Category Archives: Education

Kami Evans Empowers Women

If you’re a Westport woman on Facebook, you know Kami Evans.

A local mom, she’s created “Kami’s Kloud.” Thousands of followers — okay, not all of them women — check in frequently. She connects businesses with non-profits and charities, helping build community. (She also creates many separate social media groups and pages, again connecting people with good causes.)

Kami — who could be called a “mom-cierge” — does not favor one event over another. But this one is definitely close to her heart.

Kami Evans

Kami Evans

On March 29, she presents a Women’s Empowerment Forum. Focusing on love and money, it features guest speaker Siggy Flicker (author of “Write Your Own Fairy Tale: The New Rules for Dating, Relationships and Finding Love on Your Own Terms”).

In addition, financial expert Jennifer Scheffer will share tips and tricks about managing finances and personal assets.

“More than ever, it’s important for women to come together to benefit humankind, their families and themselves,” Kami says. “You’ll leave with knowledge and inspiration, to balance your hearts and wallets.”

You’ll also aid a good cause. A portion of the proceeds go to Person-to-Person, a longtime, low-key local helping organization.

(Reservation deadline for the March 29 Women’s Empowerment Forum [10 am to noon, Delamar Hotel, Southport] is March 1. Click here for tickets.)

[OPINIONS] State Budget Woes Will Strike Westport Hard

Hartford often seems to be a lot more than 60 miles from Westport. This part of the state is New York-centric. We sometimes think our state capital is Albany.

But decisions made in Connecticut’s capital can have quite an impact on our lives here. With the state budget in free fall, that’s seldom been more true.

Alert “06880” writer Peter Flatow writes:

When people talk about the advantages of living in 06880, our schools and educational programs almost always top the list. Many people move to 06880 for the schools.  We did!

Among the many subjects Westport students study: robotics.

Among the many subjects Westport students study: robotics.

Having great schools requires adequate funding. In the past, both the state and federal (to a much less degree) governments have assisted in funding our school system, through grants and subsidies.

That appears to be changing — and not for the better. Reviewing the educational budget, Westport has over the last 5 years been doing more with less.

Now, with the state looking to eliminate over $1.5 million in grants to Westport, the situation will get tougher.

And while the federal government accounts for roughly 4% of Connecticut’s revenues for schools (8% nationally), who knows what pressures the new administration will put on the State and local school systems.

What does this mean for Westport? Is our biggest asset under attack? If so, what can or should we be doing now? Will local taxpayers just make up the difference?  Will programs be cut? If so, which ones? Will school athletics programs be eliminated? After school activities? Is there a silver lining? If towns don’t get state or federal funding, does that allow them to set their own education rules?

Conventional wisdom suggests that it is best to be proactive. We have an excellent Board of Education. It will be instructive to learn how they view these forces against our top town asset.

Peter Flatow worries about the state budget crisis impact on Westport's schools. Greens Farms Elementary is shown above.

Peter Flatow worries about the state budget crisis impact on Westport’s schools. Greens Farms Elementary is shown above.

Equally alert “06880” reader Bart Shuldman worries about the cost in taxes — particularly to seniors. He writes:

Residents face the serious potential of higher property taxes, or cuts in service and funds to education, as Governor Malloy transfers some costs normally paid by the state down to Westport.

At the same time funds are cut, Governor Malloy is requiring Westport taxpayers to fund 1/3 of the teacher’s pension that was already paid by us, through state income tax dollars. State income taxes will most likely increase, as the governor tries to balance a $3 billion deficit over th next 2 years.

Shuldman’s figures show the loss of $465,334 in state education cost-sharing grants from the state; a loss of $646,975 to cover costs of educating severely disabled students, and a cost to Westport of $5,877,870 in 1/3 pension sharing for the fiscal year beginning July 1. He warns:

If you live elsewhere in Connecticut, a similar negative financial impact will happen to your town.

