Category Archives: Education

Young Artists Create Yard Signs, Videos

On Monday, April 5, the Coleytown Elementary School lawn will be decorated with yard signs. They’re the work of students, showcasing the diverse arts and music they’ve been studying for months.

Coleytown Elementary School yard sign,

The next day — Tuesday, April 6 — different signs will appear at Greens Farms Elementary. Over the next 3 days they’ll be posted at Kings Highway, Long Lots and Saugatuck. Then, look for them around town, in more public spaces like Town Hall and the Riverwalk.

Greens Farms Elementary School yard sign.

The yard signs are just one element of the “Westport Youth Arts Collaborative: America’s Voices” project. It’s a robust successor to the beloved — but far more limited — Youth Concerts of years past.

Saugatuck Elementary School yard sign.

Those events introduced elementary schoolers to the high school music program. There were themes — Disney movies, for example — and more recently, tie-ins with countries like India and China, as part of the district’s Global Initiatives plan.

This year’s Youth Arts Collaborative focuses on American musicians — and artists. The goal is to celebrate not only our artistic diversity, but also that of Westport’s elementary school youngsters. Students created the signs, using their own words and images to highlight their own special backgrounds.

Long Lots Elementary School yard sign.

Along with the artwork, each school will air a special video, produced by Ryan Smith (the mastermind behind Staples High School’s virtual Candlelight Concert last December).

A variety of Staples groups — the Amati and Stradivarius chamber orchestras, chamber winds, jazz ensemble and Orphenians — recorded performances earlier this month.

Recording the Stradivarius Chamber Orchestra at Staples. (Photo/Brandon Malin)

The videos will include one of the high school ensembles; artwork from children at that elementary school, and “family folk songs.” They come from around the globe. All were coordinated by Candi Innaco.

“There’s an amazing diversity of backgrounds in Westport,” says townwide arts coordinator Steve Zimmerman. “The kids were really excited to show off their families.”

The Youth Arts Collaborative is a huge undertaking. It’s taken months of preparation. When it’s over, students who created their yard signs will keep them (and hopefully repost them in their own yards). Videos and art projects will be available through their school’s websites.

Kings Highway Elementary School yard sign.

For years, the Youth Concert inspired elementary schoolers to play music — and keep playing as they moved through middle school and Staples.

This new project will do even more for young musicians and artists. “America’s Voices” will soon be Westport’s own.

Staples High School has a yard sign too.

Board Of Ed: Facilities, Funding And COVID Facts

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice hopes to set up a $100 million, 10-year plan to maintain Westport Public Schools’ facilities. And the Board of Education wants to develop a mater plan that includes that maintenance project.

Those were among the main discussion points at last night’s Board of Education meeting. Brian Fullenbaum reports that the board will begin discussions with town bodies on collaborationo and resource-sharing to implement the facilities proposal.

The meeting began with a statement by Scarice on the recent shootings in Atlanta. He noted that Westport is already engaging in a district-wide equity study.

Scarice said that since September, 2,800 students and adults have quarantined because of COVID. Only 6 positive cases arose from that group. Overall, 232 students have reported positive cases.

Supervisor of health services Suzanne Levasseur reported that of 23 positive cases this year, most were at the high school level. Many come from small social gatherings.

So far, over 500 staff members have been vaccinated, at the district’s clinics. The 2nd dose will be given in 2 weeks. The district may create another clinic for students 16 and older, when that cohort is eligible for the vaccine starting April 5.

District officials are discussing how best to identify “close contacts,” in view of the CDC’s new guidelines reducing the 6-foot distance to 3 feet.

As Staples High School gets set to fully reopen this Thursday (March 25), the percentage of full-time distance learners in the district remains steady, at about 20%.

Assistant superintendent John Bayers announced that because of 2 snow days, as of right now the last day for students is Monday, June 21.

The board accepted 2 gifts: $10,000 from the Staples Music Parents Association (to purchase recording technology equipment), and $2,308 from the Saugatuck Elementary School PTA (to purchase books for the “One Book One School” program).

Karen Kleine provided an update on 2nd readings of 3 policies: AEDs, security and safety, and social media.

Starting Hard Conversations About Asian-American Lives

In the wake of last week’s murder of Asian-Americans in Atlanta, many of Sarin Cheung’s friends wanted to reach out to her.

But most had no idea what to say. Or how even to begin.

Some wrote texts, then waited a day or two before hitting “send.” Others called, and talked about a whole range of topics until they eventually said, “I don’t know how to ask this. But how are you?”

Sarin was grateful for the outreach. It was as difficult for her to talk about violence against Asian-Americans as it was for her friends to ask. But the conversations were necessary and important. Finally, the women talked.

