Category Archives: Education

James D’Amico: The Time Is Now For New Staples Principal

Timing is everything.

For James D’Amico, fortuitous timing has been part of every career step. Last week — just a few days into his new job — he reflected on the turns of fate that brought him to the post he’s most excited about: Staples High School principal.

D’Amico grew up in New Fairfield. His mother was a nurse; his father commuted every day by car and train to Brooklyn, where he worked for the New York Transit Authority.

After graduating as an all-state chorus member (tenor) and avid musician (clarinet, sax, a little piano), D’Amico headed to the University of Connecticut. He loved his time there — and met his wife in the marching band. But if he had anything to do over, he says, he’d have taken a gap year to explore himself, and the world.

James D'Amico

James D’Amico

He earned a BA in communications science, but also fell in love with history. He’d always admired school and his teachers, so with the encouragement of his wife — a teacher – he added a graduate degree in education.

Westport had an opening in 2001. D’Amico parked in front, tried to figure out where the main entrance was, entered the moldy, low-ceilinged building, and interviewed with principal Gloria Rakovic and social studies department chair Elliot Kraut. “I couldn’t believe this was Westport,” he says of the soon-to-be-demolished school.

“They took a chance on a green kid,” D’Amico recalls. It was a wise choice.

His new colleagues were “so creative,” D’Amico says. “And creativity was encouraged.” Friends teaching in other districts were handed curriculum binders; he was encouraged to teach to his strengths.

“From Day 1, my colleagues trusted me. They were very kind — and real characters. I knew I’d found a home.”

Led by challenging, student-oriented mentors like Stephanie Muson, Jackie Boland and Rich Mott, he thrived in the classroom.

When Kraut retired in 2004 and a replacement could not be found, D’Amico became temporary “department liaison.” He enjoyed learning how the entire school ran, and helping staff set goals. The next year, he was appointed social studies chair. He taught 2 to 3 classes, led the Junior State of America club, and also got involved in the rest of the building.

When that position was expanded to include the middle schools, D’Amico gained even more experience. He hated leaving the classroom — but kept his beloved JSA club.

James D'Amico and director of elementary education Julie Droller, in Westport school district headquarters at Town Hall.

James D’Amico and director of elementary education Julie Droller, in Westport school district headquarters at Town Hall.

After 9 years as department head though, he felt he was growing stale. He looked for jobs beyond Westport.

But when the director of secondary education position became open, he threw his hat in the ring. Older, more experienced administrators applied. A different Elliott –superintendent of schools Landon — again took a chance on D’Amico.

He liked the curriculum and assessment aspects of the job. He helped teachers grow professionally. But, D’Amico admits, “It was an office job. I really did not like being in Town Hall. I learned a lot there — but I realized I need to be in a school.”

He was on the 2015 search committee to find a replacement for retiring Staples principal John Dodig. No one could be found. An interim was hired.

Several months ago, D’Amico’s wife said, “You’re going to apply for that job, right?”

“She knows me so well!” he says. “She knew I’d be happier around kids.” Though they have 4 young boys, involved in a variety of activities in Bethel, she encouraged him to go for it.

In March, Landon announced D’Amico as Staples’ next principal.

“Every morning when I walk through the doors, I say, ‘I’m home!'” D’Amico says.

James D'Amico stands proudly in the foyer of Staples High School.

James D’Amico stands proudly in the foyer of Staples High School.

He believes that his district-wide experience gives him a sense of how the elementary and middle schools fit in to Staples.

He also knows many Staples staff members.

“Any job is about relationships,” D’Amico notes. “I have a feeling for how this place works. I know the secretaries, the custodians, the people who make it go.”

As a former social studies teacher, he also knows its history. “I was here with the jackhammers outside my room.”

But he knows he has a lot to learn. He’s spending time with the assistant principals, maintenance supervisors Horace Lewis and Tom Cataudo, and many others to really understand how the many high school pieces fit together.

He gives props to secretary Karen Romano, who has served — and guided — several principals. “On Day 1, she had a folder for me outlining the entire summer,” D’Amico laughs.

Starting at the same time as new superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer is “fun,” says D’Amico. “There’s a clean slate. We’re figuring out where we want to take the high school.”

