Category Archives: Education

Jake Sussman Fights For “The Forgotten Child”

Imagine yourself as the child that always smiled
You were wild, you were beguiled —
Until the day you were profiled.
This is the story of the forgotten child.

Jake Sussman delivers those words clearly, directly and powerfully. Like many guys in their early 20s, he’s got scruff and exudes confidence.

But he is “The Forgotten Child.”

Now, he’s making sure that educators around the world do not forget any other Jake Sussmans out there.

There are many.

Growing up in Westport — and diagnosed with a learning difference — Jake had a “great experience” at Coleytown Elementary School.

Middle school was different, though.

“It wasn’t working for me,” Jake says. He transferred to The Southport School, then the Forman School in Litchfield for high school. After graduating in 2014, he headed to Roger Williams University.

It was the only college he applied to with no academic support system.

Jake Sussman

“That was fine,” Jake says. “In life, there’s no special corner for employees with learning differences.”

He directed his energy and charisma toward creating a Hillel on the Rhode Island campus. By the time he left for his senior year at the University of Hartford — for its program in communications and business — there were 30 attendees at Shabbat dinners.

As a junior, he took part in a campus poetry slam. “The Forgotten Child” was all about overcoming adversity, and being true to oneself.

Negative labels are destructive
Counter-productive and obstructive
This forgotten child refused to acknowledge
“You will never go to college.”

Speaking those words out loud, Jake felt empowered. He told his story — but he was not alone.

“Everyone learns differently,” he notes. “I may be 3 grades behind in reading, but I’m the best artist in the class. Teachers have to be able to tap into that.”

He realized his poem spoke for “anyone not seen or heard.” Learning differences, sexualities, physical disabilities — whatever adversity students have to overcome, Jake included them. They too are “forgotten children.”

At boarding school, Jake had met Harvey Hubbell V. The Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker — who himself was diagnosed with dyslexia in the 1960s, and in 2013 produced “Dislecksia: The Movie” — was intrigued by Jake’s passion. And his poetry.

Beginning last May, they collaborated on a video. Last Thursday — in the middle of Dyslexia Awareness Month — they launched “The Forgotten Child” on Facebook. In it, Jake implores:

Don’t ever give up your shot
Our minds are all we’ve got!

Within 2 days, it had 25,000 views worldwide. And dozens of very favorable comments.

He hopes it reaches the right audiences: people with learning differences, and those who work with them.

“I’m not a teacher, a psychologist, a researcher or a parent,” he says. “I am a student. I represent all those who are not seen or heard, just for the way they learn.”

“The Forgotten Child” is just one of the ways Jake is speaking out about his own educational life, and those of so many others.

On Monday night, he was at a Decoding Dyslexia meeting in Salt Lake City.

I’m not sure whether he presented a talk or a poem.

Either way, I have no fear.

His message was heard loud and clear.

(For more information, email bookings@jakesussmanlive.com)

Jacob Sussman, filming his video.

 

Pic Of The Day #906

Greens Farms Elementary School softball field (Photo/Tim Woodruff)

Arrow Restaurant Shares In Nobel Prize

You don’t win a Nobel Prize without a great work ethic.

And for generations, teenagers learned how to work at the Arrow restaurant.

It paid off for countless local youngsters. Including Billy Kaelin.

The Fairfield youth — and his 3 brothers — all worked there as busboys.

Yesterday, Dr. William G. Kaelin Jr. was awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Dr. William Kaelin, and his prize.

Kaelin — a professor at Harvard Medical School — shared science’s greatest honor with 2 others. They researched how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability. The work has implications for cancer and other diseases, such as anemia, myocardial infarction and stroke.

Tommy Nistico — a member of the legendary, beloved family that owned the Saugatuck institution for years (originally on Saugatuck Avenue, then located at the current site of Mystic Market) — posted the news on Facebook.

He noted that Kaelin and his 3 brothers all attended Duke University. The younger siblings are now lawyers.

