Staples High School’s senior class has endured a year unlike any in the school’s 136-year history.
But the Class of 2021 faced down challenges and adversity — everything from remote learning and quarantines to shortened sports seasons, canceled plays and concerts, and Plexiglas barriers in the cafeteria — with maturity, resilience and grace.
Yesterday evening, they got their reward. Under a bright sky, in perfect temperatures, they graduated.
All together, as one.
Seniors file onto the stadium field, past a memorial bench dedicated to Tamari Rivera. Their classmate — a beloved member of the basketball team — died in January.
They continue on to their seats of honor, in front of the stage.
In the first outdoor ceremony since 1994 — not counting last year’s drive-thru affair — they were honored by family and staff.
Assistant principal James Farnen leads staff members into the ceremony.
The crowd was smaller than usual; COVID limited the number of tickets. But unlike years past in the fieldhouse, everyone could see.
Bleachers are decorated with signs from departments, clubs and teams, honoring the graduates.
And hear. Principal Stafford Thomas hailed the newest graduates as “respectful, optimistic and bold.”
Principal Stafford Thomas delivers warm, upbeat remarks.
Salutatorian Hannah Even talked about black holes (a metaphor for the past year?). Valedictorian Konur Nordberg gave shout-outs to many classmates, and — alluding to the silver lining of the past year — quoted a 17th-century samurai: “My barn burned down, but now I can see the moon.”
The 469 graduates’ names were called. Proudly, they walked onto the stage and acknowledged the cheers.
James Jennings receives his diploma. From left, assistant principal Pat Micinilio, Board of Education chair Candice Savin and principal Stafford Thomas do the honors. James later joined Marley Lopez-Paul, leading the class in the traditional turning of the tassel.
It was a warm, wonderful ceremony. Quickly and efficiently, it was over. Just as quickly, the Class of ’21 became part of history.
For once, that’s not a cliché.
Benny Zack solos with the Choralaires and senior choral members on “The Road Home.”
Senior soccer players march in together.
Some graduates decorate their mortarboards …
… while others have a snack and water.
The Staples High School Class of 2021: winners in every book. (Photos/Dan Woog)
About 60% of Staples High School seniors drink regularly. A quarter use marijuana. The same number vape — mostly THC.
Those are some of the headline-grabbing statistics announced this week by the Westport Prevention Coalition. Working with the Search Institute, Westport Department of Human Services and Positive Directions, they conducted an anonymous survey of 800 7th through 12 graders in April.
In addition to substance use, questions covered developmental relationships, COVID stress and racial justice.
Results were presented at Monday’s Board of Education meeting. Yesterday afternoon, Westport public schools coordinator of psychological services Dr. Valerie Babich and Positive Directions prevention director Margaret Watt did a deeper dive into the statistics, on a Zoom call with Westport educators, youth workers, social service providers and students.
The bulk of the discussion involved the substance use findings. The survey asked about behaviors in the preceding 30 days. Teenagers were still wearing masks and supposed to be socially distanced; COVID continued to limit some of their interactions.
Key substance findings from the Westport Prevention Coalition survey.
Nonetheless, 60% of Staples seniors had had “more than a few sips” of beer in the previous month. For 7th graders, the number was 9%. It rose steadily, most noticeably starting in sophomore year.
Taken together, the 33% total of high school students who drank in the previous 30 days — during COVID — was higher than the Connecticut average in a survey conducted in 2019, before the pandemic.
Marijuana use and vaping begins around 9th grade. It rises in tandem over the years, peaking at 24% (marijuana) and 25% (vaping) by senior year.
Of the students who knew what they were vaping, 2/3 used THC; 1/3 used nicotine. In addition, 28% used multiple substances. But 13% did not know what they were inhaling.
Interestingly, tobacco and prescription drug misuse was virtually non-existent: 0 to 2% in all grades.
The Westport Prevention Coalition has undertaken an educational campaign. This is the front of a postcard. The other side helps parents talk about substance use with their youngsters.
