Category Archives: Staples HS

Tyler Jent Helps “Lion King” Roar

Everyone knows “The Circle of Life” from “The Lion King.”

But the song took on new meaning recently. As Greens Farms Elementary School prepared for its first-ever musical production — of, yes, “The Lion King” — it got a big boost from a very special alum.

Tyler Jent — who graduated from GFS  in 2006, and Staples High School 7 years later — returned to his alma mater to help prepare the young actors and dancers. He spent every Monday for 2 months with them — then more intensely as showtime neared.

This was way cool. After starring in more than a dozen Staples Players productions, then graduating from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Tyler launched his professional musical theater carer. He just finished a run in the national tour of “Kinky Boots.”

Tyler Jent — and a future Broadway star?

The Greens Farms kids were already in great shape. Westporter Laura Curley Pendergast — a former actress and dancer — had spent countless hours, along with teachers and many others, working with the cast and crew.

Tyler just gave them an extra Broadway boost.

“It was so emotional for me returning to GFS,” he said. “These kids are amazing. It’s been a blast helping Laura pull this show together.”

“The Lion King” opens tonight (March 7, 7 p.m.). It continues tomorrow (Friday, March 8, 7 p.m.), and ends Saturday (March 9, 4 p.m.). Tickets are available at the Greens Farms Elementary School door.

Staples Students Merit Praise

This is not the kind of photo I usually post on “06880.”

For one thing, I stay away from lines of people staring at a camera.

For another, I’d much rather give a shout-out to a kid doing something different or unusual — carving his or her own path through high school — than the ones who are used to getting praise and applause.

But I love this photo of Staples High School’s National Merit Scholar finalists.

Front row (from left): Isabel Powell, Emma McKinney, Orly Salik, Genevieve Domenico. Middle: Andrew Moy, Angela Ji, Anisa Prasad, Sirina Prasad. Back: Martin Menz, Preston Lust, Joshua Zhang, Benjamin Tobben, Zachary Katz, Carter Teplica.

Take a look.

They’re split right down the middle by gender: 7 girls, 7 boys.

They’re ethnically diverse.

More importantly, they’re some of Westport’s brightest students. But they sure don’t look like they spend all their time all alone in their rooms, squeezing every last decimal point out of the GPAs.

No. They look like they’re having fun. They look like they like each other.

Plus, everyone has their own style.

I particularly like Preston’s hat.

And Anisa’s shirt.

Dream On: A Better Chance Changes Lives

Five years ago, Michael and Karen Wolfe were invited to A Better Chance of Westport‘s Dream Event.

They knew little about the organization, but were happy to support their friend. Michael expected a typical charity night: a fun cocktail party, silent auction and dinner.

Then the speeches began.

Two seniors were graduating from ABC — the program that brings academically gifted, economically disadvantaged and highly motivated young men of color to Westport. They live in Glendarcy House on North Avenue, attend Staples High School, and take full advantage of the opportunity. But they give back to this community at least as much as they get.

That night, the young men spoke passionately about their 4 years with A Better Chance. Ruben Guardado talked about growing up in the San Diego barrio, and how coming to Westport opened his horizons to new worlds.

Khaliq Sanda spoke directly about overcoming metaphorical walls, and how ABC allowed his parents — immigrants from Cameroon — to fulfill their dreams of providing an excellent education for their son.

Khaliq Sanda, speaking at the 2014 A Better Chance Dream Event.

Ruben was headed to the University of Southern California, Khaliq to Duke. The Wolfes were in awe, hearing how one organization touched and changed two lives, on such profound levels.

Almost immediately, Michael and Karen decided to become more involved. Fortuitously, Diane Johnson sat at their table. She ran the host family committee. (Each ABC scholar is paired with a Westport family, with whom they spend every Sunday and one full weekend a month. The broadening experience often leads to lifelong friendships.)

The Wolfes’ own children — Jacob and Rachel, twins about to enter Staples themselves — were all in.

Over 4 years, they watched Jarod Ferguson blossom from a shy freshman from Philadelphia into a strong, capable young man, now proudly attending the University of Pittsburgh.

Jarod Ferguson (far left) with the Wolfe family.  They had dinner together every Sunday. This was their final get-together, at Compo Beach.

Last year, Michael introduced Jarod at the 2018 Dream Event. He said, “All we did was share our home over the weekend. But Jarod was willing to share his heart, his mind and his dreams with us. For that, we’re eternally grateful to him, his amazing mother Angela, and to A Better Chance of Westport.”

Michael — now ABC’s vice president of fundraising — is getting ready for this year’s Dream Event. It’s set for Saturday, March 30, at Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton.

As he learned 5 years ago, it’s far more than a charity fundraiser. It’s a inspiring, remarkable evening. And it can be as life-changing for attendees as ABC has been for the scholars.

Once again, 2 graduating seniors will speak from the heart.

David Li and Darby Aurelien, A Better Chance of Westport’s 2 graduating seniors.

Since joining ABC 4 years ago from Queens, David Li has been active in basketball, rugby and track. He excels in art, which ABC helped facilitate.

