Category Archives: Education

Superintendent Reveals Cut List

With the state budget in tatters — and towns now on the hook for things like teacher pensions — superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer presented a $977,000 cut list to the Board of Education last night.

Board members listened to and considered each of the “mitigation strategies” offered. No action was taken.

The Board of Education determines the exact list of reductions. The next step after that is the Board of Finance.

The biggest suggested change ($170,000) comes from health insurance, as a result of reduced staff.

In addition, $100,000 comes from the cafeteria fund reimbursement for operating expenses, and $98,141 from deferring the hiring of the director of secondary education for one year. Other large cuts include a middle school literacy coach and curriculum resources ($66,000) each; not funding an “innovation fund” ($50,000).

Palmer has identified 39 items overall for deferral or elimination. They include personnel like a part-time psychologist, paraprofessionals, 2 Staples grade level assistants, and secretarial help in the district. Also listed: the Staples athletic budget, maintenance, and supply items like Long Lots bathroom renovation, Kings Highway art stools, and Staples library and computer chairs.

To view all the recommended changes to the proposed education budget, click here.

Talking SMAK With Special Needs Kids

Parents of special needs children spend countless hours with educators and other professionals, crafting IEPs — Individualized Educational Plans.

But when school is out, a small group of kids and 2 very committed young teachers work together on another IEP. They call it an Individualized Exercise Plan.

And boy, is it fun!

Frankie D’Souza and Jenn Fittipaldi are the speech pathologists who founded SMAK (“Specialized Movement Active Kids”). And just as the acronym does not single out “special education,” the program offers this sometimes-isolated group of youngsters a chance to participate in an activity all kids love.

Jenn Fittipaldi and Frankie D'Souza, at Fitness Works.

Jenn Fittipaldi and Frankie D’Souza, at Fitness Works.

Frankie and Jenn have 3 classes, with 6 children each. One meets on Tuesday afternoons at Fitness Works, the gym underneath Granola Bar. Two others take place on Saturdays, at Crossfit in Norwalk.

The kids — many of them on the autism spectrum — do push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and box step-ups; use weights for squats and dead lifts; perform handstands and sprints; push sleds, and work with medicine balls and kettle bells.

They’re called “exercises.” But the group — ages 5 to 15 — love them.

“It’s so rewarding!” says Jenn, who notes that special education youngsters often have fewer opportunities than others for social and physical activities. SMAK provides both.

“They really get stimulated,” Frankie adds. “A lot of them have social anxiety, on top of other issues. But they socialize in the gym. They’re active, and so proud of themselves. Plus the release of endorphins make them feel really good.”

She notes with pride a boy who seldom showed emotion. Yet he grins broadly while exercising. “That’s the first time I ever saw him smile!” his sister said. Excitedly, she snapped a photo.

All kids -- like those in the file photo shown here -- enjoy the benefits of working out.

All kids — like those in the file photo shown here — enjoy the benefits of working out.

When they go back to school, Frankie says, they feel “a real sense of commonality” with their SMAK friends. Without realizing it, they’ve worked not only on fitness, but following multi-step oral directions, taking turns, initiating and maintaining conversations with peers, and vocabulary.

Merrily Bodell is the parent of 2 special needs youngsters. A member of the school district’s Special Education Parents PTA, she can’t say enough about what SMAK has meant for her kids.

“Frankie was my son’s speech pathologist at Greens Farms Elementary School,” Merrily says. “She’s so sweet and loving.”

Her son can’t participate in team sports, so the chance to be physically active in the gym, doing partner activities, has been fantastic. Her son feels engaged, and enjoys socializing.

Merrily tells the story of a boy who repeats words or phrases, hour after hour. When he’s with Frankie and Jenn in the gym, he never does.

Happily, everyone around — his new friends, his parents, and Frankie and Jenn – smile through the SMAK sessions too.

 

A Better Chance: Honoring 15 Years Of Success

In 2002, A Better Chance of Westport was just a dream.

In the 15 years since, the ABC program has fulfilled dreams. Young men have come from across America to Glendarcy House, on the corner of North Avenue and Cross Highway. They’ve attended Staples High School, and gotten deeply involved in school and community activities.

