Category Archives: Education

Photo Challenge #242

I could say the heat got to me. But it wasn’t that hot last Sunday.

When Beth DeVoll sent an image for consideration as a photo challenge — it showed weather-beaten wood, a bit of brick, and the number “1” — I thought “aha!”

I’d already used the weather vane on that roof as an early Photo Challenge. This was a nice view of another part of the building.

In fact — as Elaine Marino pointed out seconds after I posted it — I’d already used a very similar photo, a couple of years earlier. She’d guessed the location that time too. (Click here for the shot.)

To be technical though, this time Elaine called it the Westport Housing Authority office. That’s actually #5 Canal Street. Morley Boyd said was the Aquarion pumping station. That’s #15.

James Weisz not only got the location, he identified it correctly as the Westport Public Schools’ facilities department office. Kathie Motes Bennewitz knew that too — though she inexplicably called it “2 Canal Street.”

Also correct, with the address of 1 Canal Street: Kati Krizsan.

This week’s Photo Challenge is a bottle opener. (Kids — ask your parents!) I’ve lived in Westport my whole life, and never noticed this. But it’s in a very public place, which photographer Matt Murray pointed out to me.

If you know where you’d see this, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Matt Murray)

The Saugatuck: A Cooperative Thrives On Bridge Street

Westport does not have a nickname. But if we did, we might be called “The Land of Lawsuits.”

Westporters like to sue. The town won a lawsuit to prohibit construction of a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island (yay!). Neighbors lost a suit to prohibit construction of the Compo Beach playground (yay!).

Neighbors also threatened to prohibit Positano restaurant from putting a few tables on an outdoor patio near Old Mill Beach. As a result, the restaurant moved. A private home now rises in its place (boo!).

Lost in the mists of time is another lawsuit. In 1985, 64 residents of Bridge Street and nearby roads sued to prevent the conversion of what was then Saugatuck Elementary School into multi-unit housing.

Three years later, a settlement was reached. The agreement limited the project to 36 owner-occupied, age-restricted units.

(Photo courtesy of SmartMLS Inc.)

Today, The Saugatuck is a true success story. One of Westport’s most affordable residences lies a short walk from thriving Saugatuck Center and train station, and not much further from Compo Beach.

The attractively renovated red brick building graces Bridge Street between South Compo and Imperial Avenue.

Residents have formed a tight-knit, active community. It’s hard to imagine the neighborhood without it, in fact.

None of that could have been predicted in 1984. Westport’s school population was declining. Burr Farms Elementary was torn down. Hillspoint Elementary turned into daycare. Bedford El became Town Hall. Greens Farms Elementary School housed the Westport Arts Center.

When the lawsuit was settled, plans were drawn up to convert the school that generations of Saugatuck residents attended. It dated back to the early 20th century, when the original wooden building was called the Bridge Street School.

It took several years, but 17 1-bedroom and 19 2-bedroom apartments were built in what were once classrooms, the library and auditorium. Because Saugatuck had been a classic elementary school, each unit features large windows and high ceilings.

Units at The Saugatuck feature large windows.

Those surroundings are familiar to at least one current resident — and several others in the past. They attended Saugatuck El as kids. Living there now is very different — but also quite familiar.

Joe Veno has lived in The Saugatuck for more than 20 years. As a youngster, he walked to the school from his Franklin Street home. He played basketball in the playground — now a parking lot — and baseball in what is now a quiet back yard.

The Saugatuck is a cooperative. The Town of Westport owns the land, and holds a 99-year lease on the property. But the Cooperative owns the building.

Members must be at last 62 years old (at least one, in the case of married couples), able to live independently, and their income must be below the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority’s guidelines for homeowners at 80% of area median income. Importantly, there are no limits or restrictions on assets.

To ensure affordability, the resale price is linked to the average increase in income for individuals living in the area.

Three units are currently for sale. A 2-bedroom, 1 bath apartment is listed at $222,282; 2 1-bedroom units have listing prices of $179,800 and $168,300. (Inquiries can be directed to the property manager: 203-226-1570.)

