Category Archives: Staples HS

Unsung Hero #159

Back-to-school 2020 was nothing like years past.

This COVID-filled fall there was a lot less focus on new clothes, backpacks and binders. Parents and kids paid much more attention to masks, hand sanitizers and the amount of space between desks.

It’s a new world. And students, teachers and administrators are smack in the middle of it.

Back to School Night is virtual. Staples Players does choreography outside, on the tennis courts. There is no lunch in the elementary schools.

Behind those changes are human beings. Getting to where we are today was a gargantuan task. It’s not perfect — as superintendent of schools Tom Scarice notes often, it’s a fluid work in progress — but it is a tribute to the Westport Public Schools staff that our public schools are open, with adaptations made for both in-person and distance learning.

Think about it. Teachers have to learn new technology, balance the demands of students sitting a few (at least 6!) feet from them with those a few miles away, create new lessons, take on new tasks — all while figuring out (and worrying about) their own kids in their own schools, not to mention worrying about being back in an environment with many other people, after 6 months away.

Administrators spent the entire summer devising new schedules, monitoring class sizes, measuring classrooms and hallways, creating protocols for lunchrooms and playgrounds and gyms, answering a squintillion questions (many of which had no answer), all while assuaging the fears of some staff, parents and children who did not want to return to school, and others who did not want to stay home.

Then they did it all over again — and again and again — because, like clockwork, the rules and regulations changed.

This is not Westport. But it could be.

Think too about all the school personnel we seldom think about (but always should): Custodians. Cafeteria workers. Secretaries. Nurses. Bus drivers. Substitute teachers. Crossing guards. Security guards.

All are crucial to the functioning of a school. All are doing things differently this year too. All have their own personal concerns, but all care deeply for the buildings they serve, and (more importantly) the boys and girls in them.

No education decision pleases everyone. And every decision about COVID-19 is more controversial than even start times and budgets.

There have been glitches. There will be more. The internet will go down. The number of positive cases will go up. The future is uncertain. But everyone connected with the Westport Public Schools has planned — as best as possible — for today, tomorrow, next week, next month and next year.

That’s why all of them are this week’s Unsung Heroes.

If you see anyone involved with any of our schools, thank them for all they do.

From a safe, masked distance, of course.

A message of support, from a grateful Westporter.

Roundup: Old Dominion, The Sun And The Moon, More


COVID kept the live audience away from last night’s 55th annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

But a nationwide television audience watched Old Dominion walk off with 2 huge awards: Best Group and Best Song (“One Man Band”).

Country music may not be huge in Westport. But we’re hugely proud of Old Dominion. Lead guitarist Brad Tursi is a 1997 graduate of Staples High School, where he was known not as a musician, but as a soccer star. He’s in the far right in the clip below, wearing a flannel shirt.  (Hat tip: Claudia Bradley)

He’s the first musician shown, in the official “One Man Band” video too:


Staples High School sophomore Phoebe Miller took this picture yesterday evening. She says that smoke from the wildfires out west has drifted far east. It blocks the sun’s rays, making it appear much larger and more orange than usual.

(Photo/Phoebe Miller)


This news will brighten your day:

International Observe the Moon Night will be celebrated in Westport (and everywhere) on Saturday, September 26. The Westport Astronomical Society says the annual worldwide public event “encourages observation and appreciation of the moon.

“All are invited to observe the moon, learn about NASA planetary science and exploration, and celebrate cultural and personal connections to our nearest neighbor. All you need to do is look up!

This year the moon will be just past 1st quarter – a great phase for evening observation.

If the skies are clear, the WAS will open the dome to its observatory on Bayberry Lane. Telescopes will be available.

The WAS adds: “The giant satellite has been our constant companion for 4.5 billion years, and viewed by every human who ever walked the Earth. It’s one of the solar systems’ most remarkable objects, and is quite likely a major reason that life even exists on our planet.”

Amazing full moon at Compo Beach (Photo/Michael Tomashefsky)


Seen at Compo Beach. Beware!

