Category Archives: Staples HS

Gambling, Gaming And The Teenage Brain

Gambling is a tough illness.

It takes a gambler’s money, and pride. It’s got the highest suicide rate of any addiction.

It affects a gambler’s entire family, friends and colleagues.

And gambling impacts not just people with too little money to begin with. Connecticut has 50,000 problem gamblers. Plenty live in places like Westport.

We have neighbors who spend their weekends at casinos, where they’re treated like kings.

We have kids who are addicted to gambling via video games. It starts when they buy treasure chests, with their parents’ credit cards. Some become binge gamers.

Rob Zuckerman knows all that, and much more. He’s a recovering gambling addict.

A 1968 graduate of Staples High School with a BFA in photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology, he took over his father’s business after his death in a 1978 automobile accident.

Rob moved the studio to South Norwalk in 1981 — an early pioneer in the new SoNo real estate venture. He ran it successfully for 20 years, before relocating to Fairfield.

During the 2008 recession, and with the rise of smartphones and other technology, the photography business changed dramatically.

In 2009 his son Ben fell off his bike, and was run over by a UPS driver. In the year it took him to recover, Rob got addicted to online gambling.

He got himself clean, and has not gambled in a decade. Along the way, he learned a lot about the disease — and his own compulsive side.

He credits much of his recovery to Renaissance — a Norwalk-based treatment center — and Gamblers Anonymous in Darien.

Rob Zuckerman

To pay it forward, Rob became one of the state’s 5 peer counselor for people with gambling issues. He answers hotline calls, escorts people to GA meetings, and helps with gamblers’ denial, guilt, remorse and anger however he can.

Rob is also a recovery coach at Renaissance.

Now — with plans rolling along for a casino in Bridgeport — Rob wants Westporters to be alert to the dangers of gambling for young people.

Rob is proud that Renaissance is sponsoring a talk on “Youth, Internet Habits and Mental Health.”

Set for Sunday, March 1 (12:30 to 2 p.m., Unitarian Church, 10 Lyons Plains Road), it features Dr. Paul Weigle. An adolescent psychiatrist, he’ll speak about how gaming and screen habits impact physical and mental health of children.

The church’s addictions recovery ministry is a co-sponsor of the event.

He’s seen the effects of gambling first-hand. Rob has seen too the work that can be done — by community organizations and his own church — to help with recovery from addictions.

He’s betting this is an important event, for anyone who lives with or works with young people.

Jeff Marks’ Wild Montana Skies

Growing up in Westport in the 1960s and early ’70s, Jeff Marks played plenty of sports. He hunted and fished.

But he was particularly interested in reptiles and amphibians.

He has no idea where the passion came from. He discovered — and studied — it on his own.

Jeff caught snakes, turtles, salamanders and frogs in the woods and ponds near his home off North Avenue. He played hooky from Coleytown Junior High, riding his bike to the Saugatuck Reservoir in Easton.

“My friends were not interested,” he says. “But no one ever gave me crap about it.”

Jeff headed to Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks, to study forestry. But he’d always been drawn to the west. He hitchhiked to the University of Montana, applied, and entered the forestry school.

He took other classes — zoology, wildlife biology, mammalogy — but was especially intrigued by ornithology.

“All I’d known were ducks,” he says. “I’d never paid attention to all the interesting birds around me. But 2 weeks in, I said, ‘This is it. This is what I’m going to do.'”

Jeff got a job with the Bureau of Land Management on Idaho’s Snake River. He clambered over cliffs, studying birds of prey. In his spare time, he went birding.

Jeff Marks in the East Pryor Mountains, Montana.

Long-eared owls became the subject of his master’s degree — and an object of fascination and research for the next 4 decades.

Jeff’s career took him back to the University of Montana as a BLM research biologist. He turned a field study in the tropical Pacific into his Ph.D. project. He examined birds that bred in Alaska, then flew all the way to coral sand atolls.

Back in Montana Jeff served as managing editor of a scientific journal, taught as an adjunct professor, and worked for the Audubon Society.