Cheung is Thai and Chinese. She attended an American school in Taiwan, then headed to Boston University. After graduation, and some time back in Thailand, she spent a decade traveling the world with GE’s corporate audit group.

After working for GE in Stamford, then American Express in New York, in 2009 she and her husband — he’s with a hedge fund – moved to Westport. The child of Chinese immigrants, he grew up in the US.

Sarin Cheung and her family. The flags behind them on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge are flown on jUNe Day.

About 15 years ago, Sarin became an American citizen. It seemed a natural next step. She’d gone to an American school, come here for college, and had permanent resident status.

For many years, she did not think much about being an Asian-American. In Taiwan, she did not have much exposure to issues of race. Coming to the US at 18, she says, “I was probably super-naive. I probably couldn’t recognize any racism that was happening around me.”

Sarin and her husband moved to Westport for the schools. She did not think much about Asian in a predominantly white community.

But after the Atlanta murders, she reflected in her life in America. She recalled an incident at a restaurant: The hostess looked right past her and her husband, while seating other people.

“We just left,” she says. “That’s the way Asian-Americans dealt with that type of treatment.”

Yet as she talked with others recently, she realized the pain of situations like that. Racism in Westport can be subtle, she says. “It’s not violent shoving or vandalism. It’s the looks you get.”

As the pandemic began, she seldom left home. When she ventured into a grocery store, she was aware of stares. Was it because she wore a mask — when not everyone else did — or because she is Asian? She’s not sure.

Most prejudice against Asians in Westport is not overt.

The texts and calls from friends — when they eventually came — made an impact on Sarin. The conversations were meaningful. The questions — “What do you need? How can I help? Is there going to be a march?” — made her feel valued. Hearing “I’ll be there for you” was gratifying.

In return, Sarin called other friends who had not yet reached out. They were glad to hear from her.

It was a surprisingly public activity for Sarin, who says, “I’ve never done anything like this before.” A 2-year PTA president at Saugatuck Elementary, she is well-known in her school community. But she’d never spoken out about an issue like racism.

Sarin has asked her children — a 5th grader and 3rd grader — if they have experienced any prejudice. They said no. “But they’re young,” Sarin notes. “Would they be able to recognize it? I’m not sure.”

Sarin says, “Asian-American culture doesn’t verbalize feelings a lot. I don’t want to change that. But we have to be honest, and educate others.”

She and other Asian-Americans are waiting to hear a statement from town officials. 

She knows there are initiatives at Staples High School. At the elementary level, she says, “We need teachers to be empowered to talk about this.” [NOTE: Superintendent of Schools and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe released statements fabout the violence yesterday.]

The Asian population in Westport — estimated at 5 to 7%, Sarin says — is mostly affluent. But, she notes, many new immigrants live nearby. Not all are “model citizens.”

“I don’t feel, personally, that my life is in danger. I know who to call for safety,” Sarin says. “But we need to highlight and protect those new immigrants, and our friends’ elderly parents.

“It’s easy to be nice in Westport to Asian-American neighbors. But people of all sorts of demographics are here too. I think about them a lot.”

[UPDATE] Marpe, Scarice Speaks Out On Anti-Asian Violence

1st Selectman Jim Marpe says:

I am heartbroken by the recent surge in the despicable acts that are targeting members of the Asian American and Pacific Island community. An attack on any is an attack on all that we hold dear as a community that embraces inclusiveness in how we govern, and in how we interact with our neighbors. I wholeheartedly condemn such violence.

Town Hall flags fly at half staff, in memory of the victims of the Atlanta shooting. (Courtesy of Town of Westport/Facebook)

We celebrate diversity in this community, and we do all that we are able to insure everyone, residents and workforce alike, feels safe, secure, and welcome in Westport.

Together, we must support and encourage programs and policies that include frank discussions on race and inclusivity. By doing so, we will come to a better understanding and open acceptance of our unique personal qualities. We accept and honor every aspect of the human experience that makes us members of a civil society.

To that end, I will request that the Board of Selectmen approve a resolution condemning the hate and violence against Asian-Pacific Americans at its regular meeting scheduled for Wednesday, March 24.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice says:

Like many of you, I felt great sorrow over the tragic events in Atlanta last week.  I made a prepared statement for the Board of Education meeting this evening.  However, after receiving a number of heartfelt emails over the weekend, I was moved to share my comments with the school community prior to the meeting.

The unspeakable act of violence in Atlanta last week was yet another reminder of the chasm between our world today, and the ideal of the world we envision.  The violent loss of life, of any life, is destructive to what we aspire to be as a nation, and to what we aim to build as neighbors.