As students get older, they reported, their parents’ disapproval of certain substances goes down. By senior year, only 63% of students said that their parents disapprove of marijuana.
In terms of perceived harm, 78% of high school students think that 5 or more drinks at a time, once or twice a week, is harmful. That means 22% do not believe it is bad.
81% of high school students think vaping is harmful.
In 7th grade, 74% of students surveyed thought that marijuana is harmful. By 12th grade, the number dropped to 34%.
COVID had a strong impact on Westport youth. More than half of students surveyed took steps to resolve pandemic-related problems. The majority said they accepted the reality of the new situation. However, only 34% reached out to others to talk about how they were feeling.
58% of the students felt connected to school staff. A whopping 94% said they felt connected to friends.
In tough COVID times, friends can be lifesavers.
Questions about developmental relationships with teachers revealed “moderate to high” responses. Students felt that they were challenged to grow, provided support, and expanded their possibilities.
Areas for improvement included inspiring possibilities for the future, exposure to new ideas, and introduction to people who could help them grow.
The final section revealed that 3/4 believe they have a role to play in ending racial injustice. A clear majority are aware of the impact of their own words and actions, in the social justice arena.
Data will be reviewed with school administrators, staff, mental health professionals and students. The Westport Prevention Coalition will then determine how best to turn the findings into solutions.
Doug Tirola — one of the founders of the Remarkable Theater — is a native Westporter, and father of a Staples High School student. He know we’ve got some remarkable members of the senior class — and that they had a remarkable year.
Tomorrow Doug — whose day job is filmmaking — wants to hear about their experiences. He’s making a short feature starring Staples seniors. It will play before (naturally) the drive-in screening of “The Breakfast Club” later this month.
High school seniors are invited to a quick interview tomorrow (Wednesday, June 16, 3 p.m.) at Staples’ front entrance.
NOTE: Seniors who are not yet 18 should email email@example.com for a release form, to be signed by a parent prior to film.
“The Breakfast Club”: Quite possibly the best high school movie ever made.
But the young staff — overseeing kayaks, paddleboards and the increasingly crowded Saugatuck River — has major responsibilities.
Yesterday, owners Taryn and Robbie Guimond brought Westport Volunteer Emergency Medical Services staff onto the Riverside Avenue site. EMTs ran everyone through every imaginable safety scenario and protocol.
The entire Westport Paddle Club staff is now certified in CPR, first aid and “stop the blood.” They’re ready for anything — and for you.
“With so much negativity about police in our country, we feel lucky we have a Police Department that responds quickly and professionally to our needs, on many levels.
“On Sunday around 2:30 p.m., my husband Larry and I, 2 Westport friends and our puppy were stranded on our small boat in the Sound. It just stopped, and refused to start again no matter what we were tried.
“To our much appreciated rescue came 2 police officers: a man and a woman. With efficiency, respect and utmost professionalism, we were towed to our marina on Saugatuck shores.
“We are privileged to live in a town with such an incredible Police Department. Thank you!”
The Lefkowitzes’ boat, after being towed to safety.
For weeks, Pequot Trail neighbors have been upset about the clear-cutting done in preparation for a teardown and new home.
Yesterday, News12 reported on the issue.
As noted in the report, owners can do whatever they want with their property. But, Tree Board chair Monica Buesser notes, trees play many roles beyond beauty — including noise abatement and reduced flood risk.
Marketplace at Franny’s of Westport celebrates its first year as a local pop-up partner this Saturday (June 19, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.).
The Bedford Square shop will be filled with live music, free samples and giveaways. Tracey Medeiros will sign copies of “The Art of Cooking with Cannabis,” and Franny Tacy — founder of Franny’s Farmacy — will be on hand too, to say, um, “hi.”
The world is opening up. But plenty of neighbors are still in dire straits.
To help fill Person 2 Person’s Norwalk food pantry, Westport Sunrise Rotary members will collect food donations in the rear of Saugatuck Congregational Church (Saturday, June 26, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.).