He married, and — around 50 years old — had 2 children. Though Missoula is a great college town, his wife found the winters rough. In 2006 they moved to Portland, Oregon.

There — and on frequent trips back — he co-wrote “Birds of Montana”: a comprehensive guide to the state’s 433 species.

These days he leads birding tours to places like Ghana, Senegal and Peru. And he’s deeply involved in a non-profit he developed, the Montana Bird Advocacy. It provides information on the status and biology of poorly known species, focuses attention on critical habitats under threat, and promotes conservation efforts.

Jeff Marks with a birding group in Portachuelo Pass, Peru.

Jeff graduated from Staples High School in 1973. He cannot point to any moment in his youth that led to his life’s work with birds and wildlife.

His ties to Westport today are few. But in some way, he is where he is today because of his hometown.

“Growing up where I did, when I did, gave me the intellectual freedom to immerse myself in fascinating things going on in the natural world,” he says. “Everything I’m doing now was grounded in what I did then.

Jeff knows that many wetlands he roamed as a kid now have houses on them. He hopes that some are untouched.

He has another hope too: That some youngsters growing up in Westport today can “be in touch with a place that a lot of people don’t think is wild. And it isn’t — compared to Montana. But there is still a lot of amazing life to see and do, anywhere you look.”

Jeff Marks with Jackson Owusu, in Ghana.

Rach’s Hope Shines Through

The family of one critically ill child could not visit much. The cost of hotels and meals away from home was prohibitive.

The family of another found lodging miles from a hospital — but had no way to get back and forth. Parents of a third worried about care for their other children, while they tended to their sick one.

When a child is diagnosed with a critical illness, parents face a blizzard of decisions. They’re in a fog of uncertainty and fear, handling a hurricane of tasks.

Yet in the midst of all that activity and emotion, one more weather-related metaphor stands out: a ray of sunshine.

It comes, gracefully and lovingly, from Rach’s Hope. The Westport-based foundation honors Rachel Doran. In 2018 the Staples High School National Merit Commended Scholar — a rising senior at Cornell University, talented Players costume designer, and founder of her own pajama company — developed a rare reaction to common medications.

She suffered severe burns to 95% of her body. She then developed another life-threatening syndrome. After 35 harrowing days, Rachel died.

Rachel Doran

Despite their grief, her parents Alan and Lisa remembered the kindness shown by friends, hospital staff and strangers.

Small gestures — finding a hotel 2 blocks from the hospital; arriving with healthy muffins and protein shakes; taking care of Rachel’s sister — sustained the family at a time when they were so focused on Rachel that they had no time or energy to care for themselves.

Since then, Rach’s Hope has provided real, important sustenance and hope to families tossed by the tornado of a child’s critical illness.

For example, a Westport resident who teaches in another town knew of a student in intensive care at Yale New Haven Hospital. Rach’s Hope sent Uber cards for transportation, and Uber Eats for meals.

“Family members have to eat and sleep well, so they can be strong for their child or sibling,” Lisa notes.

Another boy in that same district is being treated in Boston. Rach’s Hope provided gas cards to the parents, and covers their hotel bill.

Columbia Presbyterian is a great hospital. But there is no reasonably priced hotel nearby. The Dorans formed a partnership with the Holiday Inn in Fort Lee, New Jersey. They pay a discounted rate for families who stay there — and the hotel provides shuttle service to the hospital.

Though its reach is wide, Rach’s Hope’s Westport roots are deep. Lisa’s niece volunteered as a counselor at Experience Camps — the Westport-based program for children whose parent, sibling or primary caregiver has died.

Last summer, Rach’s Hope sponsored 2 children for the camp. They’ll send 5 this year. A week for each child costs $2,500.

To raise funds, Rach’s friends, their families and others close to her –including W Hair & Color, Rothbard Ale + Larder and Le Rouge by Aarti — are sponsoring the 2nd annual “Rach’s Hope PJ Gala.”

It’s Saturday, February 29 (7:30 to 11 p.m., Penfield Pavilion, Fairfield). Last year’s inaugural event was fantastic: warm, fun and energetic.