The Arrow restaurant nourished decades of hungry Westporters. Along the way, it also fed the hunger of a young boy to work hard, and make his mark on the world.

Kaelin will receive his Nobel Prize in December, in Stockholm.

Too bad the Arrow is no longer around to cater the event.

(Hat tip: Fred Cantor)

Danielle Dobin: Middle School Views Posted Today Are My Own

Today’s post on Westport’s middle schools generated plenty of comments. The author of the piece — Danielle Dobin — writes:

I wrote this opinion piece. It represents my personal views, not those of the Planning & Zoning Chairman, or any other Planning & Zoning commissioners or P&Z department staff.

The October 22 session will be a meeting of the PZC’s Plan of Conservation & Development High Level Review Subcommittee, to hear public comment regarding Chapter 14: Address Community Facility Needs. Click here to find the 2017 Plan of Conservation & Development.

[OPINION] Danielle Dobin: A Vision For Westport Middle School Education

Danielle Dobin is the mother of a Staples High School 9th grader and a Bedford Middle School 6th grader, and vice chair of Westport’s Planning & Zoning Commission. Like many Westporters, she has followed the debate over the future of our middle schools — begun a year ago, when mold caused the closure of Coleytown — with great interest.

School district officials, the Boards of Education and Finance, and a special committee are moving ahead with plans to renovate CMS, and reopen it next fall. However, Dobin says, that may not be the right move. She writes:

While the closure of Coleytown Middle School has been a challenge for our community, we can turn it into an opportunity. We can create a modern and innovative middle school that delivers excellent education to all students.

Right now, we are on a path to spend $32 million (minimum) to renovate CMS.  But many in town question that path. They wonder about the wisdom of revamping a building designed by the standards of 1965. They are beginning to see the demographic challenges of running 2 middle schools with declining enrollment. Most importantly, they are beginning to question the rush to get back into CMS without carefully considering all options.

Coleytown Middle School is closed due to mold. Right now, it is set to reopen next fall.

It’s time to pause, and review all the new data and information at our disposal.  It is time to finally have the kind of community conversation a decision of this importance demands.

I want to be clear for those who are only now engaged in this process: When CMS closed, there was no thoughtful discussion — much less a town-wide debate — about what kind of middle school structure would best serve the needs of 21st century education in Westport.

Other important matters like the Downtown Plan and Saugatuck Transit-Oriented Development involved meaningful public outreach and various charettes, surveys and meetings to gauge public opinion. There was nothing like that last year.

Timing (“get CMS back as quickly as possible”) was prioritized over thoughtful consideration of all options available to us. The Board of Education did begin a process to explore options, but this was quickly circumvented. As a result, we did not plan for the future. We simply opted to re-create the past.

So what has changed?

First, let’s recognize that we have time to develop a thoughtful solution. Middle school at Bedford is working well. With the improvements of additional teaching and office spaces, a 9-period day and a merged student population, students are thriving.

We are no longer in the time crunch we thought we were in. We have the flexibility to take the time necessary to decide the best path forward in terms of design, budget and vision.

Bedford Middle School currently houses every 6th, 7th and 8th grader in town.

Second, as is becoming increasingly obvious, our demographics no longer easily support the choice to maintain 2 middle schools. Moreover, the work of the Board of Ed and the many maps circulated by their demographer make clear that while some redistricting plans may create parity in the middle schools in terms of balanced enrollment, it comes at great cost to our elementary schools.

At the elementary school level, these plans create immense disruption. They lead to dramatic under- and over-utilization of various schools. No simple re-balancing solution on the table achieves all of the criteria set forth by the Board of Education.

This was not understood by most residents — or even many elected officials — until quite recently.

Third, the CMS Taskforce under the strong leadership of Don O’Day has done a fine job of researching the cost to repair CMS and managing a complicated process. My call to rethink our path is in no way a criticism of their important work.

In fact, they can concurrently continue their process while as a town we mull whether we want to actually repair CMS.

