Category Archives: Teenagers

Meet Stafford Thomas: Staples’ New Principal

Stafford Thomas’ life is filled with intriguing twists and turns.

But if Stanford University had not lost his grad school application, he might never have ended up at Brown — and gone into education.

And he undoubtedly would not have landed in Westport, where he is just settling in as Staples High School’s new principal.

Thomas spoke easily and at length the other day about the journey that brought him from St. Croix to North Avenue. He’s got plenty of time to figure out where he’ll take Staples — he’s just starting to meet with administrators and staff members, and students don’t return until late August — but much of what he’s done in his life had led to this point.

Even if he didn’t realize it as it happened.

Stafford Thomas, with an autographed photo of Don Mattingly.

Thomas’ mother taught reading in the Virgin Islands, through the Vista national service program. That’s where she met his father, a native of Dominica who ran a driving school. (“I got behind the wheel of a car when I was 5,” Thomas laughs. “And alone at 8.”)

His mother moved back to the States to teach in a private school. Thomas spent his tween and teen years in Manhattan, Queens and Long Island.

Georgetown University wanted him for football. But he was used to getting up at 3:30 a.m. to work construction, so he switched to crew (and early morning rowing practices) there.

After a study abroad year in Florence, Thomas interned on Capitol Hill for the non-voting congressional representative from the US Virgin Islands.

Many Georgetown grads were going into consulting. Thomas did not see himself on that path. His mother — a career teacher — advised him not to go into education. He applied to Stanford’s graduate school for public policy. But he also applied to Brown’s Master of Arts in Teaching program.

Stanford misplaced his forms. So 2 weeks after graduation, Thomas was in Providence. Part of his coursework included teaching and coaching basketball at Lincoln School, a private institution for girls.

Stafford Thomas addressed the Board of Education last month, after his appointment as Staples High School’s new principal.

That Brown degree led to a job at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York. The staff was young, and he was mentored well.

The next steps in Thomas’ professional development included a dual program at Boston College. He took law classes during the day, and studied educational leadership at night. Highlights included studying the achievement gap in Brookline public schools, a practicum with the principal of a K-8 Catholic school, and a stint at a Shanghai teachers college.

“I was busy,” Thomas says with understatement.

His new degrees led to a position as associate director of policy for Providence mayor (now Rhode Island congressman) David Cicciline. A chance meeting there led to an offer to work with a renowned principal at Barrington Middle School.

Thomas was all of 26 years old.

He learned leadership skills there, and at 30 was handed more responsibilities as an administrator at Mystic Middle School. He worked with talented department heads, and helped start unified arts and sports programs.

Staples principal Stafford Thomas shows off his Wrecker hat.

Eight years ago, Hillcrest Middle School in Trumbull hired Thomas as principal.

This year, the Connecticut Association of Schools honored it as Middle School of the Year. The award noted that students, faculty, administrators and parents combined to create a community known for innovative teaching strategies, after-school programs and high academic achievement.

Middle school, Thomas notes, is often a difficult time for tweens and young teenagers. His goal was to make the school comfortable (“like a family”) for students, staff and parents. He made sure that staff members went beyond simply knowing students. “Connections are so important,” he says. “It’s all about communication and openness.”

Thomas brings those experiences — as a team leader, communicator and innovator — to Staples. “I can’t imagine a better position in secondary school administration anywhere,” he says.

His new school is esteemed for its academic, art, athletic and extracurricular achievements. But pressures are strong. With students spending their final 4 years there (and at home) before heading into the real world, there’s plenty of emotion and uncertainty. Thomas is mindful of the need to make high school a comfortable, welcoming place for all.

“This is a home away from home, for students and staff,” he says. “We can’t control everything. But we can control what goes on here. We can do all we can to make this a positive, happy time.”

After his appointment was announced, Stafford Thomas met with staff members who came to the high school to welcome their new boss.

He’ll spend this summer meeting with administrators, staff and community members. He’ll ask what works for them, what’s needed, and how he can support them.

(He’ll also spend time with his wife — a kindergarten teacher in Trumbull — and 3 1/2-year-old son. He’s an avid tennis player, and just stopped playing softball.)