Those are far below other Westport prices, because of the original affordable housing prices implemented in the 1990s, and the strict resale cap/formula that limits how high prices can climb.

A view of The Saugatuck’s back yard.

A cooperative’s rules are are more stringent than in a condo, particularly in areas like rentals. Saugatuck units must be their owner’s primary residence.

One of the great perks of The Saugatuck is Shaun Cullen, a part-time super.

Residents include longtime Westporters who have downsized, and no longer want the responsibilities of a home and yard.

Other residents have moved to The Saugatuck from elsewhere, to be close to their children and grandchildren in Westport.

Most Saugatuck residents are retired, from careers including Wall Street, Madison Avenue, refuse collection and tile installation. At least 2 — an accountant and a contractor — are currently working.

The vibe is friendly. Neighbors chat easily, in the community room, mail room and hallways.

The cooperative is governed by an executive board. They and other residents organize a variety of activities: movie nights, supper at the beach, a jazz keyboardist and Labor Day picnic.

A recent party in the community room.

It’s hard to imagine Westport today without the Compo Beach playground — or to visualize the town, had a nuclear power plant been built on Cockenoe.

It’s just as hard to imagine what Bridge Street would be like without The Saugatuck. How great that the neighbors who sued more than 30 years ago cooperated in a settlement that led to a co-op.

FUN FACTS: 1) During the Depression, the WPA commissioned Westport artist Robert Lambdin to paint a 7-foot high, 20-foot long mural: “Pageant of Juvenile Literature.” For years, it hung just inside the main entrance to Saugatuck Elementary School.

In 1992, when the town finally began to convert the old Saugatuck El to senior housing, the mural was slated for demolition.

A group of art-lovers — including Mollie Donovan, Eve Potts and Judy Gault Sterling — set out to save the work. Within a month they raised $40,000. That was enough to remove the mural, conserve it, and reinstall it at its new home: The Westport Library. 

It stayed there for more than 2 decades. When the transformation project was announced, and a suitable spot could not be found for the work, Westport arts curator Kathy Motes Bennewitz and members of the Westport Public Art Collection searched for a large wall, with plenty of foot traffic.

They — with architect Scott  Springer — found it, at Staples High School. Now, the enormous, eye-catching mural hangs proudly near the auditorium lobby, just a few feet from the Staples library.

2) When Saugatuck was an elementary school, Pete Seeger — at the time, blacklisted as a folk singer — performed on its auditorium stage. 

Photo Challenge #240

Last week’s Photo Challenge was a bit of a curveball.

The image showed a sign: “No Little League Parking Beyond This Point.” In the background was a brick building, and some steps. (Click here for the photo.)

The field behind Town Hall! most readers responded.

A great guess. But wrong.

This sign can be seen at The Saugatuck Cooperative — the apartment complex on Bridge Street, between South Compo and Imperial Avenue.

Michael Calise and Chip Stephens — former Little Leaguers, back in the day — knew that before it was converted to housing, the building was the site of the original Saugatuck Elementary School. Darcy Sledge — who I don’t think played Little League here — also knew the correct answer. (In its earlier, wooden incarnation it was called the Bridge Street School.)

The playground and most athletic fields fell into disuse when Saugatuck El closed, back in the 1980s. But Little League continued to use the small diamond there up until a few years ago, even after the school was re-imagined as apartments.

Fred Cantor — who took the photo — is a longtime sports fan (and former Staples soccer player). Play ball!

Maggie Gomez provides this week’s Photo Challenge. If you know where in Westport you’d see this, click “Comments” below.

(Photo/Maggie Gomez)

Project Concern: 40 Years Later, Memories Live On

Eve Potts is a longtime Westporter. She’s been active in the arts, history, education and much more. Today, she shares a special encounter with “06880” readers.

Those of us who have been in Westport a long time remember vividly when there was a great deal of discussion (not all of it positive) about inviting a group of youngsters from Bridgeport to join classrooms in Westport. The program was known as Project Concern.

