Category Archives: Education

Mark Lassoff: A Framework For Technical Education

WWPT-FM — the Staples High School radio station — dates back to the 1960s. The first TV production class was held in 1982.

Both programs were flourishing in 1988, when Mark Lassoff moved to Westport. He still remembers guidance counselor Paul King proudly showing off the  studios, to the incoming freshman.

Lassoff had never thought about TV or radio. When he graduated 4 years later, he’d made a major mark in both. He also starred on the wrestling team.

After the University of Texas — where he majored in communications and computer science — Lassoff stayed in the Lone Star State. He worked for himself, training startup companies’ staffs about technology.

Ten years ago, he moved back to Connecticut.

Mark Lassoff

His timing was fortuitous. Almost immediately, Lassoff was diagnosed with colon cancer. Here, self-employed people could get health insurance. In Texas, that was impossible.

Though he’d traveled far and wide for work, cancer kept him close to home. So he developed online courses. He started with Introduction to JavaScript, then added more. He was one of the first entrepreneurs to sell $1 million worth of courses online.

Over the past decade though, the business model changed. As the barrier to entry got lower, more courses flooded the market.

Lassoff found a new platform in digital TV. Roku, Hulu, Amazon Fire — all seemed ripe to deliver technical education.

So Framework TV now offers tech ed streaming videos on the web, and online. The goal is to prepare people for jobs in the digital world.

And, Lassoff says proudly, it’s done “at prices people can afford.”

Mark Lassoff (upper right), as part of a Framework TV offering on Roku.

In fact, the first step — certification in HTML – is free. Users can move on to professional-level certification in areas like CSS and upgraded JavaScript for $10 a month. Then come deeper dives into web development, iOS and Android.

Lassoff recently opened a studio at the Palace Theater, the newly renovated and very funky South Norwalk space.

Among the Framework crew: video editor Jack Smith, a 2011 Staples grad. After taking TV and radio production at Staples — like Lassoff — he majored in digital media at Sacred Heart University.

Jack Smith, at work in Framework’s South Norwalk studio.

Today, anyone can access Mark Lassoff’s technical education courses, from any device anywhere in the world.

But he could not be happier providing it just a few miles from where his love affair with TV and technology all began: the Staples High School media lab.

Teachers Whip Up A Tasty Day

For years, the Westport Farmers’ Market and Staples High School’s culinary arts program have teamed up to bring great food to folks in need.

Once a month, students shop for provisions at the market. Then they prepare and serve a delicious, nutritious meal at the Gillespie Center.

Yesterday, many more people got in the act.

As part of Westport’s Professional Development Day, culinary students and staff helped interested teachers — from throughout the district — shop for ingredients, then create and serve a meal too.

The initiative was led by Staples’ 3 culinary instructors: Cecily Gans (owner of The Main Course Catering, and a member of the Farmers’ Market Board); Alison Milwe-Grace (owner of AMG Catering and Events), and Laura Wendt.

Staples’ 3 culinary instructors (from left): Laura Wendt, Alison Milwe-Grace, Cecily Gans.

The goal was to give educators in the district “an overview of the culinary program’s relationship with the community, the Farmers’ Market, the farmers who provide the raw product for meals the students create, and the challenges those students face as they put meals together,” Milwe-Grace says.

Gans adds, “Building relationships around local food, and connecting farmers to the recipients of the food they grow, catch or raise is fundamental to the Farmers’ Market mission.” The Professional Development Day event strengthened other relationships too: those between students and teachers.

The Farmers’ Market and culinary instructors are dedicated to helping students “grow” — as cooks and people.

Yesterday, those students turned the tables on some of our town’s top teachers.

Westport teachers cook for the community.

The World’s Greatest Snow Day Announcement. Ever.

Nearly every school district in Fairfield County is closed today, because of an impending snow and ice storm.

Most of them announced it last night, the old-fashioned way: via Twitter.

Greens Farms Academy took it one — okay, many — steps further.

Bob Whelan — the popular, fun-loving and very involved head of school — posted a video.

But not just any video. This one stars himself — and Westport’s own Mike Greenberg, host of ESPN’s “Get Up!” morning show.

Plus famous athletes Domonique Foxworth, Marcus Spears and Jalen Rose.