“The field of education is about people,” Thomas says. “Communication and transparency are big components of dealing with people. From there, you get to a position of trust.

“Everyone may not agree with every decision. But people need to know how a decision was made. That’s worked well for me in the past.”

He’s been in Westport just a few days. But he knows the town’s expectations are high. “People here want the best for everything — including education. They support the budget, the programs, the facilities. We owe it to them to give them the best.”

Everyone at Staples should have high expectations too, he says. “I’m glad that’s where we are. We should be on the cutting edge. I look forward to all the support and passion. People are very positive.”

Stafford Thomas is too.

And in August, the Staples community will be positively excited to welcome their principal to his new home.

Get Back To The ’80s, Today And Tomorrow!

I had modest expectations for “Back to the ’80s.”

I knew Staples Players’ summer show would be fun. I figured I’d spend last night entertained and amused, by a typically high-quality Players production.

But the ’80s were 3o-plus years ago. That’s more than a decade before the high school performers were born. How much could they really “get” the music, the memories, the pop culture references?

They did more than get it. They blew the audience away.

The “Get Out Of My Dreams (Get Into My Car)” ensemble. (Photo/Kerry Long)

“Back to the ’80s” is one of the best shows you’ve never heard of.

It’s laugh-out-loud hilarious.

The reinterpretations of songs — from “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Love Shack” to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and (especially) “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” — is eye-opening.

Colin Konstanty, Jasper Burke, Nick Rossi and Sam Mandelbaum cut loose. (Photo/Kerry Long)

And the little touches (embarrassingly short shorts on guys, bad hair on girls) bring you right back to the days of Pac-Man and David Hasselhof.

There are plenty of things to do today and tomorrow. Many of them can wait.

Make time — if you can — for “Back to the ’80s.” Bring the kids, even if they were born in the 2000s.

Only 3 performances remain: Today (Saturday, July 13, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.), and tomorrow (Sunday, July 14, 3 p.m.). Tickets are available by clicking here, or at the Staples High School auditorium.

Trust me (and Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes): You’ll have the time of your life.

Mia Kobylinkski and Charlie Zuckerman (Photo/Kerry Long)

Staples Players director David Roth does a star turn as the show’s 2019 narrator. (Photo/Kerry Long)

Westport’s World Champion Taekwondo: Winners In More Than Their Name

When Andrew Keisman was in kindergarten, a friend asked if he wanted to take a Taekwondo class.

The other boy soon stopped. Six years later, Andrew is a national champion.

He’s not the only local winner. Westport’s World Champion Taekwondo team — that’s the name of the school; they have not yet won a world title — returned recently from the US tournament in Minneapolis. Ten athletes, ages 10 to 17, competed in board breaking, forms/poomsae and sparring.

Among their luggage: 6 gold and 5 bronze medals.

Westport World Champion Taekwondo’s nationals team. Front row (from left): Ishr Bhullar, Andrew Keisman, Emily Xue, Olivia Saw, Srish Popuri, Matthew Saw. Rear: Master John Han, EJ Herrmann, Matthew Lee-Chin, Master Emalee Weiss, Meher Bhullar, Rhys Aron, Head Master DongHyun Jang.

Andrew’s mother Allison praises World Champion Taekwondo — one of 13 franchises in Connecticut — for offering him a home away from home. The masters at the Franklin Street institute have given him “self-confidence, goal-setting and camaraderie,” she says.

It’s not easy growing up here. Taekwondo has been a stable part of his life, Allison adds. And Andrew is far from alone.

He and his fellow taekwondo enthusiasts progress from beginner to black belt. Each goes at his or her own pace. But they always strive to improve.

Allison likes the diversity of ages and backgrounds at the WCT school. Classes are coed, and grades are mixed. (There are adult classes too.)

Allison appreciates the respect for each other, and the sport, that the masters instill. The parents have formed a supportive community too, she says.

Andrew earned his 1st degree black belt in 2nd grade. Now — four years later — he’s working on his 3rd degree.