Construction has not yet begun at CMS, so sunk costs are minimal. Before we decide as a town that we want to spend millions of dollars repairing a circa-1965 building, let’s confirm that the cost will be limited to $32 million.

Let’s also figure out our tipping point. What if the cost to repair is $35 million. What if it’s $45 million?

I propose we take advantage of all the new information, and reconsider the path we are taking. Let’s take a thoughtful look at all the options: continuing on the current path, building a new state-of-the-art middle school, or creating one spectacular unified middle school for the entire district.

One unified middle school campus — with an addition designed in concert with our educators and administrators — has many advantages:

1. Every middle school student will be educated in a modern space, thoughtfully designed for the team-teaching method and reflective of our needs in 2020 and beyond.

2. A unified middle school will drive all our resources to a centralized campus, where our talented educators can collaborate and innovate across grade cohorts and areas of study.

3. A unified middle school will resolve our demographic issues for a long time, without a disruptive redistricting to achieve the optimal balance.

4. We can look as a community to the current CMS site to create a resource for all our schools: a modern computer lab to provide for coding and programming classes, a science lab for our Science Olympians, and indoor fields for our athletes.  We can dream big.

The Planning & Zoning Commission invites every stakeholder to a special planning session to discuss this important topic on October 22 (7 p.m., Town Hall).

Public comment from all Westport residents is welcome and encouraged. If you want to leave a written comment, please comment here — in the sunlight where everyone can see — and not on private Facebook groups that have segmented us into elementary school parents, middle school parents and everyone else. (Click “Comments” below — and use full, real names.)

The P&Z staff will ensure that every comment left on this public forum is included in the public record. Whether you favor a unified middle school, a newly built state-of-the-art CMS or a rehabbed CMS, please voice your thoughts.

The CMS Taskforce has not yet begun to spend the full $32 million. It’s time to be deliberative, not impulsive. There is a lot of new information to consider regarding demographics, redistricting and the benefits of a unified middle school.

This is a huge expenditure for our town. It will impact everyone’s taxes.

Let’s be sure it reflects how the public envisions our middle school institutions over the next 3 decades.

Facing Up To A Swastika: Jesup Green Event Set For Today

Longtime Westport activist Darcy Hicks writes:

Tonight at 5 p.m., on Jesup Green, we will come together to define who we are as a community, in a struggling country.

Anti-Semitic incidents have been increasing in America at an alarming rate. The Anti-Defamation League says that in 2017, anti-Semitic incidents jumped 57% over the previous year, and 2018 showed the third-highest rate of incidents on record. This year is faring no better.

Westport — as we know from last week — is not immune.

The discovery of a swastika, carved into a bathroom wall, has challenged our community. The question is how we deal with that challenge.

We need to focus not on “who?” but “how?” How did the plague of hatred in this struggling nation manage to puncture our town? Whether the perpetrator was a white nationalist (unlikely), or looking for attention (more likely), the ball is in our court.

And all Westporters are on that court, whether we want to be there or not. Our response matters.

According to Steve Ginsburg, director of ADL Connecticut — and a Westport resident — “The measure of that school, or that community, is not what happened there, but how they respond to it, and what they did to try to prepare people and prevent it from happening.”

True to that statement, Westport schools have handled the incident swiftly and expertly, with the collaboration of the Westport Police, the ADL, and the support of our elected officials.

Education is always the key. But education should not be limited to school grounds and school hours.

How much do you know about your child’s understanding of the symbol of a swastika? How do they feel when they see one? Afraid? Numb? And are there other forms of intolerance — to race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity — occurring in our kids’ lives? How can we help?

Tonight at 5 on Jesup Green, we come together as a community to learn from those who know how to begin answering these questions.

By this effort — not the hate crime — we will be measured.

(Speakers include Ginsburg; Lauren Francese, K-6 social coordinator, Westport Public Schools; Rev. John Morehouse, Unitarian Church of Westport, and Conor Pfeifer, Triangle Community Center. For more information, click here.)