And it brought in over $100,000.

(Yes, you’re supposed to wear PJs. Rachel had founded her own pajama company, Rachel’s Rags.)

Rachel Doran (left) shows off her portfolio.

It’s clear she touched a ton of people. Her sister Ellie and friends founded a flourishing Rach’s Hope chapter at Staples. The school’s volleyball team hosted a fundraiser of their own. And Rach’s Hope is one of the charities receiving proceeds from this year’s County Assembly dances.

They all believe in Rach’s Hope. And they hope everyone who knew Rachel — and many who did not — will support the February 29.

The storm of a child’s critical illness will never go away. But with Rach’s Hope’s help, those dark clouds may part just a bit.

(For tickets, more information or to make a donation, click here.) 

PS: As a fashion design management major at Cornell, she was a research assistant in the Costume and Textile Collection, wrote for their blog, and became a curator. 

Her mentor Denise Green called her “the kind of assistant every professor, collection manager and peer dreams about. She was curious, determined, passionate, smart, kind, and had a great sense of humor.”

A central exhibition space — which housed her own project a few months before she died — has been named in her honor. Click here for more information, and to donate.

Remembering Kate Dickstein

Kate Dickstein — a longtime Westporter, beloved special education teacher and talented writing instructor — died Thursday in Mill Valley, California. She was 86.

Born in Wurzburg, Germany, Kate Lauber emigrated with her parents in 1936. They settled in the Bronx, not far from the original Yankee Stadium. Fluent in German and English, and as a Holocaust refugee raised by parents from a long line of German Jewish and Lutheran families, her life reference points spanned time, eras, cultures and long distances.

With a precocious and open mind, Kate excelled in school. She was active in many human rights initiatives, and established deep and meaningful lifelong friendships with people from all walks and phases of her life.

Kate earned an undergraduate degree from City College of New York, and a master’s degree in special education from Fairfield University. She spent more than 5 decades as a teacher, first at Weston Elementary School, then Coleytown Middle School, and finally at Staples High School.

She was known and highly regarded for effectively encouraging academic achievement among youngsters with different learning styles. Kate touched and lifted countless students, in a variety of learning environments. Her students adored her for her personal attention, care and compassion, and adherence to strict standards. She stayed in touch with many as they became adults and celebrated their accomplishments as though they were her extended family.

She also taught her colleagues. She was instrumental in the development of an “Understanding Disabilities” program, which put educators in special education students’ shoes. She was a mentor to many special education teachers of all ages.

Kate Dickstein

Kate was a talented artist, a lover of theater, opera, and jazz, classical and rock music, and an enthusiastic outdoorswoman. She particularly loved the north coast of Maine, where she spent many summers with her family and close friends, hiking, partying, making new friends and delighting in the magic of New England summers.

Kate was an avid reader. She had a playful sense of humor, and a ready laugh. She rejoiced in and worked hard to maintain special relationships with her childhood friends. Their families became important, joyful parts of her and her beloved husband Howard’s lives, and then of her own children’s sphere of friends.

As a daughter she was fiercely protective and supportive of her immigrant parents, who depended on her to help them navigate their new and unfamiliar world.

As a devoted wife of 65 years Kate was Howard’s greatest friend, supporter, protector and constructive critic.

Howard and Kate Dickstein

As a mother Kate was loving and doting, yet laissez faire in the most positive sense. She allowed her children space and time to be independent, and pursue their passions.

As a grandmother Kate took great pleasure in developing unique and deep connections with each of her five grandchildren. She listened to, coached and tutored them, showered them with unconditional love and affection, and maintained a perfect record of noting and celebrating their birthdays.

Kate wrote many short stories telling of her childhood memories and family history. She juxtaposed perspectives from the “old and new worlds.” Her experiences as an ever-assimilating U.S. citizen shaped her world view and infused her writing. Her family’s challenging journey gave her great empathy for all who she deemed persecuted by society.