Thanks to an instructor training program, black belts 11 or older help masters teach younger students — at the same time learning leadership, mentoring and volunteer skills.

The school-year program includes movie nights, and Halloween and birthday parties. WCT offers week-long summer camps too.

“This is a hidden gem in Westport,” his mother says gratefully. “It’s a special place for us.”

Westport Represents At Women’s World Champs Parade

The US women’s national team won the World Cup on Sunday with talent, swagger, poise and personality.

Today’s ticker-tape parade down New York City’s Canyon of Heroes Heroines drew a great, enthusiastic crowd.

A large contingent of Westporters — young soccer players, siblings, moms, and others enthralled by this fantastic team — joined the festivities.

Among the most excited: these 4 Staples soccer players.

From left: Mia Didio, Elizabeth Kuehndorf, McKenzie Didio, Emma Nordberg. (Photos/Karen Nordberg)

Mayor Bill de Blasio praised “America’s team.”

Captain Megan Rapinoe explained it more colorfully: “This group is so resilient, is so tough, has such a sense of humor — is just so bad-ass.

“We have pink hair and purple hair. We have tattoos, dreadlocks. We’ve got white girls and black girls, and everything in between. Straight girls and gay girls. Hey!”

Congratulations — and thanks for being role models for us all!

Staples Players Head Back To The ’80s

Staples Players’ summer show is “Back to the ’80s.”

The jukebox musical — a mashup of plots like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Revenge of the Nerds” and “The Breakfast Club,” with songs like “Love Shack,” “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” plus bad hair and acid-washed jeans — is great entertainment.

Corey Palmer narrates the show, from 2019. He looks back on himself as a geeky boy in love with the girl next door, growing up and going to high school in 1984.

That’s the same year Players director David Roth graduated from Staples. So who better to play the narrator than Roth himself?

That’s one of the special twists audiences will enjoy when “Back to the ’80s” opens this Friday evening (July 12). Performances are also set for Saturday afternoon and evening, and a Sunday matinee.

Director David Roth with (from left) Georgia Wright and Sophie Rossman. When he’s not working with the actors, Roth joins them onstage. (Photo/Kerry Long)

“It’s a fun fit,” says Roth, making his first appearance on the Staples stage since graduating 35 years ago. Back in the day, he starred as the MC in “Cabaret,” and shows like “Pippin” and “I Do! I Do!” He also directed “Chicago,” and served as vice president of tech his senior year.

There have been plenty of technical advancements in the 3 1/2 decades since Roth was a student. He and co-director Kerry Long have taken Players — always one of the best high school drama troupes around — to the next, near-Broadway level.

But, Roth says, the essence of Players has not changed. “It’s still a group of people who come together to put on a show,” he says.

Remember “Love Shack”? These Staples Players dance to the B-52s’ song. (Photo/Kerry Long)

And who have tons of fun doing it. Rehearsal last week was filled with a great, talented cast of dozens — from rising freshmen to Players alum like Charlie Zuckerman (taking a year off from college, to audition) and Jill Gault (in her 2nd year of the Ithaca College acting program).

They sang and danced their way through “Material Girl,” “Video Killed the Radio Star” and “Come On Eileen.”

All are ’80s songs from “Back to the ’80s.” None of the cast had been alive then, of course.

Except director/narrator David Roth.

Not to be confused with David Lee Roth.

(“Back to the ’80s” will be performed Friday, July 12 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, July 13 at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, July 14 at 3 p.m. Click here for tickets and more information.)

The very 80s-ish cast of Staples Players’ summer show. (Photo/Kerry Long)

CAST Reels In Special Kids

Ben and Josh Marcus love to fish. Every day after school, the Westport brothers — honor students at the Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford — cast their lines, relaxing before starting homework.

Fishing is social, recreational — and outdoors.

That makes it perfect for children with special needs. Thanks to a national organization — and the Marcus brothers — this past weekend, over 20 local kids discovered the joy of fishing.

And caught their own fish.

Success! Charlie Sanderson lands one!

Catch A Special Thrill– called CAST (get it?!) — is a national non-profit that enriches the lives of special needs kids through fishing. The organization provides them with their own rod and tackle box. 