However, having been a teacher, he’s well aware that ideas need to be shared — not imposed.

“We’ve got a great school,” D’Amico says. “Our job is: How can we make it greater?”

He plans to listen to ideas. They’ll come from teachers, parents and students.

James D'Amico (left) and former Staples High School principal John Dodig chat during the 2016 graduation ceremony.

James D’Amico (left) and former Staples High School principal John Dodig chat during the 2016 graduation ceremony.

“It’s clear Staples is a competitive, high-powered place. We have courses and opportunities other places only dream of. Most kids come here wanting to learn and participate. But what about those who don’t fit into the prevailing goals, or feel too much pressure?”

He’s spoken with Dodig about ways to offer “emotional support.” As a strong supporter of the district’s “Guiding Principles” initiative, D’Amico is eager to carve out time to help implement them.

“How you spend time shows what you value,” he explains. “Right now we value moving kids through 6 or 7 periods a day. I think about systems and policies a lot. There’s a lot of different ways we can do things.”

His 1st staff meeting next month will provide a good introduction to the new principal, and his philosophy. His plan that day is to bring the large, often departmentalized faculty together — in a fun, kind, sincere way.

There’s a lot ahead. But D’Amico understands he needs his own life too. “If I’m not good with my family, I won’t be good with the school.”

His 4 boys are 11, 9, 8 and 6. He’s been involved with their Cub Scouts, baseball, soccer and church activities. He’ll cut down to 1 or 2 of those — but he plans to stay active.

James D’Amico’s career has been all about timing: being in the right place at the right time.

The right place now is Staples. As for timing: School starts September 1.

It Really Is The “Class” Of ’66

Staples High School’s Class of 1966 has always been special.

Growing up in postwar Westport, then coming of age in high school as a turbulent decade picked up steam, they were an active, accomplished bunch.

The Class of ’66 included 14 National Merit semifinalists, 29 All-State musicians and 5 All-State actors. The Orphenians traveled to the Virgin Islands; student government brought the Beau Brummels and Animals to Staples, and as a gift to the school — a tradition that unfortunately has disappeared — the class donated a handsome sign for the entrance on North Avenue.

John Lupton (left), Class of 1966 president, shakes hands with '67 president Dick Sandhaus at the sign's dedication ceremony. Principal Jim Calkins looks on.

John Lupton (left), Class of 1966 president, shakes hands with ’67 president Dick Sandhaus at the sign’s dedication ceremony. Principal Jim Calkins looks on.

But in the 50 years since graduation, the Class of ’66 has really stepped up its game. A few years ago they paid to refurbish the exterior of the Lou Nistico Fieldhouse at Staples, and added lighting to the current North Avenue entry sign. They’ve also organized their own special scholarship fund through Staples Tuition Grants.

Over the years I’ve become friends with many of the members, who I knew only by name and legend as a kid growing up in town. They’ve accomplished amazing things — in music, the arts, journalism, religion, education, even modeling and wine importing — but for half a century they have remained tight and loving. (Very, very fun-loving too).

A number of them remain — or became — reconnected to their hometown through “06880.” I’ve been honored to be a guest at their 2 most recent reunions.

This year’s 50th was fantastic. It began Friday night at the VFW (with kick-ass music from, among others, Rob Carlson, Jon Gailmor and Roger Kaufman). It continued with a lobster dinner last night at the Westport Woman’s Club (and a moving memorial to the 65 classmates who have died). It ended this afternoon at the beach.

Jon Gailmor, Steve Emmett and Rob Carlson reprised the famed Triumvirate group at the VFW. Gailmor replaced the late Chris Avery.

Jon Gailmor, Steve Emmett and Rob Carlson reprised the famed Triumvirate group at the VFW. Gailmor replaced the late Chris Avery.

There were many highlights for me, as I mingled with so many heroes and heroines from my youth. But the coolest came as I was leaving.

Each class member received a goody bag. In every one was a stone — collected, over a long time, from Compo Beach. They were stamped “Staples High 50th reunion, Class of 1966.”

Class of 66

And wrapped around them were these words:

Each stone carries memories created by the gentle and loving spirit of Compo Beach — our playground, our retreat, the safe haven of our youth. Compo loves us unconditionally. It is the beautiful link that will — like each stone and echoes of friendships — last forever.