She channeled and acted on that empathy in her professional and personal lives. She collaborated with local and national civil rights leaders in an effort to build bridges and develop understanding among disparate racial and socioeconomic groups, while always remaining true to her core values and modeling behaviors that positively influenced her family and friends.

There is much more to say, and her many admirers will say it in the months and years to come. Kate, and her rich and rewarding life will be forever remembered and treasured by all who knew her.

Kate is survived by her sons Peter and wife Lisa of San Francisco, California; Stephen and wife Natalie of Delray Beach, Florida; daughter Jane and husband Gordon of Mill Valley, California; her five adoring grandchildren Jordan, Anna, Jackson, Tess and Miller; her sister Irene and husband Chris, and many nieces, nephews and cousins.

At her and her family’s request, Kate’s remembrance and life celebration service will be private. Contributions in Kate’s name may be made to Hospice by the Bay, 17 E. Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, Larkspur, CA 94939 (hospicebythebay.org).

Let’s Hear It For Caitlin Parton, Esq.!

It’s not easy being an attorney.

Law school professors can be brutal (remember “The Paper Chase“?). Getting hired is no picnic. Arguing in front of a judge and jury is not for the faint of heart.

Now imagine doing all that with a profound hearing loss.

Caitlin Parton has overcome those substantial obstacles, with perseverance, pride and poise.

Back in 1988, she was the youngest person to have cochlear implants.

She faced the intersection of disabilities and law when she and her parents fought for access to computer-assisted technology in the Westport schools.

She earned honors all through Staples High School, where she served as co-editor of the school newspaper, Inklings.

After graduating in 2003, she headed to the University of Chicago. She interned for Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, worked at the Department of Justice and spent 2 years as a paralegal for a Washington civil rights firm, before earning a law degree from City University of New York.

For the past 5 years Caitlin has been a staff attorney at Boston’s Disability Law Center. She fights for full access to accommodations in schools, workplaces, hospitals, nursing homes, group homes and shelters.

Caitlin Parton

Most of her clients are deaf or hearing impaired. Others have physical or mental disabilities.

One recent case involved a veteran with PTSD. Frightened by her landlord’s loud knocks on her door, she asked him to call or email first. He refused.

Caitlin won damages for emotional distress. Just as importantly, the landlord underwent training about disabilities — and now must honor his tenant’s “reasonable request” for contact prior to knocking.

As a member of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association, Caitlin advocates for common-sense legal accommodations. For example, some law school professors don’t want to wear microphones, or won’t allow lectures to be recorded or transcribed.

Group members discuss how to overcome hiring discrimination. (Deaf people may be denied interviews, or judged negatively by the way they speak.)

They offer support, share job listings, advocate for accommodations like closed-captioning at trials, and propose simple solutions like rearranging courtroom furniture to enable lip-reading.

Recently, members of the DHHBA took part in a special ceremony. Ten attorneys — including Caitlin — were sworn in and admitted to the Bar of the United States Supreme Court.

Caitlin Parton (6th from left) with fellow members of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association, prior to their swearing in.

The ceremony took place at the Supreme Court. Fittingly — as the newly sworn lawyers watched 2 cases being argued in front of all 9 justices — there were full accommodations for deaf people.

The Supreme Court provided sign language interpreters and real-time captioning.

“It’s a very small space,” Caitlin says. “There’s no room for a big screen. So the Court allowed captioning on phones and tablets.”

Being in the Supreme Court during actual cases is an incredible experience for anyone. For an attorney like Caitlin to be there “in the presence of judges and attorneys, having access to every word,” was even more remarkable.

Caitlin Parton with her parents, Melody James and Steve Parton, on the US Supreme Court steps.

The swearing-in ceremony — which means that Caitlin can now argue cases before the Supreme Court — capped quite a year for the Westport native. Six months ago, her son Orion was born.

“I’m on that special journey now, balancing parenting and work,” she says.

In law — as in life — no one knows what’s ahead.

But — with her passion, experience and, now, her admittance to the Supreme Court bar — Caitlin Parton may one day argue a case before the highest court in the land.