They urge folks to include these items on upcoming shopping trips: hearty soups, snack and granola bars, pasta and sauce, 1-pound rice boxes, peanut butter and jelly, mac and cheese, canned tuna and chicken, canned fruits and vegetables, dried and canned beans, pancake mix, cold cereal, oatmeal and shelf-stable milk.
Among the most needed household and personal items: laundry detergent, shampoo and conditioner, dryer sheets, toothbrushes and toothpaste, disinfectant wipes, hand and body soap, kitchen sponges, deodorant, liquid dish detergent, diapers and wipes (especially sizes 5 and 6), tissues and Kleenex.
From left: Greg Dobbs (Person2Person food pantry site manger) with Westport Sunrise Rotarians Rob Hauck and president George Masumian.
Staples High School’s graduation next Thursday returns to the football stadium — a nod to the lingering effects of COVID. The potential for bad weather, construction of the fieldhouse and an ability to better control crowds (and teenagers) drove graduation indoors decades ago.
As the Class of 2021 receives their diplomas, the remaining members of Staples’ Class of 1956 may remember their own graduation, 65 years ago.
To help them recall their high school years — and to show how much things have changed in 2/3 of a century — here’s a look back, through the pages of the 1956 Stapleite yearbook.
Four of the nearly-200 member graduating class are shown below. David Wunsch is now a frequent commenter on “06880.”
The “Senior Preferences” list contained several (presumably) inside jokes. Favorite soap?!
Student organizations included the SSO, Senate (“which made “good progress on the parking problem and tried to curb the smoking”), and a Student Court.
Two popular — but now long-defunct — clubs include the Projectionists (to show movies in classes) and Rifle (which competed in NRA matches).
Finally, a look back at the junior prom of 1955. It featured a live band.
The TriBeca Film Festival is back. This year, it’s very New York-centric.
Among the films: “Bernstein’s Wall.”
The Tribeca website describes the world premiere of the film directed by Westporter Douglas Tirola (4thRow Films; co-founder, Westport’s Remarkable Theater):
In this enlightening look at one of the greatest classical music figures of the 20th century, director Douglas Tirola mines a rich trove of interviews, television appearances, home movie footage, photos, letters to craft a comprehensive look at Leonard Bernstein, whose passion and drive took him well beyond the marvelous music he wrote and conducted.
Spanning the breadth of a life interwoven with key historic moments outside the concert hall, Bernstein’s Wall follows the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant who arrives in New York from his Boston hometown to eventually become conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and becomes a household name thanks to his numerous TV appearances, educating the public on all things symphonic, West Side Story, being seen with celebrities and politicians, and his crossing-the-line activism, from protesting the Vietnam War to (controversially) supporting the Black Panthers.
Tirola incorporates Bernstein’s personal life — his fraught relationship with his father, his marriage, his family life, his struggles to be at peace with his sexuality — to paint a complex portrait of a complex, driven individual who produced some of the most memorable music of his time as a product of those times.
(“Bernstein’s Wall” is available for streaming from June 15-23. Click here for details. Hat tip: Kerry Long)
Just in time for the end of the spring sports season: Westport Rotary Club and the Westport Soccer Association are collecting used soccer uniforms, clothing, shoes, shin guards, balls and other equipment.
They’ll ship it all to Nicaragua. Rotary already works there with NicaPhoteo, a non-profit that helps communities.
The soccer equipment is much needed. Soft backpack bags, old balls, socks, jerseys and shirts — it will all go to good use.
The drop-off location is 5 Sugar Maple Lane, Westport (off Whitney Street). There’s a box on the front porch. Please wash clothing items first!
Dr. Donald Cohen’s nationally televised show — in which, well, kids talked (about everything in their lives) is being relaunched. Fittingly for a new century, it’s a livestream, on YouTube, Facebook and Twitch.
The first episode of the relaunch is tonight (Thursday, June 10), at 7 p.m. The topic is body image and eating disorders. Teenage guests come from Westport — and around the country.