Over 40 years have passed since those first eager kids jumped off a bus from Bridgeport and were enrolled in Westport elementary schools. My 2 daughters were in the lower grades at Burr Farms. They were excited to welcome one of the girls, Anjetta Redmond, to stay at our house overnight each Tuesday so she could be part of the special early morning music rehearsals.

Eve Potts painted Anjetta Redmond’s portrait 40 years ago, when she was a guest in their home.

A couple of months ago — after all these years — we had a wonderful reunion with Anjetta Redmond Holloway and her close friend, Lisa Jones Mendenhall, who often joined Anjetta at our house overnight.

The conversation was lively. Besides getting reacquainted and sharing photos of kids, grandkids and husbands, we talked a bit about their Westport experience.

Both talked frankly — and enthusiastically — about what a great experience it had been for them. They were emphatic that coming to Westport, and learning about this other world, had impacted their lives.

We asked how they were treated back in Bridgeport after they enrolled here. They said there was teasing, and some pretty derisive comments from some of their friends.

Both women insisted that they honestly never felt any prejudice from their Westport schoolmates, even as talk of recalling the Westport Board of Education chair swirled and became reality here in Westport.

There was a lot of reminiscing — about funny happenings, and about Lisa’s brother Leonard who had been accepted into the program because an older sister had suggested it would be good for him. Leonard was a favorite at Burr Farms School for his incredible ability to walk on his hands and do other acrobatic feats.

The women mentioned the treats that were available in Westport, like Baskin- Robbins, that weren’t available in Bridgeport. Amy remembered how her Bridgeport friends brought Now & Laters — candy not available in Westport — to school to sell to kids here.

It was a wonderful morning: very loving, very happy, and very nostalgic.

Both Anjetta and Lisa have had very successful careers and marriages. Anjetta has had a long career at People’s Bank, and is a research representative. Lisa, who also worked for years at People’s Bank, is now employed by the Board of Education in Bridgeport. She is involved in discussions about the validity, balance and fairness of magnet school policies.

Here’s what Lisa posted on Facebook when she got home:

OK. So the year is 1971. There’s a program called Project Concern being introduced to inner city communities. Myself, along with my friends Anjetta Holloway and Wanda Thompson-Mosley, to name a few, were allowed the opportunity to attend.

We joined Brownies, then Girl Scouts. We played the flute and clarinets, mastered cartwheels and splits, and went to sleepaway camp. Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips was good eating (no Arthur Treacher’s in Bridgeport), and we were completely fascinated with Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors.

Fast forward. It’s 2019 and you receive a friend request from Amy Potts. Hmmm. Amy and Abby from Westport — could it be?  Yes, it was, and this morning after 40-plus years we met for breakfast with Amy, her mom, and her auntie.

What a great time we had reminiscing of how great life was way back then. Life is good. Always cherish each moment.

(For more “06880” stories on Project Concern, click here, here and here.)

Backpacks For A Cause

Back-to-school shopping is seldom the grinning, hand-holding experience portrayed in TV and print ads.

backpacksKids worry they’ll have the “wrong” notebooks or pens.  Parents fear they’ll forget something important, and their kid’s teacher will think they’re idiots.

Other Westporters have a deeper, more realistic fear:  They can’t pay for everything their kids need.

Fortunately, Westport’s Human Services Department is on the case.

Its annual Back to School program, offering supplies to eligible families, is underway.

The program provides new backpacks and gift cards (Staples Office Supply, Walmart, Target) to income-eligible families with children in the Westport schools. Cash donations to the program are welcome too.

Last year, 181 boys and girls received assistance. Director of Human Services Elaine Daignault estimated the number as equivalent to 10 classrooms of kids.

“A growing number of Westport families face the burden of financial hardship,” she notes.

“Back-to-school time can be particularly stressful on a family budget. Thanks to generous Westporters, our department provides discreet assistance to families who want to give their children the best possible start to the school year.

“Parents can share in the excitement of back-to-school shopping with their children. And donors can be confident that 100% of their donations benefit their Westport neighbors.”