Trust me: This is the most entertaining 3 minutes you’ll see all day week month year.

Sure, it costs a lot of money to go to Greens Farms Academy.

But this video is priceless.

(Hat tips: Michelle Levi, Tom and Stacey Henske)

Westport’s Goal: A World Record Duck

Each spring, a giant inflatable duck floats in the Saugatuck River. It’s a fun, funny promotion for the Sunrise Rotary Club’s Great Duck Race.

This spring, he gets a companion.

On April 27, the 8th annual Maker Faire features a Great Duck Project. Attendees will try to set a world record for the largest 3D printed duck.

It’s “the first of its kind global crowd-sourcing science and art initiative,” says Mark Mathias. He’s the founder of the Westport’s Maker Faire, and a Sunrise Rotary member.

Artist’s rendering of the 6-foot 3D duck.

“Global” is no exaggeration. People from around the world are invited to 3D print and submit pieces. They’ll be combined into a 6-foot tall, 476-piece duck.

Mathias takes “around the world” literally. He reached out to the McMurdo station in Antarctica, to see if they’ll participate.

He even went galactic, asking if the International Space Station could print a part, then return it to earth on a supply mission. (Party-pooping NASA said no.)

But keeping the Great Duck Project terrestrial should be interesting enough.

Don’t have your own 3D printer? No sweat. There are plenty around, in libraries, schools and offices.

Once the world-record duck is printed, it won’t disappear. You can see it at the Memorial Day parade — and, of course, the Great Duck Race.

Quack!

(The Great Duck Project is a collaboration of the Westport Sunrise Rotary Club and Greens Farms Academy, which serves as the “technical lead.” For more information or to participate, click here. or contact Mark Mathias: mark@remarkablesteam.org; 203-226-1791.)

Just Alyson’s Luck: One River Art + Design Comes To Town

Growing up in Westport, Alyson Luck was surrounded by art.

Her mother enrolled her in kids’ and adult classes. She studied with Carol Young in that gifted instructor’s garage, then with Roe Halper in her noted studio.

“I was always part of an after-school group,” the 2000 Staples High School graduate recalls. “My art friends and I always had a place to go, and be together.”

At the University of Michigan she majored in art history, and discovered museum education. She earned a master’s in the field from Bank Street, then spent over a decade at New York’s Jewish Museum and Guggenheim. She managed teaching artists, worked with educators and directed family and teacher programs.

Alyson Luck (right) at work.

Along the way, she and her husband started a family. They moved to the suburbs — in fact, into the house she’d grown up in.

“Most people get stuck living in their parents’ home,” she says. “But I love this little cape. This was my dream.”

However, raising 2 small children meant she left her great job behind. She never thought she’d find anything like it here.

Not long ago though, she spotted a listing on Indeed for the One River School in Westport. You haven’t heard of it yet. But you will.

Founded in 2012 in Englewood, New Jersey — “one river” west of New York City — by former School of Rock CEO Matt Ross, One River School of Art + Design aims to transform art education in the US.

Alyson Luck

Drawing students of all ages — with classes less structured than traditional “art schools,” and featuring a contemporary focus — One River offers year-round programs, a flexible curriculum, and instruction in a variety of art forms.

Its 11th school opens soon in part of the former Bertucci’s restaurant, on the Post Road near the Sherwood Island connector. Its director: Alyson Luck.

She’s excited by Ross’ vision, and invigorated by the chance to bring One River to the newly refurbished, easily accessible and airy space. (“I realized I always studied art in a basement,” Alyson laughs.)

For younger artists, One River will provide project-based classes, taught by a contemporary artist. Adult classes are less structured.

The school will run year-round, not the traditional “semester” model.

The Bertucci’s space will include 3 classrooms, and a digital design lab. There’s a gallery too, for emerging artists to show their work. The target for opening is early May.

“We’re modernizing art education for everyone’s busy lives. This is not just for retirees!” Alyson says.

One River Art + Design will occupy part of the former Bertucci’s building.

Alyson envisions One River to be an integral part of the town’s art scene. She’s encouraged that although it’s not yet open, it’s already making waves.