“Kids Are Talking” started in 1990 at Fairfield University. It became a national radio call-in show on WICC, simulcast on Cablevision. In the late ’90s it found a home on WWPT-FM, broadcast from Toquet Hall.
“Kids Are Talking” and its host, Cohen, have been featured on “The CBS Morning Show” and ABC-TV, as well as in the New York Times.
TAP Strength Lab is the latest business to join the “Summer of Pride” promotion.
The downtown personalized fitness coaching, therapy, nutrition and preventative health center will donate 10% of the first month of membership (for new members who sign up now through August) to Westport Pride. Mention the code “Summer of Love.”
Oh, yeah: They’ve got a special Pride logo for this month too.
Patricia Rogers Suda, died peacefully at home on May 24, surrounded by her loving family after a courageous fight against cancer. She was 69.
Born in New Haven, her family moved to Westport in 1959. She graduated in 1970 from Staples High, where she met and married the love of her life, Mark R. Suda.
Patti and Mark moved to Norwalk. They were married for nearly 50 years, before he passed in 2020.
Survivors include sons, Mark Suda Jr. (Michelle) and Joseph Suda (Amy); grandchildren Skyler, Madyson, Samantha and Joseph Jr.; brothers Bill, Paul and John Rogers; sister Janet Aitoro, and many nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews.
Patti loved watching her sons in their sports. From Cranbury League baseball and Pop Warner football, to high school baseball and football, she was there. She also enjoyed watching her grandkids in softball, baseball, gymnastics, soccer and hockey.
Patti retired in December 2017 as a bookkeeper after 32 years, to spend time with her family.
Her words to all family and friends are, “Live life to the fullest, with love and respect to others, because you never know what tomorrow brings.”
It’s tough to keep a secret from a school administrator. They’re supposed to know everything.
But a conspiracy of silence — involving colleagues, students and friends — worked this week. When Meghan Ward walked into the Pathways suite at Staples High School yesterday, she had no idea a mural would be unveiled in her honor.
Ward — an assistant principal — heads to a new job soon: principal of John Read Middle School in Redding. In her 5 years at Staples, she’s earned respect and admiration — and changed countless lives — as, among other things, Pathways supervisor.
That’s the “school within a school” offering alternative educational opportunities for students experiencing academic, behavioral and/or life challenges in the traditional setting.
The 4 Pathways teachers work closely with small groups of students. They wanted to honor the woman who helped create the program, then championed it in every setting.
They asked students what would be meaningful to them. Their idea: a bright, evocative mural.
Meghan Ward, in her Staples office. (Photo/Dan Woog)
“Meghan had a vision for how Pathways could run,” says English instructor Ann Neary.
“She imagined how students could engage in school, and what their possibilities could be. She supported teachers’ ideas, met with us weekly, sent us for trainings, and advocated for what we need to make this program work.”
Student Charlotte D’Anna sketched the design. Students voted for the concept. Principal Stafford Thomas okayed painting a classroom wall. Art instructor Tracy Wright helped Neary understand all about mural paints and brushes.
Then the students went to work. They loved what they were doing — and it showed.
Hard at work! Science teacher Tony Coccoli is at far left; English instructor Ann Neary is in the middle. Other teachers (not pictured) are Mike Forgette (math) and Dan Heaphy (social studies).
Alicia D’Anna — a Staples Players parent and professional set designer — organized and managed the process. Her eldest child Sami graduated from Pathways last year.
That alumni connection was evident yesterday when Ward walked in, was moved to tears by the mural — and saw nearly a dozen Pathways alum on hand too.
Meghan Ward, with her mural. (Photo/Maryann Garcia)
Meghan Ward created a pathway to success for a number of Staples students. Her work will be remembered for years — thanks to a mural that now graces a Pathways wall.
In many ways, yesterday was the first “normal” day in nearly 15 months.
Hundreds of people gathered at Jesup Green for a joyful Pride celebration. hundreds more swarmed Compo Beach, or took boats out on the Sound. At night, the Levitt Pavilion opened its gates for the Westport Schools’ annual Pops Concert.