The Westport Public Schools stands with all communities in denouncing all forms of violence, racism, and xenophobia. The commitment of our district is to embrace and respect all people, while creating inclusive school environments where all students and adults feel a strong sense of belonging, affiliation, and connection.

This work takes commitment from all levels of the school community. On behalf of the Board of Education, and the faculty and staff, I want to affirm that as we stand beside all members of our community, that we particularly show support for our brothers and sisters in the Asian American community, which has experienced a tragic increase in acts of violence and hatred.

Our district has made a strong commitment to ensuring that each and every student and adult is treated with dignity and feels an abiding sense of belonging.  We continue this work as we engage in an equity study, pushing us to confront our practices and to ensure that we are doing our part to make this a more equitable and peaceful world.

By collaborating with community groups, initiating school based equity teams, and working with our curriculum coordinators to incorporate the appropriate discussion of these topics in our classrooms, the Westport Public Schools can successfully make all those in our schools feel welcome, while preparing our students for the diversity of the modern world.

Although our flags fly at half mast in remembrance of those lost in an horrific act of violence, let us not forget that it is in the day to day work of our schools, the incremental steps we take, that we see the most profound change and progress over time.

Remembering Karl Decker

Karl Decker — a legendarily tough but superb and much-loved Staples High School English teacher, who had equally rich careers as a writer and photographer — died on Thursday at his Monroe home He was 88 years old.

When Mr. Decker retired in 1999, he was the longest-serving faculty member at Staples High School — and as much an institution as the building itself.

Karl Decker

The Boston native grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts and the extended family farm in Townshend, Vermont. Two great-great-great-aunts were Brigham Young’s wives, and the only ones to accompany him in 1847 on the Mormon immigration to what is now Salt Lake City.

Karl graduated from Milton Academy in 1950 (the same class as Ted Kennedy), Colby College  and Columbia University. During military service he married Merrillyn Anne Healey.

In the 1960s the couple founded and edited the Monroe Courier. He was also a supervisor in the Fairfield County Soil and Water Conservation District.

An avid photographer, in 1987 he studied the craft as a fine art with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He began a documentary project, photographing and writing stories about the people of Townshend. His book — “The People of Townshend, Vermont” — was published in 2012.

Roger Griswold (in suspenders), and his friend Steve Utley — one of the photos in Karl Decker’s book about Townshend, Vermont. (Photo/Karl Decker)

Karl taught at Staples High School from 1960 to 1999. After retiring from education, he spent 6 years with Vermont Magazine. He traveled the state, writing and photographing stories of life in small towns.

His observations on the critical social and declining economic conditions there culminated in a lecture presentation — “The Tour Buses Don’t Stop Here Anymore” — at New England colleges.

After writing a dozen short stories, and 2 residencies at the Vermont College of Fine Art, Karl began work on a novel. “Seeing Emily Home” was set in the Depression years in a small Vermont town.

Karl is survived by his wife of 65 years, Merrillyn; daughter Christine Lowry and her children Brian Jeffries and Danielle Marenholz, with their spouses; son Lawrence Decker and his wife Holly, and their children Bryce, Silas and Carly; daughter Karen Decker and her sons Matthew and Jonathan.

A celebration of Karl’s life will be held at a later date. Messages may be sent to merrdeck@aol.com. Contributions in Karl’s memory may be made to the American Civil Liberties Union, Doctors Without Borders, and the Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend.

Karl’s last words were, reportedly, “Don’t mourn for me. I’ll be close by whenever I hear your laughter.”

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In 2004, I interviewed Karl Decker at his Monroe home. Here is that chapter from my book “Staples High School: 120 Years of A+ History.”

I went to college on the GI Bill. My first teaching job was sixth grade, in Scarsdale, New York. It was temporary, and lasted a couple of years. I interviewed all over Westchester County, and almost took a job in Dobbs Ferry. But I got a call from [Staples principal] Stan Lorenzen. I knew nothing about Westport. I went to the AAA Guide, which called it “a quaint fishing village and artists’ colony on Long Island Sound.” I was not interested, but I went to see it.

The old Staples High School on Riverside Avenue was abandoned and shuttered. I called [assistant superintendent of schools] Frank Graff, who urged me to come to his office. I had that day one of the most fascinating interviews of my life. Frank and Stan took me to lunch at the Clam Box, then back to their office. It was a lengthy conversation. I was 28 years old, and they got to know me as well as anyone had at that time. We talked about me, my life, what I read and thought, my sixth grade classes, and my military experience. I kept waiting for a question about my [college] grades, but they never asked. I had not seen the likes of Stan Lorenzen in any of my best professors. He was a gentleman – old school – preppy perhaps, yet a man who commanded your attention and respect.

