Category Archives: Categories

Board Of Ed Nears School Reopening Decision

Everyone wonders: What will the new school year look like?

Westport’s Board of Education continued discussion last night on what chair Candice Savin calls “the challenge of a lifetime for every educator.”

Educators are “reinventing every minute of the school day, and how everything gets done,” she adds.

Meeting via Zoom last night, the board examined  the 3 plans required by the state of Connecticut: full time, hybrid and distance learning. Each plan has 3 components: high school, middle school and elementary school.

Administrators at all levels have worked with district office personnel to devise new schedules for in-school and remote learning, along with protocols for testing, safety, lunch, transportation, visitors — and everything else that goes into a school day these days.

The path is still unclear to Staples — and Westport’s 7 other schools. (Photo copyright Lynn U. Miller)

Superintendent of schools Tom Scarise expects to have final plans by August 15. That’s around the time parents will be asked if they intend to keep their children home no matter which plan is in place. Parents will also be asked if their school-bound youngsters will take a bus, or be driven.

The Board of Ed meets again next Monday. In the meantime they’ll refine each plan, with an eye toward district-wide continuity.

The board is also working with the Westport Weston Health District on measurement metrics — and figuring out what to do if students or staff test positive.

They’re also examining ventilation in all schools.

Reopening schools in a pandemic is a herculean task. It’s also one whose parameters change almost daily. Of course, any plan that’s selected may be refined, altered or scrapped completely once school actually begins.

Or Governor Lamont could intervene and make a decision for all schools.

Or the number of COVID cases could suddenly go south, forcing a complete re-evaluation of everything.

All of which makes last year’s big debate — remember school start time? — look like small potatoes.

Deer Me!

Bob Weingarten is best known to Westporters as a house historian. But he’s also very interested in the land around local homes.

Bob doesn’t care if they were built in 1720 or 2020. If they attract deer — who may be very cute, but eat plants and carry ticks — he wants to help.

Here are a few preventive measures. 

First, there’s deer netting. It’s not aesthetically pleasing. But, Bob says, it helps.

Several people told Bob that placing soap near plants that deer love will prevent them from munching. He says the jury is out on this method.

Bob has been told that deer are afraid of foxes. He placed fox photos in areas where he’s seen deer. No word on whether they fall for this ruse.

Bob says that deer jump over his and his neighbor’s back yard fences. Bob placed this owl there, which seems to work.

Here — together — is an owl and foxes. The animal kingdom is ganging up on deer.

Right next to the owls on hardware shelves, Bob found deer repellent. It’s less environmentally friendly — but it can work.

(Photos/Bob Weingarten)

What’s your go-to deer prevention strategy? Click “Comments” below to share.

Unsung Heroes #154

A recent blaze in a Roosevelt Road home, and an earlier one on Saugatuck Shores, reinforces just how fantastic our Fire Department is.

Last week’s Compo Beach blaze. (Photo/Larry Hoy)

They are quick. They are professional. They have so much territory to cover — not only thousands of homes and businesses all around town, but anything that happens on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway (plus the railroads and even, sometimes, on the water).

It’s easy to forget all that they do, and how well they do it.

But “06880” reader Deb Green reminds us:

The other day, our 300-gallon oil tank was filled. It began to leak around 6:30 in the morning.

The Saugatuck firefighters were on the scene in a matter of minutes. They stopped the leak, and remained on the scene until the tank removal company arrived.

They spoke directly to the tank remediation company, explaining exactly what the situation was. They also spoke with the EPA to report the spill.

It’s hard to imagine the damage 300 gallons of oil could have done inside our house!

Those actions may or may not be in their precise job description. But whatever it says, the Westport Fire Department — paid firefighters and volunteers, front line personnel and support staff — goes well above, and far beyond, every time they get the call.

We don’t thank them enough.

In fact, we can’t thank them enough.

But they are our Unsung Heroes of the Week.

 

Unsung Hero #154

One of the major consequences of COVID-19 is the enormous task of making our schools safe for reopening. For months the custodial and maintenance staffs at our 8 public schools have worked assiduously, doing just that.