To Cesar Batalla School, With Love

If you’re like me, you spend time sitting in Riverside Avenue traffic wondering what goes on behind those mysterious windows above Arezzo restaurant.

bonnie-marcus-logoTurns out it’s a design studio, home to the Bonnie Marcus Collection. Launched by Diane von Furstenberg’s former right-hand woman, it’s where 10 very talented people — all local moms — create illustrations for bridal shower, wedding and party invitations; greeting cards; calendars and more.

Bonnie has developed licensing deals with some of the biggest companies in the world. Her designs are found in more than 50,000 retail and online stores.

But today her studio concentrates on one school, in nearby  Bridgeport.

Bonnie’s cards often feature hand-painted sparkles. So Westporter Nicole Straight — who volunteers at the Cesar Batalla School, and is a big fan of Bonnie Marcus Collections — came up with an idea: Give every student there a chance to make a sparkling Valentine’s Day card for someone special.

Westport middle school student Sydney Gusick helped package goodies at the Bonnie Marcus design studio.

Westport middle school student Sydney Gusick helped package goodies at the Bonnie Marcus design studio.

It could be a parent, sibling, teacher or friend. The key is for kids to have fun making their own cards.

Today, Nicole is delivered 1,200 sparkle pens to the school.

Plus Valentine’s gifts for each teacher: A calendar, filled with color and creativity, for every classroom.

Bonnie and the rest of her team enjoyed plenty of smiling faces at Cesar Batalla today.

Who knows? They may find a future designer there too.

(Hat tip: Robin Gusick)

Making a valentine, today at Cesar Batalla School.

Making a valentine, today at Cesar Batalla School.

 

Allison’s Story

Allison Kernan’s mother and stepfather were “incredible.” They raised her well.

She had a tougher time with her biological father. Still, life growing up in Fairfield was good.

A dozen years ago, Allison began experimenting with alcohol and marijuana. Her brother — 3 years older —  was getting into it, and she hung out with his older crowd.

Plenty of kids her own age tried those substances too. She found them.

She was still in middle school.

“I knew it was wrong. But instantly, I felt good,” Allison says. Her self-esteem issues receded.

Crack cocaine

Crack cocaine

Her brother got into crack cocaine. When she was in 8th grade, he was sent to rehab. That day, Allison vowed never to smoke weed again.

In a family education program, she learned about addiction. She realized that by not telling her parents what her brother was doing, she’d enabled his usage.

As a freshman at Fairfield Warde High School in 2006, her brother’s former substance abuse counselor urged Allison to join a support group for children and siblings of alcoholics and drug addicts. She realized she was not alone.

She became an advocate, talking to middle schoolers about the many ways her family had been affected by addiction.

“I didn’t know that in 2 short years I’d be in my brother’s shoes,” she says. “But 10 times worse.”

Self-esteem issues led Allison into an abusive relationship. At 16, she hung out with a party crowd. Drugs made her feel better than a previous method: self-harm. She pushed her brother, and his struggles, out of her thoughts.

marijuanaShe was drinking shots and smoking weed. Her boyfriend used prescription pills: Xanax, Percocet, Oxycontin.  He said it was just like marijuana, without the smell. When he popped pills, he did not hit her.

Soon, he coerced Allison into trying pills too.

“I’d paid attention in health class, but just to pass the tests,” she says. “I never thought I’d be addicted.”

But she “fell in love” with the feelings pills produced. She was calm and relaxed; all her problems were numbed.

Drugs turned on a switch in her brain. She spiraled out of control. She was using pills on weekends, and after school. Still, her grades remained fine.

“I thought pills were like pot — I could do it every day,” she recalls. “I was a teenager. I didn’t go out and research the effects!”

She found opioids everywhere: on the street, in medicine cabinets, at her high school.

She graduated with her class, and entered Sacred Heart University. She got a job and lived on campus.

opioidsAt first, Allison says, she could not imagine anyone doing pills there. But she soon realized a lot of students did. She became a “low-key” dealer — which meant her drugs were free.