The program depends entirely on the generosity of individuals and organizations.

There’s a new online donation portal: click here. When you get to “Seasonal program name if applicable,” click “Back to School program” from the drop-down menu.

Tax-deductible monetary donations of any amount made payable to “Family Programs Fund” (memo: “Backpacks”), as well as gift cards, can be sent to: Human Services, 110 Myrtle Ave. (Town Hall), Westport CT 06880.

New backpacks and gift cards can be dropped off at the department offices, Room 200 in Town Hall, Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., now through August 12.

To find out if you qualify for assistance, call 203-341-1050, or email emilton@westportct.gov.

Meet Stafford Thomas: Staples’ New Principal

Stafford Thomas’ life is filled with intriguing twists and turns.

But if Stanford University had not lost his grad school application, he might never have ended up at Brown — and gone into education.

And he undoubtedly would not have landed in Westport, where he is just settling in as Staples High School’s new principal.

Thomas spoke easily and at length the other day about the journey that brought him from St. Croix to North Avenue. He’s got plenty of time to figure out where he’ll take Staples — he’s just starting to meet with administrators and staff members, and students don’t return until late August — but much of what he’s done in his life had led to this point.

Even if he didn’t realize it as it happened.

Stafford Thomas, with an autographed photo of Don Mattingly.

Thomas’ mother taught reading in the Virgin Islands, through the Vista national service program. That’s where she met his father, a native of Dominica who ran a driving school. (“I got behind the wheel of a car when I was 5,” Thomas laughs. “And alone at 8.”)

His mother moved back to the States to teach in a private school. Thomas spent his tween and teen years in Manhattan, Queens and Long Island.

Georgetown University wanted him for football. But he was used to getting up at 3:30 a.m. to work construction, so he switched to crew (and early morning rowing practices) there.

After a study abroad year in Florence, Thomas interned on Capitol Hill for the non-voting congressional representative from the US Virgin Islands.

Many Georgetown grads were going into consulting. Thomas did not see himself on that path. His mother — a career teacher — advised him not to go into education. He applied to Stanford’s graduate school for public policy. But he also applied to Brown’s Master of Arts in Teaching program.

Stanford misplaced his forms. So 2 weeks after graduation, Thomas was in Providence. Part of his coursework included teaching and coaching basketball at Lincoln School, a private institution for girls.

Stafford Thomas addressed the Board of Education last month, after his appointment as Staples High School’s new principal.

That Brown degree led to a job at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York. The staff was young, and he was mentored well.

The next steps in Thomas’ professional development included a dual program at Boston College. He took law classes during the day, and studied educational leadership at night. Highlights included studying the achievement gap in Brookline public schools, a practicum with the principal of a K-8 Catholic school, and a stint at a Shanghai teachers college.

“I was busy,” Thomas says with understatement.

His new degrees led to a position as associate director of policy for Providence mayor (now Rhode Island congressman) David Cicciline. A chance meeting there led to an offer to work with a renowned principal at Barrington Middle School.

Thomas was all of 26 years old.

He learned leadership skills there, and at 30 was handed more responsibilities as an administrator at Mystic Middle School. He worked with talented department heads, and helped start unified arts and sports programs.

Staples principal Stafford Thomas shows off his Wrecker hat.

Eight years ago, Hillcrest Middle School in Trumbull hired Thomas as principal.

This year, the Connecticut Association of Schools honored it as Middle School of the Year. The award noted that students, faculty, administrators and parents combined to create a community known for innovative teaching strategies, after-school programs and high academic achievement.

Middle school, Thomas notes, is often a difficult time for tweens and young teenagers. His goal was to make the school comfortable (“like a family”) for students, staff and parents. He made sure that staff members went beyond simply knowing students. “Connections are so important,” he says. “It’s all about communication and openness.”

Thomas brings those experiences — as a team leader, communicator and innovator — to Staples. “I can’t imagine a better position in secondary school administration anywhere,” he says.