Movie Theater Downtown: It’s Remarkable!

The Westport Public Schools do a wonderful job providing opportunities to students with disabilities.

But at age 21, they age out. Meanwhile, the state has cut funding for day programs for adults with disabilities.

A group of parents has a goal: increase employment for area men and women with physical and intellectual disabilities.

The result: a remarkable idea.

The parents were inspired by the Prospector Theater in Ridgefield. It shows first-run films; 65% of employees are people with disabilities.

Meanwhile, a different group of Westporters worked for years, trying to open a theater downtown. They had a name — Westport Cinema Initiative — but no building and little funding.

Stacie Curran and Marina Derman — longtime Westporters with sons with disabilities — met with Doug Tirola. As a Staples High School graduate, current resident and president of documentary producer 4th Row Films, he was perfectly positioned to help.

The 2 groups merged. Now they’re poised to bring a theater to Westport. It will train and employ people with disabilities.

And — in a brilliant homage to Westport’s history and arts heritage — it will be called the Remarkable Theater.

The name — as Tirola, Curran, Derman and thousands of others know — honors the Remarkable Book Shop. That’s the longtime, beloved and still-mourned store at the corner of Main Street and Parker Harding Plaza (now the still-closed Talbots).

Curran came up with the brilliant name. Mark Kramer and Wendy Kramer Posner — whose mother Esther owned the shop — are “thrilled, honored and completely supportive,” says Derman.

“It’s a reminder of a time when downtown was homey, friendly, warm and fun,” Curran adds. “And people with disabilities are remarkable.”

Remarkably too, today is National Arthouse Theater Day. That’s exactly the type of theater the Remarkable will be.

Tirola calls it a “state-of-the-art, independent arthouse theater.” It will show independent and older films. Think of New York’s Film Forum, he says.

You’ll still go to a multiplex for the latest “Star Wars” sequel. But the Remarkable will be the place to go for many intriguing films. On Veterans Day, for example, it might screen a series of historical movies. If a famous director dies, it’s flexible enough to quickly mount a tribute.

Among the Westporters working on the Remarkable Theater project: Front (from left): Joanna Borner, Marina Derman, Deirdre Teed, Stacie Curran. Rear: Doug Tirola, Kristin Ehrlich, Angie Wormser, State Representative Jonathan Steinberg, Diane Johnson.

The theater will be a venue for talkbacks too. Other groups — particularly schools — will be invited to use the space.

Tirola, Curran, Derman and others have already secured a $50,000 grant from the state Department of Developmental Services. Funds will pay for equipment and movie screenings.

Pop-up screenings could begin before the theater opens. Organizers hope to break ground 2 years from now.

As for where it will be: They’d love a downtown site. They’ve begun talking with landlords, looking for options.

After several years, there’s real movement for a movie theater in Westport. The curtain is rising on this remarkable story.

(For more information — or to help — click here, or email marina@remarkabletheater.org).

ADL Helps Make Staples A Safer, Braver Place

Everyone knows about “safe spaces”: the rooms in a school or college where students can discuss issues openly, free from epithets, putdowns or other attacks.

That’s important, of course. A new program at Staples High School aims to provide a special place to connect, feel comfortable and grow.

But “Connections” — the innovative, twice-weekly project that will keep small groups of students connected with staff members throughout their 4 years on campus — hopes to go one step further.

The goal is to create “brave spaces.” That’s where teenagers and teachers can do more than discuss bias incidents like swastikas or hurtful comments.

It’s where they can think critically about them, learn from them — and learn how to talk about them, openly and honestly and directly.

“Connections” helps students reflect on what it means to be a community member making a difference. It was in the works before Stafford Thomas was named principal, but he has embraced the concept and put the full weight of his position behind it.

Educators — even at Staples — have not always been trained in how to lead discussions of bias and hate. They may feel uncomfortable, and worry that students may feel uncomfortable too.