(Photo/Les Dinkin)


Crank up The Machine!

The final Supper & Soul drive-in concert of 2020 features The Machine — a longtime internationally touring Pink Floyd-style band. The event — co-sponsored by the Westport Weston Chamber of Commerce and Westport Library — is set for Saturday, October 3 (7 p.m., Imperial Avenue parking lot.

Tickets for the always-popular event are $150 per car (5-person maximum. They go on sale tomorrow (Friday, September 18) at 10 a.m. Click here to purchase.


And finally … in honor of International Observe the Moon Night (see above):

Roundup: Woodstock, Teachers, Movies, Music, More


Last week, Peter Gambaccini saw that TCM was running the director’s cut of “Woodstock.”

Peter was there in the Catskills hills, 51 years ago this month. Now in his early 70s, he was not ready to sit through all those hours of music and more (particularly not Ten Years After).

But he tried to time it so that he’d tune in to see some of the Westporters he knew were there (though he never saw them “live”).

In a segment showing people sliding through the mud after a torrential rain, he suddenly spotted Bill Davidson. He was a Staples High School hockey star, and drummer with local bands.

In the movie, Bill had a line about what a “mess” the hillside was. Peter had not seen him in the movie before, so he guesses that was part of the expanded version.

Then — after a brief bit of other business — Pete Krieg and Peter Cannon came into view. Cannon flashed the peace sign at the camera.

They were so close in the footage to Davidson, Gambaccini assumed they’d all gone to Woodstock together.

Nope.

In a Facebook discussion about another musical topic on Facebook, Gambaccini asked Krieg about the weekend. He said:

“I’ve gotten close to Bill in the past 10 years, since he’s the head bartender at Aspetuck Club. It was just last year (50 years later) that we realized we were 20 yards/60 seconds apart on that road, at that moment, at Woodstock.”

Far out!


Phaedra Taft — science coach at Greens Farms and Long Lots Elementary Schools — has received the Connecticut Science Teachers Association award for “Excellence in Elementary Science Teaching 2020.” 

During her 12 years in the Westport schools, Taft has been a leader in the development and implementation of the elementary school science curriculum. She has also played an instrumental role in leading the District’s adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards

In other education news, 2 Westport teachers — Staples High School’s Suzanne Kammerman and Courtney Ruggiero of Bedford Middle School — were featured on a Channel 8 story about teaching 9/11 to today’s students. Click here to see.

Phaedra Taft


The Artists Collective of Westport is helping another arts group: the Remarkable Theater.

They’re collaborating on Thursday’s drive-in movie. “Best in Show” — a biting satire about dog shows — will be shown September 17 at 8 p.m. at the Imperial Avenue parking lot. The gate opens at 7.

Tickets are $50 per car. Click here to reserve.


Westport’s Suzuki Music School is beefing up its presence. New Visiting Artist courses have been added, with Grammy Award-winning instructors like percussionist Joe McCarthy, and subjects including the history of jazz, movie soundtrack composition amd contemporary fiddling.

Suzuki is also streaming more free public events, with jazz pianist Sumi Tonooka and cellist Matt Haimovitz and more. The popular children’s Pillow Concert series continues online, and the Connecticut Guitar Festival returns for a 4th year (virtually this time).

Suzuki’s season kicks off this Sunday (September 20) with a master class by Grammy-winning violinist Augustin Hadelich. Click here for tickets to that class; click here for an overview of events.


And finally … since we’re honoring Woodstock (above), here’s a “trip” down memory lane. In deference to Peter Gambaccini, it’s not Ten Years After. It’s Bert Sommer. He was accompanied at Woodstock by local resident Ira Stone. If you’ve never heard of them — or at least didn’t know they were at Woodstock — well, they never made it off the film’s cutting room floor. NOTE: The Woodstock recording is poor. I’ve also included a studio version (I’m not sure if it includes Ira).

