Category Archives: People

College Consultant: “Develop Who You Are. Don’t Cheat.”

The recent college admissions scandal — that gross, hydra-headed monster involving enormous bribes, test-taking ringers and fake photos of teenagers “playing” sports they never even tried — has mesmerized many Westport parents and students.

Plenty of educational consultants too.

Richard Avitabile

Richard Avitabile has seen both sides of the process. He’s directed college admissions offices. Since 2002 he’s been a counselor with Steinbrecher & Partners, the Westport-based group that helps students from around the globe make appropriate educational choices — not just for college, but secondary school, therapeutic programs and graduate options as well.

He’s a parent, too.

“This is so entwined with how our society thinks about education, college and success. It’s opened a Pandora’s box,” Avitabile says of the arrest of 50 adults — including the mastermind of the long-running scam — earlier this month.

“This story makes us all wonder what we’ve been doing with our professional careers.”

Yet he is wary of painting all educational consultants with the same brush.

“The goal of independent counselors is to help kids negotiate a complex process, and find a way to succeed,” he says.

“At our core, we’ve always felt that students’ hard work, and the interests they’ve developed, have been the reason for their success.”

After the news broke, he spoke with colleagues across the country. They believe the scandal involves “a very small number of applicants, and a very small number of colleges and universities.”

But because of the sensational nature of the offenses — along with the money and Big Names involved — the story has legs.

The internet was brutal after news broke that Lori Loughlin and her husband paid $500,000 for her 2 daughters to be admitted to the University of Southern California as crew athletes — though neither ever rowed.

“Most students get good grades and work on their test scores without having someone do it for them,” Avitabile notes. “We tell them, ‘develop your own life, and chances are good you’ll have great opportunities and options for college.'”

What Rick Singer, his clients and a few coaches and unscrupulous educators have done “devalues the worth of students,” says Avitabile. “These parents somehow felt they had to rig the system for their kids. I don’t think those families had to do that.

“I’ve spent a lot of time telling families there are opportunities, without playing this game. You can find the right college for your child. We’ve helped them do that for years.”

It’s not easy, he admits. Educational consultants help people with means (and plenty of pro bono clients) through the long process.

Steinbrecher & Partners — and many other educational consultants — often assist families who lack the financial or other resources that well-heeled clients have. “We truly enjoy working with students who are eager for an education, helping match them to a school that’s right for them,” Avitabile says.

Most educational consultants help students focus on their passions, and choose a school that is right for them.

He is not surprised that some people try to use the system for their own ends. He is, however, dismayed that Singer — someone he calls “not an educational professional” — developed “a band of people who helped others commit fraud. They were not helping students through the process. They were thieves.”

Parents often ask Avitabile and his colleagues, “how can I be sure my child is admitted to [insert name or type of school]?”

“We spent a lot of time explaining that there are no guarantees,” he says. “At some schools 75% of the applicants are qualified, but fewer than 10% get in.”

So his message to students (and parents) is: “Develop who you are, in and out of the classroom. Pursue experiences that interest you. Work on talents or activities that fit your personality and goals. Don’t do something because it’s what you think a college wants. Become the person you are proud of, then find the places that meet your characteristics.”

After 17 years as an educational consultant — and 3 decades before that in college admissions — Avitabile is convinced that many families can make excellent decisions about college.

“I love it when a student takes the lead, and parents support the goals their child has for education,” he says. “Our thrust from the beginning is to put students in charge.

“If we listen to them, we can avoid bad intentions. Students can achieve what they want without illegal actions.”

Walker Marsh Reports From Mozambique: We Need Urgent Help!

Westporters are everywhere — including Mozambique.

The African nation just suffered a catastrophic cyclone. It hasn’t gotten much press here. 

Walker Marsh — a 2013 Staples High School graduate — is serving there in the Peace Corps. He sends this harrowing report — and desperate plea for help.

Early Friday morning March 15, my city of Beira was hit by Cyclone Idai. It caused mass destruction throughout the central region of Mozambique, and bordering Zimbabwe and Malawi.

I am serving 50 miles as the crow flies from the provincial capital. My district has suffered unfathomable flooding. The photos I have seen are jarring and terrifying.

Mozambique has been my home for the past 18 months. To see it ravaged is heartbreaking.