One of the less noticed effects of the virus is that with schools closed, we don’t get a chance to see all the hard work that’s being done. Or to thank one of the key members of the staff when he leaves.

Next week, Staples High School’s head custodian Horace Lewis retires.

He would not want any fanfare. Horace is a stay-out-of-the-limelight guy. But he’s not getting away without a public acknowledgment of all he has done, and how much he has meant to the building he’s served (and loved) for so many years.

It’s a huge place. There are so many parts to it: classrooms, hallways, auditorium, a gym and fieldhouse and athletic fields, a cafeteria and 2 teaching kitchens, a library, TV studio, storage areas, boilers and HVAC systems, and who knows what else.

Well, Horace knows.

Horace Lewis, in a typical pose.

He’s spent well over a decade taking care of it all. He knows every inch of the school — probably better than anyone else, I’m sure.

He makes sure 3 shifts of staff keep all those many inches running (and gleaming). They work during the school day, during all those afternoon and evening events, and through the night when no one else is around.

When something goes wrong — and it always does — he’s the one who gets the call. Broken pipes, a bad odor, a security alarm: Horace is there.

He’s the public face of his department. If a favorite chair disappears from an office, a meeting suddenly needs a microphone, a bird flies through the hallway: Horace gets the call.

It’s a stressful job. A million things can happen in a school, and in his time as head of its staff, Horace has seen them all.

But he never stops smiling. He never stops working. He never stops serving his school, and everyone in it.

Horace Lewis (right) and shift supervisor Tom Cataudo greet the staff and students during the 2015 graduation processional.

In 2011, Cleaning and Maintenance Management ran a story called “The Custodian’s Secret Life.” In it, they quoted Horace: “The best part about the job is taking care of students and the school, making sure you guys are safe during the day.”

You’ve done that and much more, Horace. Thank you for all of it. Enjoy retirement.

And even if you’re a bit embarrassed by this: You’re our Unsung Hero of the Week.

Parents Protest Preschool Policy

Westport is blessed with a number of excellent preschools.

Children here are taught, supported and nurtured in a variety of settings.

Landmark Academy is one of those. Teachers at the Burr Road preschool for children ages 1-5 — affiliated with the K-8 Ridgefield Academy — earn high marks from parents.

But more than half of those Westport families give administrators a failing grade.

The trouble began when COVID-19 hit. Like nearly every school, at every level, Landmark shut its doors, and pivoted to “remote learning.”

Now, a petition signed by over 50 families cites several areas of concern.

Parents claim that when they asked for partial tuition refunds due to the “general frustration or futility of distance learning” for their young children, they were told “falsely that each of us were outliers against the tide of otherwise satisfied Landmark parents, and that each of us were ‘the only one to ask for a refund.'”

They say that Landmark was “not willing” to work with those who suffered significant pandemic-related financial hardship on tuition requests. Some already paid deposits for the 2020-21 year. They “signed up for a different experience” than they may have, they say — yet the school has refused to discuss refunds.

The parents say that they have accepted Landmark’s “significantly higher” tuition than surrounding preschools, because of its “higher quality and higher service.”

“It was thus a surprise and disappointment that we discovered other preschools were offering a more transparent, parent-friendly approach to the pandemic, while Landmark falsely told us at the time that no schools were offering refunds,” they say. The parents allege that at least 5 other Westport preschools offered partial or full refunds.

Landmark Preschool on Burr Road.

“We understand that this pandemic has presented Landmark with unprecedented difficulties,” they say.

“We wish to feel the sense of belonging and community at Landmark that we felt before the pandemic. While Landmark is educating our 2, 3 4, 5-year-olds how to work together with one another, we first ask the school to work together with the families.”

But that petition is not their only cause for concern.

The school received a Paycheck Protection Program loan of between $1-2 million, listed in the Westport PPP database. Some parents call that “double-dipping,” alleging the school kept the loan, tuition and deposits.