One morning she ran out of pills. She had cold sweats and diarrhea. She vomited and shook. She thought she had the flu.

She found a pill. Five minutes later, her symptoms disappeared. A friend told Allison: “You’re addicted.”

She tried to stop, cold turkey. She failed. During 2nd semester Allison missed lots of classes. She left Sacred Heart.

“That was a sign I had a problem,” she says. “I said to myself, ‘I’m a college dropout.”

Allison Kernan, after dropping out of college.

Allison Kernan, after dropping out of college.

She started dating her dealer, and moved into his Black Rock house. She did cocaine and PCP — anything she could get her hands on. Every day.

People told Allison it was only a matter of time until she used heroin. She thought that would never happen.

At 19, she tried heroin for the first time. Instantly, she was hooked.

“It was cheaper, stronger and more effective than pills,” she says. It was also more accessible.

Allison went from sniffing to shooting. Her life spiraled even more downhill.

Within a year, she’d sold all her belongings. Without furniture, lights or heat, she fell into a deep depression.

Allison was homeless, on the streets of Bridgeport. She broke into cars and hotel rooms, and stole candy bars to eat.

She was 21, 5-1, 75 pounds, with dark circles under her eyes and track marks all over her arms.

Allison Kernan, a year later.

Allison Kernan, a year later.

Allison was arrested, carrying 15 bags of heroin. The charge was a felony — “intent to sell” — but she got a slap on the wrist: 15 drug education classes, and community service. She had a year to complete her sentence.

She was arrested again, selling to an undercover officer. On April 1, 2014 — just after her 22nd birthday — Allison was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Behind bars, she had “a huge spiritual awakening.” Released after 9 months, she got a job, got her life together.

She also got cocky. “I got this!” she thought. “I’m good. I don’t need anyone — not even God!”

She went with an old friend, to an old bar. She had one drink.

Two hours later, she did heroin again.

This time, she did not become homeless. She lived in her mother’s house, and kept her job. But she was a full-blown addict.

Then Allison got pregnant. She was excited, but realized she was not ready to have a baby. Against her best judgment, she had an abortion.

“I’d rather be homeless than go through that pain again,” she says.

After months of using heroin — around Thanksgiving 2015 — Allison told her mother she was addicted. She asked for help.

On December 2, Allison checked into a detox clinic. She’s been sober ever since.

Ally Kernan today.

Ally Kernan today.

Today, she has 2 jobs. She’s a program coordinator at Shana’s House in Westport — an 8-bed home that’s the only women’s sober living halfway facility in Fairfield County. A certified recovery coach, she also works as a communication specialist at the Southwest Regional Mental Health Board in Norwalk.

“I’m good at my jobs,” she says. “When a girl says ‘You have no idea what I’m talking about,’ I roll up my sleeve.”

Allison Kernan wants her story — and her name — to be known.

People say they’re surprised that she is so open about her life.

She has a strong response: “Someone has to be.”

She pauses.

“I was right next door. I sold to kids in Westport.

“Now I’m here. I can’t be anonymous anymore. People need to know that all that is real.

“But they also need to know: There is hope.”

(To read Ally’s blog about her life, and living in recovery, click here. Hat tip: Giovanna Pisani)

Remembering Harold Levine

Harold Levine — a giant on the local philanthropic scene — died peacefully at home yesterday. He was 95.

Professionally, he’s known as the co-founder — with Chet Huntley — of the Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver ad agency. Highly regarded for its creativity, the firm was in the forefront of providing career opportunities for women and minorities. In 1996, Levine received a diversity achievement award from the American Advertising Federation.

Levine was also a lifelong champion of education and the arts.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, as chair of the Freeport (New York) Board of Education, he steered that school system during a period of racial and political unrest. He later served as chair of the board of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre Foundation.

Harold Levine

Harold Levine

After moving to Westport, he committed himself to providing educational and arts opportunities to Bridgeport children.