At the end, Frank and Stan looked at each other and said, “Should we tell him the bad news?” They were going to hire me without telling the department chairman. Frank asked, “Do you have any objections to working for a woman?” I said no. He called V. Louise Higgins. She sounded like Auntie Mame: “Dear boy, I understand you’ve been hired over my dead body.” “Yes ma’am…certainly ma’am…” et cetera, et cetera. I had no idea what I was getting into.

Staples was moving into its liberal era. Parents were very involved in the schools, and they were liberal people. Staples embraced the Kennedy years.

Karl Decker in 1970. Many of those veteran teachers he learned from were still teaching then.

But there was also an overlap with some grand old people: Albie Loeffler, Edna Kearns, Jeannette Atkins, Charlotte MacLear, Dorothy Keith, Bea Wolynec, Hans Johnson, Harold Allen. Either I gravitated toward them or they embraced me, but I was looked after by them. That old gang had been at the old school with its creaky floors in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Now they’d come up to North Avenue, and suddenly were surrounded by lots of young teachers. It was probably hard on them, but they made a point to speak to the young teachers. They were in touch with us, and took us seriously. I sensed a very caring relationship.

Louise was busily nurturing her new department. She visited my class, and with a fascinating look asked me where I got my information. “My old college notes!” I said with enthusiasm. “Interesting. Have you considered burning them?” And she walked out. But at the same time, she encouraged me to learn to teach all the sophomore classes. People ask why I stayed at Staples so long. Even in the early days, people wondered. I think it was because I was left alone. I was trusted.

I was given an office with Tony Arciola. I thought it was remarkable he’d been teaching for seven years! One of the first things he told me was: “Find out where the kids are; find out what they need – then take them there.” That stuck in my mind all the years I was there.

When I came in 1960 there was a massive book called “Scope and Sequence,” written by V. Louise and Gladys Mansir. That was the curriculum, and you followed it. It provided new teachers with the books, writing and grammar lessons they needed. That was okay for the ’50s, but it disappeared when electives came in.

I taught 2D with Garry Meyers. Stan Lorenzen’s instructions were: “Keep the kids in the room for the length of the period.” They were a great bunch of kids. We took them to New York on field trips, and they carried my own young kids around on their shoulders. We wrote, read and had homework every day. That’s when I started journal writing and the daybook concept, which I later used in other classes.

The mid-‘60s brought changes so big and swift that V. Louise quit as chairman. Tony Arciola took over. Rhoda Harvey was the voice in the middle: “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” She and V. Louise both saw that the traditional core of instruction – literature, vocabulary structure, formal writing – was being threatened by electives that were being pushed by new teachers like Joe Duggan, Frank Weiner, Jay Heitin, Rich Bradley and Garry Meyers.

Karl Decker, 1978.

In English 4E – Experimental English – the kids built the curriculum. There was modern dance, theater, photography, lots of journal writing, field trips – we all tried to make it look viably English. That was the beginning of the electives program. We responded to what the kids wanted and what the parents were saying, about the need for women’s studies and black literature. All kinds of things became semester courses.

English 2, 2C, 3, 4, 4A lost their definition during the experimental years. So we had to spend a lot of time in the ’70s and early ’80s writing curriculum guides. The concept of the old analytical essays was dropped, thank God – they were cumbersome, tedious, and had nothing to do with what students thought, felt or knew.

I taught grammar, composition and Myth and Bible, but eventually I went back to full-year courses because I missed the continuity with the kids. We’d just get into something, and the semester was over – or even the quarter, because we also had quarter courses. Then in the ’80s I became enamored of teaching all four years: freshman, sophomore, junior and senior.

I taught 1C and 2C. I followed Tony’s advice: “Find out what the kids need, and take them there.” Some were angry kids with problems. We did relevant reading – Jon Krakauer, the same as the Advanced Placement kids were reading — not watered-down young adult literature. We read stories out of the New Yorker, Harper’s and the New York Times Magazine. It may have taken three weeks to get through one article, but they read it, they wrote about it, and they did vocabulary based on it.

Karl Decker, 1995.

I taught A-level sophomores – scrubbed, bright kids — and senior English, which was not leveled. I called my junior and senior classes English 3AAA and 4AAA. [Principal] Marv [Jaffe] once asked, “Karl, what the f— is this AAA?” I told him and he said, “Screw you” – but he hung around to find out what it was all about, and he supported me.