Examining the 2018 Form 990 tax filing for Ridgefield Academy — Landmark’s owner — one parent discovered that the head of school made a total of $768,000. “In a time when many leaders take voluntary pay cuts to protect the business and customers, Landmark is not making any effort,” a parent says.

In addition, some parents say that other local preschools responded “more creatively, pragmatically or empathetically” to the pandemic, like delivering art supplies every 2 weeks, or acknowledging that distance learning through video was futile for young preschoolers.

I asked Landmark to respond to the parents’ concerns. Ridgefield Academy director of communications Kara Morgan said:

Like most non-profit independent schools, the school did not issue refunds on base tuition for remote learning but instead worked to deliver the best possible remote learning experience for the entire community. Our budget and expenses for the 2019-2020 academic year were already fully committed and the school had to account for increased operational costs in some areas around health & safety and the move to remote learning. The school did offer refunds for services that could not be rendered such as transportation fees, preschool lunch services, and camp deposits.

To our knowledge, no independent schools in our area have offered families tuition refunds. There are some nursery schools and daycare centers in the area that have offered refunds.  Families who enrolled in the tuition refund insurance program that Landmark offers and choose to withdraw their children did receive tuition refunds through their policy.

All parents sign an enrollment agreement that clearly outlines our non-refundable deposit policy. This is consistent with the independent school model. However, if a family has chosen to withdraw their child from our program, we have offered to apply the deposit toward the tuition if they chose to return to our program at a later date.

She added that families experiencing financial hardship have been encouraged to reach out to the business office to discuss payment options. She said Landmark has extended payment schedules and increased financial aid.

As for the PPP loan, Morgan said those proceeds cannot be used for tuition refunds. The loan was used to pay teachers’ salaries and other allowable expenses, enabling it to bridge the gap between expenses and lost income.  

Morgan also stated that, based on surveys of parents, Landmark made  refinements to its remote learning program. These included more teacher-created videos, mailing home prepared packets of materials for use with lesson plans, the option for families to schedule small-group and 1-to-1 Google Meet sessions with teachers, and more open-ended activities to support play and exploration.

Not all parents supported the petition. Matt MacDonald said:

We raised a number of issues and concerns with school administration throughout the closure this spring. The school was pretty quick to provide thorough, honest, and quick answers to our questions. (Ridgefield Academy head of school) Tom Main even spent an hour with us on a conference call to discuss our concerns about this coming fall to the best of his ability. Our experience was completely different to what was put down in that petition — and there are plenty of other parents who feel the same way.

Still, according to parents who contacted “06880,” over half of Westport families are “disappointed, frustrated and angry. They feel that they’ve been taken advantage of. The school did a good job of keeping families from talking to each other. It was impossible to get emails for all the families. ”

One parent said that their pre-payments for the spring semester “presumably went toward teacher and staff salaries and operating expenses. It seems curious to receive a PPP loan that is also supposed to go towards paying teacher and staff salaries.”

Another said, “After the large number of parents politely requested to further discuss the matter, Landmark responded with a letter that felt very dismissive. They essentially said, ‘we used your money to pay for a top-notch online program.’ Online learning for toddlers is comic at best.”

A third summed up their frustrations: “None of us parents want any negativity or adversarial interactions. But it feels like we were taken advantage of, when we should have banded together and handled this unprecedented situation with compromise on both sides.”

Marpe Creates Civilian Review Panel For Police, Fire, EMS

Westport’s police force, fire department and EMTs provide high service with “utmost professionalism, transparency and accountability,” town officials say.

However, today’s climate “demands a reassessment of goals, an even higher degree of commitment, and a clear way to incorporate and engage” the public.

So today, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe announced a new Civilian Review Panel. Members will work closely with the Police, Fire and Emergency Medical Services Departments to “assist in the hiring process of new employees, and review and provide feedback in the civilian complaint process.”

Marpe appointed Selectwomen Jennifer Tooker and Melissa Kane, along with TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey, to the CRP.

Though the departments heads retain responsibility for hiring and disciplinary measures, the CRP will work collaboratively and offer feedback.