As chair of Neighborhood Studios, he helped a small arts program grow into a large, thriving organization that now provides a broad array of music, fine art and dance education.

He often — and successfully — sought financial and other support from Westport, to benefit Bridgeport youngsters.

Levine is survived by his children, Rita and Jay; 4 grandchildren, and a great-grandson. He was predeceased by his wife Sue and brother Josh.

A funeral is set for Monday (February 13, 10:30 a.m.) at Temple Israel. Memorial contributions may be made to Neighborhood Studios, 391 East Washington Avenue, Bridgeport, CT 06608.


In 2015, Harold Levine asked me to spread the good word about Neighborhood Studios. I was happy to oblige. At 93, he wrote the following plea:

I just received a troubling phone call. Our executive director projects that by the end of our fiscal year on August 30th, we will be over $80,000 in  debt.

We are seriously understaffed. So why the deficit?

Neighborhood Studios logoWhy can’t we get enough money to provide arts experiences to over 1,500 children? Is it because they are poor? Is it because they don’t live in our community? Is it because they are black and Hispanic?

I recently invited a Westporter to join me on a visit to our programs in action. I was told, “Oh, I don’t go to Bridgeport.”

Neighborhood Studios was founded over 35 years ago by Pat Hart, a young woman who became blind at 28. She was committed to teaching art and music to blind and other handicapped children. Over the years the organization has grown to serve all Bridgeport children.

For example, for private piano lessons we ask parents to pay $3 per sessions. Many tell us they cannot afford even that little.  Are we to turn that child away?  Of course not. That’s one reason we end the year with a deficit.

For the past 15 years we have sponsored Ailey Camp, a 6-week summer program in cooperation with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company. Bridgeport is one of only 7 such camps around the country.

A dance ensemble class rehearses at Neighborhood Studios. (Photo by Autumn Driscoll/CT Post)

A dance ensemble class rehearses at Neighborhood Studios. (Photo by Autumn Driscoll/CT Post)

Besides a great dance program, youngsters are also trained in speech, writing, and feeling good about themselves. Many campers return as interns and instructors.

This is a program that everyone in Fairfield County should be proud to support.  The campers (and their parents) are carefully interviewed. Each family pays only $25 for the entire summer — yet each camper costs Neighborhood Studios over $1,000.

We are looking for patrons of the arts. I was once told that if Neighborhood Studios was headquartered in Westport, we would be loaded with money.

But we’re not. We are in Bridgeport, serving a community very much in need. So how about saying to the children of Bridgeport: “We do care about you.”

Our programs work. We are successful in getting a high percentage of our children to go on to college.  We must continue to serve the children of our neighboring community, Bridgeport.

Remembering Emelia Worth

In the past few years, media reporting on transgender issues has moved from rare and/or gawking to serious and respectful.

Because of press attention, many Americans now know that suicide is an enormous issue in the trans community. Over 40% of people identifying as transgender have attempted suicide — 92% of them before the age of 25.

But statistics are just numbers. Now, one of those suicides has struck very close to home.

Earlier this month, Emelia Worth killed herself at the Kent School. She was 18, and a few years earlier attended Saugatuck Elementary School. Students there knew her as Carl.

A few weeks before her death, Emelia had given a chapel talk to the school.

According to the Norwalk Hour, she said:

For once, I’ve actually chosen my words very carefully … Let me explain myself to you, not as Carl the experienced senior giving a chapel talk. But as Carl, the really scared child who is worried that they may have waited too long to get real.

After announcing she was battling depression, she said: “I am transgender. I puzzle every day why I came out a boy.”

Emelia Worth

Emelia Worth

Emelia’s mother, Elsa Worth, said that suicidal depression — not a lack of support from family, friends or school officials — led to her death.

Emelia — a 4-year class representative at Kent, senior prefect, orchestra and jazz band musician — had already been accepted to the Universities of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Her mother told the Hour that she wanted to study linguistics and be a professor.