While they were growing up, the members of the Class of 1966 — like most teenagers — probably did not realize the gifts they were gaining from their school, and town. I did not realize it several years later, and kids today don’t either.

The passage of time does something powerful and good. But it takes a special group of people to actually stop, think about and honor that time.

Well done, Class of ’66. Very, very classy indeed.

Colleen Palmer: A Chat With Westport’s New School Superintendent

Not much gets by Colleen Palmer.

“I noticed the Westport Public Schools website has very few photos of students,” the town’s new superintendent of schools said last week, at the end of her 1st week on the job.

She knows there are privacy issues involved. But, she said, if students are the primary focus of the district — and she is emphatic that they are — they should be a visible focus online too.

It was a whirlwind week for the incoming education leader. She’d just finished 5 successful years in Weston; before that, she was superintendent in Monroe. Palmer also served as a high school prinicipal at Nonnewaug, Hamden and Simsbury.

Dr. Colleen Palmer.

Dr. Colleen Palmer.

She was not looking to leave Weston. She’d invested a lot of time and energy there; the schools are excellent, and she was deeply rooted in the community.

Yet when Westport’s search firm tapped her on the shoulder, she turned around.

Palmer knew this town, from working many years with then-superintendent Elliott Landon. The closer she looked at Westport — learning about initiatives like the 2025 Lens and collaboration with Teachers College — the more excited she became.

The opportunities and challenges here — in a district larger and more diverse than Weston — offered “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Palmer says. “I realized if I didn’t apply, I would always regret it.”

Westport Public SchoolsAfter her appointment this winter — she was the only finalist — Palmer did her homework. She read documents and reports. She made phone calls. As the budget process unfolded, she watched every Board of Education, Board of Finance and RTM meeting she could.

Now, she’s got a nice Town Hall office. But she’s not spending too much time there.

“I’m visiting every school, and meeting every person I can,” she says. “I’m getting to know the facilities, and what goes on behind the scenes. I’m trying to listen and learn.”

Her initial impressions?

“Westport is a very authentic place. Everyone is focused on what’s right for students. They’re passionate, dedicated and inspiring.”

Educators “want to share what they’re doing,” she adds. “There’s a can-do attitude, and a lot of collaborative problem-solving.” One immediate example: addressing space issues at Kings Highway Elementary School.

That’s wonderful. But, I wonder, don’t all teachers and administrators focus on kids?

“There are great educators everywhere,” Palmer counters. “What I see here is such a high level of performance, throughout the entire district.”

In that context, she says, “I tell people: ‘dream big.’ My job is to remove barriers. We’re all looking for better ideas, and better ways to do things.”

Colleen Palmer's Town Hall office has a great view. But she is getting out and around, meeting as many Westporters administrators, teachers and residents as she can.

Colleen Palmer’s Town Hall office has a great view. But she is getting out and around, meeting as many Westporters administrators, teachers and residents as she can.

Palmer looks forward to building on the strong foundation that already exists. She is particularly excited by the “Guiding Principles” initiative, fostering emotional intelligence.

“We have to look at the whole child,” Palmer says. “Success is not bound by academics alone. There’s also the quality of life as they go through the school system, and the tools they have for life.”

She hopes that Guiding Principles values like “kindness with sincerity” will be part of the entire district culture, for adults as well as students.

Using 2 of her favorite phrases — “Failure is not an option” and “Hope is not a strategy” — Palmer calls herself “tenacious and realistic.” She cites a major achievement in Weston — getting a waiver from the state, in order to do holistic rather than formulaic scoring for teacher evaluations — as an example of her ability to do what’s right for students and staff, unencumbered by rigid thinking.

She is not anti-data. But, Palmer says, “we have to be smart. My job as superintendent is to be effective, efficient and coherent. Any goals we set need realistic timelines. And then we have to all hold ourselves accountable.”

Though she calls a superintendent’s job “24/7,” Westport’s new leader has a life beyond school. Three years ago, driving across the Saugatuck River, she saw scullers on the water.

She took lessons at the Saugatuck Rowing Club, and fell in love with the sport. Now, at dawn, she rows a single.