Foti Koskinas says that when he became Police Chief, his goal was

to continue to build on the foundation of public trust carefully fostered between this department and our residents. Now, at a time when police departments across the country are looking introspectively at ways to better serve our communities, I believe that this is an important step in continuing to maintain complete transparency, in preserving public trust and in reassuring our residents that effective policing is truly a collaborative effort.

Fire Chief Rob Yost adds:

The Westport Fire Department continues to strive to diversify in its hiring of recruit firefighters and, to that end, welcomes the assistance from the CRP. I would also welcome their assistance with any questions of conduct or complaints of fire personnel to insure the continued high level of public trust and support of the Fire Department

ConGRADulations, Class Of 2020!

There was no “Pomp and Circumstance.” There was no processional march. There was no tossing of caps into the air.

On the other hand, there was no hot fieldhouse. There was no bad sound system. There were no long speeches.

The Westport Garden Club decorated Staples, for today’s #FridayFlowers project. (Photo/Topsy Siderowf)

The Staples High School Class of 2020 graduated today in small groups. They gathered in festively decorated cars at Long Lots Elementary School. With a police escort they were driven by parents, in cars filled with family members, up North Avenue.

(Photo/Jennifer Kobetitsch)

The D’Anna family.

The Brannigan family arrives in style.

They drove past hundreds of signs congratulating, encouraging and thanking them. They were applauded by teachers, coaches, and staff members. WWPT-FM played upbeat music.

(Drone photo/Ryan Felner)

WWPT-FM, on the air.

They got out, a few at a time. Their names were announced clearly. They walked across a stage. Principal Stafford Thomas requested that they turn their tassels. He then pronounced them graduates of Staples High.

Dylan and Shea Curran were the first graduates.

Staples principal Stafford Thomas.

Turning the tassels.

There were great cheers, plenty of smiles, individual photos. “This is cool! I wish my graduation was like this!” an older brother said.

The Staples High School English Department salutes its grads.

Audrey Bernstein’s dad Doug wore his Staples Class of 1981 graduation t-shirt.

They drove out through Bedford Middle School, on past hundreds of more signs. Nearly every family honored them, individually.

It was a graduation unlike any ever seen at Staples before. It may be unlike any ever seen again.

Super Staples supporter Laura Blair and Jenna Herbst.

 

But like any graduation, it was bittersweet. No matter how they graduate, we send off our seniors with mixed emotions. We are proud of their accomplishments. We loved having them as part of our school and community. Though it is time for them to go, we will miss them tremendously.

And we wish them all the luck in this new, uncertain world.

(Photo/Ilene Mirkine)

(All photos/Dan Woog unless otherwise noted)

Ali Dorfman’s Letter To Her Daughters

Ali Dorfman is a former network TV producer. She now owns Purpose 2 Purchase, a social media platform and online shopping site that curates unique American-made products, and finds businesses that give back.

As the mother of 2 young girls, the Westporter has struggled to make sense of what’s happening in our country today. She wrote them a letter, which “06880” is proud to share.

Dear Emme and Kylie,

I am writing this letter because sometimes it is easier to express my thoughts on paper than in person. It is June of 2020. Emme, you are finishing 5th grade at Kings Highway, and heading to middle school next year. Kylie, you are finishing 3rd grade.

Ali Dorfman and her daugthers.

So far this year has been anything but normal. It started when  Kobe Bryant’s plane crashed. Even though he was a celebrity, it hit close to home for so many people like us. It was during basketball season, and you both were playing rec and travel basketball.

Just like Kobe was going to coach and watch his daughter, Daddy comes to watch his daughters. Nine innocent people perished on that flight. It was a terrible tragedy that captured our hearts for several weeks. It almost seemed surreal.

Then COVID-19 came along. Our small suburban town town gained national attention when it was discovered that someone at a party had COVID. Most of the people there got infected, and we became a hotbed for the virus.

The one good thing that came out of it was we were so scared that we all hunkered down right away. Schools closed, no one saw each other, and it was just family time. Many people actually saw the good in slowing down.