Worth also said that Emelia also planned to begin hormone treatments in March. The newspaper reported that Kent was planning to allow her to live in a girls’ dorm. No one there knew of any bullying.

Her death surprised a former Saugatuck El classmate. The boy — now a senior — had known Emelia as Carl: “an insanely good artist.” The two had camped out in New Hampshire as children, and played card games.

“I realized that he was gone. This kid who had only been happy, and made everyone around him happy, was dead because she was so sad.”

The senior says that at his public high school in Fairfield County (not Staples), there are 2 openly trans students.

“They are treated with the utmost respect,” he says. They can change in their own locker rooms if they choose, and use non-gendered bathrooms. Staples has the same options for trans students.

The senior says, “We treat our trans friends just like anyone else. They’re some of the nicest people I know.”

We’ll never know how much that feeling of being trapped in the wrong body contributed to Emelia’s depression. Sadly, we do know she leaves behind her mother and father (Steven), and brothers Bo and Orion.

Memorial services are set for Friday, February 10 (St. James Church, Keene, NH) and Tuesday, February 14 (Kent School). In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Emelia Carl ’17 Scholarship. Click here, or send to Kent School, PO Box 2006, Kent, CT 06757.

“White Privilege” Essay Contest: Separating Facts From Fake News

The essay contest sponsored by TEAM Westport — our town’s multicultural commission — has sparked worldwide coverage. An AP story using “outrage” in its headline went viral. Outlets from the Christian Science Monitor to the Onion ran stories.

Like a game of Telephone, each telling brought more inaccuracies.

This AP photo of Main Street ran with many news stories about the

This AP photo of Main Street ran with many news stories about the “white privilege” essay contest.

This morning, TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey issued a fact sheet about the contest. It won’t get as much press as the kerfuffle story, but for “06880” readers fielding questions from friends around the world — generally framed as What the hell is going on there?! — it’s a start.

The actual essay prompt reads:

White privilege surfaced as a topic during the recent presidential election. In 1,000 words or less, describe how you understand the term “white privilege.” To what extent do you think this privilege exists? What impact do you think it has had in your life — whatever your racial or ethnic identity — and in our society more broadly?

The challenge asks students to research the concept of “white privilege,” and describe to what extent they think it exists.

It does not

  • Make any statement one way or the other about its existence
  • Imply a right answer
  • Imply or signal anything about the town of Westport, beyond an openness to explore the topic.

The essay contest is voluntary. No student is forced to enter. Nor is it a part of any school curriculum or classroom requirement.

TEAM-Westport-logo2The contest is open only to residents of Westport in grades 9-12 attending any school anywhere, and non-resident students who attend public or private schools located in Westport. It is not open to individuals or groups outside the town.

The contest requires written permission of a parent or guardian for entry.

No taxpayer dollars are involved. All funding comes from private contributions (email info@teamwestport.org to donate!).

All members of TEAM Westport are volunteers.

This is the 4th consecutive year that the group has sponsored an essay contest. Previous topics involved race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

The takeaways:

The essay topic is meant to allow Westport students in grades to 9-12 write about what the challenge means to them.

It is not about what older people, people outside Westport, the press or political groups think.

Think about that!

TEAM Westport contest judges (from left) Jaina Shaw and Dr. Judith Hamer, and (far right) Mary-Lou Weisman flank 2016 essay contest winners Ellie Shapiro, Ali Tritschler and Jacob Klegar.

TEAM Westport contest judges (from left) Jaina Shaw and Dr. Judith Hamer, and (far right) Mary-Lou Weisman flank 2016 essay contest winners Ellie Shapiro, Ali Tritschler and Jacob Klegar.

Happy 216th Birthday, Horace Staples!

From the opening of Staples High School in 1884, to a few years after he died 13 years later at age 96, students and faculty celebrated January 31 — Horace Staples’ birthday — as “Founder’s Day.”

That tradition — dormant for over a century — gained new life today. The Staples chapter of Rho Kappa — the national high school honor society — brought Founder’s Day back..