The people of Mozambique are the most resilient I have known in my life. I know that together we will rebuild.

On Monday (March 18) I managed to catch a flight from Beira to Maputo via Nampula, to be able to access the internet. Since the cyclone hit we have been without electricity, communication, fuel, food, drinking water, road connections, ATMs and banks.

The cyclone left behind death and destruction. Schools, our office and the hospitals that have remained standing are the refuge of hundreds of families who lost everything.

Dozens of stranded Mozambicans huddle on buildings without roofs.

The roof of the hospital in Beira has fallen. Five newborns died, along with another 160 in the facility. There is no standing light pole. Trees block the streets. No shop or market is operational. We ate only eaten oranges and avocados for 3 days, and rationed drinking water.

The wind was so strong that it launched air conditioner motors from walls to nearby roofs. Small animals were also blown away, and now hang dead on trees or roofs.

The wind reached more than 140 miles an hour. No window or door resisted the fury of seawater, sand, stones and everything else it encountered on the way. Roofs turned into sheets that wedged inside houses.

Houses became swimming pools. We protected ourselves with mattresses, to avoid being hit by glass and objects. The house I rented for the past 5 years in front of the beach fell apart.

This nightmare lasted for hours. The last hour was the most dangerous. The wind diminished for a few minutes, before attacking more forcefully and destroying the last remaining homes.

The devastating aftermath of Cyclone Idai.

The next day I asked 2 sailors to go to Barada’s mission to get some information, but the sea and wind did not allow navigation. I asked one of our drivers to take the land route, but after 25 miles he had to go back to the city. The road had been swallowed up. In its place was a lake filled with crocodiles, surrounded by people trapped in trees.

People who walked for 2 days to Beira told me that entire villages with homes and people disappeared. The president of Mozambique announced that several districts are completely isolated from the rest of the word. He expressed great concern about the diseases, calamities and number of human casualties expected. Aerial photos show hundreds of bodies floating in rivers. At night, groups of people wander around.

After 4 days I have received a bit of information about our Peace Corps missions.

Machanga: The boarding school has no more roofs. Students sleep under trees.

Estaquinha: More than 100 tons of corn (food for 4 months in our boarding schools) is gone. All agricultural machines are underwater. An investment of 200,000 euros was swallowed by water.

Mangunde: Part of the school, boarding school and health center lost roofs. Communities around the mission are completely flooded.

Barada, on the beach: I have no news yet. I fear for the worst.

Our new Beira office is almost destroyed. Armed police, guards and our 3 dogs stand guard day and night.

Before the cyclone, Walker Marsh (front row, far right) posed with colleagues at the school where he works.

It continues to rain heavily. The forecast is for more rain for days. Rivers continue to rise. Neighboring countries are also affected by heavy rains. They may open dams to avoid collapse.  That would cause more floods in Mozambique.

I am dismayed and shattered by this Dante-esque scenario. I see panic in the faces of those who now fear for their lives, and those of their loved ones. We need urgent help.

Here is how you can donate:

Save the Children: Cyclone Idai Children’s Relief Fund

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: Mozambique – Tropical Strom Idai Campaign

Oxfam: Cyclone Idai Appeal

United Nations: Mozambique Cyclone United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund

Gorongosa National Park: Cyclone Relief Fund

Humanity & Inclusion: Help Mozambique

(To contact Walker directly, email WalkerMarsh9@gmail.com)

Walker Marsh

Ned Lamont Has To Go

Alert “06880” reader/Donut Crazy fan John Karrel was minding his own business, drinking an iced coffee and sitting on a sofa in the sugar-laden shop on the eastbound side of the train station around 3 this afternoon.

All of a sudden, in walked Governor Lamont, with 2 of his security detail.

Was he there for a strawberry frosted sprinkle donut? A cinnamon sugar cake? Perhaps one with shamrocks (special for St. Patrick’s Day week)?

Maybe the state’s chief executive was checking on the progress of our Transit Oriented Design Master Plan Committee?

Nope.

The governor had to use the restroom.

As he was leaving — without ordering — John chatted him up. They exchanged pleasantries.

No one else recognized him.

Par for the course, when it comes to Fairfield County and Hartford politicians?

Or crazy?