“There is nothing more beautiful than the flat Saugatuck River, as the sun comes up,” Palmer says. “It’s so peaceful and serene. It’s where I do great thinking.”

Palmer — a swimmer — recently joined the Westport Weston Family YMCA too.

She loves cultural events, travel, and her 3 sons and 5 grandchildren. She just built a lakeside house in Vermont. It’s her “grandchild trap.”

The new superintendent — who prefers “Colleen” to “Dr. Palmer” — replaces a man who served a mind-boggling 17 years, in a very difficult public position.

How long will she be here?

“I love my work. I thrive on it,” she says. “I have a healthy balance in my life. This job has long hours, but I take care of myself.

“I have no exit plan in mind. I look forward to a long tenure here.”

Abby Merlis Dances With The Stars

Abby Merlis’ high school years were grueling.

Every afternoon at 2:15, she rushed from Staples to the train station. She did homework on the way to New York; hurried to ballet for intensive classes; raced back to the train and did more homework, arriving home at 10 p.m.

Abby loved it.

She’d been dancing since she was 3. At Westport’s Academy of Dance she did it all: modern, jazz, tap. But at age 10 Abby began watching classical ballet performances, and found ballet videos on YouTube. She was hooked.

Her Academy of Dance teachers saw her potential. They encouraged her to study in the city.

Abby commuted to New York after school from freshman through junior years.

Abby Merlis (Photo/Rosalie O'Connor)

Abby Merlis (Photo/Rosalie O’Connor)

It was tough. She learned focus and diligence (and how to run to catch trains). But she gave up plenty: tennis, friends, writing. She did not feel like part of the school community, though she loved her teachers and classes.

Those were sacrifices she made willingly. And, in retrospect, she thinks they were worth it.

She had nearly enough credits to graduate early, and finished online. She walked at commencement last June, with her Class of 2015. But she’d already spent a year away, training with the Boston Ballet.

There were 15 dancers in her class. Only one was offered a contract for the coming year. Abby was that one.

She’ll be in the 2nd company, performing in nearly every production that needs a sizable corps. Boston Ballet II also does its own shows, and offers outreach programs to schools.

Boston Ballet is a very versatile company, Abby says. She is immersed in traditional classical, neo-classical and contemporary dance.

Abby Merlis in action. (Photo/Rosalie O'Connor)

Abby Merlis in action. (Photo/Rosalie O’Connor)

This is all a dream come true, Abby says. She loves the physicality of dance — the jumps and turns. Artistically it is fulfilling too. “Dancing to beautiful music is a gift,” she explains. “It’s a unique art form, and you can explore it endlessly.”

As for the discipline ballet demands, Abby says, “you have to keep improving. You can never be complacent.”

She calls Boston Ballet “a community. It’s competitive, but I’ve never had closer relationships with people. We bond over so much.” Dancing on stage with friends, knowing all their hard work has paid off, is a wonderful feeling, she says.

So will dance be her ultimate career? Abby is still not sure.

Last year, she was accepted by Princeton University. She deferred admission for a year, and can do so one more time.

“I’ll see how this year as a professional dancer goes,” she says. “I’ve worked for this my entire life, and Boston Ballet was my first choice company.”

Yet she knows though that anything can happen. Dance is “a young person’s career — and it’s short.”

During all those high school trains rides, Abby studied subjects she loved, like sustainable development and public policy. They loom as possible post-dance careers.

For now however, she looks forward to her first year with the Boston Ballet.

It will be at least as hectic as all her high school days.

And — hopefully — even more rewarding.

Sam Appel: Westport’s Newest Official Rock Star

Sam Appel is redefining the food and beverage industry.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Zagat.

The go-to restaurant guide has just named the 2006 Staples High School grad one of its 30 New York influencers under 30 years old.

Or, as the headline reads: “Rockstars Redefining the Industry.”

ZagatSam was recognized for her work as director of community and programming at Journee. The members-only club for restaurant professionals focuses on career development and continuing education. She helps build and sustain the community — with programming, classes, networking and other projects — in Journee’s 21st Avenue space.

Of course, no one becomes a rock star by herself.

At Staples, Sam took every culinary class she could. She served as a teaching assistant for instructor Cecily Gans; worked at her summer cooking camp; helped with her catering jobs, and assisted on a cookbook.