David says:

ABC has been very helpful in my growth and development as a person. Not only have I been able to mature and better myself, but I had the opportunity to continue to pursue my interests and further my creativity.

Since sophomore year I have taken art lessons with Roe Halper. She has helped me immensely, guiding me to perfect my craft and exposing me to new styles and techniques. I am very grateful for everything that ABC and the Westport community have offered me.

“Woman,” an ink drawing by David Li.

It’s hard enough for most ABC scholars to leave their homes in 9th grade — but at least they start as new freshmen with their peers. Darby Aurelien made the transition from Teaneck, New Jersey as a sophomore.

But he too has thrived. Staples fostered his passion for music and public service. Last year Darby traveled to the Dominican Republic with Builders Beyond Borders, where he helped build classrooms. Next month, he heads to Guatemala.

He says:

My time in ABC has been filled with action-packed and memorable experiences. What was once a yearning attempt to just attend a new high school has turned into amicable relationships, wholehearted support, and a growing maturity.

The ABC program provides lots of opportunities to volunteer and give back. With B3 I bond with other students, learn to immerse myself in a community culture, and adapt to living conditions. It is a delight to see what we accomplished as a team to better the lives of others — as A Better Chance of Westport has done for me.

Every year Westporters head to their first Dream Event, expecting just another charity fundraiser.

Like Michael and Karen Wolfe, they never dream of the impact it will make not only on the very special scholars’ lives — but on their own.

(A Better Chance of Westport’s Dream Event is set for Saturday, March 30 at Rolling Hills Country Club in Wilton. For more information and tickets, click here.)

Sure And Begorrah, Eddie O’Rourke’s A National Champ

Everyone in Westport knows Laddie Lawrence. He’s 72 years old; he’s coached Staples High School’s cross country, indoor and outdoor track teams for 50 years, and won dozens of state and New England championships.

Hardly anyone knows Eddie O’Rourke. He’s 74, and just won his first state title.

But he has an excuse. This is only his 2nd year of coaching.

Eddie O’Rourke

O’Rourke immigrated from Ireland to America in 1984. His wife’s sister was here; they visited often, and liked it. The O’Rourkes spent 3 years on the green card wait list. When their number came up, they had just 3 months to sell their house, and move.

Back home, O’Rourke had driven a double-decker bus. There’s not many of those here. He found work on golf course construction in Wilton, but missed driving.

Two months later he was hired by Connecticut Limousine. He loved that. Yet in the aftermath of 9/11, the company went from 130,000 riders a month to 8,000. They laid off nearly everyone.

He worked for a while in a liquor store, then retired at 66. “I’m living the life now,” he says, in a brogue undimmed by 35 years in the States.

That life revolves around squash.

Back in Ireland, he had been a good handball player. A friend convinced him to try squash. O’Rourke had never played — but beat him.

It was an easy adjustment. Both sports are played within 4 walls. Shots are similar.

Squash is “a brilliant game,” O’Rourke says. “It’s a great workout. There’s nothing better than a good runaround. And you can play it well into your 80s.”

For 32 years, he played at Southport Racquet Club. But Equinox bought it 2 years ago, and did away with the squash courts.

The 260 players were distraught. The nearest courts were in Stamford and New Haven.

Intensity — the tennis club on the Westport/Norwalk border — agreed to create 4 courts, with one provision: 120 players had to join.

They got 134. In just 2 years, that’s ballooned to over 200.

Intensity formed a junior program too.

Last year, 34 Staples boys and girls signed up. Some had played before. Others never had. They placed 2nd in their division.

This year, over 60 Wreckers compete. There are separate boys and girls varsity teams, boys and girls JV squads, and a club team.

Eddie O’Rourke, coaching on the court.

They play from Thanksgiving to mid-February. They train Mondays through Thursdays, with matches on Fridays. “They’re great kids,” O’Rourke says. “They really help each other out.”

This winter, the boys varsity went unbeaten in the Fairwest League. Then they won the Division 8 HEAD US High School Team Championship.

Not bad for a 2nd year squad — and their equally new coach.

Coach Eddie O’Rourke (left) and the national champion Staples High School boys squash team.

O’Rourke’s route to the head spot began when Southport Racquet Club charged members $60 a month. He could not afford it, so the manager told him to pay whatever he could.

O’Rourke suggested $25 a month — adding that he’d be happy to teach new members how to play.

So when Staples needed a coach, he was the natural — and easy — choice.

“I’d have done it as a volunteer,” O’Rourke says. “But they offered to pay!”

It’s money well spent.

Though O’Rourke will never catch Laddie Lawrence in the number of championships won, he’s got a national championship at age 74.

And — based on the enthusiasm of the program he’s helped build, and the passion he brings to the sport — there could be many more trophies ahead.

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.

Pic Of The Day #675

Sunrise at Staples High School — back parking lot and athletic fields (Photo/Colin Neenan)

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.

Since Parkland

Yesterday was the 1st anniversary of the Marjory Douglas Stoneman massacre. Across the country, we remembered the 17 students and staff members murdered in their Florida high school.