But the changes we’d been through had been absolutely right for the times. [Principal] Jim Calkins came at the right time for Staples, and accommodated the changes. He didn’t wear a necktie. He wandered the campus, and talked to kids. He was so visible. Some things failed miserably, but he was willing to try everything. We had speakers – Paul Newman came – and productions. Adults were always popping in to class – you would find them in the cafeteria, all over. They had come to Westport for great schools, and they wanted to be part of it all.

The English department was probably seen as a bunch of liberal-radical oddballs. I remember older teachers in other departments like Werner Friess, Frank Gilmore and Charlie Burke vilifying us at every turn. But others, like Clarence Berger, would hang around the English department, wearing his old filthy lab coat. A bunch of us ate lunch in Room 615 every day – Clarence, Tony Arciola, Harold Allen — a great cross-section of old-timers and young bucks.

I had the nickname “D-Minus Decker.” I established very clear protocols, very early on. Everything was spelled right out. Late papers: I don’t accept them. Missing papers: I don’t accept them. The initial squirming and squealing ended after the first couple of weeks – after the first person lost out on a paper.

I had a style sheet: You prepare your paper this way. No extensions, no exceptions – and I stuck by it. I said, “If you have a problem with an assignment, have it before it’s due.” I spent very little time fighting and arguing with parents over grades, because they knew. Of course, there were exceptions. When a girl fell through the ceiling of the auditorium, I told her in the hospital, “You’ll have an extension.”

Everyone else ended up giving A’s, and I did not. I told the students: “I do not grade you fairly; I grade you accurately.” [French teacher] Jeannette Atkins clued me in on that: If you give an A early, you can’t show how they progress or don’t progress. She started everyone off with a C. No college ever sees that first grade. You have to show where kids are going, not where they were or are.

Karl Decker was an avid reader of the New Yorker. He kept many issues — including this from 1934.

By the time [department chairman] Jerry Brooker arrived, each of us knew our courses exactly. We were teaching to our strengths. But mastery tests were being whispered about – this was the early ’90s, maybe earlier – and there was more pressure to spell things out exactly.

Standardized testing never served any purpose for anyone at any time, anywhere, anyhow. It got a foothold at Staples because of state politics. There was a teacher enhancement grant back in the ’80s. The idea was to make salaries more equal across the state. Salaries up in Danielson were 30 to 40 percent less than in Westport. So the state legislature needed to make sure teachers were doing the work. That was the beginning of the state mastery test program. As far as I’m concerned, tests serve the superintendents, boards of education and real estate people. This was a matter over which [principal] Gloria Rakovic and I had words. One day 20 of my kids walked out, led by Dave Fuchs, and into the cafeteria. She asked what I had told my students. I said, “They asked my opinion of the tests, and I did what I always do: I told them.”

We ended up all teaching the same thing, at the same time, in the same way. That eliminates the idea of “Where is that kid, and what does he need?” It also eliminates the teacher’s talents, and what he can give. I prepared the kids for the tests, I gave them samples, I showed them how to do it – but it kills inquiry, it kills creativity, it kills discovery. It kills the very purpose of what a classroom should be: a place to find out new things, find out who you are, what you believe, where you want to go. You need the freedom to look around and ask questions. Before every class started, we always had those questions. And 9 times out of 10, they started the class off the way it needed to go.

Don’t get me wrong. When I came in 1960, I had absolutely no sense of how long I’d stay. But I never looked anywhere else. I retired in 1999. I always liked Monday mornings, and I always looked forward to September.

Karl Decker, at his beloved Townshend, Vermont home.

Staples: Full In-Person Learning Begins March 25

More than a year after going fully remote — and after beginning the 2020-21 school year at 50% capacity, then transitioning to 75% this winter — Staples High School returns to full in-person education on March 25.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice says:

The district maintained a very conservative approach to our schooling models for the first half of the year. Nearly 7 weeks ago, based on our local experience, input from our public health partners, and a projected drop in infection rates, we reopened our elementary and middle schools for full in-person learning.

Additionally, on March 1, Staples High School increased access for students by implementing a 3 day a week, 75% in-person model.

Since then, our faculty and staff have done a remarkable job and we have experienced great success. The work of our professional educators this year simply cannot be overstated.

We continue to maintain a responsibility to minimizing virus spread in our community. Yet we must balance that responsibility with our obligations to overall student wellness, most significantly, their mental and emotional well-being. As a result, on Thursday March 25, Staples High School will reopen for full in-person learning.

Staples High School’s parking lots will be more filled on March 25. (Drone photo/Brandon Malin)

Contact Tracing and Quarantines 
In reviewing local data, I found that we have contact traced and quarantined over 2,800 students and adults this year. Out of the 2,800+ quarantined, only 6 who were determined to be close contacts (.002%) have tested positive for COVID.