Have you seen this man? John Karrel did.

Bedford Wins State Science Olympiad; Coleytown Earns Kudos

It’s been a tough year for Coleytown Middle School.

But moving to a new building did not stop some of the students from working hard in preparation for the Connecticut Science Olympiad Tournament.

On Sunday in Farmington, they turned in outstanding performances at the tournament — in all 23 events. 

Coleytown students coached by Keenen Grace finished 7th in the state, including 10 top 5 finishes. The state Olympiad director gave a shout-out during the awards to the CMS students, saying they had done “particularly well” given the circumstances.

The Coleytown Middle School Science Olympiad team…

Meanwhile, Bedford Middle School — coached by Art Ellis, with help from Kat Nicholas and Daniel Cortright — competed as 2 teams. The A team finished 1st.  They’ll represent Connecticut at the Science Olympiad national tournament in June, at Cornell University.

The B team was not far behind, in 3rd place.

Congrats to all our great middle school Olympians!

… and the Bedford Science Olympians.

[OPINION] Larry Weisman: Westport Needs Form Based Zoning

Larry Weisman, his wife (author/journalist Mary-Lou) and their children moved to Westport in 1966. A partner in the Bridgeport law firm of Cohen & Wolf, he’d just finished a stint with the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, defending SNCC workers in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In 1969, Weisman and Manny Margolis won a First Amendment case in the US Supreme Court. They represented Westporter Timothy Breen, a Staples High School graduate who had lost his student deferment after protesting the Vietnam War.

Larry Weisman

In 1979 Weisman moved his practice to Westport, concentrating on zoning law. He has represented the Gorham Island developer, the Gault Saugatuck project, the Westport Library, Aspetuck Town Trust, Compo Beach playground effort, and many other significant projects. 

He is a member of the Coalition for Westport. Most recently, he co-chaired the board of Fairfield County Hospice House, which recently opened a county-wide facility.

Weisman has watched with interest — and alarm — as Westport has grappled with a host of zoning issues. In his mind, the entire foundation of our zoning regulations is wrong. Here’s his solution.

Form Based Codes (FBCs) are an innovative way to manage growth and shape development in a way that reflects a specific idea of what a town should look like. They are intended to promote a mix of uses tailored to the needs and desires of a community.

FBCs are not intended to change existing residential neighborhoods, but to bring new life to business and commercial areas and town centers.

Rather than simply regulating development and density as we do now, Form Based Codes concentrate on relationships between public and private spaces, and the way streets and buildings interact in form and scale to create attractive neighborhoods.

Form Based Zoning is more concerned with the appearance of buildings and their relationship to public spaces and surrounding streets than with the uses of those buildings. The intent of this approach is to improve the appearance of buildings and streetscapes, and avoid the unintended consequences of haphazard development by providing a coherent vision which takes variety and appearance into account.

Many Main Street stores share a common setback.

For example: I can imagine Main Street populated by a mixture of apartments and smaller stores serving residents’ needs, with varying setbacks along both sides of the street to create a more interesting streetscape. I would add cafes and a movie theater to create activity in the evenings and contribute to a sense of community. I imagine the westerly side of Parking Harding Plaza as a park with a playground and other amenities.

Your notion of what Main Street should be may differ from mine. But somewhere from the welter of ideas a consensus will emerge, and an FBC would facilitate its translation into reality.

FBCs have been used to good effect in Manchester, Connecticut, to revitalize an outmoded highway commercial center in the Broad Street area, and on Cape Cod’s Buzzards Bay and Eastham, to create village centers after being bypassed or divided by new highway construction.

An FBC requires a comprehensive plan for the area in question. It lays out streets and public spaces, and suggests a variety of building forms and how they relate to those spaces, promoting a mix of uses and emphasizing the over-all appearance and “character” of the area.

Although we talk endlessly about the “character” of Westport, it is abundantly clear that there is no agreement as to what that “character” is.

For those of us who have lived here for many years it may mean a longing for the past, while for newer arrivals it may mean what Westport looked like when they got here. But most of us recognize “character” when we see it, and we value it in places like Provincetown, Nantucket, the fishing villages of Maine, and the islands of the Caribbean where we vacation. “Character” is more a matter of appearance than anything else.

A summer evening in Provincetown.