 

 

9/11: A Lost Video, Found In A Pandemic

Alert “06880” reader Robin Gusick writes:

The anniversary of 9/11 always takes me back to when I lived in downtown New York, on 14th Street and Avenue A with my husband Dave and our 6-month old baby Sam.

Early that morning, a friend called and said, “you better put on the TV – now.” We watched in horror and disbelief the footage of the first plane hitting.

Sam Gusick with his young parents, Dave and Robin.

We had plans to take Sam to his first baby music class, and wondered whether to go or not. Since we presumed the plane crash to be a terrible accident, we put Sam in his stroller and walked outside.

On the way we saw people huddling around a Radio Shack with multiple TV sets in the windows, all showing the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center. We considered heading home, but figured we might as well go to the class as a distraction.

Ten minutes in, the teacher stopped playing her guitar and said, “I’m sorry, but it just seems wrong to sing when the world is falling apart. I just heard that a second plane hit. This is not an accident — it’s a terrorist attack.”

As we rushed out and hurried home with Sam back in his stroller, we saw massive smoke rising up from further downtown. People watched TVs in windows all along Union Square. They stood silently in shock, watching both towers fall.

Back in our apartment, we put Sam in his “exersaucer” and watched TV — and watched and watched, in horror. We saw smoke from our apartment windows, and smelled the most toxic smell imaginable.

It was particularly surreal to see this innocent 6-month old baby staring at the TV, and wonder what kind of world he would grow up in. We videotaped that moment on our bulky camcorder, knowing one day we would want to show Sam.

Fast forward 18 years to September 11, 2018. Sam is a senior at Staples High School (we moved to Westport when he was 2). I told him a bit of our story of that somber day, mentioning I had a videotape somewhere. He said, “Wow, I’d really like to see that.”

I was glad he was way too young to remember that awful day. I tried to explain to him that when you go through  something like 9/11, you forever see the world through a different lens.

Sam headed off to the University of Vermont the following fall. My first baby quickly found “his people” and his “happy place” in Burlington. He came home for spring break in March. The pandemic hit, and his time in Vermont came to a screeching halt. Sam said, “My generation really has not lived through anything major like this… well, except September 11th. But I have no memory of that.”

Sam Gusick (Photo/Kerry Long)

Sam’s last 2 months of school were at home with no friends, no campus, no Burlington. He was a good sport. He was happy to have Zoom calls, and movie nights with his college buddies. There were silver linings: family dinners that never fit into his busy Staples Players and Orphenians schedule, and decluttering and simplifying our home.

During one of those long pandemic days in March, sorting through mountains of old papers while watching “Tiger King” with Sam, I felt a small item mixed in with the papers: a videotape labeled “Sam — September 11th.” It was a pandemic miracle!

However, the miracle was trapped in what seemed like caveman technology. Plus every business was shutting down. I left that tape on my night table, though.  It took until today — September 11, 2020 — for me to research how to transfer that camcorder video to a watchable format.

And so, my 9/11 “gift” to Sam (who is back at UVM now) is this video, along with a message: Life can change in an instant.

It did on 9/11/01, and it did this past March. Keep being the resilient, positive man you have grown to be. Keep smiling like you did in that exersaucer on that very, very sad day.

Even if it’s under your mask. Click below for the 9/11 video.

Remembering Jack Culbert

Longtime Staples High School social studies teacher, and later Westport Public Schools director of technology Jack Culbert, died last week. He was 80 years old.

Culbert enjoyed sailing, fly fishing, and telling tales of his years at boarding school, his rabble-rousing days at the University of Connecticut, and countless ending adventures.

His obituary notes; “His cup was full, his heart was warm, and his course was strong.”

Culbert is survived by his daughter Susan Culbert Woolard of Virginia; his son Adam of West Hartford, his daughter Lisa Miller of New York, and 4 grandchildren. His wife Deanna died last year.

Jack Culbert, in the Staples High School 1997 yeaarbook.