Additionally, to our knowledge, of the 232 students who have tested positive for COVID, there have been zero known cases of “student to adult virus transmission,” and zero known cases of students experiencing serious health complications as a result of infection.

As a result of this data, we engaged the health district to seek support for revisiting the definition of a close contact, and the duration of quarantines.  Currently, close contacts are defined as being within 6 feet of a known positive COVID case for an accumulation of 15 minutes, while quarantines for close contacts are 10 days in length.

Based on our data, we will now begin to define close contacts as those within 3 feet of a known COVID positive case, not 6 feet. Recent literature has pointed to this change in guidance. Considering that our entire population is masked at all times, our local health district and medical advisor support this change as well.  We will continue to monitor our practices and make adjustments as needed.

However, given the trends in data collected by the health district, we will continue to recommend a 10 day quarantine for those determined to be close contacts. Although the CDC allows for a 70day quarantine following a negative test on day 5, the health district shared that there are more than a few cases in the community, not in our schools, in which a close contact tested positive after day 7. A change was made to reduce the length of quarantine in December from 14 days to 10 days. This standard will remain for the foreseeable future.

“Sophie in Quarantine” (Claudia Rossman)

Early Dismissals
In an effort to provide additional time to support our distance learners, and to accommodate our teachers who have taken on additional responsibilities during arrival and dismissal, the Wednesday early dismissals will continue for the foreseeable future.

However, Staples will begin to provide in-person learning on our Wednesday early dismissals beginning on April 21 within the new full in-person model beginning March 25. Our middle schools are working to revisit their schedule following the April break. More information will be forthcoming about any potential changes to the middle school schedule in the near future.

Travel Guidance 
On March 19, 2021, Governor Lamont’s Executive Order 9S regarding travel will change from an executive order to a recommended practice. Under this order, anyone traveling outside of New York, New Jersey or Rhode Island, for a period of time longer than 24 hours, requires a negative COVID test within 72 hours of return to CT, or a 10 day quarantine.

If using the testing option, an individual should remain in self-quarantine until a negative test is obtained. In collaboration with the WWHD and our medical advisor, the district will continue to support this practice. Please contact your school nurse if you have any questions.

Ending the Year with Normalcy
We have placed a high priority on ending the year with as much “normalcy” as possible. Our thinking is that the more normalcy we end the year with, the easier it will be to start the new year with normalcy. As we plan our end-of-year events and the daily operations, we will look to continue to bring a sense of normalcy to our schools.

Roundup: Long Lots Readers, Nature …

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Long Lots Elementary School students love to read. And they love sharing books with others.

The other day, as part of a “Reading Across America” project, students and staff brought in 1,200 new and gently used K-5 children’s books. Bridgeport’s Lighthouse Program will donate them throughout the city. Westport and Bridgeport Police officers, and Connecticut State Police, helped with collection and distribution.

Way to go, Long Lots Lions! (Hat tip: Ned Batlin)

(Photo/Trooper P. Muniz)

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Sure, you lost an hour of sleep last night. But look what this late winter day has given us:

Blooming crocuses on Riverside Avenue (Photo/Katherine Ross)

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Michael Catarevas writes:

“This is what happens when the neighbor on one side has a deer fence on their property, and the other side neighbor’s backyard is swampy. We have drainage pipes in the backyard, so the ground is nice and dry.”

(Photo/Michael Catarevas)

And finally … On this day in 1794, Connecticut’s own Eli Whitney received a patent for the cotton gin.

Pre-Schoolers Make Mars Lander

When Perseverance landed on Mars last month, it captured the imaginations of people around the globe.

Among the awestruck viewers: 9 boys, 5 girls and 3 teachers at the Westport Weston Cooperative Nursery School.

They talked about the event during their morning meeting. When the teachers asked if the 3- and 4-year-olds would like to build their own “Mars lander,” they said of course! 

The staff printed out photos of Perseverance, its helicopter, NASA’s control room and the Martian landscape.

Parents contributed old technology items (remote controls, cameras), metals, shiny objects, cans, heels, colanders, wire, tape — you name it.

Children first made “solar panels” and “heat shields.” They cut pieces from a space blanket, and glued them on matte board.

We’re going to Mars!

They brainstormed ideas. It needed an antenna. A claw. A unicorn rover. And, of course, a bathroom.

On the 3rd day — with strict supervision — the youngsters drilled holes in the wood plank, to attached the panels.

Veteran Westport science teacher Frank Cronson visited, with a Lego rover model. He told them about Mars’ lower gravity, and where the reddish color comes from (iron oxide).

One day, the children built a papier-mâché crater, and painted it red.

