Category Archives: Children

Smart Song For A Smart Walk

Despite the efforts of parents, teachers, the media and others, there’s still a stigma attached to learning disabilities. Youngsters who learn differently are still called lazy and stupid.

The 1st annual Smart Walk for Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities is set for this Sunday (12 p.m., Sherwood Island State Park).

The event celebrates the strengths and talents of young people with learning disabilities and ADHD. It rejects stereotypes, empowers kids and parents, and raises awareness and funds for educational programs, youth mentoring, parent networking and resources to help families find support for their children.

Smart Kids founder Jane Ross is a beloved figure in Westport. When her son was diagnosed with dyslexia in 4th grade — after years of frustration — she panicked. Would he ever learn to read? Could he ever go to college?

She educated herself on how best to help her son. After earning his masters degree from the Columbia University School of Architecture, he is an architect in New York City. He designed the house his parents are now building.

Teams, families and individuals will walk a scenic 1.5-mile route at their own pace. There’s a photo booth, plus children’s crafts, games and face painting,

Oh, yeah: The inspiring song “This is Me” will be sung proudly on Sunday.

The “Greatest Showman” tune is an anthem for everyone who is different. And it was co-written by Justin Paul — a 2003 Staples High School graduate.

He won’t be at Sherwood Island on Sunday. But his music will help everyone at the Walk for Kids with Learning Disabilities celebrate some very special young people.

(To register, click here. The entry fee is $15; children under 5 are free.)

Storywalk: The Sequel

The wooden walkway behind the Riverside Avenue medical complex is beautiful any time of year. It’s especially lovely in October.

Village Pediatrics takes full advantage. They’ve created a story walk there. They  laminate pages of a popular children’s story, then mount them on pylons behind their office.

Children and parents love it. So do random walkers and joggers of all ages.

Unfortunately — as “06880” reported last month — someone stole a story walk. Hard to believe why anyone would want to do that — or even think of it — but it happened.

Fortunately, the pediatricians were not deterred. They found a great story — The Hallo-Wiener — that’s perfect for the upcoming Halloween holiday kids love. (And dentists hate.)

It’s fully laminated, mounted on pylons, and ready for everyone to enjoy.

Except, hopefully, the Grinch who stole the last one.

Coleytown Middle School 7th grader Sophia Lomnitz enjoys the new story walk.

Unsung Heroes #69

The other day, alert “06880” reader Melissa Shein nominated several women as Unsung Heroes. For 4 years they’ve volunteered with her at Bridgeport’s Cesar Batalla School. Together, they’ve helped a 9-year-old learn to read.

The boy was born at 24 weeks, weighing just over 1 pound. His twin brother is blind, but learns with ease. This youngster — who loves to play and learn — has shown language and learning difficulties, not easy solved.

He’s made good use of the resources provided. But more is needed. Melissa fears he’ll fall through the cracks. He’s already begun to doubt what he can achieve.

Westport women have joined to help this Cesar Batalla School student.

“Given his level of determination, receptivity to instruction and genuine love of learning, it is easy to imagine him developing academic and personal resiliency in a supportive, academically rigorous environment that addresses his specific needs and unique learning style,” she says.

So she went to work. Marjorie Almansi provided many contacts of people to do evaluations, to help get him into the Southport School for students with language learning differences.

Jill Greenberg did that full evaluation free of charge. She put the boy’s mother in touch with numerous resources. Robin Hellman did a full occupational therapy evaluation, and offered support.

The Southport School tentatively agreed to take him. The group — including other volunteers like Gwen Cohen and Sherri Gordon — is working on making that happen now.

Melissa and the other women are determined to turn around the life of one young Bridgeport boy. They deserve our Unsung Hero accolades — and awe.

Tommy Greenwald: Football’s “Game Changer”

Like many Americans, Tommy Greenwald has a complicated relationship with football.

He was thrilled when his son Jack played.

“If I saw him limping or shaking his head, I’d say ‘Get back out there!'” Tommy says. “I was as happy to see my kid hitting and getting hit as anyone else.”

In 8th grade, Jack hurt his ankle. “My first concern was not going to the doctor,” Greenwald admits. “It was, could he finish the game?”

Jack had a great football career, with Westport PAL and Staples High School. His father appreciates what he learned from intense practices, tough games and his relationship with his coaches.

But, Greenwald says, “the football culture — with its pressure to be tough and strong, to play hurt, to not be perceived as soft” — has its downsides.