Honor Heath recalls Culbert — who taught social studies for 39 years — as “a standout in an amazing generation of teachers at Staples. He already had the nickname Jumpin’ Jack Culbert when I took him for Government in 1974-75, and it was easy to believe he might have been born in a cross-fire hurricane.

“He seemed to be in perpetual motion in his double-sized classroom, and he led a deep dive into political and societal issues that went far beyond any traditional idea of civics. Anthony Lewis of The New York Times visited Staples in 1976, and urged the faculty to prepare students for an increasingly complex future by teaching them to think analytically and question assumptions.

“At the time, I thought it was pretty funny since it sounded a lot like Jack’s class the year before.”

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Friends of Fernridge Park, PO Box 279282, West Hartford, CT 06127, or online here. To leave online condolences or read a full obituary, click here.

Unsung Hero #158

Alice Ely writes:

As gardens chair at Wakeman Town Farm, I’ve had the privilege of knowing Staples High School senior Teagan Smith since she first volunteered in 2017.

She has stepped up to help the planet in ways large and small for her entire high school career. As a freshman she began with the fall harvest, and kept coming. Year after year, she has been on hand and willing to do any job – which at the farm are mostly dirty ones.

Teagan Smith, scrambling to help.

It quickly became apparent that Teagan’s passion is sustainability. Eager to learn more, she has been a quick study of the farm’s sustainable practices, such as composting, winter sowing and non-chemical pest controls.

She has educated visitors about what does (and does not) go in recycling. She reached out to officials at the town Department of Public Works, and created her own flyer of creative recycling projects.

As an upperclassman with many interests and responsibilities, Teagan has continued to make time for the farm. This summer she worked as a Save the Sound intern taking water samples, but still managed a significant commitment to WTF.

She set up the farm stand every Saturday morning, showcasing veggies and flowers in beautiful displays that attracted record numbers of customers. She even shows up for 7 a.m. stints on weekdays!

Teagan Smith, at the WTF farm stand.

Her quiet competence and leadership make it easy for a new crop of volunteers to follow her example.

This year she the helm of Staples’ Club Green. We look forward to hearing what the club tackles next.

For the rest of this challenging year — and, we suspect, the rest of her life — the world will look a little greener because of Teagan Smith.

(To nominate an Unsung Hero, email dwoog@optonline.net)

Teagan Smith, down at Wakeman Town Farm.

 

Roundup: American Graffiti, Baseball, Parking, More


“American Graffiti” is a classic end-of-summer film. Which makes it an appropriate — if last-minute — choice for tonight at the Remarkable Theater.

Showtime on Imperial Avenue is 7:45 p.m. And it’s half price! Click here for tickets.


Mark your calendar! Director/producer/screenwriter Craig Davidson’s “Island of Baseball” will be available for streaming through the Harlem International Film Festival at 7 p.m. on September 13. (Click here for more information.)

The documentary explores the special relationship between baseball in Cuba and the US, and the central role of Black Americans and Afro-Cubans in that history.

Covering American Negro Leaguers, major leaguers and Cubans of every race, it offers insights into the complexities of race in both nations in the first half of the 20th century, and the crucial role Cuba played in breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball — an important early success of the civil rights movement.

Davidson is a 1970 Staples High School graduate. He’s also the owner of Westport’s greatest Ebbets Field mural. It decorates the inside of his fence, near Compo Beach.

Click below to see the trailer. (Hat tip: Fred Cantor)


New Westport resident Mike Zitomer spotted these contradictory signs by Church Lane. He wonders what to do.


And finally … time for a little “September Grass.” Thank you, James Taylor!

 

Jon Maddock: All In Against ALS

Jon Maddock’s Westport roots run deep.

His father Larry was a well-known local mason — as were Jon’s grandfather and great-grandfather. Jon idolized his father, and worked summers for him through high school (Staples Class of 1973) and college (University of Maine 1977).

Jon Maddock, in 9th grade at Long Lots Junior High.

But Jon did not go into the family business. He built his first engine-powered model plane in 4th grade, learning from mechanical drawings. He followed a variety of career paths — including 5 years as a stockbroker — before realizing that design suited him best. His current position is senior designer at Laars Heating Systems Company in New Hampshire.