Survivors — and countless others with no connection to the school — believed that finally, something would change. At rallies, online and in legislatures, calls for new gun regulations grew stronger.

Yet in the year that followed, 1,200 children and teenagers have been killed.

Far fewer people know their names, or where they lived, than know the Parkland students. Their stories have never been told.

Until now.

Since Parkland” is a powerful media project. With the help of the Miami Herald, McClatchy publishing company and The Trace — an independent, non-profit news organization — 200 journalists set out to profile all 1,200 people 18 and under killed by guns. Since Parkland.

The Since Parkland home page.

Sophie Driscoll is a proud participant in this important effort.

Like many Staples High students, she’s busy. She’s an editor-in-chief of Inklings, the school’s award-winning newspaper. She’s president of the Young Democrats.

But she made time for “Since Parkland.” And she helped make it a stunning piece of journalism.

A year ago, Sophie published a story in Ms. Magazine. It started as a piece about Reshaping Reality — the Staples club that helps middle schoolers and their parents deal with body image, eating disorders and social pressures. But it soon became much more.

Sophie’s piece highlighted teenage feminists who started clubs at their high schools. She interviewed students in all over the US. It was “interesting and exciting,” she says. She worked with an actual editor, Katina Paron.

Sophie Driscoll

Last summer, Sophie joined 83 other rising seniors for a 5-week journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. While she was there, Katina called. She was looking for students with “good research skills,” for a project she described only vaguely.

In early August, Sophie and dozens of others participated in a video conference. They learned a bit more about “Since Parkland.”

Sophie was assigned 6 stories. There was Nicholas Glasco, 18 of Stone Mountain Georgia, shot accidentally by a friend a month before his high school graduation.

Christopher Jake Stone, 17, was one of 10 killed and 13 injured at Santa Fe (Texas) High School, 3 months after Parkland. He was trying to block the door to his classroom to prevent the gunman’s entry.

Tahji McGill, 17, was shot outside an Illinois club.

Chavelle Tramon Thompson, 17, was murdered while walking with friends to a store in Union City, Georgia.

In Virginia, a 2-year-old died when his 4-year-old brother accidentally shot him in the head. The very same day — also in Virginia — another 2-year-old was killed. He shot himself with a handgun he’d found.

The story that resonated the most with Sophie was Xantavian Pierce’s. She wrote:

The Brunswick High School athlete played basketball and football. The numbers on his jerseys were 15 and 28, respectively. Throughout his athletic career, the 17-year-old worked to make his mother proud. She said he succeeded.

“He was amazing,” his mother said. “He was wonderful. He was a loving, God-fearing child. He  was just a wonderful person. He was my heartbeat.”

Xantavian “Tae” Pierce was helping someone move when a gun went off inside a box he was carrying, accidentally shooting him in the stomach at the Eagles Pointe Apartments in Brunswick, Georgia, on March 25, 2018.

“He was a straight arrow, close with his family,” Sophie says. “He was just like someone I’d know at Staples.”

Xantavian Pierce

The process was wrenching. Sophie tracked down news reports, and scrutinized Facebook pages. She read what family members, friends and teachers said.

“They seem like such vibrant, alive, regular kids,” she notes.

Each profile is 3 paragraphs long. The first 2 give life to each young person. The 3rd describes his or her death.

That was hard. “I had to take a step back, and write as if he was alive,” Sophie says. But they were not.

The research itself was arduous. Sophie was stunned to discover there is no national database to track gun deaths. State records might list a date — but no name. Sometimes, there was not even a local news report.

It was a truly collaborative process. The 200 young writers — from across the nation — used the Slack app and Zoom video conferencing to work together. They helped find information, and supported each other through tough times.

Still, they did not realize the scope of the project — or how it would appear online — until nearly the end.

And “the end” was, literally, 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, February 13. Just as they had every day — Since Parkland — young people were killed that night.

The project drew immediate attention. The New York Times highlighted it. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy — a staunch gun regulation advocate — tweeted about it.

Sophie — who hopes to pursue journalism in college, and beyond — notes, “this was journalism, not activism.” But — like all good journalism — she hopes it will force people to think about an issue in deep, different ways.

Her goal — and that of every student journalist — was to humanize all 1,200 young people lost to gun violence Since Parkland.

“The statistics are staggering,” Sophie says. “But each statistic is a human being.

“These kids are not statistics. They’re athletes, artists. A lot were college bound. It’s so hard to think about the people they were, and could have become.”

It is hard. But — thanks to Sophie Driscoll, and scores of other determined high school students across America — right now we are doing just that.

(Click here for the 6 stories written by Sophie Driscoll. Click here for the “Since Parkland” home page.)

More Grammy News

I knew there would be more than one Westport connection to last night’s Grammy Awards.

In addition to Daniel Tashian’s part in Kasey Musgraves’ Album of the Year, Staples High School grad Justin Paul picked up his 2nd Grammy. He and his songwriting partner Benj Pasek were honored for “The Greatest Showman” — named Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media.

Pasek and Paul are great showmen — and songwriters — for sure. They will pick up many more Grammys (and other honors) for years to come.

Justin Paul (left), Benj Pasek and their Grammys.