Who knows? She might even be behind the bench.

Ben Saxon Brings Tech Tutoring To Kids

Ben Saxon loves all things STEM. Ask him anything computer, microcontroller  or Arduino related. He admires Elon Musk — for all he’s accomplished, as well as his approach to problem-solving.

But the Staples High School freshman does not simply hole up in his room, surrounded by gadgets. He’s outgoing, articulate and active — on the varsity squash team, and a black belt in karate.

Ben also shares his STEM/tech passions. He wants others to hone the critical thinking skills so necessary for success in many fields.

Now they can. Ben created Simply Academic, a tutoring service specializing in math, robotics and coding. Clients range from age 6 to 14.

Ben Saxon with a youngster who takes Simply Academics’ robotics course twice a week. Check out the LEGO Mindstorms robot!

Sessions are held at the tech-friendly Westport Library. Ben and his fellow tutors bring all necessary components: robotics kits, math test prep and review sheets, coding material.

A free, initial consultation helps them plan lessons. “If you want to build a car, we do something different than if you want to program it,” Ben explains.

He and the other tutors — Tegh Singh and Ben Seideman — don’t simply give answers. They challenge their students, them, guide them, and help them find different paths to an answer — just like Elon Musk does.

Individual sessions are $40 an hour; small group sessions cost less. Fees include all materials. For more information, click here or call 203-291-9270.

Elena Rossi: She’s A Winner!

For many Westport youngsters, the path to college is clear and (at least relatively) smooth.

For some, it’s strewn with obstacles and challenges. They may be so formidable, it’s hard to even see college as a realistic option.

Which is why I’m turning today’s “06880” space to Elena Rossi. She’s a Staples High School senior. This is her story.

All my life I have struggled in school, due to my disabilities of autism spectrum disorder and ADD.

I have gone to 9 different schools, including 2 years at boarding school. As a junior I left boarding school, for Staples.

I was very scared to go to a big public high school, after so many specialized schools for children with disabilities. When I got to Staples, I was overwhelmed. The social groups were not inclusive.

But I focused on doing a good job there. I did not want to take medication. I wanted to do my best, being my true self.

For years I was told to take medication for ADD. I hated it. I put my foot down.

I just received a letter in the mail. I was awarded a Presidential Scholarship for academic achievement of $21,000 a year — for 4 years — from Manhattanville College.

Elena Rossi, with her Manhattanville letters.

All my life, I was told “you can’t do this or that.” I have been told I am not good enough for various things.

Receiving this letter is proof that a person with disabilities can rise above all else and succeed, when putting their mind to it.

All my teachers at Staples, especially my team of social workers, study skills and counselors through the Board of Education, have been a great support to help me achieve my goals.

I want to share my story with other people who suffer from disabilities, and have been told their whole life they are note able to do whatever it is they want to do.

This letter proves that anything is possible. I want to share my story so it can help others.

Townwide Youth Concert Adds Chinese Art

Tonight is the townwide Youth Concert. The annual cross-cultural, collaborative event involves every school’s music department, plus teachers in departments like world language.

This year’s focus is on China. It’s part of the school district’s global initiative project.

Which means there is plenty of opportunity for visual arts too.

Beginning last year, Westport Public Art Collections’ exhibition — “Ties that Bind: Yangzhou and Westport” was displayed in every town elementary school.

The exhibit features ink landscape paintings by a pair of Chinese artists, donated to Westport in 2005 by our sister city. It also includes photos by famed local photographer Larry Silver, who first visited Yangzhou with a town delegation in 1996.

The Chinese government invited him back 3 years later. Both times, Silver took hundreds of black and white photos of the people and places he saw. A little more than 2 decades later, that way of life is very much changed.

Viewing, discussing and doing classroom projects with that artwork has been a great way for students to learn about China, before the youth concert.

Using WestPAC art to teach about China.

Dr. Ive Covaci, an Asian art scholar, adjunct professor at Fairfield University and WestPAC education chair, led professional development sessions with K-12 art teachers.