Jon was also passionate about physical activity and challenges. He bicycled from California to Connecticut (taking an indirect route of more than 5,000 miles), skied alpine and cross, sailed and raced beach catamarans (and was commodore of the Sandy Hook Catamaran Club/Hobie Fleet 250), mountain biked, ran long distances, skated (inline and figure), and enjoyed trout and fly fishing.

He played trombone (and was a member of the Fred Robinson Big Band), and built furniture (as well as, of course, stone walls). Jon has always been active and stayed fit. If he did something, he was all in.

Jon Maddock, in action.

But in July of 2019 he was diagnosed with ALS.

His life changed profoundly. A year later he struggles to talk. He walks slowly, with a cane.

His prognosis is like all ALS sufferers. He will slowly become paralyzed, and eventually be unable to breathe. The average life expectancy is 2 to 5 years. Though 10% of those stricken with ALS live for 10 years, there is no known cure.

The Ice Bucket Challenge has brought money to the cause, and research has escalated. But Jon — and so many others, including Westporters — are in a race against time.

Jon contacted “06880” because — throughout his life — the town has inspired him. Now he wants to share information about a new medication. So far, Jon says, tests show that AMX0035 has significantly slowed the progress of ALS. (Click here for an NPR report.)

The ALS Association is seeking early approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Without it, more than 3 years could elapse before the medication is available. “That’s not long enough for many of us,” Jon says.

The ALS Association is presenting a petition, along with data, to assist in gaining early approval from the FDA. Jon hopes “06880” readers can help (click here).

Jon Maddock takes a break from work.

“Westport is a superb community — rich with the best schooling, the arts, and compassionate people,” Jon says.

“I have been gifted throughout life for having been exposed to the inspiration that Westport exudes.”

Now he asks Westporters to inspire the FDA to act soon. For Jon Maddock, it’s a matter of life or death.

Schools Superintendent: Let’s Join Together For All Our Kids

On the day before the start of a new school year — one unlike any other — superintendent of schools Tom Scarice sent a message to Westport families. It too is unlike any back-to-school note sent before. He wrote:

I am certain that you have received countless messages from teachers, principals and others in the school system as we approach the first day of school tomorrow. I will do my best to keep this brief so that you could enjoy the last day of summer vacation, along with this gorgeous weather.

Enclosed in this message are necessary notifications for parents and guardians in order to start the school year. Please review at your earliest convenience.

Most importantly, I would like to welcome each of you  to the start of the 2020-2021 school year. This will be a unique year, and one that will require the abilities to communicate effectively, to adapt regularly, and to support each other as we navigate the realities of educating our students during a global pandemic.

Tom Scarice (Photo courtesy of Zip06.com)

Last April, during the initial COVID worldwide spread, Dimo’s Pizza in Chicago reinvented itself. Dimo’s owner Dimitri Syrkin-Nikolau felt driven to respond to the pandemic. Realizing that his restaurant regularly makes things very quickly, in large quantities, and very cleanly, Syrkin-Nikolau recast the use of his pizza ovens to heat and shape acrylic face shields. Concurrently, Dimo’s continued to make pizzas, some for takeout and others donated to local hospitals.

Success stories such as this one have been reported all over private industry and the non-profit sector. Reinventing, i.e. transforming a process or recasting for a new use, is a bit more complex when considering teaching and learning. I am a purist in a sense in that I believe in the power of the interpersonal dynamic between the teacher and the student, live and in-person. Technology has augmented facets of education, yet it still has not, and some regards, I do not believe it ever will, replace the incalculable experience of the classroom.

Yet, for this school year, hundreds of Westport teachers and support staff are faced with this challenge.

Last Thursday I had the chance to formally address each and every employee of the Westport Public Schools, albeit, remotely. I shared my thoughts on how the highest performing systems, (i.e. teams, private industry, etc.) can “count” on each other for the greater good of the mission. I made specific promises of support to the team.