They’ve gone on to college, and embarked on careers. They’re already getting married. They’re success stories, and Westport should be enormously proud of them.

Steve Daniels sure is.

Steve Daniels

Steve Daniels

The longtime resident of Westport has led quite a life. He captained the University of Pittsburgh soccer team; been a high-level executive at RCA, TWA and Oxford Health; chaired the local United Way board; worked on senior housing with Westport’s Human Services Department, and served on TEAM Westport.

Now 77, he’s involved with his wife Cheryl Scott-Daniels’ real estate firm, CSD Select Homes.

But it’s his stints as president of A Better Chance of Westport that give him special insight into what this town means — to its residents, and those who come here from very different parts of the country.

“I love this place. Make no mistake about that,” Daniels says. “It’s much more welcoming than many other Fairfield County suburbs.”

Still, as an African American — even dressed in a suit and tie — he has been followed around in local stores. And he’s waited to be waited on, while employees ask white shoppers if they need any help.

“ABC is an important part of this community,” Daniels says. “A lot of the scholars come from circumstances that are different from Westport kids’. They have single parents. Their parents might not have degrees. They come from schools that are not as academically rigorous as Staples.”

The 2016-17 A Better Chance of Westport scholars.

The 2016-17 A Better Chance of Westport scholars.

In their new high school, they learn study skills. They choose from a broad range of subjects. They discover an array of college options. They work hard, join clubs and teams. Outside of school, they become involved in community activities.

It’s excellent preparation for “being around people who don’t look like you,” Daniels says — which is what happens after they graduate, head to college, get a job.

“It’s a tough program,” Daniels admits. “They may wonder if it’s worth it.”

In its first few years, ABC directors and many volunteers throughout Westport had to take it on faith that it was worth it.

A Better ChanceNow they know. Since A Better Chance of Westport began, 18 scholars have earned college degrees. Eight more are still in college. Three are in grad school: law, medicine and business.

But the benefits flow both ways.

“Westport is a bit of a bubble,” Daniels says. “We don’t have the worldwide diversity kids will enter into after college. When you grow up here, you can have a misperception of minorities.”

Staples students (and their younger siblings) get to know the ABC scholars. As friends, teammates and through host families, they hear the young men’s stories. They learn about differences — and the similarities they share.

As president, Daniels says, his biggest challenge was “getting young men to understand their potential.” They’d never been exposed to things like how to study; importance of networking; what a “good” college is, or how to do well on SATs.

But, Daniels notes, “they learn they can compete with kids who have much more than they do.”

ABC's Glendarcy House on North Avenue. Scholars spend some weekends with host families.

ABC’s Glendarcy House on North Avenue. Scholars spend some weekends with host families.

In its 15 years, A Better Chance of Westport has accomplished much. It’s given — literally — a better chance to more than two dozen fine young men. They in turn have positively impacted their high school, and the entire town.

Now they themselves are giving back. They’ve formed their own alumni network. They return to Glendarcy House, and are available by phone and email to help the scholars who have followed them to Westport. “That building block is very solid,” Daniels says.

But what’s a success story without a celebration?

Every March, ABC holds a “Dream Event.” This year — on March 25 — the gala honors the organization’s past presidents. Besides Daniels, they’re Lee Bollert, Gail Cohen, Dave Driscoll, Harold Kamins and Eric Seidman.

Sam Larkin and Manny Ogutu, this year's graduating seniors.

Sam Larkin and Manny Ogutu, this year’s graduating seniors.

There’s dinner, an auction and entertainment. But the real draw is the ABC scholars themselves.

There are heartfelt speeches from the graduating seniors (this year: Sam Larkin and Manny  Ogutu). A couple of alumni add their own — now adult — perspectives.

Hearing them speak, I always tear up.

And I always leave feeling good — about these young men, my town, this program, and the importance of the work that so many people like Steve Daniels have done, for 15 great years.

(This year’s “Dream Event” is set for Saturday, March 25 [Birchwood Country Club, 7 p.m.]. For tickets and more information, click here, then scroll down. The online auction goes live on March 17, at the link above.  To donate an item or service to the auction, click here.)