This weekend marked CAST’s first Westport event. Benjamin and Josh helped bring it here.

Their parents, Bonnie and Andrew Marcus, opened their Saugatuck River home. It was a day of fun, food — and fishing.

Sam and Louis Parks

Local fishermen served as one-on-one coaches. CAST director Jeff Barnes — a retired bass pro fisherman — came from Alabama to help Ben and Josh.

Every youngster caught a fish. All were returned to the water.

But they will always keep the photos and memories.

(Sponsors include Iridian Asset Management, Goldberg & Marcus Dental Associates and the Bonnie Marcus Collection. If you love fishing — or know a child who would like to attend next year — email benscuba18@gmaio.com.)

Dylan Curran and friend. (All photos/Bonnie Marcus)

Pic Of The Day #794

Charlie Sanderson (center) strikes a classic Little League baseball pose, with his Challenger Division buddies Haran Eiger (left) and Alan Fiore. (Photo/Dan Woog)

ConGRADulations, Staples Class Of 2019!

Staples High School’s 132nd graduation ceremony took place this afternoon, in the fieldhouse.

475 seniors received diplomas.

They head to 163 different colleges, from Fairfield to Shanghai. A few will take gap years, join the military, or enter the workforce.

Those are the numbers. Here are the faces. Well done, Wreckers!

Anisa Prasad (left) is the salutatorian. Her sister Sirina Prasad is the valedictorian. Both will attend Harvard University.

Music teacher Nick Mariconda (left) retires this year, after a 41-year career with the Westport schools. He carried the mace as the longest continually serving Staples faculty member. James D’Amico leaves after 3 years as principal, and 18 in the school district. He’ll become the next principal of New Fairfield High.

Thumb’s up, for sure!

Maria Maisonet receives her diploma from interim superintendent of schools Dr. David Abbey. Board of Education chair Mark Mathias looks on.

Class speaker Victoria Cao offers words of advice.

Students decorate mortarboards in a variety of ways …

… and then, on a signal from Declan Byrne and Elle Fair, toss them joyfully in the air.

Then it’s on to photo ops …

… celebratory cigars …

… and graduation parties. This one honors A Better Chance of Westport scholars Darby Aurelien and David Li.

Every year, people ask why Staples graduation is not outdoors. Here’s why. (All photos/Dan Woog)

Bedford Middle School Students, Staples Freshman Make History

I’ve covered the accomplishments of Westport’s National History Day  competitors before.

I’ve used the headline “Do Know Much About History” too, so I can’t do that again.

However, earlier this month 5 Bedford Middle School students and 1 from Staples proved Sam Cooke wrong. They do know a lot about history.

The 8th graders — already state champions — placed 5th in the national event in College Park, Maryland. Freshman Ishan Prasad — a Bedford National History Day alum — placed 2nd in the High School Individual Paper category, for his work: “Shah Bano and India’s Post-Colonial Predicament: Gender vs. Religion.”

Bedford Middle School National History Day competitors, with club advisor Caroline Davis (rear) and their project.

The Westport program is only 5 years old. But what a history it has!

When Caroline Davis moved here from New Jersey, she brought a dozen years’ experience as a middle school National History Day Club faculty adviser. She asked if she could start one here.

Principal Adam Rosen welcomed the idea. A year later, Bedford qualified for the national competition. They repeated in 2017, ’18 and ’19 — all 3 times as state champs. Last year, they finished 4th in the country.

Davis calls her students “incredibly motivated. They want to explore outside of Goggle and readily available sources.”

She’s not kidding. Last year — delving into the 1967 Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court interracial marriage case — one group tracked down and interviewed the Lovings’ attorney.

Chris Fields, in the famous photo by Charles Porter IV.

Another group made a website about the Oklahoma City bombing. They found — and interviewed — Chris Fields, the firefighter in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo from that 1995 day.

(I know — to many “06880” readers, that’s a “current event.” But it happened a couple of decades before the current BMS kids were born. So history it is.)