Marji Lipshez-Shapiro knows those feelings well. “It takes a lot for people to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and uncomfortable with what can be too uncomfortable,” says the deputy director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Connecticut chapter.

She’s spent nearly 30 years running professional development workshops for teachers, through the ADL. For “Connections,” she designed a special one — much more targeted to the program, to Westport as a community, and to Staples as a school.

“Every school has bias incidents,” she notes. “Too often the district doesn’t want anyone to hear about them. They sweep them under the rug, and they become ‘lumpy carpets.'”

Swastikas and other symbols pop up in bathroom stalls. Racist, misogynistic and homophobic comments are made in hallways, cafeterias and before class.

The ADL program used case studies: actual examples from schools nationwide. They could happen here too.

“We want educators to have tools, to be proactive and reactive,” Lipshez-Shapiro says. “The ‘Connections’ discussions are about prevention and intervention. When there is an incident, we want everyone to learn from it. After all, this is school!”

Lauren Francese — the Westport Public Schools’ 6-12 social studies coordinator, who helped design the workshop — says that it will help all teachers talk about challenging topics, in the classroom as well as during “Connections.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s Connecticut director Steve Ginsburg (a Westport resident) and Marji Lipshez-Shapiro (3rd from right) join Staples High School principal Stafford Thomas (far right) for “brave spaces” training.

Lipshez-Shapiro agrees. What happens, she asks rhetorically, when a teacher overhears a boy tell a friend he’d take a girl to the prom “only if she puts a paper bag on her head”?

“When do you challenge that statement? When do you not say anything?” she says. “Silence is what does harm. But lots of people are afraid of saying the ‘wrong’ thing, or coming down too hard.”

The ADL workshop gave teachers tools to begin nuanced conversations. That way, Lifshez-Shapiro says, they can help students “not just stand up, be brave and say ‘Don’t say that,’ but go beyond.”

In the Staples session, she asked educators to think about their own favorite teachers. What qualities did they have?

And when they were in school themselves, she continued, how did you feel like you belonged? How did you feel when you did not belong?

She also asked teachers to share their own best practices. “These are gifted professionals,” she notes. “They’re already doing excellent things.”

“Every high school needs to do this,” Lipshez-Shapiro says.

Thomas — the new principal — agrees.

He calls the training “timely and especially helpful in preparing our teachers and ultimately our students in navigating brave conversations in a responsible and, most importantly, productive manner.

“It was extremely well received, based on the feedback data. I believe this training and continued assistance from the ADL in the future will go a long way to cultivate a caring and nurturing school community.” He echoed those sentiments at Back to School Night.

“Our teachers were really engaged and energized by these conversations,” Francese adds. “They’re the starting point for making Staples a safer — and braver — space.”

Adam J. Lewis Academy Thrives

Adam J. Lewis grew up poor, in the Bronx. But he seized the educational opportunities he was given — scholarships to Dalton, then Hamilton College — and made a great, successful and fulfilling life for himself.

Then, on September 11, 2001 he was killed at his World Trade Center desk.

In his memory, the people who loved Adam — his wife and many friends — built a superbly fitting tribute.

Adam J. Lewis

Adam J. Lewis

Patty Lewis and Westporter Julie Mombello — friends from their days working together at Greens Farms Academy — knew the importance of pre-school education.

In Westport, pre-school — where children explore the world using all their senses, and learn letters, numbers, scientific observation, music, art, language, problem-solving, cooperation, coordination and many other skills — is a given. That’s far less true in Bridgeport, where the cost of preschool can be daunting.

Patty and Julie vowed to do what they could to give little children just a few miles from Westport the same advantages their own kids had.

The Adam J. Lewis Pre-School was born. And — despite daunting obstacles including fundraising, site selection and city bureaucracy — it has thrived since opening in 2013.

From its start — with just 12 children — it has grown steadily. This year there are 70 students, in pre-K3, pre-K4, kindergarten and 1st grade.