She’s heard from a number of artists — and organizations like the Artists Collective of Westport — welcoming One River to town. “They tell me about the importance of arts to the community,” she says. “They don’t know I grew up here! I totally get it.”

Art has been Alyson Luck’s life. Now she’s getting ready to bring art to her former and current hometown — in a space everyone knows, re-purposed for the future.

(For more information on One River Westport, click here.)

State Of The Town

Presidents have their State of the Union address.*

Governors have their State of the State.

This Sunday (February 10), Jim Marpe tells us all the State of the Town.

The first selectman will be joined by Board of Education chair Mark Mathias. After they deliver their thoughts on the town and schools, RTM deputy moderator Jeffrey Wieser will lead a question-and-answer session.

The event — a joint initiative of Westport Sunrise Rotary and the Westport Rotary Club — is set for 4 p.m. in the Town Hall auditorium.

Judging by one criterion, the state of the town is very good: There are refreshments afterward, in the lobby.

*Sometimes.

Town Hall is the site of Sunday’s State of the Town event.

Staples Offers New Pathways To Success

Every educator knows there are many pathways to students’ success.

At Staples High School, that now includes Pathways Academy.

Opened this fall, it’s a “school within a school.” Pathways provides alternative educational opportunities for students experiencing academic, behavioral and/or life challenges in the traditional school setting.

That’s the long description.

Here’s the short one: For some students, Pathways is a life-saver.

They may have school anxiety or avoidance issues. Perhaps they made mistakes, and fell behind in credits for graduation. Regular classrooms and standard schedules didn’t work for them.

Pathways — created by a team of Staples administrators, counselors, social workers and others — occupies a suite of rooms near the cafeteria.

Warm and welcoming, with a lounge area, computer room and small instructional spaces, it’s where students and 4 teachers spend every morning, from 7:30 to 10:45.

Freed from traditional bells — with more flexibility to move from idea to idea, and room to room — Ann Neary (English), Daniel Heaphey (social studies), Tony Coccoli (science) and Anthony Forgette (math) — work together in a warm, welcoming setting.

Each day begins with a community meeting. On Wednesdays, school outreach counselor Ed Milton offers insights. Every Friday, there’s college and career counseling.

Academic expectations are the same as for traditional core classes. The differences include individualized instruction, peer coaching, experiential learning and interdisciplinary projects.

When the Pathways day ends, students head to electives, world language and phys. ed. classes, community service, work study or internships.

At first, students were referred to Pathways by teachers and administrators. Eight began in September. Now — thanks to word of mouth — that number has doubled, to 16.

The application process includes written answers to questions like “What is your biggest challenge in the traditional  high school setting?”, “Describe a situation that did not go well for you (interaction with a teacher, administrator, friend, etc.). Thinking back, how would you have handled it differently?” and “”Describe something you did, made or completed in school that made you proud.”

Acceptance is not automatic. Each student must embrace the idea of the Pathways community.

The main classroom at Pathways. Other rooms — and the lounge — branch off from here.

Pathways is overseen by Meghan Ward. The assistant principal had experience in other schools with alternative education. “‘Other’ is okay,” she says, echoing the academy’s mission. “Students learn the same things, even if the setting or delivery looks different.”

Ward calls the Pathways teachers “incredible. They work really hard — and that’s only half of their course load. They also teach other classes. It’s really a challenge.”

In just half a year, Pathways has already made its mark. Students with attendance issues are coming to school — “and smiling,” Ward notes. Those who previously felt disconnected from Staples now have a “home base.”

There are tangible results too. The other day, Neary’s students completed a play-writing project. They read their works in the Black Box Theater, for members of Westport Senior Center’s writing class.

It was a huge success. The audience loved hearing the powerful, honest voices of teenagers. They provided great feedback — and plenty of support.

Just as Pathways does every day, in its own way: a school within a school.

Happy 218th Birthday, Horace Staples!

Horace Staples was born on January 31, 1801.

More than 80 years later — by then the wealthiest man in Westport — he founded a high school. He had grown tired of watching pupils go off to Bridgeport or Norwalk for their educations. Staples’ High School — that was the correct punctuation — opened in 1884. The first class (consisting of just 6 girls) graduated 2 years later.