Sam was drawn to Chef Gans’ “personality, artistry, and beautiful food.”

She was similarly inspired by English teacher Gus Young. He introduced her to the “art and magic” of food writing.

Not surprisingly, Sam’s college application essay was about food writing.

Sam Appel

Sam Appel

She had thought about culinary schools. But when she discovered Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration — with its focus on hospitality — she realized that the business side of food was as intriguing as cooking it.

After graduating from Cornell in 2010, Sam joined restaurant software company Avero as a consultant. She then moved to a marketing position with Chipotle. (Her territory included Westport — so she was involved when they expanded here.)

As a founder of the Toklas Society, she helped build, market and run a nonprofit fostering the professional development of women in food and hospitality.

Sam’s goal is for hospitality to be taken “as seriously as any other career.”

Like, say, rock ‘n’ roll.

Kevin Clark’s Point Motion Rocks

Staples High School is justly famous for the number of alums who have gone on to great careers in music. (Here’s lookin’ at you, Alisan Porter!)

Ditto the legendary media lab. (You too, Daryl Wein!)

Now — in an era defined by jobs that did not exist 2 years ago, do-it-yourself technology and crowd-sourced funding — it’s natural that Staples grads make their marks melding the arts and apps.

Kevin Clark was inspired by 2 mentors: choir director Alice Lipson and audio production teacher Jim Honeycutt. They encouraged him to pursue his passions. The bullying he endured while younger spurred him to prove he could do whatever he set his mind to.

The 2009 graduate applied to 5 music colleges. He was rejected by all.

Kevin Clark

Kevin Clark

Moments before joining the military, his father convinced him to try Western Connecticut State University. He was selected as 1 of only 2 piano students — though he had only begun to play.

A year later, he applied to Berklee College of Music. Again, he was turned down.

The 3rd time was the charm. Determined more than ever to prove he belonged there, Kevin roared through the prestigious school. He was signed to Berklee’s Jazz Revelations Records his 1st semester, and last year wrote the music for his class’ graduation ceremony.

“Music has changed my life,” he thought. “Being able to create it has made me happier. What if everyone could experience this job, this sense of self-expression that often eludes us?”

Kevin likes to move. Suddenly, he realized: People need a way to create music by merely moving their bodies. He knew of experiments using  handheld or wearable devices.

But what about hands-free? That could open musical expression to everyone in the world.

With 3 friends, Kevin figured out how to connect his Kinect camera to his computer and audio production software. Then he plugged away, eventually creating entire songs using body motion, a Kinect and a computer.

The Point Motion

Point Motion

The camera tracks body movements. Data is sent to the computer, where Kevin’s app translates each motion into a specific sound or musical phrase.

There are over 1500 pre-programmed sounds and instruments. Users can also upload their own.

Kevin applied for patents, and established a company: Point Motion. An Israeli firm, Extreme Reality, liked his platform.

Together, they moved from Kinect to using common 2D cameras found on cellphones and computers. This opened up a wide range of opportunities.

Kevin is proud of the result. “For the first time in history,” he says, “people can access musical expression using motion control technology for just a $40 download.”

The first 2 apps focus on health and wellness practices (enabling expression for users with limited mobility and special needs), and creative tools for musicians (extending the creative capabilities of artists).

The 2nd app — “Puppet Master” — allows users to do things like lean forward to add distortion to an electric guitar, or raise an arm to add reverb to vocals. The system is compatible with existing music production programs.

Point Motion is now in the fundraising phase. His Indiegogo campaign has a $50,000 target.

For every donation, Kevin will donate Point Motion to a hospital or clinic in the US.

Clearly, Kevin Clark learned a lot more than music and technology at Staples and Berklee.

(For more information on Point Motion, click here. For the Indiegogo fundraising campaign, click here.)

Susan Fund: Reaching A Milestone, Helping Hundreds

Thirty-five years ago, the Susan Fund awarded its first grants.

The recipients were special: young men and women battling cancer who — besides facing staggering medical bills — needed help paying for college.