That’s the heart of “Game Changer.” Published this month, it’s the local author’s 10th book — and a departure from his previous “Charlie Joe Jackson” (named for his 3 sons) and “Crimebiters” young readers’ series.

Jack Greenwald (center), with his brothers Charlie and Joe.

There’s not a laugh to be had in this one. There are no wise guys, no dog with special powers.

“Game Changer” is deadly serious — almost literally.

13-year-old Teddy lies in a coma after a football injury during preseason camp. His family and teammates flock to his bedside to support his recovery — and at the same time trade rumors and theories on social media.

Was this a tragic but fairly common result of a violent sport? Or did something more sinister — bullying and hazing perhaps — happen on the field that day?

“Game Changer” is different type of book. It mixes together dialogue, text messages, newspaper stories — and Teddy’s own inner thoughts.

It’s different too in that it’s a no-holds-barred look at the terrifying risks of a major American sport — and the entire culture supporting it.

Greenwald is emphatic that this is a work of fiction. He added an author’s note to that effect at the end. He says he never saw or heard anything like what happened in “Game Changer” during Jack’s Westport career.

But, Greenwald says, it is “based on a culture I saw through Jack. It’s not far-fetched that this could happen. We’ve all heard about terrible cases in college, high school, even middle school.”

“Game Changer” is not, he insists, a condemnation of football. “My respect for coaches, the life lessons they taught, the lifelong friendships Jack made, is amazing,” Greenwald says.

He calls Westport PAL and Staples “great programs.” And Greenwald has done enough research to know that football in Fairfield County — while intense — is “a dust speck compared to programs around the country. When football is the dominant event in a community, the pressure ratchets up unbelievably. Westport seems to have a good balance. We don’t pin our hopes and dreams on young kids.”

But his book is “a wake-up call for everyone — including me,” he adds. “People — including me — have to pay more attention to the culture and the injuries” of football.

Tommy Greenwald

Greenwald never had to confront the even more dangerous effects of football at the higher level. Though Jack was “semi-recruited” for college, he ended up at Elon and did not play. He graduated from there last June, and now works at a Boston cyber-security firm.

“Jack’s era was a tipping point,” Greenwald says. “The media started focusing on concussions, and parents started looking at football differently. If Jack wanted to play in college, that would have been a much larger discussion.”

Greenwald — who won a state championship as a Staples High School soccer captain in 1978, and whose son Joe was a Wrecker soccer captain in 2012 — remains a “huge” NFL fan.

“I read, like everyone else, about the dangers,” he says. “And like everyone else I camp out every Sunday looking for the best games.

“It’s a weird feeling to like a game you probably shouldn’t.”

(Tommy Greenwald will host a discussion on the pros and cons of youth sports at Barnes & Noble this Sunday [October 7, 12 p.m.] Panelists include his own son Jack; former Staples High School, Temple University football captain and Staples assistant coach Mac DeVito, and Dan Woog — in my role as Staples boys soccer head coach.)

High-Tech Toy Needs Beta Testers

At first glance, FlairFriends looks low-tech: a keychain, like the kind every kid has on her backpack.

But this is 2018. Your refrigerator knows you’re running low on milk. Your doorbell can talk to an intruder.

So when you hear that FlairFriends is the brainchild of Westporter designer Alli DiVincenzo and her tech partner Geoff Meek — developer of the original Guitar Hero — you’ll realize that it’s not just a decorative fashion trend.

Every FlairFriend comes with a unique code. Typed into the FlairWorld app, it unlocks 3 things:

  • That particular character’s animation, voice and story
  • An education adventure around Flair World, and
  • A social connector.

That last part is particularly cool. When a child shares the code, and someone else scans it into his or her account, they’re connected.

Friends who are connected in the app can compare collections, and show where they’ve traveled around FlairWorld and how they like to decorate their online “rooms.”

It’s a safe, Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act-compliant online connection. These real-world friendships and interactions teach younger children positive digital behavior — before they’re exposed to the social networks designed for older youngsters.

Kids like to play — with high- and low-tech toys. Check out those FlairFriends! (Photo/Irene Penny)

Sound complicated? “Kids these days get it,” Alli says. “They were born with devices in their hands.”

By age 4, there is “almost universal” exposure to screens and apps. But, Alli says, very few toys bridge “the gap between real-world playing and wholesome online gaming.”

She, Geoff and Staples High School interns spent several years developing FlairFriends. It was released late last month for iPads.