For as long as Horace Staples was alive, the quickly growing high school celebrated every January 31 as Founder’s Day. He joined in the festivities, and viewed with pride his students’ presentations and orations.

Horace Staples

A typical ceremony began with an opening hymn, scriptures, a prayer and the 112nd Psalm. There was a reading on “A Liberal Education”; a piano solo and song; a debate on the topic “Resolved: that civilized nations are justified in seizing and occupying lands inhabited by savages”; a declamation on Paul Revere’s Ride; addresses thanking Horace Staples; his response; another hymn, and final remarks.

Horace Staples attended many Founder’s Days. He died on March 6, 1897 — age 96. He had outlived all his wives and children, and was both the best-known and oldest citizen in town.

Founders Day foundered after his death. But 3 years ago, Rho Kappa — the Staples High School (current punctuation) honor society — resurrected the celebration.

There are exhibits of life in the 1880s. The library hosts a speaker.

And every year, Horace Staples — or a reasonable facsimile thereof — roams the halls, popping into classrooms to talk about “his” school, and its 135-year history.

Here are some photos of today’s Founder’s Day. If Horace bears a close resemblance to the world’s leading expert on Westport’s crown jewel — the guy who a decade ago wrote a 377-page book called Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ Education (and today runs a blog called “o688o”) — well, that’s just one more memorable moment in the long, illustrious history that all began with Horace Staples’ birth, 218 years ago today.

Before the opening bell, Horace Staples visited with social studies teachers. Here he chats about his high school with Drew Coyne.

Among the classes Horace Staples visited was Current Issues: American Media and Politics. It’s a new addition to the curriculum. If it was taught when Staples’ High School opened, pupils would have discussed the administration of President Chester Alan Arthur.

Horace visited himself in the library.

Horace Staples also spent time hanging with students in the cafeteria. He reminded them that until 1923, everyone had to bring their own lunch to school. And — with the temperature in single digits — he noted that for many years, all students had to walk to school. Some came from as far as Wilton.

[UPDATE] The Next Big Thing In Education: Regionalization?

NOTE: The story below has been edited to reflect that Senator Looney’s bill refers to municipalities with fewer than 40,000 residents — not “40,000 students.”

Westport’s education leaders are experienced at multi-tasking.

That’s good. They’ll need those skills in the coming months.

Besides figuring out next steps for Coleytown Middle School, and grappling with next year’s budget, there’s a new issue coming down the pike: a bill in the Connecticut State Senate to regionalize school systems.

The proposal — SB 454, introduced by Senate President pro tempore Martin Looney, a Democrat representing New Haven, North Haven and Hamden — would combine state school districts with fewer than 40,000 students residents into regional ones.

Looney says the bill would “create a more efficient educational system.” In addition to schools, regionalization would include boards of education and central office staffs.

A different bill — filed by Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, a Democrat from Norwalk — would require only those districts with fewer than 2,000 students to regionalize. Governor Ned Lamont supports that proposal.

Westport has approximately 5,692 students. Weston has around 2,399. Neither would be affected by Duff’s legislation.

“I have a ton of respect for Senator Looney,” says State Senator Will Haskell. “I understand where he’s coming from. There’s unbelievable inequality in Connecticut education.”

The 1st-term legislator adds, “I was so lucky to go to Staples High School. I had the highest quality teachers, smartboards in every classroom, the amazing Staples Players program after school.

“Fifteen minutes away, they don’t have all that. Students fall behind. Equal opportunity is important.”

Staples High School — well funded by Westport taxpayers, and supported by a strong school district — offers opportunities that many other schools and districts do not.

But, he says, Looney’s bill is “the wrong approach to that problem.” If that legislation passes, Haskell foresees “mammoth districts, increased bureaucracy, and students traveling far from home for school.”

The state senator prefers to focus on ideas like reforming the cost-sharing formula for state aid, “to make sure students with the highest needs are getting state dollars.

“We need to find greater efficiencies to save tax dollars and improve the quality of education. But we have to do it with the participation and consent of the towns.”

Looney’s proposal has sparked quite a debate. Haskell has heard from hundreds of constituents. He will bring the concerns — of parents, teachers and students — to the Democratic caucus.

“We’re a big tent party,” Haskell says. “I work well with Senator Looney. But we disagree on this. There are other ways to reform education that don’t involve creating massive school districts.”