Susan Lloyd

Susan Lloyd

This year, the Susan Fund — named in honor of Susan Lloyd, a popular, multi-talented Staples student who succumbed to bone cancer while at Colgate University — reaches a milestone. It has distributed $1.5 million, providing hope (and education) to hundreds of Fairfield County residents.

Every awardee’s story is unique. But Kendall Mather illustrates just how powerful an impact the Susan Fund can have.

Kendall grew up in Westport. She attended Greens Farms Elementary and Bedford Middle Schools. At Staples she was on the tennis team, and active in the St. Luke Church youth group.

Two years ago, near the end of junior year, the back, hip and leg pain she’d experienced for a while grew intolerable. The morning of her Advanced Placement Economics test, she could not walk.

Several doctors thought it was a sports injury. But at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital, Kendall was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Kendall’s cancer has a very high cure rate. Still, she underwent several rounds of chemo, and a few surgeries due to complications. She’ll finish her treatment in October — soon after entering the University of Miami. (She took this year off, to focus on her health.)

Friends and family have provided tremendous support. “When I was in my worst shape, they treated me normally,” Kendall says.

The Susan FundThe Susan Fund offers a different kind of support: financial.

“Medical bills are a huge burden to many families,” Kendall notes. “Even the scans to see if treatment is working are enormous. It’s amazing what this fund can do for families.”

Kendall is gratified to be one of the recipients. At Miami, she plans to major in business, with a focus on real estate.

Then — when she embarks on her own career, with her degree (and a cancer-free diagnosis), Kendall looks forward to giving back to the Susan Fund.

“They’ve helped so many people,” she notes. “It’s the least I can do.”

(On June 26, the Susan Fund holds its 35th annual reception. They’ll distribute more than $75,000 in college scholarships to 29 Fairfield County students — including 4 Staples grads — diagnosed with cancer. For more information, or to contribute, click on www.TheSusanFund.org)

The Susan Fund 2015 scholarship recipients.

The Susan Fund 2015 scholarship recipients.

Pregnant Parents Collect Info, Friends

It’s tough being pregnant. (I am told.)

It can even be tougher once your baby is born — particularly if your partner works long hours, and you’re home alone. (That makes sense too.)

Every new mother has questions and concerns. Every new mother needs a support network.

The Brits have an answer. Their National Childbirth Trust offers pre-natal classes — organized by neighborhood and due date. Mothers-to-be receive important information — and new mums have a ready-made, nearby group of friends.

Melissa Griffin is a native of London. When her daughter was born 5 years ago, the NCT was a godsend.

Jessica Hill is American. She spent 10 years in the UK. When her son was born there 7 years ago, she was an ocean away from family. She too found education and friends at the Trust.

Melissa Griffin and Jessica Hill.

Melissa Griffin and Jessica Hill.

Melissa and Jessica did not know each other in England. But a few years ago, both moved to Westport. Both had children at the same pre-school. As they became friends, both realized that nothing like the National Childbirth Trust existed here.

So they set out to create one.

“So many newcomers in Westport are pregnant,” Jessica says. “It can be an isolating experience. You have no way to meet people. And once the baby comes, you’re on your newborn’s schedule.”

Beginning last fall, the women conducted focus groups. Out of those discussions came The Parent Collective.

Parent Collective logoIn some ways, it’s even better than the NCT. Melissa and Jessica reach out to women pregnant with their 2nd or 3rd children. Husbands are warmly welcomed too.

The Parent Collective launches its first classes this fall. They’ll be taught by labor delivery nurses, childbirth educators, lactation specialists and therapists, from Yale and St. Vincent’s Hospital.

Each group of 12-15 couples will attend 4 sessions (once a weekend, for a month). There’s 90 minutes of content, and 30 minutes of socializing (“tea and biscuits,” Melissa calls it).

First-time parents will talk about labor and delivery, pain management and relaxation, breast and bottle feeding, and new baby care. Second- and 3rd-timers get a refresher on delivery and newborn care, plus sleep training and scheduling tips, strategies for helping older children adjust, and — kids are encouraged to attend — how to be a good big brother or sister.

Classes are “judgment-free,” Melissa notes. “It’s not about breast feeding or bottle feeding, or natural childbirth versus Caesareans.”