But no matter how you define “character,” most of us would agree that our current way of doing things — by strict application and enforcement of an ever-expanding set of restrictive regulations — has produced some undesirable and unattractive results that adversely affect our quality of life.

An FBC requires that we reach consensus as to what we mean by the “character” of Westport, so we can create a comprehensive plan which designates different building forms based on that consensus about the desired appearance and physical character of each part of town. This requires a series of public meetings and surveys with widespread citizen participation. It’s a heavy lift to be sure, but I am confident that done properly, a widely held vision for the future will emerge from the welter of ideas on the subject.

The next step is to work toward the desired result by enacting regulations which are not based on uses or density considerations alone, and which do not value uniformity, but emphasize design considerations, massing of structures, and how they relate to and interact with surrounding streets and public spaces.

For example, in an FBC frontage requirements on the same street might differ for buildings devoted to similar uses to add interest and variety and to avoid the monotony of a wall of boutiques, as on Main Street at present.

There are any number of things that we could do to make the streetscape and the pedestrian experience more interesting, attractive, and interactive, but first we need to discard old notions of zoning by division into districts and strictly regulating use and density, and understand that zoning regulations should be used not only to impose limitations and restrictions, but as effective planning tools with built-in design parameters.

The plaza between Saugatuck Sweets and The Whelk is an excellent example of an innovative use of space.

We need to acknowledge that there is real value in encouraging creativity by relaxing restrictions and providing guidelines and incentives to build in accordance with the community’s vision of what a given area should look like and how it should function.

Westport has suffered too long from lack of planning and lack of a coherent vision for areas such as Main Street and Saugatuck Center. The P&Z, overburdened as it is by new applications and enforcement responsibilities, has demonstrated a disinclination to engage in meaningful long-term planning, as witness the wholly unimaginative and inadequate 2018 Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), as well as the costly studies gathering dust on shelves in the Town Hall.

At the same time, our zoning regulations are sorely in need of comprehensive revision. They are a mix of restrictions on development — some necessary and some, such as parking requirements for medical uses, excessive — and ad hoc reactions to individual cases that have only limited application. They can be difficult to understand and are susceptible to differing interpretations, which leads to inconsistent application. It is my hope that we will one day undertake revision of the zoning regulations, and that when we do, that we give serious consideration to the merits of an FBC.

This is the right time to rethink our priorities, to reform our practices, and to create a coherent vision for our most important neighborhoods, preserving what is worth preserving, planning for orderly, attractive and livable growth and instilling “character” into our most visible and important neighborhoods. A Form Based approach will go a long way toward achieving those goals.

New Saugatuck Story Lab Is The “Write” Place

For nearly 10 years, a suite of offices sat empty on the top floor of 21 Charles Street — the building opposite Tarry Lodge. That’s odd. It’s just a few steps from the train station, there are great restaurants all around, and the view is spectacular.

But the space is now rented. There’s a story there. In fact, there are countless stories.

The new tenant is Fairfield County Story Lab. It’s the brainchild of Carol Dannhauser, a journalist and writing teacher who loves both the written word, and the people who write it.

Carol Dannhauser enjoys working on one of Story Lab’s inviting couches.  

After 30 years with (among others) the New Haven Register and New York Daily News — and a freelance career in books, magazines and documentaries — Dannhauser realized that although writing is a solitary act, writers need solidarity.

She had a nice home office. Yet she’d head to Panera or Starbucks to work. She liked the background buzz. But even with a cup of coffee, she could not sit there forever.

“I was looking for ‘my people,'” Dannhauser says. “There are great writing studios in Westport” — in fact, she’s co-founder of the Fairfield County Writers Studio, elsewhere in the Charles Street building — “but they’re all about teaching,  not actually writing. I wanted a place where people could write, connect and prosper.”

She knows this town is filled with real writers: novelists, playwrights, journalists, children’s book authors, poets — you name it. She figured, “If you build it, they will come.”

She did. And they did.

Working in one of the common areas …

Dannhauser, her husband, and her business partner Diane Salerno spent 5 months renovating the 2,5oo-square foot space. They worked from Dannhauser’s vision: Give writers every type of accommodation they could imagine.

And even some they couldn’t.