Mark And Tanya’s Excellent Caribbean Adventure

Both Mark LaClair and his wife Tanya grew up in Rowayton. He started sailing at age 8. They water skied, camped and played on Sheffield Island, fished, lobstered, and drove their boats as far as they were allowed.

They got married, and vacationed by chartering sailboats with friends. The couple tried living in Weston and New Canaan. But, he laughs, those towns were too far from the water.

In 1998 they moved into a little cottage on Compo Beach’s Fairfield Avenue. Instantly, Mark says, “it felt right.”

They asked their landlord to eventually sell to them, but he was reluctant. So the couple — he’s a builder, she’s in real estate — decided to throw most of their savings into buying a boat. They planned to spend 2 years sailing around the world.

Five months after their purchase — while preparing for their great adventures — their landlord said he would sell the house to them, after all.

Mark and Tanya changed course. They put their journey on hold, and placed their newly acquired sailboat in a St. Lucia charter fleet.

Now — years later — Mark and Tanya own a catamaran. Named Pack ‘N’ Play, they call it their “Winnebago on the water.”

Mark and Tanya LaClair’s Pack ‘N’ Play.

He says, “We feel a boat offers the best perspective to any place we visit. Waking up at first light, sipping coffee, looking from the water onto an island we have only read about and knowing our family will soon be exploring — that’s priceless.”

That family now includes Tessa (age 12) and Bode (8). They’ve spent most of the last few summers exploring Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Cape Cod.

Mark and Tanya still fantasize about taking a year or two to explore the world. First though, they want to see how they feel after a few months of Caribbean cruising.

Which is how the family headed south from Westport during Christmas vacation They’ll be gone through February break. Already they’ve visited Tortola, St. John, St. Bart’s, Saba, Nevis, Guadeloupe, Îsle de Saints, Martinique and St. Lucia.

Bode, Tanya, Mark and Tessa LaClair.

The adventure involves sailing, exploring — and home schooling. That latter piece is a challenge — and an excellent experience.

Most days go smoothly. “The amazing people the kids meet, and the places they’re learning about, has been a great education,” Mark says.

Having the children read about each island they visit, then write about and post what they learned on Instagram, is also part of their schooling. (You can follow them: Packnplay4).

But, the parents agree, teaching their own kids is not easy. If they do another trip longer than 2 months, they’ll recruit a teacher as crew to come along.

After studying a destination — including its history, geography and more — the family plans their day. Sometimes they visit museums or ruins. They use their dinghy and paddle boards to search for secluded snorkeling spots.

Snorkeling in the Caribbean.

They hike to rainforests and waterfalls, and trek a few miles into town for provisions from local markets (plus a taste of local restaurants).

But Mark and Tanya most enjoy the time with their kids. They connect as a family — and disconnect from electronics.

That’s how magical moments occur. One day, as they all sat on the bow on a passage from Guadeloupe, they sighted their first whale. It was just 20 yards away.

Tessa and Bode say they like meeting new people and seeing new places. They do miss their friends and teachers.

Meanwhile, the adventures continue. In Saba, they were the only cruising boat. The winds blew more than 30 knots, for 3 days. At night, winds screeched through the rigging while Pack ‘N’ Play rose up and down in a 16-foot swell.

But reaching the beach — then climbing the 800-step “ladder” hand-carved into rocks, so they could hike into town — was absolutely worth it.

Bode and Tessa on top of the Saba “ladder.” The LaClairs’ catamaran is moored in the distance.

Tessa and Bode’s independence has “blossomed” since Christmas, Mark says.

And they’ve taken over some responsibilities, like driving the dinghy, setting and hauling the anchor, and beginning to understand navigation.

“Hopefully, they’re getting an understanding of how a lot of people live and survive in different regions,” Mark adds.

In Martinique and Guadeloupe, the family stayed in fishing villages. They saw men running nets at first light 50 feet from the boat, fishing for their day’s pay; then pulling traps, prepping and selling their catch. Local fish, fruit and vegetable markets have helped the youngsters gain a feel for an island, and its residents.

It’s not a bit like Westport.

But Tessa and Bode will be back after February break. Their teachers better plan extra time for Show and Tell.