The women begin with 3 locations: Intensity Fitness on the Westport/Norwalk border, Magic Beans toy store in Fairfield, and Go Figure barre studio in New Canaan. All are “peaceful, beautiful, clean spaces,” Jessica says.

(Photo/courtesy of Classic Kids Greenwich)

(Photo/courtesy of Classic Kids Greenwich)

Sure, hospitals offer informational sessions for new parents. But, Jessica says, they don’t include the social aspects. It’s important for wives (and their husbands) to form friendships with others whose kids will be born around the same time. They can offer each other help — with newborns, and with life.

Jessica’s husband reluctantly went to the London NCT group, she says. He quickly learned how to help her in many ways.

She recalls an exercise the men went through: Donning a backpack filled with water bottles, and wearing it around their chest and stomach. “It was eye-opening,” she smiles.

The response during this roll-out phase has been uplifting. Mothers-to-be are delighted to find both support and friends. Ob/Gyns are recommending it to their patients.

Jessica couldn’t imagine being pregnant, and then a new mother, without the NCT. She recalls her last session, when the group planned a party before their due dates — and scheduled a morning coffee for after their babies arrived.

Her new British parent friends acted collectively.

Now — thanks to the Parent Collective — Fairfield County parents can do the same.

(The Parent Collective is accepting applications for its fall classes. Parents who are due then — and any others — can click here for more information.)

How To Get Into College: Westport Edition

Last year, as part of Heather Colletti-Houde’s Advanced Placement English Language and Composition class, Nick Ribolla and friends created a clever, devastatingly on-target video takedown of their hometown.

Westport’s Got It All” featured teens-eye views of conformity, diversity and hypocrisy. Most of “06880”‘s nearly 100 commenters loved it. Some hated it. That’s exactly what Nick and his classmates wanted.

This year, Colletti-Houde gave her class a similar assignment: satirize something prevalent in students’ lives.

Director/editor/actor Ziggy Hallgarten — along with fellow juniors Sydney Malkin, Nick Roehm and Izzy Ullmann — chose something they’re intimately familiar with: the college process.

They nailed it. Essays, tutors, community service — it’s all there. (Great production values too!)

“It’s a Juvenalian form of satire,” Ziggy says.

With that depth of knowledge — and the hints he and Sydney, Nick and Izzy provide in the video — he’s sure to get into the college of his choice!

Will Andrews: Valedictorian Speaks On Greek Myths, And A Meaningful Life

On Friday afternoon, Staples High School valedictorian (and captain of the state champion tennis team) Will Andrews addressed 482 fellow graduates, and a crowd of over 3,500.

Unlike most such speeches, his was powerful, insightful — and very, very honest.

Drawing heavily on what he learned in their Myth and Bible class, he compared the challenges of Staples to a hydra — the Greek monster. Will followed up with a shout-out to mentors, without whom he and his classmates would not have been able to complete, like Hercules, their own personal labors.

Then — turning from nadirs to the elixir (magical life-prolonging potion) — he shared what he’s learned during his journey through high school.

From late summer through much of this school year, I struggled with severe depression brought on by a number of personal circumstances. I had to leave school for a period of time to try and resolve this issue, and spent a few days in the hospital; this it is something I still struggle with and work with today. I say this now not as some grandiose personal statement, but rather because through this experience I have learned an immense amount about appreciating those around you and appreciating the present.

Valedictorian Will Andrews, at graduation.

Valedictorian Will Andrews, at graduation.

I’ve learned that perhaps the most important thing we can do each day is be kind to one another. It seems so simple but can have such a profound effect on those around us, even for such simple acts as greeting someone in the hallway or complimenting a peer’s work. I implore all of you to practice kindness in your lives, as much for the people you don’t know as the people you do.

Practicing kindness is not only an outward expression but an inward tas well. That is to say we must also be kind to ourselves. Much of my depression stemmed from a toxic self-image. There’s something inherently damaging about trying to hide part of yourself, especially such a basic characteristic of who you are, from other people, in that, at some level, it’s an expression of embarrassment or shame or discomfort. Each of us is with ourselves every moment of every day from the time we enter this world to the time we leave it. We can’t live happy and fulfilling lives if we don’t accept and love the one person who’s along for the entire ride.