In my numerous conversations with teachers and support staff over the past few weeks, it is clear to me that within the midst of uncertainty and anxiety, there is a strong desire to do this right, to meet the needs of each and every student in a way never done before.

We are not, and will not be, perfect. We are a system comprised of people with all of the strengths, potential, and shortcomings that we bring collectively to our schools, present company included. However, like Dimo’s pizza, we are poised to rise up and reinvent, if only for this time period, while we continue to confront this pandemic. Our kids are counting on us.

Although I am not well-known to the community at this point, I am confident that you will all come to see me as an educational leader who is by nature, optimistic. I do not believe that optimism is the denial of current reality, but the belief that all things continually improve, that this too will get better.

Until that time, I ask that you join me in supporting our educators as they embark down a path of reinventing, even if for only this year, in order to meet the needs of our children. I ask that you offer your patience, your generosity, and your kindness.

In turn, on behalf of the Westport Public Schools team, I offer you the promise that we will do our very best to serve your child, to benchmark our progress and seek to continually improve, and to provide your child with not only an excellent education, but a nurturing place to grow and develop during this time.

As summer closes and we approach our first school day, I ask all in the school community, to rise up and join together to deliver for our children.

Most sincerely,
Tom Scarice

Roundup: COVID Testing, College Help, Gatsby in Connecticut, More


A reader writes:

“I just got myself and my kids tested at St Vincent’s Medical Center drive-thru at 47 Long Lots Road.

“I called 860-972-8100 this morning, got an appointment (no symptoms, no suspected contact, just routine — I wanted a baseline before school starts).

“We drove straight over (they are open 8 a.m. to noon). There was no line, no cost, just a gentle nose swab. They said results would be available in 3-5 days. We got ours in 1 day!

“Boom! Easy! In my opinion, we should/could all be doing this before school starts.”


Since 1952, STAR Lighting the Way has helped people of all ages impacted by intellectual and developmental disabilities live full, independent  lives.

They’re now launching a broader multi-lingual program for children experiencing, or at risk of, developmental delays. It expands services from birth through age 5, with additional options for children up to 8.

It includes direct coaching intervention by licensed occupational, physical, speech and behavioral therapists, and special education teachers; developmental evaluations and consultations; transition to school support; group activities (birth to age 5) like feeding, movement, play and music groups, plus additional services (6 to 8) including behavioral supports, assistive technology, translation and family supports.

For more information, email Barbara Fitzpatrick (starrubino@starct.org), or call 203-855-0634.


There’s a new college counseling service in town. And the counselors are not even out of college.

Nishika Navrange and Genevieve Demenico are 2019 Staples High School graduates. Both are products of the entire Westport school system. They were presidents of Staples’ Science Olympiad team and members of numerous honor societies. They attend NYU and Georgetown Universities (right now, online). So they know high school — and college.

Through Zoom and outdoor, socially distanced meetings, they offer essay help (“it’s a narrow way of writing, and we help keep the student’s personal voice,” they say), Common App advice, and counsel on where to apply.

Because they know students at “nearly every popular school,” Neshika and Genevieve can connect high schoolers with current collegians, for a personal connection and even (when they resume) a college tour.

For more information, email ctcollegeconsultants@gmail.com.

Genevieve Demenico and Nishika Navrange.


“Gatsby in Connecticut” — the video by Robert Steven Williams chronicling F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in Westport, and its impact on his classic novel (with Sam Waterston as the writer, and voiceover by Keir Dullea) — is now available to rent, download or buy.

It’s available on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, Fandango Now, Vimeo, Microsoft Xbox and YouTube, and via most cable providers. Click here for the trailer.

And click here to read an insightful review from The New Yorker. (Hat tip: Fred Cantor)


And finally … what was the most popular song of 1920, the year F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived in Westport (as noted above)? It was “Swanee” by Al Jolson — shown here in what to our eyes, 100 years later, is jarringly inappropriate blackface.