We watched tons of movies, did lots of home projects, and Daddy discovered his love for puzzles! We also started watching “Glee.” One of the things that attracts us to the show is all of the diverse characters. We love that it represents people of color, people with disabilities, people who are deemed “popular,” jocks, people who are gay, etc.  It truly captures every kind of person.

“Glee” provides a pandemic diversion.

Just as we were preparing to move forward and regain some normalcy in our life outside of the home, a terrible thing happened. An innocent black man George Floyd was killed by white police officers in Minnesota. It is absolutely deplorable that in 2020 this could still happen in America.

You both are young, but not too young to know about the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While his idealism lives in so many of us, in practicality we are still a divided nation. We are split over politics, race, religion and more. It Is okay to have a difference in opinions, but it is not okay to be a bigot.

I am fortunate that you don’t fully understand the gravity of what is happening in America. I worked at CBS News for 15 years, and covered everything from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to the space shuttle Columbia disaster. All were major tragedies in American history, where thousands of innocent lives were lost.

Instead of showing up at these stories as a journalist, I now watch the news on TV. It truly disturbs me. I am afraid to let my own children watch the news, which was such a huge part of my life.

Many people are using social media to show their support for George Floyd. But we don’t need to just post on social media. We need to take action. As a family we need to find ways to do more. And if every family in America pledges to do a little something to improve the divide in our country, then one day we can come together as one.

When you both started preschool everyone told me “the days are the long, the years are short.” I know life can be unpredictable. But no one’s life should ever be cut short because of the color of their skin. Never.

XO,
Mommy

 

Winslow Park Plea: Dirt Bikers, Clean Up After Yourselves!

Deb Howland-Murray calls herself “a portrait artist who benefited tremendously from growing up in Westport’s artistic environment. After a sojourn for college and adventures, I returned to Westport. I have lived here for the past 35 years.” 

She writes:

Each spring people pour out of their houses and into nature, shedding months of cold the way a snake sheds its skin.

This year brings new significance to this outdoor migration: a heightened longing for beauty and distraction in the spring of COVID-19.

Maybe that’s why so many people flock to Winslow Park. They come not only to walk dogs, but to enjoy its 28 acres of sunny fields and dense woods. They are parents with children riding scooters and bikes, joggers, couples sitting in conversation on the park’s benches, and teenagers anxious to try their skills on the dirt bike jumps in one of the forested, trail-laced sections of the park.

The Winslow Park dirt bike course. (Photo/Deb Howland-Murray)

Winslow is a treasure. Now more than ever, it’s a breath of fresh air literally and figuratively. I’ve watched it come to life this spring, delighted in April’s little purple flowers, the massive trees leafing out in May, the fields that now read yellow with buttercups.

These are such a sharp contrast to the trash, broken glass and empty vape boxes carpeting the dirt bike section of the park.

Vape boxes litter the dirt bike area. (Photo/Deb Howland-Murray)

I like to watch the teenagers barreling down the course’s steep hill and becoming airborne on the ascent. But it saddens me that the fun is coupled with such disrespect for the surrounding environment, one that’s dotted with wonderful examples of human creativity as well as natural beauty.

The dirt bike course was created by enterprising teenagers, and adjacent to it there is a remarkable lean-to someone made from large branches. Next to the lean-to, a picnic table waits invitingly in the shade. I’ve seen people meditating there.

But who would want to stop there now? Who could bring their small children to play among the empty cans and vape boxes? Which paw will be the first to be sliced by glass shards? When will an unknowing puppy be drawn to the scent of food on a snack wrapper and make the unfortunate mistake of swallowing it?

Trash left on tables. The lean-to is in the back. (Photo/Deb Howland-Murray)

Don’t get me wrong. I love teenagers; I raised 5 of them. An avid skier and hunter-jumper rider, I’m all for the excitement of speed and the joy of flying through the air. I want the kids to have fun in the park. They seem like good kids, wearing their helmets and respectfully keeping a physical distance when they meet others on the trails. They’re polite.

I’m happy that they have a safe, outdoor place to congregate in small numbers at such a difficult and disappointing time to be a teenager. And I’m not interested in passing judgment on what they might or might not be drinking or smoking. That’s up to their parents.