The previous night’s show was moved by weather to the Staples High auditorium. But last night was as close to old times as anyone could hope for.
The crowd was limited to smaller numbers than usual. But everything else was the same: spectacular music, of near-professional quality. An appreciative, picnic-toting audience.
And, yes, pride and joy, in celebrating our kids, and our town, together again.
Last night at the Levitt Pavilion. (Photo/Dan Woog)
Candi Innaco conducts the band for the final time. She is retiring after 36 years as a music instructor. (Photo/Jerri Graham Photography)
Tim Lukens was enjoying yesterday’s weather, listening to music and quietly weeding his flower garden, when he came “literally 6 inches — nose to nose” — with the black bear wandering through Westport’s woods. This encounter was near Wilton Road, just north of Merritt Parkway Exit 41.
Barnes & Noble’s Westport store is internationally famous.
Well, at least it got a shoutout in the Financial Times.
A long profile on James Daunt — the Briton who rescued the small Waterstones book store chain from Amazon, and is attempting to do the same now for B&N — mentioned our local shop.
Daunt used the pandemic to rearrange layouts. Stores — including the newly opened one downtown — look less like “libraries”; round tables make them more browser-friendly. Click here for the full story. (Hat tips: Henry Engler, Jon Fraade)
While a Netflix movie is being filmed in Westport, the Country Playhouse parking lot has been rented to the production crew. It serves as a staging area, through June 16.
Most Winslow Park dog lovers realize it’s a private lot, and heed the signs and staff. Some, though, ignore them, and park anyway.
WCP general manager Beth Huisking says, “We love Westport, and want to be a valued member of the community. To be reciprocated with disrespect from some community members is disheartening.
“When we close the lot it is because we need the space (the hour or so before a performance), or because something is going on that requires us to use all spaces.
“In the case of the production crew, with large trucks and vans pulling through the lot, we want to make sure everyone (people, animals, even cars) are safe. So please, until June 16, park at the Winslow lot on Compo Road North. Thank you.”
One of the many trucks in the Westport Country Playhouse parking lot. (Photo/Dan Woog)
Over the years, Jesup Green has hosted anti-war and pro-war demonstrations. It’s seen rallies against nuclear arms, antisemitism and AAPI violence, and in support of Black Lives Matter.
Yesterday, Westport’s first LGBTQ Pride celebration took over the historic town lawn. For several years in the early 2000s, smaller events were held at the Unitarian Church.
This one drew 500 people. Spanning all ages, many faiths, and ranging from gay, lesbian, bi, trans and questioning to plenty of straight allies, they enjoyed the most beautiful day of the year so far. (Weather-wise, and in spirit.)
Kicking off a joyful day. (Photo/Kerry Long)
The crowd saw a rainbow flag fly over the green. They heard great music and inspiring speeches from out, proud teenagers. Politicians and clergy praised the progress made, and promised to keep working for social justice and civil rights. Kids had their faces painted.
Westport Pride organizer Brian McGunagle and his 2-year-old son Henry listen as 1st Selectman Jim Marpe — wearing a rainbow tie — reads a town proclamation. (Photo/Kerry Long)
It was a powerful, memorable community event. For some in the crowd, it could have been life-changing.
Another celebrant. (Photo/Lauri Weiser)
It made all who were there immensely proud of their town. (Click here for the News12 report.)