There are all kinds of configurations: rooms with desks. Sofas. A quiet room (NO TALKING ALLOWED!). A deadline room (for an extra $100 a week you can lock the door, and race to finish that book or TV project.)

The cafe/kitchen — a corner room with great lighting and a killer view — is stocked with cheese, cookies, coffee, tea and a microwave.

A community room is perfect for a book club meeting, or book launch party.

… and the community room.

There’s also an interview room, a phone room and storyboard room, where groups of creatives can plot ideas. Of course, free WiFi is everywhere.

An attorney offers pro bono advice once a month on issues like copyrights and royalties.

A grand opening recently drew 100 people, including best-selling authors and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe. Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce president Matthew Mandell was there too. He’s excited that Story Lab will draw folks to Saugatuck. And — because you can’t sit and write forever — they’ll get up, go outside, and patronize nearby shops and restaurants.

As well as Mystic Market. The new store in the old Blu Parrot/Arrow had opened just a few days earlier. The market welcomed their new neighbor with a huge plate of cookies.

It’s open from 4 a.m. to 1 a.m. Hey, even writers need to sleep.

(Story Lab memberships range from a day rate to every day for a year, with several options in between. For more information, click here.)

The quiet room is QUIET!

Cocktails For A Pancreatic Cancer Cure

Jen Greely moved to Westport 6 years ago. She met fellow artist Binnie Birstein and was captivated.

“She was quite a character,” Jen says. “She never minced words. But she always gave great feedback to me and other artists.”

Binnie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2017. Jen and fellow members of the Artists Collective of Westport became her caregivers.

“She never spent a single night alone,” Jen says. “We were there 24/7. When her kids came, we gave respite to them too.”

Binnie Birstein with her work, at the Westport Arts Center. (Photo/Jen Greely)

Binnie died this past May. As Jen talked about her mentor, and her experience as a caregiver, with other Saugatuck Elementary School moms, she learned how many people have lost loved ones to pancreatic cancer.

One of those Westporters is Jessica Newshel. A decade ago, her world was thrown into a tailspin as her 50-year-old uncle — healthy, active, the father of 3 — battled the disease.

Jessica Newshel (Bottom left) in 2001, with her uncle Jeffrey Rosenzweig (top right), cousin Steven Rosenzweig and aunt Lizanne Rosenzweig.

He died 6 weeks before Jessica, her relatives and friends walked in a Lustgarten Foundation fundraiser. The organization is the largest private funder of pancreatic cancer research.

Jessica’s family — who also lost their matriarch to pancreatic cancer — provided a large challenge grant to Lustgarten. They also organized several large race events in Westchester, raising over $500,000.

Now Jen, Jessica and fellow Westporter Natalie Kroft have teamed up for their next event. And it’s right here, in their hometown.

“Cocktails for a Cure” — set for Thursday, April 4 (7 p.m., Westport Country Playhouse barn) — includes drinks, light bites from Bartaco, treats and live music.

Jen, Jessica and Natalie all have personal connections to pancreatic cancer. They are doing all they can to raise awareness around the importance of testing, early diagnosis, and research.

They do it for their loved ones. And for all of us.

(Click here for tickets and more information on the April 4 “Cocktails for a Cure.”)

Memorial Fund, Tribute Concert Honor Charlie Karp

Charlie Karp’s death last week stunned and saddened music lovers throughout Fairfield County. The guitarist/songwriter/teacher/mentor — a free spirit who left Staples High School at 16 to play and record with Buddy Miles, then led a rollicking, music-filled life that included stints with great area bands like White Chocolate and Slo Leak — succumbed to liver cancer. He was 65.

But friends and admirers are making sure his name and legacy live on.

A Charlie Karp Memorial Fund has been established to benefit a promising young area musician every year. In addition to funds, it’s been augmented by generous donations of recording studio time by Carriage House Recording Studios of Stamford and Horizon Recording Studios of West Haven.

Tax-deductible checks made payable to Fairfield County’s Community Foundation (put “Charlie Karp Memorial Fund” in the memo) can be sent to Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, 40 Richards Avenue, Norwalk, CT 06854.

Donations may also be made online at www.CharlieKarp.com. Follow instructions under the donation tab.

In addition, arrangements are being made for a memorial concert at the Levitt Pavilion this summer. Nationally recognized and local musicians are already committed. Details will be announced soon..