Exhibits outside the auditorium, created by nearly every academic department, portrayed life in the late 19th century. The culinary classes dedicated one to onions. After all, when Staples’ High School (as it was punctuated then) was dedicated, the Westporter newspaper proclaimed, “A good high school will increase the value of property, and raise the price of onions.”

1880’s music played between classes.

And “Horace Staples” — the founder who was a businessman, merchant, factory owner, bank president and farmer — roamed the halls again today. He wandered into classrooms, discussing the differences between his school in 1884 and the 2017 one that sits, a few miles from his original Riverside Avenue building, on North Avenue.

"Horace Staples" posed with students in Barbara Robbins' English class this morning.

“Horace Staples” (center) posed with students in Barbara Robbins’ English class this morning.

Students asked questions. Mr. Staples answered everything from what Westport was like back then (“there were not as many very large houses”) to what he thought of the school today (“you have so many wonderful teachers; be sure to listen to them, read, think, and make your mark on the world”).

And who was “Horace Staples”?

Why, the guy who wrote the book — Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education — about his own alma mater.

"Horace Staples," with his portrait near the front entrance to Staples High School. He hasn't aged a bit.

“Horace Staples,” with his portrait near the front entrance to Staples High School. He hasn’t aged a bit.

Leah Rondon’s Birthday Bash

In August 2015, Westport mourned the loss of Leah Rondon. She was struck by a car, while playing at a friend’s house.

The daughter of Bedford Middle School teacher Colleen Rondon played soccer, basketball and softball, and was the Ansonia Boys & Girls Club “Girl of the Year.” She loved reading, and proudly listed all her summer titles on the refrigerator.

She was just 6 years old.

Despite this unimaginable tragedy, Colleen’s energy and enthusiasm has not wavered. She teaches children with passion and pride.

Leah Rondon

Leah Rondon

On February 4, Leah would have been 8 years old. Her mother has created a Birthday Bash. She’s determined to make it a day of joy, not mourning.

She’s also determined to make Leah’s birthday mean something. So she and her husband — an administrator at Bridgeport’s Kolbe Cathedral High School — are growing a scholarship in Leah’s name.

The Birthday Bash this coming Saturday (February 4, 12-4 pm) features a carnival with games, crafts, face painting, raffles and entertainment. The event takes place at Kolbe Cathedral.

Performers — many of whom are from Westport and Weston — include Jamie Mann (who has performed as Billy Elliot in 60 shows from New Hampshire to Florida), Stephanie Greene, Zoe Lieberman, Claire Vocke, Brody Braunstein, Chloe Manna, Lola Lamensdorf, Cate Steinberg, Leif Edoff (8-year-old pianist), Jasper Burke, Isabelle Katz, Lucas Lieberman, the award-winning Westport Dance Center company and more.

All proceeds benefit the Leah Rondon Memorial Scholarship Fund. It’s awarded to a graduating female Kolbe Cathedral student. For more information, click here.

And if you can’t make it to Leah’s Birthday Bash but want to donate to her fund, click here — then scroll down just below “Events” in the center of the page.

Teenage Depression — Through Teenage Eyes

Depression in teenagers is rampant.

We see young people who look like they’ve got it all together. Inside, they’re crumbling.

That’s the foundation of a compelling and fascinating public service video. In just 2 minutes, it shows the agony some kids go through — and the ways they mask it. It’s well worth your time.

Particularly because it was produced not by a big New York ad agency, but a pair of Staples High School juniors.

Sydney Carson and Jillian Gault made the video — called “I’m Fine” — as a project for Kelly Shamas’ health class.

They chose this topic because they know depression is all around, and very real.

During their research, they were stunned to find out that only 30% of teenagers with depression are being treated for it.  They used that as their powerful final message.

Click below to see Sydney and Jillian’s video. Be proud of their work.

Then pass it on.

(Hat tip:  Eileen O’Brien)