They read books about rockets and planets. They sang planet songs. and colored drawings about the planets.

It was a great adventure. And who knows? One day, a little girl or boy from the Cooperative Nursery School may set foot on Mars.

All they need is a little inspiration from their teachers. The opportunity to dream.

And of course, perseverance.

March 11, 2020: The Day COVID Crushed Our Town

On Sunday, March 8, 2020, town officials hosted a community forum on COVID-19, at the Westport Library.

“A small, well-spaced-apart crowd was joined by many more online participants this afternoon,” I wrote.

“Presentations were clear and cogent; questions were wide-ranging and thoughtful; answers were direct and honest.” Topics included schools, the Senior Center, restaurants, Metro-North, budget implications, gyms and the YMCA.

1st Selectman Jim Marpe (far right), at the March 8 COVID-19 panel.

The key takeaways:

  • There were dozens of “what-ifs.”
  • The best precautions included rigorous hand-washing, frequent cleaning of surfaces, and careful monitoring of surroundings and contacts.
  • It was virtually inevitable that COVID would come to Westport.

In fact, it already had.

State Representative Jonathan Steinberg (left),and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe demonstrated the best way to say hello, COVID-19-style.

Three days later — on Wednesday, March 11 — fear had heightened considerably.

A student at Staples High School asked me if I thought schools would close. “Maybe Monday,” I replied.

That night I was supposed to have dinner with my sister and nephews in New York, and see Andy Borowitz. We texted all day about what to do. With trepidation, we said: Let’s go for it.

Suddenly, news came that Westport schools were closing. A news conference was quickly planned for outside Town Hall. Forget dinner, I texted. I have to cover this.

The weather outside Town Hall was beautiful, I reported. But the officials on the front steps were grim.

1st Selectman Jim Marpe, Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper and others outlined the day’s rapid developments.

Flanked by town officials, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe announces COVID-19 news.

They noted a private party in Westport the previous Thursday, March 5. Of the 40 or so attendees — of all ages — 14 reported coronavirus-like symptoms.

“It’s likely many people were exposed,” Cooper said. “And others will be.”

Schools would be closed indefinitely, for deep cleaning. Also shut: Town Hall. All meetings, including the Board of Finance budget. The Senior Center. Toquet Hall. The Westport Library (until Monday).

Marpe noted that private institutions must decide for themselves which events to cancel. “We recognize these are tough decisions,” he said.

Print and television reporters kept their distance from each other, at the press conference on the steps of Town Hall. (Photos/Dan Woog)

I still planned one last hurrah that night in New York.

I never went. Midway through writing my story, I got a text. Andy Borowitz had canceled.

The next day, I walked downtown.

The scene was surreal. Main Street was abandoned. Stores were shut; every parking spot was open.

A friend in an office above Brooks Corner spotted me. We talked for an hour. He runs a summer camp. He had no idea if — or how — he’d be affected. We agreed: None of us knew what’s ahead. But suddenly we were very, very worried.

One of my fears was that with Westport locked down, I’d have nothing to write about.

An hour or so after the Westport Public Schools announced they were closing, Trader Joe’s looked like the day before a snowstorm. (Photo/Armelle Pouriche)

I could not have been more wrong.

After returning home, I did not leave for the next 4 days. I wrote constantly. There were stories everywhere.

I wrote about:

  • Constantly changing advice on numbers and safety precautions
  • Store closures: How to get food
  • Church closures: What to expect for Easter and Passover
  • What students should expect, with schools closed
  • The emotions of the Staples girls’ basketball team; COVID canceled the state tournament, just as they reached the semifinals
  • The lack of test kits
  • A raging debate on whether “small gatherings” were okay. “It’s not a snow day!” one news story reported. Some in Westport disagreed.

And of course, I wrote about the beach.

The weekend was gorgeous. Stuck at home Thursday and Friday, Westporters flocked to Compo. Some wore masks. Most did not. Some practiced that new concept: social distancing. Others did not.

Compo Beach, March 13, 2020 (Photo/Jo Shields Sherman)

Alarmed, Marpe shut the Compo and Burying Hill parking lots, and the Compo playground.

Some Westporters applauded his action.

Others protested. They drove to the beach, and parked up and down Soundview Drive.

Police issued tickets. But they were playing whack-a-mole. As soon as one beachgoer left, another arrived.

With the parking lot closed, folks parked up and down the exit road.

All that was within the first 96 hours of COVID in Westport.

It’s been here since.

I realized quickly that I would not run out of stories.