Last year the school relocated to a downtown Bridgeport campus. Its new name is the Adam J. Lewis Academy. They’ll add one grade each year. Ultimately they’ll serve 150 students, as a pre-K through grade 5 independent school.

The goal is to provide children from every background with an intellectually, socially and personally transformative educational experience. Students will leave empowered, and ready to make a difference in the world.

Westporters continue to play a key role in the Adam J. Lewis Academy. Lee Bollert is a longtime board member; 2nd Selectman Jen Tooker joined 4 years ago. Mombello remains a driving force.

Saba Pina — an original teacher 7 years ago — is still there. A new 1st grade instructor came from the Greens Farms Academy internship program.

Many other Westporters help too, volunteering their time and donating funds. (Fully 100% of school families receive need-based financial assistance.)

9/11 was one of the darkest days in American history. Out of those ashes though, a wonderful story of hope and dreams continues to rise.

(For more information on the Adam J. Lewis Academy — and to help — click here.)

An early class of very happy Adam J. Lewis preschoolers.

If You’re Thinking Of Living In Westport …

… then this Sunday’s New York Times has a story for you.

We’re the subject of this coming weekend’s Real Estate section feature. Sometimes a neighborhood is featured; other times, a village or — like us — entire town.

The piece begins with a story about a British couple with 3 young daughters. They rented in Old Greenwich, but found it very “finance-driven. They wanted to be part of “a real community.”

The New York Times map of Westport.

Westport — with its “scenic waterfront, proximity to New York City and variety of restaurants, as well as its international contingent and cosmopolitan atmosphere” — offered “ nice balance of diversity, understated successful people and enough of a European vibe.”

1st Selectman Jim Marpe then touts Westport’s “global mind set,” along with the arts, education, abundant recreational facilities and — according to the Times — “2 downtowns.”

One of our downtowns serves as the main image for the New York Times profile of Westport. (Photo/Jane Beiles for New York Times)

“The lifestyle here caters to a range of interests,” Marpe says. “And to high expectations.”

Marpe notes, “We live in a place that dates back to the very start of this country. There is a sense of history here, but we are firmly focused on the future.”

The rest of the piece includes information on Westport’s geography and neighborhoods (I learned that there’s an area known as “In-Town,” which is “within walking distance of the main downtown”); the housing mix (there are 8,818 single-family houses, 104 multifamily homes, 546 condos in 21 complexes, 292 rental apartments in residential and mixed-use buildings, 4 affordable-housing complexes with 217 units, and 1 building with 36 age-restricted cooperative apartments); the price range ($350,000 to $22.5 million, with homes under $1 million selling fastest and waterfront properties listed at a premium).

An aerial view of the Saugatuck River.(Photo/Jane Beiles for New York Times)

There’s also this, headlined “The Vibe”:

From “The Twilight Zone” and “Bewitched” to the current sitcom “American Housewife,” Westport has long been cast as an affluent suburban backdrop for television. Stereotypes aside, the town blends a laid-back ambience with year-round cultural offerings, high-end shopping and dining, and a slew of outdoor activities.

“With roots as an artists’ colony, Westport remains a creative hub,” The Times continues. The Westport Country Playhouse, Community Theatre, Levitt Pavilion, Westport Writers’ Workshop, Library, and MoCA Westport (formerly the Westport Arts Center) are all mentioned.

Schools get mentioned too, including the district’s #1 ranking in the state (and 28th in the country) by Niche, and Staples’ 7th place state rating by U.S. News and World Report.

Girls soccer: one of the many great activities at Staples High School. (Photo by Jane Beiles for New York Times)

Finally, there’s a section on the “64- to 90-minute” commute (though Marpe notes that more people now come to Westport for work than leave), and a bit of history of the Minute Man monument.

It’s a very fair and balanced picture of our town.

It’s just a week after Labor Day. But clearly, every realtor in Westport has just been handed an early Christmas or Hanukkah gift.

(Click here for the full New York Times story.)