Now that the beta testing phase is underway, Alli needs “play testers” (ages 4 “to 104”), to try it for free and provide feedback. Click here for details.

Meanwhile, Alli and  Geoff headed to the Dallas Toy Preview. That’s an important part of FlairWorld — and the real tech/toy one too.

Pic Of The Day #531

Put me in, coach! Soccer bags, water bottles — and just a hint of fall — this morning at Coleytown Middle School. (Photo/Jeff Manchester)

Paul Ferrante: “The Beatles Must Die!”

Paul Ferrante was in 2nd grade when President Kennedy was killed. That’s his first real memory.

The second is from a few months later: The Beatles performing on “Ed Sullivan.”

More than 50 years later, Ferrante is a 7th grade language arts teacher at Coleytown Middle School. His students are only a few years older than he was then, huddled around a black-and-white TV “like the rest of America,” he says.

Kids today have gazillions of channels to choose from. Rock ‘n’ roll has given way to rap, hip hop, EDM, emo and more.

Paul Ferrante

But, Ferrante says, kids still love the Beatles.

He includes the band in his poetry curriculum. His students look at lyrics. They watch videos. They talk about the American culture, then and now.

When graduates come back to say hi, they ask if Ferrante still teaches the Beatles.

So it’s no surprise that the Fab Four are the subject of Ferrante’s most recent book. In addition to teaching, he’s a noted young adult author. His T.J. Jackson Mysteries series follow the paranormal investigations of 3 ghost-hunting teenagers from Gettysburg to New Orleans (with a stop in Fairfield County).

His 7th book — “The Beatles Must Die” — is as different from those mysteries as John, Paul, George and Ringo are from the Andrews Sisters.

The novel follows Marnie, a fan in Memphis who must make a choice between the group and her conservative community, after John Lennon’s famous “We’re more popular than Jesus” remark results in banned and burned records, even death threats.

John Lennon’s 1966 “Beatles are more popular than Jesus” quote drew a belated — but fierce — backlash.

As Ferrante notes, there are countless books about the Beatles’ music and lives. His is a rare piece of historical fiction, aimed at teens and older readers.

Why are kids still interested in the group, whose 2 surviving members are both well over 64?

“The music holds up,” Ferrante says. “They hear it from their parents. They still think it’s great stuff.”

Plus, he says, “they’re fascinated by the videos of all the girls going crazy.”

His students are intrigued to hear about a time before the internet, when most families had only one television and music came through transistor radios.

That’s why Ferrante — in his 19th year at Coleytown — sees kids in class wearing Beatles t-shirts.

He researched his book well. He read books, and watched the “8 Days a Week” video about their tours.

He built his story around real events — like the actual KKK death threat against the Beatles at their Memphis show. (They played anyway.)

Ferrante also gave his protagonist a strong character. She understands the importance of free speech, and the value of sticking up for herself.

“I’m a teacher, after all,” Ferrante says with a smile.

Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Unsung Heroes #67

It’s hard to come up with new ideas for a 6-year-old’s birthday party. But Dylan Rosen has had great interactions with Westport police officers. So on a whim, his father Frank asked the Westport Police Department if his son and friends could get a tour of the station.

The WPD said, “sure!”

But as 17 boys and their parents walked in to police headquarters, Rosen had doubts. “Who drew the short straw?” he wondered.

Officers Daniel Paz and John Margnelli did. But for them and their guests, it was anything but a chore.

“They could not have been any warmer or more genuine,” Rosen reports. “They completely overextended themselves.”

Officer Daniel Paz lets Rosen “ride” a police motorcycle.

First, Paz — who served 2 deployments in Iraq — told the kids, “You can’t come in this police station without a badge.” Then he handed he one a sticker badge.

He showed the group everything from dispatch and the detective bureau to the garage with police bikes, tactical defensive gear and holding cells (the boys and girls remarked on the lack of privacy and televisions, and noted there would not be much to do in there).

Paz and Margnelli — who was a homicide detective, SWAT operator and community police officer in Florida before coming to Connecticut — ended the tour by showing a police motorcycle and car.

There was no talk or evidence of weapons anywhere with the kids.

Away from the children though, parents saw the gear officers use in a SWAT situation, and the heavily armored vests and helmets needed to stop an AR-15 round.

What was most impressive, Rosen says, was “the kindness of our officers, and the lengths they went to to give each child (and adult) an opportunity to ask questions. They never ran out of patience.”