Proud clergy (from left): Rev. Heather Sinclair, United Methodist; Rev. Alison Patton, Saugatuck Congregational; Rev. Dr. John Morehouse, Unitarian; Rev. John Betit, Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal; Rev. Marcella Gillis, Christ & Holy Trinity. Jewish clergy who were officiating at Saturday services sent their best wishes. (Photo/Dan Woog)
Showing the flag (Photo/Kerry Long)
State Senators Tony Hwang and Will Haskell. Haskell drew laughs when he said that his 3 gay brothers were disappointed the day he brought home a girl. (Photo/Kerry Long)
Staples Players were out in force — with their own prideful t-shirts. (Photo/Kerry Long)
Suzanne Sheridan helped organize Westport’s first Pride festival in 2002. She was part of the great entertainers, along with Stacie Lewis, Julie Loyd and many young singers. (Photo/Kerry Long)
Former Staples High School principal John Dodig is flanked by his husband Rodger Leonard (left) and Staples Gay-Sexuality Alliance co-advisor Chris Fray. Kayla Iannetta, a biology teacher, is the other advisor, and helped organize the event. (Photo/Dan Woog)
Cornell University football player AJ Konstanty and his brother Colin, a Staples junior, posed, then performed “Your Song” on keyboards and vocals. (Photo/Dan Woog)
Marjorie Almansi, who helped organized the day, stands with her next-door neighbors. (Photo/Dan Woog)
Staples singers entertain the large crowd. (Photo/Kerry Long)
US Congressman Jim Himes discusses past struggles, current successes, and future goals. (Photo/Kerry Long)
Pride was a family event. (Photo/Lauri Weiser)
Weston High School junior Zac Mathias: fashion model — and role model. (Photo/Dan Woog)
Everyone — and everything — gets into the act. (Photo/Kerry Long)
Staples Tuition Grants’ annual awards ceremony is one of the high school’s premier events.
Last year’s was particularly impressive. The organization — founded in 1943, with a $100 grant from the PTA — awarded $350,000 in need-based scholarships, to 129 students. Nearly half are seniors who graduate this month; the rest are Staples grads, currently in college.
The grants — ranging from $500 to $5,000 — will help them attend a total of 77 institutions, in 24 states.
Guest speakers included longtime STG donor Dick Fincher, and past recipient/current educator, EMT and Westport Local Press publisher Jaime Bairaktaris.
But — as always — the “stars” were the students. To learn more about Staples Tuition Grants, and donate, click here.
Speaking of teenagers: Westport Farmers’ Market‘s 5th annual Young Shoots Photography Contest opens soon. And you can be even younger than 13 to enter.
There are 3 age categories: 8-10 years old, 11-14 and 15-18. Any photo taken at one of the Thursday Farmers’ Markets is eligible. Judging is by a panel of local artists, and the public.
The contest runs from a week from today (June 10) through July 18. Winners — who earn cash prizes, special swag and membership to local art organizations — will be celebrated at Gilbertie’s Herbs & Garden Center, with catering by Sugar & Olives. Click here to submit photos.
“Starstem” by Calista Finkelstein placed 1st in the 2016 contest, in the 8-10 category.
What does it mean to be Asian American? That’s the title of a conversation next Thursday (June 10, 7 p.m.) Presented by the Westport Library, TEAM Westport and AAPI Westport, there’s limited seating at the library. But everyone around the world can tune in virtually.
Professors Erika Lee and Jason Chang are the guests. The discussion will be moderated by Westporter Heather Lee. They’ll explore Asian American life through a wide historic lens, as well as the current wave of anti-Asian discrimination and physical attacks, and AAPI communities uniting with others to create an inclusive and equitable society.
To register for in-person seating at the Westport Library, click here. To register for the Zoom link, click here.
A scene from Westport’s Asian-American rally, outside the Library.
An event last night at Mancini Salon honored owner Carla Morales. The staff surprised her with a party, thanking her for all she did to get them through the pandemic year. She kept all her employees on, under difficult circumstances — and kept them and their patrons safe. The salon reopened exactly a year ago.
Congratulations, Carla. Here’s wishing you and Mancini a great summer! (Hat tip: Patti Brill)
Westport Country Playhouse’s popular Script in Hand play reading series continues with “The Savannah Disputation.” The comedy — filmed on the Playhouse stage — will be broadcast virtually. It premieres June 14 at 7 p.m., and streams on demand from June 15 through 20.
In “Savannah Disputation,” Mary and Margaret are feisty Catholic sisters living in Georgia, who forget about Southern hospitality when a young Pentecostal missionary knocks at their front door to shake up their beliefs. The women call in their local priest for backup, in this entertaining examination of what it means to truly believe.
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