Other events honoring are being planned too. For more on Charlie Karp, click here.

(Hat tip: Genie Schomer)

Run Over To Fleet Feet

A new store has opened in Sconset Square. You can drive to its grand opening tomorrow.

Better yet, you can run.

Fleet Feet is family owned and operated — part of a network of specialty running, walking and fitness stores across the country. Owners Dave and Lynn Wright have been (duh) runners for decades. She is recreational; he’s more competitive, running every distance up to marathons (including Boston, New York and Chicago).

Lynn and Dave Wright

They have 2 grown children, and 4 grandchildren — some of whom already run.

Dave worked in retail technology his entire career. After earning his MBA 5 years ago, he began looking for his own business. Everyone always says “do what you love,” so…

From their base in western Massachusetts, they began exploring options. Fleet Feet — which had a store in Longmeadow, where they lived — seemed like a perfect fit.

Two years ago the Wrights began looking for markets in this area with a similar feel to Longmeadow.

But the place had to be more than a good business location. It had to feel like home.

“No cookie-cutter shopping centers,” Dave says. “We wanted a place that felt local and connected to the community.”

After spending a day at Compo Beach in August, they rode their bikes around town. Then they walked Main Street.

Till then, they’d only driven through here, on I-95 or the Merritt. Suddenly, Westport was on their short list.

They discovered Sconset Square accidentally, after searching online for smaller retail spaces. They came down on a beautiful late summer day, and instantly knew it was right.

The small, funky shopping center was just starting a face-lift project. It was affordable, and large enough for the Wrights’ plans.

They loved the landlord. The lease negotiation was short and easy.

Four months later, they opened. Runners have embraced them — even during the coldest days of winter.

“We are excited to see how many people we can help through walking, running and living a healthy lifestyle,” Wright says.

Tomorrow’s grand opening “runs” from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. There’s music, and a fun run/walk (3- or 5-mile routes) at 9 a.m.

Check out the running footwear, apparel and accessories. Learn about injury prevention products, and walk/run programs for every ability.

Oh, yeah: Jr. Deli’s food truck will be there. Whether you’ve run a few miles or driven over, there will be plenty to eat.

Fleet Feet is filled with running gear, and accessories.

Health Inspector Gives Low Grades — And Gets Them

Mike Sayyed spent 11 years building his business.

Julian’s Brick Oven Pizza thrived — first in Saugatuck, then on Post Road East near Maple Avenue. There’s a Julian’s in Monroe too.

His restaurants are clean. His food is very good.

Then — in November — a young health inspector came. She spent nearly 3 hours in his Westport kitchen.

She took a point off here for a cup in the wrong place, a point off there for another petty infraction. She kept finding obscure violations. It all added up to a failing grade of 64.

Julian’s had never failed before. Their grades had always been 89, 91 — high.

(Photo/Seth Schachter)

“She was just born when I got into the business,” says Sayyed, who is proud of his cleanliness and adherence to health codes. “I started in this business as a line cook. I run everything today. I serve good food, and make people happy. My customers are doctors, lawyers, professionals.

“I’m educated about inspections. I care about them. I’m not a franchisee who hires teenagers who cough on gloves.”

He asked the inspector how to improve. “She didn’t know. It was unbelievable,” he says.

Sayyed got a 95 on his re-inspection. But that came after his score was released to the media, and reported in the news. The stories were quickly passed around on social media.

Julian’s was not alone. Several other Westport restaurants received their first-ever failing grades.

All suffered heavily from losses of business.

“It sounded like I’m poisoning customers. Now the families, the regulars — they’re not coming in,” Sayyed says.

I called Jeffrey Andrews, chief sanitarian for the Westport Weston Health District.

He explained that the young inspector who failed Julian’s and several other restaurants had been undergoing training for the state Department of Health.

“When the state is involved, and the inspectors are being graded themselves, they can downgrade a restaurant for every little thing,” he acknowledged.

That’s why, he says, she took “much longer” than usual, and was “much more involved.”

Andrews notes that every restaurant with a failing grade was re-evaluated. All received much higher — and well above passing — scores.

But by then the damage to Julian’s — and several other popular Westport dining spots — had already been done.