The pandemic has affected every aspect of life here. I’ve written about:

  • The return of college students and 20-somethings to their parents’ homes
  • The continued fallout from “the party”
  • Mental and physical health
  • Westporters of all ages coming together: teenagers shopping for the elderly; women making masks (and yarn bombing trees); churches providing meals; children painting positive messages on rocks
  • Where to find toilet paper, paper towels and Lysol
  • Businesses and restaurants that closed — and new ones that opened
  • Pop-up entertainment, like the Remarkable Theater and a Staples grad who sings opera
  • How to access business loans and other help
  • Hybrid education, Staples’ unique graduation, and the virtual Candlelight Concert
  • 12-step programs, religious services and more online
  • App developers who help the world trace contacts, visualize impacts, connect with others
  • Virtual programming: the Westport Library, JoyRide, non-profit fundraisers and more
  • Where to get tested, and how to get a vaccine.

One of the yarn bomber’s first works, at fire headquarters. (Photo/Molly Alger)

One year ago today, I stood on the steps of Town Hall. I still thought I could get to New York that night.

I haven’t been back since.

This has been a year like no other. Every man, woman and child in Westport has been affected.

We’ve lost 28 neighbors. Over 1,400 here have been diagnosed with COVID. If we did not believe that COVID was real on March 10 last year, we sure did on March 11.

Soon, “06880” will look ahead. We’ll try to figure out what March 11, 2022 will feel like.

But today, let’s look back. We want to hear your thoughts on the past year.

What did the town do right? Wrong? What are you most proud of, or regret the most? How did your life change?

Click “Comments” below.

And remember: Wear a mask!

James Dobin-Smith created the OneWestport.com website in a matter of days. It provided up to date information on what’s open and cloed, all around town.

Remembering Paul Kelly

Paul Kelly — a Wall Street visionary and philanthropist — died last week in Westport, from complications associated with COVID-19. He was 81 years old.

Born in Boston and raised in Wellesley Massachusetts, Paul was an avid Red Sox and Patriots fan, a lifelong tennis enthusiast, and a music lover who enjoyed both opera and Little Richard.

Paul and Nancy, his wife of 43 years, and their 4 daughters lived on Sherwood Mill Pond for over 30 years. They enjoyed hosting events like family weddings and clambakes.

Paul had a deep, enduring love for the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated with a BA in English (1962), and an MBA in Finance from Wharton (’64).

Paul was a trustee emeritus of Penn, an overseer of its College of Arts & Sciences, and an advisor and director of the Huntsman Program in International Studies & Business.

Paul credited his education with helping him develop a keen understanding of economics and financial markets. He made important impacts on the industry by introducing new financing concepts to the capital markets. He originated financing techniques like commercial paper issuance and publicly-issued preferred stock for bank holding companies, as well as short-term collateral trust notes for mortgage banking companies.

Paul Kelly

In the early 1970’s, Paul identified untapped Japanese investment potential. He formed his own merchant and investment banks, Peers & Co. and Knox & Co. He became an expert on the Japanese market, and was featured on NBC, The Wall Street Journal Report, PBS, and in Forbes and Fortune magazine.

Paul continued to expand his business in Asia and the Pacific Basin, most recently in China where he met with President Xi and Jack Ma, former chair of Alibaba Group, to discuss financial and educational opportunities.

He also founded the U.S–China Future Leaders Program, for graduate students to promote mutual understanding and respect between the nations.

In the 1990’s Paul expanded into the real estate market in New Zealand, where he purchased a large swath of coastal land on the North Island. He developed the Carrington Club, a world class golf resort, and Karikari Estate Vineyards, whose wines have won gold medals in world competition. He was also a member of the Confrerie de Chevaliers du Tastevin, an international organization of vineyard owners and wine enthusiasts.

In 1998, Paul supported the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers’ House for literary discussions and social enjoyment for students. KWH has hosted lectures by Gay Talese, Susan Sontag, John Updike and other writers and poets, becoming an innovative model of excellence for other colleges.

Paul had a lifelong commitment to the welfare of students worldwide, especially those requiring financial support. He established the Kelly Family Foundation to benefit educational initiatives including a program to aid Maori students at the University of Auckland.

In addition to his educational interests, Paul was a member of the director’s advisory board of the Yale Cancer Center and the Visionary Council of MIT Collaborative Initiatives, developing medical and health care programs.

A man of integrity and vision, Paul is remembered as a witty conversationalist with a generous heart, an appreciation for wine and dark chocolate, and an aversion to all things technological.

Paul is survived by his wife Nancy; daughters Courteney (Jame), Lindsay (Patrick), Whitney (Matthew), Brooke (Alberto), and 9 grandchildren; Paul his sister Nancy. and nieces Tina and Amanda.

Memorial gifts may be made in Paul’s name to Alzheimer’s Association.