At the end of the tour, Paz and Margnelli learned the group was headed next to Westport Pizzeria. So they gave the youngsters an escort.

“The kids were skipping the whole way there!” Rosen says.

The start of a police escort to Westport Pizzeria.

“It’s important that our children know these are real super-heroes,” he adds. “These are the brave people we call on every day. They leave their homes and families, to come to work and protect ours.”

Thanks, Daniel Paz and John Margnelli, for going above and beyond a few days ago for an admiring group of 6-year-olds — and for all of us, 24/7/365.

[OPINION] As Coleytown Moves: Be Adaptable, Flexible, Welcoming

Marcy Sansolo is the administrator of What Up Westport. Usually, she and the 3,000-plus members of her Facebook group share comments and photos about life in Westport. There are notices about upcoming events, observations on life at Whole Foods, and quirky photos.

Marcy is an upbeat, glass-half-full woman. What Up Westport mostly steers clear of controversy.

But as Coleytown Middle School 6th and 7th graders prepare to move today to Bedford Middle School, and 8th graders to Staples High, for about a month — while experts explore whether mold or mold remediation has caused dizziness, nausea, itching and headaches — they’ve faced another issue: pushback from some parents at the host schools, concerned about the impact on their own buildings.

Coleytown Middle School

Marcy did not want to post anything that would fan the flames. But she did not want to downplay the situation either. What she wrote deserves the broadest audience possible. So, with her permission, I’m re-posting it here.

S— happens. Kids who are faced with adversity will become more resilient kids and eventually resilient adults.

This is my free advice, and you don’t have to take it.

If you have a student who is in one of the 3 schools, have them look at this as an adventure.

An opportunity to meet new people, to experience a new setting, to be a host, to help thy neighbor.

Children are incredibly accommodating and figure things out quickly.

They will take their cues from you. You stay positive, understanding, friendly and flexible, and so will they.

For those students who require more emotional or physical support, their support team is there for them.

Have faith in your kids and those making the decisions.

Bedford Middle School 2

Bedford Middle School

Reaction was quick, and largely positive.

“Amen!” one woman wrote. “Kids adjust much more easily than adults. Parents, give your kids the chance to deal with a problem, disappointment, and adversity. Make this a positive and they will be better for it.”

Another noted: “Westport has a history of coming together and making things happen — big and small — from buying the Longshore Club to banning plastic bags in stores. As someone who sells this wonderful town to new residents, I love sharing these stories. This can be one more of them. We control the narrative about how we come together as a community and handle this.”

A third said: “This is one town, these kids are kids, they adjust, they are resilient, they are friends in their swim teams/ basketball/ ballet/theatre, they will be in Staples together, their moms take the same spin classes at the Y. This is ONE town. Let’s just all show love and not scare these kids with our own negativity, because they know better.”

It won’t be easy for the Coleytown students, as they move to a new school (for the 6th graders, their 2nd in a month). It will be hard — but certainly less difficult — for those at Bedford and Staples.

It will be a learning experience for all — staff as well as students. Let’s hope the lessons of welcoming and adaptability are taught everywhere — not just in school.

Staples High School (Drone photo/Brandon Malin)

Case Of The Missing Story Walk

Village Pediatrics is a full-service practice.

As part of their mission to connect young patients and their parents, the pediatricians laminate children’s books. They spread them on pylons along the length of their very cool walkway over the Saugatuck River, behind their Riverside Avenue office.

Kids and adults enjoy the story — and the gorgeous view.

They’re not the only ones. Joggers, dog walkers and others also like them too.

The riverwalk behind 323 Riverside Avenue.

The book choices are not random. The Village staff carefully reflects the season, or something relevant to the time of year. Around Election Day, for example, they displayed “Duck for President.”

Recently, they changed the story walk. “The Kissing Hand” is a beautiful book about a raccoon nervous for his first day of school. His mother teaches him that they are always connected — even when they’re physically apart.

Many youngsters and parents appreciated it, as they got ready for school to begin.

An illustration from “The Kissing Hand.”

The other day though, the pediatricians looked out their window. The story walk was gone!

They also had a small live cam taped to one of the pylons, so everyone in the office could watch the swans rotate and eventually hatch their eggs. That camera was taken too.

They’ve asked “06880” to help. Please return “The Kissing Hand” and/or the camera — no questions asked.

Village Pediatrics wants our entire village to enjoy the book!