But speaking directly to you, young people: Nature is not your trash can. The park is there for all to enjoy. Now especially, we need to add what we can to each other’s enjoyment.

The Winslow Park lean-to. (Photo/Tracy Porosoff)

Please, kiddos: Create whatever mess you want in your rooms – I certainly did. Just bring a bag with you to the park, collect your garbage and drop it in the trash cans when you exit.

We dog owners do the same. Believe me, collecting your garbage is not nearly as gross as what we are collecting and ferrying to those cans! But what if we didn’t? What if the area you enjoy was full of the kind of waste no one wants to step in?

So, c’mon. Litter-ally, place your drop in the massive bucket of consideration we need right now. It’s not too much to ask.

Once Homeless, Comedian Stands Up For Homes With Hope

It sounds incongruous: an organization providing housing and support services for homeless people sponsors a night of stand-up comedy.

Isn’t that a bit tone deaf?

Not at all. For one thing, it’s a fundraiser. When you ask for money — even for a cause that’s no laughing matter — it helps to offer something in return.

For another, the 4 comedians headlining Homes With Hope‘s June 20 “Stand Up At Home” benefit all believe in the organization, and its mission.

Cristela Alonzo

Cristela Alonzo sure does. She’s the first Latina to create, produce, write and star in her own US primetime comedy (ABC’s “Cristela”). She’s also the first Latina lead in a Disney Pixar film (“Cars 3”).

Plus this: For the first 8 years of Alonzo’s life, her family squatted in an abandoned South Texas diner. Her mother worked double shifts as a waitress, but they were homeless and destitute.

Alonzo is eager to participate in next month’s livestream. She is particularly inspired by Homes With Hope’s sponsorship of Project Return, the program that teaches life skills to homeless young women ages 18 to 24 in a warm, safe environment.

The comedian relates strongly to them. Her Mexican mother — who died when Alonzo was 22 — never learned English. She never met her father.

Alonzo was working as a server when she answered a help wanted ad for office help. It turned out to be a comedy club. She lied about her qualifications, and got the job.

“Everyone I knew did physical labor,” she said the other day from her home in California. “I never knew stand-up comedy was a job. Using your mind seemed outlandish, impossible.”

Comics at the club liked her. Some encouraged her to try comedy herself. Keith Robinson predicted that one day she’d be a comedian. She thought they were being nice.

A year later, Alonzo gave it a shot. “It stuck,” she said simply.

Her style is “very personal. If I mention healthcare, I talk about how we made do without it.” She paused. “In a funny way, of course.”

She’s had support from icons like Wanda Sykes. But — as a Latina comedian at a time when there were virtually no others — she forged her own path. “I built my house while designing the blueprint,” is her description.

Cristela Alonzo is proud to support organizations like Homes With Hope.

Yet comedy is only one part of Alonzo’s life. She is an activist on behalf of Latinos, immigrants, the disenfranchised and underrepresented. She sits on the advisory boards of organizations like People for the American Way; La Union del Pueblo Entero, founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and Define American, a nonprofit media and culture group.

“Talking about my struggles normalizes them,” she said. “I thrive in the trenches. When I do stand-up, I can talk about what I have learned doing activism.”

For the once homeless comedian, comedy is “a dream come true. I love it.”

And next month she’ll love helping an important Westport organization raise much-needed funds, so they can keep helping homeless people too.

(Joining Cristela Alonzo on the”Stand Up at Home For Homes With Hope” livestream on June 20 are Roy Wood Jr., the host of Comedy Central’s storytelling series “This is Not Happening”; Hari Kondabolu, whose comedy album “Mainstream American Comic” debuted at #1 on iTunes, and Mark Normand, whom Jerry Seinfeld called “the best young up-and-coming comic” in 2019. There are special appearances by Staples High School graduate/”Dear Evan Hansen,” “The Greatest Showman” and “La La Land” composer/lyricist Justin Paul; Westport resident/former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe. For tickets and more information, click here.)