum explains. “I constantly change the shape as the work progresses.”

Bronze gives his work an ageless, timeless, weathered finish — rugged, polished and clean.

It takes Nusbaum 2 to 3 months to sculpt one piece. The finishing process takes another 2 to 4 months.

Bull, by Jesse Nusbaum.

Bull, by Jesse Nusbaum.

But the results are worth it. Nusbaum was particularly proud to present the Husky heads to the UConn coaches. After Auriemma asked a lot of questions about how Nusbaum worked, the young sculptor realized there could be a market for animal heads for many more sports teams. “Just think of all the Yale alums…” he says, envisioning a vast bulldog market.

The sculptor works on marketing too. Instagram is key. In just a few months, he’s amassed 75,000 followers.

The Art Basel invitation capped off a fantastic year. Nusbaum attracted plenty of notice at last month’s prestigious show.

Jesse Nusbaum with 2 of his sculptures at Art Basel Miami last month.

Jesse Nusbaum with 2 of his sculptures at Art Basel Miami last month.

As much as Nusbaum loves his current life, he does not regret his brief stint at law school.

“If I hadn’t gone, I always would have wondered ‘what if…’,” he says. “Now I’ve got perspective on both sides: law and art.”

Over the past year, he adds, “I’ve met so many great people in the art world. They’re selfless and happy. You don’t always see that around here.”

He’s picking up new fans — and patrons — every day.

Mersene — whose Indulge by Mersene shop on Railroad Place specialize in unique, funky and very cool items — saw some of his small rhino sculptures. She offered him a showing in her store. A  great mix of people showed up just before Christmas.

Alligator, by Jesse Nusbaum.

Alligator, by Jesse Nusbaum.

In the months to come Nusbaum will seek out art shows and galleries, to show his work here and in places like Manhattan and Brooklyn.

And he’ll keep sculpting — patiently, realistically, and very, very happily.

PS: Last spring, Nusbaum told the Charleston law school dean to forget that leave of absence. He won’t be returning.

(For more information, including samples of Nusbaum’s work, click on www.jessenusbaum.com)

MLK

This story ran last year. Several readers asked me to republish it today. Here it is.

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Westporters will celebrate with a day off from school or work.  Some will sleep in; others will ski, or take part in a Staples basketball clinic for younger players. Few will give any thought to Martin Luther King.

Twice, though, his life intersected this town in important ways.

Martin Luther KingThe first was Friday night, May 22, 1964. According to Woody Klein’s book Westport, Connecticut, King had been invited to speak at Temple Israel by synagogue member Jerry Kaiser.

King arrived in the afternoon. Kaiser and his wife Roslyn sat on their porch that afternoon, and talked with King and 2 of his aides. She was impressed with his “sincerity, warmth, intelligence and genuine concern for those about him — our children, for instance. He seemed very young to bear such a burden of leadership.”

King’s sermon — to a packed audience — was titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He analogized his America to the time of Rip Van Winkle — who also “slept through a revolution. The greatest liability of history is that people fail to see a revolution taking place in our world today.  We must support the social movement of the Negro.”

Westport artist Roe Halper presented King with 3 woodcarvings, representing the civil rights struggle. He hung them proudly in the front hallway of his Atlanta home.

Artist Roe Harper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

Within a month Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron Rubenstein, traveled south to take place in a nonviolent march. He was arrested — along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

In jail, the rabbi said, “I came to know the greatness of Dr. King. I never heard a word of hate or bitterness from that man, only worship of faith, joy and determination.”

King touched Westport again less than 4 years later. On April 5, 1968 — the day after the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis — 600 Staples students gathered for a lunchtime vigil in the courtyard. Nearby, the flag flew at half-staff.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

Vice principal Fermino Spencer addressed the crowd. Movingly, he spoke about  his own experience as an African American. Hearing the words “my people” made a deep impression on the almost all-white audience. For many, it was the 1st time they had heard a black perspective on white America.

No one knew what lay ahead for their country. But student Jim Sadler spoke for many when he said: “I’m really frightened. Something is going to happen.”