His new school is esteemed for its academic, art, athletic and extracurricular achievements. But pressures are strong. With students spending their final 4 years there (and at home) before heading into the real world, there’s plenty of emotion and uncertainty. Thomas is mindful of the need to make high school a comfortable, welcoming place for all.

“This is a home away from home, for students and staff,” he says. “We can’t control everything. But we can control what goes on here. We can do all we can to make this a positive, happy time.”

After his appointment was announced, Stafford Thomas met with staff members who came to the high school to welcome their new boss.

He’ll spend this summer meeting with administrators, staff and community members. He’ll ask what works for them, what’s needed, and how he can support them.

(He’ll also spend time with his wife — a kindergarten teacher in Trumbull — and 3 1/2-year-old son. He’s an avid tennis player, and just stopped playing softball.)

“The field of education is about people,” Thomas says. “Communication and transparency are big components of dealing with people. From there, you get to a position of trust.

“Everyone may not agree with every decision. But people need to know how a decision was made. That’s worked well for me in the past.”

He’s been in Westport just a few days. But he knows the town’s expectations are high. “People here want the best for everything — including education. They support the budget, the programs, the facilities. We owe it to them to give them the best.”

Everyone at Staples should have high expectations too, he says. “I’m glad that’s where we are. We should be on the cutting edge. I look forward to all the support and passion. People are very positive.”

Stafford Thomas is too.

And in August, the Staples community will be positively excited to welcome their principal to his new home.

Remembering Vivian Perlis

Vivian Perlis — a longtime Westporter, noted musician and transformational musicologist — died last week. She was 91.

Perlis was a renowned harp player with a master’s in music history from the University of Michigan when she began studying for a doctorate at Columbia University in the early 1960s.

Living in Westport with 3 small children — her husband, Dr. Sandy Perlis, was a psychiatrist here — she was “turned down flat” when she asked for flexibility in her studies.

The Perlis family (clockwise from top left): Mike, Sandy, Vivian, Lauren, Jonathan.

“I could either orphan my children or give up the Ph.D.,” she told the New York Times in 1997. “That would never happen today.”

Instead, she became a research librarian at the Yale School of Music. While working on the Charles Ives collection, she conducted more than 60 interviews with the Danbury composer’s former colleagues.

She “faced disdain from traditional musicologists who thought recorded interviews would be merely anecdotal, overly subjective and prone to factual inconsistencies,” Perlis’ Times obituary says.

But she went on to found Yale University’s Oral History of American Music. The project — described by the Times as “an invaluable archive of audio and video interviews” — includes 3,000 interviews with figures like Aaron Copland and Duke Ellington.

Vivian Perlis interviewing (at right) Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

Perlis directed the program for more than 40 years. She also wrote several books. For many years, she was a harpist with the New Haven Symphony.

The Perlises moved to Westport from Stockbridge, Massachusetts. She worked at Tanglewood, and her husband was studying at the Austin Riggs Institute.

“The town’s reputation as a mecca for artists and writers appealed to both of them,” says her son Mike.

She was very involved in Friends of Music, the local organization championed by Ruth Steinkraus Cohen. She played with the Westport Madrigal Singers, and contributed to holiday events, Staples High School Orphenians and Staples Players.

She was also active in the Westport Arts Center.

Vivian Perlis in 2005. (Photo by C.M. Glover/New York Times)

Her son Mike recalls Coleytown Elementary School principal Lynn Odell announcing “a very special treat” one day. To his surprise, it was his mother playing Christmas carols on her harp.

He remembers too “the great pleasure of falling asleep listening to her practicing ‘Greensleeves’ into the night.”

Vivian Perlis was part of a cohort of talented, well-educated and energetic women who overcame barriers to achieve professional and personal success. They helped mold Westport into the artistic, volunteer-driven town it is today.

In addition to her son Mike, she is survived by her daughter Lauren Perlis Ambler; another son Jonathan; her brother Irwin Goldberger, and 5 grandchildren. Her husband — a professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine — died in 1994.

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

Staples Graduation: See It Now!

Missed Staples High School’s 132nd commencement exercises on Tuesday?

