Category Archives: Education

Unsung Hero #88

Little things mean a lot.

This year, Greens Farms Elementary School is performing its first play: “The Lion King.”

Director/producer Laura Pendergast — a GFS parent — and teachers Ellen Hardy and Suzanne Sherman Propp have prepared for months for this week’s show.

Dozens of school hours, plenty of work at home, and countless contributions from parent volunteers have gone into the production.

A crucial full-cast rehearsal was scheduled for last Saturday. Then, disaster struck. In anticipation of snow, all Westport school activities for that day were canceled.

Finding space for 70 children seemed impossible. Realizing that Town Hall auditorium might be an option, GFS parent Danielle Dobin called 1st Selectman Jim Marpe.

Rev. Jeffrey Rider

It was not available. But Marpe suggested she contact Greens Farms Congregational Church, and ask about using the Fellowship Hall.

It was Friday evening. Danielle called Rev. Jeff Rider. She did not know him at all — they’d never met or spoken.

He said he’d check the calendar. Soon, he said the space was free — and that GFS was more than welcome to use it.

The location — smack in the middle of the Greens Farms neighborhood — was very convenient. The room was perfect. The cost was free.

And on Monday — when Westport schools were closed because of the overnight storm — Greens Farms Church opened its doors again, for another rehearsal.

Speaking for the entire GFS community, and citing his flexibility and generosity, Danielle nominates Rev. Rider as “06880”‘s Unsung Hero this week.

As she notes: “Thanks to Rev. Jeff, we went from stressed out to Hakuna Matata in no time flat.”

(Do you know an Unsung Hero? Send nominations to dwoog@optonline.net)

The show must go on: Rehearsing in the Greens Farms Church Fellowship Hall.

Middle School Actors Get Star Treatment

Coleytown Middle School students have lost their auditorium. But Coleytown Company — the school’s drama troupe — has not lost a step. In true theatrical fashion, the show must go on.

This spring’s production is “42nd Street.” Guest stars include Amiee Turner (who was in the original show) and Megan Osterhaus (who played Mary Poppins opposite Gavin Lee’s Bert on Broadway).

Coleytown Company director Ben Frimmer — who saw Lee in “Mary Poppins,” “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “The Grinch” — realized he’d be a great guest artist, to work with his middle school actors.

Osterhaus made the connection. Yesterday, the magic happened.

And — because the two middle schools are now one — Frimmer invited the Bedford acting troupe too. Over 140 students from both schools had a blast.

Gavin Lee talked about his craft …

Many students seemed familiar with “Mary Poppins.” But they were gaga over the SpongeBob credit.

Lee passed out lyrics to that show’s opening song, and described the back story of the musical. Then he taught the words — and the intention behind them — to the song “Bikini Bottom Day.”

After the kids belted them out, Lee taught the choreography. Students spilled off the stage, onto the extension built for “42nd Street,” and into the aisles.

They took turns dancing and singing. They cheered each other on. They loved it.

… and then worked closely with the Coleytown and Bedford Middle School youngsters.

Lee then discussed characters. Volunteers read a few scenes with the actor.

Next, he asked a group of “42nd Street” tappers to show him the opening number. He gave important feedback on performance and precision. They all listened intently.

The workshop ended with a Q-and-A. It might still be going, if Frimmer had not finally called a halt.

The young Coleytown and Bedford actors enjoyed the fun, educational afternoon.

They also enjoyed being one group. Two is indeed “company.”

Happy Birthday, Marian Anderson!

Marian Anderson was born 119 years ago today. The vibrant, ground-breaking contralto is remembered still for historic acts like her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, and for inspiring young black singers like Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman. Next year, she will appear — along with Eleanor Roosevelt — on the back of the redesigned US $5 bill.

Suzanne Sherman Propp remembers Marian Anderson for another reason. In 1973, Suzanne was a 3rd grader at Bedford Elementary School (now Town Hall). A staff member wrote a play about the famous singer — and cast Suzanne in that role. Then she invited Marian Anderson to come.

It’s an amazing story. And here to tell it is Suzanne Sherman Propp:

The playwright, Realand Uddyback, was a teacher at Bedford Elementary. Art teacher Ed Clarke did the sets, and music teacher Judy Miller Wheeler was the music director.

Besides asking me to play a young Marian Anderson, Mrs. Uddyback cast a black student, Robin Spencer, in the role of Marian’s white teacher.

Kids asked Mrs. Uddyback if they were going to paint my face with black make-up, and Robin’s with white make-up. She adamantly replied, “Of course not! I chose the best actresses to play the roles. The color of their skin does not matter.  That’s the whole point!”

I sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” plus several songs written just for the play. One was “I like vanilla, it’s just like me: Plain when you see it, but, oh what it can be.” I think I still have the script.

Mrs. Uddyback boldly invited Marian Anderson, who was living in Danbury at the time, to see the play. To this day I cannot believe she actually showed up.

Here’s a photo of me, Robin and Marian Anderson. Also in the photo, at top left, is Cindy Gibb. She graduated with me from Staples in 1981, and went on to an acting career in “Fame” and “Search for Tomorrow.” She’s now a vocal coach in Westport.

Today, Suzanne Sherman Propp is a music teacher at Greens Farms Elementary School. Every morning, she posts a very popular “Sing Daily! Song of the Day.”

Today’s is special: A clip of Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused permission for her to sing to an integrated audience in their Constitution Hall. Click here to see and hear!

It’s a thoughtful birthday honor for a true American hero. And a very fitting end to Black History Month.

Marian Anderson (2nd from left) applauding Suzanne Sherman Propp’s performance. With her are (from left) her friend Elizabeth Hughes; Ruth Steinkraus Cohen, president of the Westport-Weston Arts Council; Bridgeport schools superintendent Howard Rosenstein, and James Curiale, Bridgeport school aide in charge of Project Concern at Bedford Elementary School.

Mark Lassoff: A Framework For Technical Education

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

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

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

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

Ten years ago, he moved back to Connecticut.

Mark Lassoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teachers Whip Up A Tasty Day

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

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

Yesterday, many more people got in the act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Westport teachers cook for the community.

The World’s Greatest Snow Day Announcement. Ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this video is priceless.

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

Westport’s Goal: A World Record Duck

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

This spring, he gets a companion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quack!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alyson Luck (right) at work.

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

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

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

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

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

Alyson Luck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State Of The Town

Presidents have their State of the Union address.*

Governors have their State of the State.

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

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

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

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

*Sometimes.

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

Staples Offers New Pathways To Success

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

At Staples High School, that now includes Pathways Academy.

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

That’s the long description.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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