Here’s a look at the day in the life of ABC House:

Staples Tuition Grants Seeks Stories

Staples Tuition Grants new logoSince 1943, Staples Tuition Grants has helped graduates pay for college. The low-key but vital organization has awarded millions of dollars, and impacted thousands of lives. Every recipient has a story.

Now — as organizers prepare for next year’s 75th anniversary — they want to hear as many of them as they can.

So they’re asking:

  • Where did you go to college?
  • What did you study?
  • How did the seed money help you?
  • Where has your journey taken you — professionally and personally?

STG hopes to raise awareness of its mission — and its great success — since that first $100 award, back when FDR was in the White House.

Email your stories (and photos!) to: info@staplestuitiongrants.org, or send them via snail mail: Staples Tuition Grants, PO Box 5159, Westport, CT 06881-5159.

Some of the awardees at the 2015 Staples Tuition Grants ceremony.

Some of the awardees at the 2015 Staples Tuition Grants ceremony.

 

 

 

Bella’s Black Belt

Every karate black belt is special.

Bella Rizzi’s is just a little more special than most.

Bella is a freshman with Down syndrome at Staples. Her parents raised her to know that she can achieve anything she puts her mind to.

For the past 6 years she’s studied at Kempo Academy of Martial Arts in the back of Compo Acres Shopping Center, between Soul Cycle and Chipotle. The instructors demanded the same from her as everyone else in the dojo.

Bella Rizzi, warming up.

Bella Rizzi, warming up.

At times — like everyone else — Bella got discouraged. Some of her classmates dropped out. Bella stuck it out.

She got through the tough times. She learned to work hard, and dream of earning that faraway black belt.

Many mornings before school, her parents — John and Markley — heard Bella hitting the punching bag.

Twelve belts precede the adult black belt. Each one presents its own unique difficulty. Bella earned all 12.

Last Sunday’s test was grueling. For over 3 hours Bella sparred, and recited more than 27 combinations of exercises.

The last hour took place outside, at Compo Beach. Three candidates performed their tests, wearing only their lightweight gi garments.

The wind blew. Most people watching were bundled up — or stayed in their cars.

Bella Rizzi prepares for her final black belt test, last Sunday at a very cold Compo Beach.

Bella Rizzi prepares for her final black belt test, last Sunday at a very cold Compo Beach.

To get to that point of karate, Bella had learned to block out all distractions, and focus only on the task at hand. She and the other 2 candidates had so much resolve, they did not feel the cold.

Bella was pushed to her limits. But that was not the first time. She’d been bloodied, humiliated, bruised and battered. Through it all, she never wavered from her goal.

On Sunday, Bella became an adult black belt. Fewer than 1% of all martial arts students attain that level.

She and the 2 other candidates — Max Bonehill and Kyle Ehrlich — had broad smiles. They’d created a bond that will last forever. And they’d made their dreams come true.

Bella is not finished with karate — not by a long shot. Recently, the dojo asked her to be a junior sensei. She is now teaching what she has learned.

Bella Rizzi: black belt!

Bella Rizzi: black belt!

Karate is a meritocracy. All students are respected for their rank. They wear their accomplishments on their belt. They don’t brag about it.

Bella is not a bragger anyway. But everyone in  Westport should know about her remarkable accomplishment.

Actually, her accomplishments — plural. She has written and published a book, “Time Travel Girls,” about being open to new opportunities. She has modeled for Girl Scouts of America.

Bella is only in 9th grade. She has a long way to go, and much more to achieve.

But the next time you see her — at a Staples event, writing in the library or running at Wakeman — give her a high five.

No one in Westport deserves it more.

Staples Students: “We The People”

Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, “I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.” Do you agree or disagree with Justice Holmes? Why?

That’s a tough question. It takes a ton of work just to understand what Holmes said — let alone figure out what you think, then devise arguments for or against it.

It’s especially hard for a teenager. But this question — and 17 others like it — have inspired an entire Staples High School class, for months.

And at the end of April, they head to Washington to argue those 18 questions, in a national competition that’s a proving ground for future leaders of the free world.