Then, elementary school students explored — via discussions and projects — the millenniums-old art of Chinese painting. They also compared the painters’ mountain landscapes to Silver’s photos of natural scenery.

Coleytown Elementary School students — who practiced writing Chinese characters, using an actual calligraphy brush — shared their activities on the school blog.

Practicing calligraphy in the Westport schools.

The public can see “The Ties That Bind” at tonight’s Youth Concert (7 p.m., Staples High School auditorium). Its tour ends at Town Hall, this spring.

(For more information on the Westport Public Art Collections, email westpac@westportps.org. The next open meeting is Friday, February 7, 9 9 a.m. in Town Hall Room 201.)

“We The People” Needs We The Westporters

In 2020, we celebrate the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which recognized the right of women to vote. Despite recent controversy, the Equal Rights Amendment has not yet been ratified. What are the similarities and differences between these two amendments?

“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.” (Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.)  To what extent has this view influenced American culture?

In the 1793–94 Pacificus–Helvidius debates, Alexander Hamilton contended that the power to declare war was both legislative and executive in nature. James Madison disagreed, saying that this power was exclusively legislative. Whose opinion do you favor and why?

Could you answer those questions?

Staples High School’s “We the People” team is confident they can.

That’s not just teenage we-can-conquer-the-world cockiness.

In December, 23 students in Suzanne Kammerman’s Advanced Placement Politics and Government class were crowned state champs in the annual competition. The momentous win broke Trumbull High’s 8-year stranglehold on first place.

Staples High School’s 2019 “We the People” champions.

Now the students are preparing for April’s national contest, in Leesburg, Virginia.

It’s quite a task. Each team is divided into 6 groups. Each must be ready to answer 3 separate questions on history, politics and law.

Only one will be asked in the oral question round. But all team members must participate. And each of the 6 groups must be strong. If one falters, the entire class score suffers.

Like all schools, the Staples students, teachers and parent supporters will be isolated in one room. They can’t watch anyone else. It’s a pressure-filled day, as judges shuttle in and out to question the teenagers.

Many schools — including Trumbull — treat “We the People” as a separate course. At Staples though, it’s just one part of the AP curriculum.

In the past, Trumbull prepared for the national competition by enlisting a host of townspeople — lawyers, college history professors teachers, politicians — to assist.

The Staples students get help from just a couple of parents. Andy Laskin — an attorney — takes time off from work. He attends class in person, and FaceTimes too.

For example, for 4th Amendment search and seizure issues, he brings in school resource officer Ed Woolridge. Laskin creates hypothetical police issues, then tweaks the conduct slightly to see how that changes the officer’s suspicions and reactions. It’s complex. And exactly the type of preparation the students need.

Another lawyer, Jamie Dockray, works with them in person, during the week and on weekends at the library.

But it’s labor-intensive. Each adult can only be with 4 students at a time, because each group gets separate questions.

So the “We the People” advisors are asking we — the Westporters — for help.

A lawyer in town who offers his or her conference room; former college history majors who love to talk about politics, law and the Constitution; actors to work on presentation skills — all are welcome.

Volunteers could also help as “judges,” during a practice competition before the April trip.

All could be “game-changers,” Laskin says. The key is to help teenagers “look, sound, act and think like lawyers — and learn the skills to do the research and pull off the argument in front of real judges. It’s very cool.”

“We have plenty of brilliant minds in Westport,” he notes. “There are parents of former We the People students, parents who can get involved before their kids are juniors and seniors … this could be a feel-good, come-together Westport story.

“Suzanne Kammerman puts her heart and soul into this. Some kids say We the People was the defining moment of their high school careers. Let’s all support this amazing program any way we can.”

Interested in helping? Email andylaskinesq@gmail.com, or text Andy Laskin: 203-610-7065. For the full text of all 18 “We The People” questions, click here.

Pics Of The Day #1021

Two formal events for high school students — Counties, and Red & Whites — were held this weekend.

Among the attendees: actors from Staples Players …

(Photo courtesy of Ian Warburg)

… and a different kind of players: Staples High School soccer seniors …