Something did — and it was good. A few hundred students soon met in the cafeteria. Urged by a minister and several anti-poverty workers to help bridge the chasm between Westport and nearby cities, Staples teachers and students vowed to create a camp.

Within 2 months, it was a reality. That summer 120 elementary and junior high youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport participated in the Intercommunity Camp. Led by over 100 Staples students and many teachers, they enjoyed swimming, gymnastics, dance, sports, field trips, overnight camping, creative writing, filmmaking, photography, art and reading.

It wasn’t easy — some in Westport opposed bringing underprivileged children to their town — but for over a decade the Intercommunity Camp flourished.

Eventually, enthusiasm for and interest in the camp waned. Fewer Staples students and staff members wanted to devote their summer to such a project.  The number of Westporters willing to donate their pools dwindled. Today the Intercommunity Camp is a long-forgotten memory.

Sort of like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Even on his birthday.

MLK speech

AEDs Are Already Ready

Less than 3 months ago, a Staples High School student suffered cardiac arrest while watching a soccer game.

Quick action by trainers and bystanders — including CPR, and the use of an AED by the father of a player — saved the teenager’s life.

An equally speedy response has brought dozens of AEDs — portable defibrillators —  to every school in Westport.

The Adam Greenlee Foundation — named for another student brought back to life a year earlier — partnered with the school district and Westport PAL. Within weeks, they’d raised over $85,000.

Last week, 26 AEDs were installed in school gyms and other important locations. The one below was mounted near the Staples cafeteria.

AED

Another 22 AEDs, with travel cases, were given to schools for use on field trips and sports events outside of Westport.

This spring, 17 more will be installed in outdoor cases, for athletic fields and recess areas. Ten others have been given to PAL, for use at sports events outside town.

It was an amazingly rapid — and crucial life-saving — community effort.

Just imagine: If the state Department of Transportation worked at this pace, the Merritt Parkway North Avenue bridge would already be repaired. The North Compo/Main Street/Clinton Avenue realignment would be finished. And the Bridge Street bridge renovation would be over and done, somehow pleasing every single Westporter.

Remembering Dave LaPonsee

For decades, Dave LaPonsee was one of Staples’ most popular and influential teachers.

His official title was social studies instructor, but he was much more than that. In his psychology, history and other classes, he inspired students to challenge conventional wisdom, and take unorthodox stands.

He championed “critical thinking” long before the phrase became the darling of educators everywhere.

His classroom and book-filled office — he read several books a week — were hangouts for all kinds of students, from the most brilliant to the most disillusioned. He listened to them, asked questions, listened some more, then sent them on their way.

They may not have heard any answers. But they got something more important: The ability to figure things out for themselves.

Dave LaPonsee

Dave LaPonsee

Staples students knew that Dave — and he was always “Dave” to his students, never “Mr. LaPonsee” — was a Dartmouth grad, because he might mention it. They may not have known he had master’s degrees from both Harvard and Wesleyan. He was a private person, and did not talk a lot about himself.

But when he talked, people listened. And not just students. As his former colleague and friend Dave Harrison notes, Dave’s role as an early chair of the Staples Governing Board — the school’s innovative governing body, where students, teachers and administrators made real, substantive decisions — gave the organization “great credibility.”

“His efforts cemented the legitimacy of the SGB both within and outside the school,” Harrison says. Far from “a revised version of a student council,” the SGB brought national recognition to Staples — and many very intrigued visitors.

Maggie Moers Wenig, who graduated in 1974, says that through the SGB, Dave LaPonsee “inspired us to take democracy very, very seriously.”

Harrison recalls the social studies department of the 1960s and ’70s proudly: a high-powered, highly regarded staff. “Dave was always willing to take whatever courses no one else wanted to teach,” Harrison says. “He was our indispensable ‘utility player.’ And he volunteered for that role.”

Whatever Dave taught, he taught brilliantly. And whoever he taught, he inspired enormously.

Dave LaPonsee died last June, in the New Hampshire town where he was raised and which he loved. He was 75.

It’s taken that long for news of his death to reach Westport. But I’m sure the comments page here will be filled very quickly, with memories and thanks from some of the countless students whose lives Dave LaPonsee quietly changed for better, forever.