Category Archives: Children

Pics Of The Day #591

Tonight’s Christmas Tree lighting at Town Hall included …

Staples’ Orphenians (with Rudolph, of course) …

… little kids and grown-ups …

… a somewhat slender Santa …

… and the feature attraction. (Photos/Dan Woog)

Playhouse “Pianist” Teaches Children About Holocaust Horrors

You can’t say the Westport Country Playhouse isn’t timely.

The most recent production — “Thousand Pines” — was a provocative look at gun violence, through its effect on 3 families.

Now comes “The Pianist of  Willesden Lane.” It’s an encore performance, thanks to raves before.

The pianist — Grammy-nominated Mona Golabek — tells the gripping, true tale of her mother. A piano prodigy herself, whose dreams were threatened in 1938 by looming war, she flees Vienna for England on the Kindertransport.

Golabek describes it all, while interweaving music of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, even a bit of Gershwin.

The elegant, beautiful show is also crucially important. It comes at a time of rising anti-Semitism worldwide, and just weeks after the murder of 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

“The Pianist of Willesden Lane” should be seen by audiences of all ages. But on Sunday, December 16, the Playhouse will be filled with young people.

The 3 p.m. production will be followed by age-appropriate group discussions led by local Holocaust survivors. The goal is to educate children about that horrible time in a sensitive way, stressing the importance of standing up to bigotry and hatred, with the power of hope.

Monique Lions Greenspan’s mother survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. She knows first hand the incredible strength, optimism and gratefulness that Holocaust survivors possess.

“Their stories provide invaluable lessons,” she says. “I feel a deep sense of obligation to make our community aware of this opportunity for our children — and adults too — to bear witness to and learn from their experiences.”

(The recommended age for this show is 10 and older. Click here for tickets and more information on the December 16 performance. Click here for tickets and more information on the December 5-22 run. The program is sponsored by Federation for Jewish Philanthropy of Upper Fairfield County, Jewish Federation Association for Connecticut, Holocaust Child Survivors of CT and the Anti-Defamation League Connecticut.)

After Coleytown: School District Considers 9 Plans For Next Year

When mold closed Coleytown Middle School in September, school administrators, teachers, staff, students and parents scrambled to adjust.

Sixth and seventh graders moved to Bedford Middle School. Eighth graders headed to Staples. That temporary measure will last through the current school year.

Now — with the fate of CMS still undetermined — educators and townspeople must plan for the next school year.

Yesterday at Town Hall, superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer presented 9 options to the newly formed Community Advisory Group. Comprised of teachers, administrators, PTA members and others, they have a December 10 deadline to present a 2019-20 plan to the Board of Education.

The options — which may be amended as work continues — include:

  1. Keeping 6th grades at elementary schools; all 7th and 8th graders would remain at Bedford. Stepping Stones Preschool would move from Coleytown Elementary to a rented facility; Long Lots kindergartners would attend CES in that space.
  2. As above, but Long Lots 6th graders would attend Coleytown El in the current Stepping Stones place.
  3. Stepping Stones would move to a rented facility. Long Lots 6th graders would attend CES; Saugatuck and Kings Highway 6th graders would go to Bedford Middle School (which would include portable classrooms); Greens Farms 6th graders would remain in that school, and CMS 7th and 8th graders would remain at BMS.
  4. All 6-8th graders would attend Bedford on a staggered schedule. For example: grade 6, 7 a.m. to 1:45 p.m.; grades 7-8, 9:15 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  5. Maintain the current plan: All 6th and 7th graders at BMS; CMS 8th graders at Staples.
  6. All students in grades 6-8 attend Bedford on the same school schedule.
  7. All students in grades 6-8 attend Bedford, with double sessions. For example: Session I, 7 a.m. to noon; Session II, 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
  8. Housing one of the following at a different, rented location: Early learning center (Stepping Stones Preschool and all kindergarten classrooms districtwide); 6th grade; 8th grade; all of Coleytown Middle School.
  9. Utilize 1 of the 5 elementary schools to house CMS. Those elementary school students would be redistricted to the other 4 elementary schools.

The Community Advisory Group’s next meeting is tomorrow (Tuesday, November 20, 7:30 p.m., Bedford Middle School).

Big Love From Little Barn

Dining out with a 2-year-old is never easy.

For Joy Mermelstein — the mother of a non-verbal, autistic boy — it’s particularly tough.

But Little Barn advertises itself as “kid-friendly.” They’ve got high chairs, special menus, and a patient staff.

The other day, Joy’s family — with her son Charlie — headed to the popular Post Road restaurant. He acted out a bit. A couple nearby — with their own young child — did not mind.

But another diner did. And said something.

Joy sat down. She teared up.

What happened next is remarkable. The wait staff, the manager — everyone — went waaaay out of their way to make Joy and Charlie feel welcome.

I won’t tell you exactly what happened. Joy describes it far better than I can.

And she does it on a video she posted to Facebook and YouTube. (Be sure to watch it to the end!)

It should go viral.

And if it does, Little Barn should add plenty of seats and tables. Because they deserve to be packed — every meal — with the kind of patrons who appreciate a good restaurant, run by and with great people.

(Hat tip: Peggy Lehn)

Friday Flashback #113

From the 1950s through ’80s, Westport junior highs fielded interscholastic athletic teams.

Bedford and Long Lots — and, after it opened in 1965, Coleytown — competed against junior highs from Darien, New Canaan and Greenwich in football, boys and girls soccer, boys and girls basketball, wrestling, baseball, softball and track.

Competition was intense — both within the league, and to win the mythical Westport “town championship.”

Interscholastic competition ended in 1983, when Westport schools moved from a junior high model, to middle schools. Ninth graders went to Staples High, and competed on their own freshman teams.

But in the 1950s — and perhaps earlier — local elementary schools had their own intra-town sports teams. I have no idea when they began. By the 1960s, they were gone.

I don’t know what sports they involved either — except for boys basketball, as shown by this Saugatuck Elementary School photo provided by alert “06880” reader Fred Cantor.

Fred adds that a scrapbook from Coleytown Elementary School’s first year — 1953 — describes a girls kickball competition between that school and Bedford El.

If you’ve got stories about elementary or junior high sports teams, click “Comments” below.

And try not to stretch the truth.

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.