In just their 3rd year of existence, students in Suzanne Kammerman’s “We the People” Advanced Placement Government course finished 2nd in a statewide contest. That qualified them for the DC event.

Suzanne Kammerman (2nd row, far right) and her AP Government "We the People" class, after finishing 2nd in the statewide competition last December.

Suzanne Kammerman (2nd row, far right) and her AP Government “We the People” class, after finishing 2nd in the statewide competition last December.

More than 20 years ago, as a student at Shelton High, Kammerman herself participated in “We the People.” It was so powerful, she helped introduce the course to Staples. Though the high school offers 9 sections of AP Government, this is the only one that includes the contest component.

It’s an added commitment — students spend hours outside of class forming teams, researching questions, developing answers, then arguing them in front of judges who are professors and constitutional experts — but students who are passionate about government embrace it. They compete in “We the People” in addition to their other coursework — which includes preparing for the regular AP exam.

According to Milton Friedman, “The existence of a free market does not of course eliminate the need for government. On the contrary, government is essential both as a forum for determining the ‘rules of the game’ and as an umpire to interpret and enforce the rules decided on.” To what extent, if any, are Friedman’s ideas seen in the development of capitalism in western civilization?

There are 6 units of questions, on topics like “Philosophical and Historical Foundations of the American Political System” and “What Challenges Might Face American Constitutional Democracy in the 21st Century?”

we-the-people-logoWorking in groups of 3 or 4, students explore 3 questions each, in astonishing depth. Using critical analysis skills, they respond in writing to all 3 questions. They then respond to judges’ questions — without notes.

“I’m amazed at how much these kids have to know,” Kammerman — who meets with them on weekends, at the library and Barnes & Noble — says.

“And they really look at the Constitution with genuine civic dialogue. They’re not hyper-partisan. They all have points of view about politics, but they push them aside. It’s very impressive.”

In a speech to his fellow Virginians in 1775 Patrick Henry noted, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience.” What lessons from history and experiences led the colonists to develop and structure their legislatures and their relationships to their executives and judiciaries the way they did in their new state constitutions?

Suzanne Kammerman (Photo/Madeline Hardy for Inklings)

Suzanne Kammerman (Photo/Madeline Hardy for Inklings)

At the qualifying competition in December, held at Central Connecticut State University, questions were asked about 4th Amendment issues like privacy and search and seizure, in the context of schools. Judges were so impressed with the Staples students’ responses that they continued talking, long after the 6-minute timer went off.

Right now, the class is preparing for the national contest. They’re excited at the chance to participate in mock congressional hearings, and see the sights in Washington. Kammerman has also arranged a meeting with Senator Chris Murphy.

But besides studying for some very tough questions, the “We the People” class has another task. The cost of the trip — including transportation and hotels — is nearly $30,000.

They received a very generous $15,000 donation from the law firm of Koskoff Koskoff and Bieder. But they need more.

If you’d like to help the next generation of leaders, contact Kammerman (skammerman@westport.k12.ct.us) or Staples principal James D’Amico (jdamico@westport.k12.ct.us).

What do you think Thomas Jefferson meant when he included the right to the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence instead of the more commonly used “right to property”? Where might the concept have come from?

The Constitution

The Constitution

The Oscars: One More Encore

The Westport connections to “La La Land” just keep on coming.

Erik Feig

Erik Feig

In his Academy Award acceptance speech last night for Best Original Score, Justin Hurwitz — who wrote the music that Staples High School graduate Justin Paul helped pen the lyrics for — thanked Erik Feig.

He’s the president of Lionsgate’s motion picture group — and a “La La Land” production executive.

He’s also a Staples High School Class of 1988 graduate.

And … before we finish our Oscar stories (which are taking only slightly longer to post than the ceremony itself), here’s one more.

In a backstage interview last night — held while the awards were still being presented, which is why everyone spoke so quietly — Paul praised Staples Players director David Roth, and Coleytown Middle School director Ben Frimmer by name. That followed his prime-time shoutout to the arts education he received in his home town.

Click here for that video. (And scroll down — it’s the 2nd one).

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.