The second part of what I believe to be my elixir is knowing the value of distress tolerance and mindfulness. The Staples environment is oversaturated with stress and competition.

This year I was walking behind two sophomores holding a conversation about their futures, which, according to them, were hanging precariously in the balance. One lamented what was sure to be a late night studying for a massive chemistry test that was definitely going to alter the course of his life and perhaps  the course of the entire world. He said if he didn’t get a good grade on this test, he wasn’t going to get a good grade in the class and his GPA would suffer.

Staples sealIf his GPA suffered and he didn’t take 13 AP courses and found 4 clubs and singlehandedly end poverty in Ecuador and learn to unicycle while blindfolded on a tightrope in a hurricane he wouldn’t get into a good college. If he didn’t get into a good college he wouldn’t get into a good graduate school, he wouldn’t get a good job, he wouldn’t make enough money, and he wouldn’t be able to support his family and retire comfortably somewhere in a Florida gated community where he can enjoy water aerobics with octogenarians named Esther in bikinis.

There in the Staples hallway was a sophomore terrified thinking about his retirement decades down the road. If we allow ourselves to get stuck in this circular logic, we get stuck at the nadir of the hero wheel and don’t allow ourselves to reach the elixir. His logic is undoubtedly flawed, but it is not uncommon at Staples.

My math teacher, Mr. Papp, told us that success is not linear. Our fallacy is that we think in order to achieve success we need to meet a successive series of steps and that any diversion from the path precludes us from reaching our goal. The truth, though, is that success is always within our reach. We don’t need a numerical representation down to the ten thousandth place to quantify our high school experience or any of our other typical markers of achievement; we just need to redefine success as finding happiness.

Competition is stressful, Will Andrews says. It's also important -- as this student knows -- to care.

Competition is stressful, Will Andrews says. It’s also important (as this student knows) to relax, care for oneself — and care for others.

Competition and stress definitely have their place in academics and in life; the capitalist economic model is based largely on the idea that competition drives innovation and expansion. When there is too much competition and too much stress, however, as there too often is at Staples, we create an environment that not only chokes academic growth but also plainly makes life so much less enjoyable.

As clichéd as it is, we’re only given one life. There is a time to work, and during that period we must throw ourselves unreservedly into our studies and ensure that we are prepared for whatever tests, discussions, or projects we may have. But there is also a time to relax, and during that time we must throw ourselves equally unreservedly into however we entertain ourselves and let the stress fade.

Stress is inherent at such a high-achieving school like Staples in a successful community like Westport, but parents, students, and school officials alike have unduly exacerbated its influence in recent years. So many people, and I’m not excluding myself from this group, take classes not because they are genuinely interested in the material but rather because they look impressive on a resume, or they spend their summers at tutoring services desperately trying to gain an edge in a cutthroat competition rather than enjoying days with friends doing anything or doing nothing.

This is my elixir, molded by my personal high school experience. Our presence here today demands that we each have one, and with this elixir, each and every one of us have completed our first journeys as Greek heroes. We are ready for whatever adventure calls our name next.

The true value of a hero, though, is in sharing his or her elixir with the world and making it a better place. So, to the family and friends gathered here today, I urge you to speak with your graduate about what his or her everlasting gift is.

Master OogwayMaster Oogway, from Kung Fu Panda, said, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” I don’t mean to suggest that taking cues from animated movies is always wise, lest we wait for fairy-godmothers to come solve our problems, but in this case Oogway is right. There are so many variables in our futures that we simply can’t control, so many random strokes of chance that could redefine our lives for better or for worse.

There is simply no sense fretting about a future we can’t control when there is so much to enjoy here, now, in the present. Of course, we must prepare for the future and put ourselves in a position to take advantage of the opportunities that may present themselves. Once we put forth our best effort, though, we can’t control the uncontrollable, so let us not idle away in worry; let us instead practice mindfulness, and focus on the physical and emotional feelings of the present.

In the series finale of The Office, Andy Bernard reflects on his years at Dunder Mifflin, ultimately wishing that “there was a way to know that you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” Friends, family, teachers, and peers: we are in the good old days, and we can always be. We must simply believe it.

Thank you, and congratulations to the Ancient Greek heroes of the Class of 2016. Slay on.