Or just missed that moment when your favorite graduate got his or her 15-seconds-of-fame diploma?

No problem!

Retired video production teacher Jim Honeycutt was in the fieldhouse, filming the entire ceremony.

It was a model of efficiency: just 1 hour and 45 minutes for faculty and students to walk in, a couple of choir numbers, a few quick speeches, 475 graduates to march across the stage, cap-tossing, and exit.

Still, even though it’s all here, you don’t have to watch every second.

Click below for Jim’s video. Including the fast-forward button.

Stafford Thomas Named Staples’ New Principal

Forty strong candidates applied to be Staples High School’s next principal.

But after winnowing the field to 6 men and women, and then 2, the decision — first by a committee of parents, educators and community members, and tonight by the Board of Education — was unanimous.

Stafford Thomas Jr. is the new leader of Westport’s high school.

He’s got sparkling credentials.

Interim superintendent of schools Dr. David Abbey introduced Mr. Thomas at today’s Board of Ed meeting as “an exceptional leader (with) outstanding interpersonal and communication skills.”

New Staples principal Stafford Thomas shows off his new Wrecker hat.

He began his career as a social studies teacher at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York. After making a strong mark as an administrator in Barrington, Rhode Island and Mystic, Mr. Thomas was hired 8 years ago as principal of Trumbull’s Hillcrest Middle School.

This year, the Connecticut Association of Schools honored it as Middle School of the Year. The award noted that students, faculty, administrators and parents combined to create a community known for innovative teaching strategies, after-school programs and high academic achievement.

Mr. Thomas graduated from Georgetown University, where he rowed on the crew team. He earned a master’s of arts in education from Brown University, and a dual degree in law (juris doctor) and educational administration (M.Ed.) from Boston College.

In addition to Hillcrest, Mr. Thomas currently teaches courses in education law and finance, and advanced curriculum, at Sacred Heart University. He is also a member of the board of directors with the Connecticut Association of Schools.

Stafford Thomas addresses the Board of Education tonight in the Staples cafeteria…

Dr. Abbey calls Mr. Thomas “a highly knowledgeable, creative and resourceful leader — one who is well-respected by students, parents and staff.”

In brief remarks, the new principal smiled broadly. He said he feels “very excited and privileged. In the world of K-12 education, there is no better position than this.”

He looks forward to “starting this journey, at a school steeped in tradition. Go Wreckers!”

He continued to smile — and look forward — in a meeting with more than a dozen Staples teachers, who came to hear the announcement. He said, “My door is open.” They responded with applause.

Mr. Thomas succeeds James D’Amico, who heads north to his alma mater, New Fairfield High School, after 3 years at Staples’ helm. Mr. Thomas will begin his new, very important — and exciting — job on July 1.

… and then speaks with staff members who came to the high school to welcome their new boss.

Unsung Hero: Special Bus Driver Edition

A few hours ago, I posted this week’s Unsung Heroes story. Kudos to the traffic agents, who put up with all kinds of weather (and all kinds of drivers) to make sure our kids (and teachers) arrive at school safe and sound.

I just found out about another person who makes school special. Like the traffic cops, he’s not a Board of Education employee. But he’s as important as any educator.

Mario Viola drives bus routes for Coleytown and Saugatuck Elementary Schools. He truly goes “the extra mile.”

Grateful parent Lisa Newman says, “He tirelessly loves and cares for our children. He decorates his bus for holidays, shows up for their concerts, and keeps everyone excited for school.”

One day, Lisa’s son had an as-yet-undiscovered fever. He arrived home wearing Mario’s hat. The driver had given it to him to make him feel better. (“It worked!” she says).

Mario Viola, and Lisa Newman’s son.

School ended yesterday. But today, the kids on his routes enjoyed one last day with Mario.

He invited them all to Carvel for ice cream — and treated every one!

Mario Viola and his happy kids, at Carvel today.

Thanks, Mario Viola, for doing so many little things, for so long, for so many. Long after these youngsters forget most of what went on this year, they will remember your kindness, and you.

(Hat tip: Heather Sinclair)