The club meets twice a week. Students bring their lunch to Davis’ classroom, eating and working together. She helps them stay on course. But finding sources, organizing information, laying it out, offering peer reviews — that’s all on the students.

The national competition in Washington, DC was a fantastic educational and fun experience. In addition to teams from all over the US, the BMS students (and Ishan) met others from South Korea, China and Guam.

They also met Senator Richard Blumenthal, who spoke with them about the importance of history.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, at the US Capitol with some of Bedford’s National History Day team.

This year’s theme was “Triumph and Tragedy.” The BMS team — Rhea Choudhury, Sharmila Green, Emma Losonczy, Malika Subramanian and Lucia Wang — researched and presented the career of Lise Meitner.

Never heard of her? Neither had I.

She’s a Jewish Austrian physicist who helped discover nuclear fission in the late 1930s. She never received credit, though — and was even excluded from receiving the Nobel Prize.

Fortunately, the Bedford students (and Ishan) got their prize. Congrats to them, to Caroline Davis and Westport 6-12 social studies supervisor Lauren Francese.

Take that, Sam Cooke!

David Gusick: “The Graduation Speech For Parents No One Asked Me To Write”

The other day, reader David Gusick took this pre-prom picture, and sent it to “06880.”

. (Photo/David Gusick)

Tomorrow, more than 450 seniors graduate from Staples High School.

Today — inspired by the prom, the rest of the graduation activities, and the upcoming commencement — he addresses his son Sam, and the rest of the Class of 2019:

You may think this is your day. But it’s our day too.

I am not the class valedictorian, nor do I wear any fancy robes or caps to indicate that I am a man of letters. But reaching certain milestones, no matter who you are, is a good time to gather thoughts, reflect and write them down.

So I did. And so should you.

Sorry, kids. This speech is for your parents. But you may still want to listen. You might learn something.

Staples graduates listen to Dave Gusick’s speech. Or at least, the Class of ’18 listened to someone last year.

While you may think this day is all about you — and to a certain extent it is — I’m here to help educate you that today is just as much about us parents, and the blood, sweat and tears we shed to help get you here today.

Almost every parent here today should agree that you, our children, are our crowning achievement. The greatest thing most of us will ever create. To see you successfully pass this milestone is just as much a testament to our hard work as it is for yours.

Even before you were born, “the worry” began. With each phase of your life, new worries begin. Because with every opportunity comes risks.

As newborns, you gave us a literal wake-up call (typically at 2 a.m.) that our lives no longer belonged to just us.

As babies you relied on us for everything. Your survival literally depended on us.

As toddlers we had our introduction to the “great letting go,” as we exchanged our control for your independence.

In a late-summer ritual, this eager group of Caccamo Lane and Juniper Road kids waited for the first bus of the year. (Photo/Pam Long)

That is the time we moved to Westport from New York. It was shortly after 911, and just before our son’s 2nd birthday.

Like many of you, we moved here for the schools. Westport schools always rank near the top in the state and nation. Plus, Westport had Bar Method classes, which my wife didn’t think existed outside of Manhattan.

We made new friends quickly with other parents who were also new to the area.

When kindergarten started, our playgroups scattered to the 5 elementary schools. While we remained friends with some families, our attention focused on families who attended our elementary schools.

Having children that age and younger is perhaps the closest your family will ever be. You go everywhere and do everything together. You are a team.

While certain children are easier than others, raising any child is never easy. Having children forces us to be our better selves. Whether you like it or not you are now their teacher, coach, mentor and role model.

Elementary school activities are perhaps the most difficult to watch as parents. The orchestra sounds like a beached whale begging to be euthanized.

The first year kids pitch in youth baseball is mostly watching them walk around the bases as pitchers futilely try to avoid hitting the backstop and batter.

For generations, a rite of growing up.

You attend these recitals, games, tournaments, performances year after year after year. At first their progress is so incremental you barely notice their advancement.

Then comes the middle school phase. The kids keep getting better and better, accelerating with seemingly no end in sight. Next thing you know, they’re going to the Little League World Series!

Finally, high school.

We come back together. One school, one community: Staples. Now our lives, schedules and friendships are driven by YOUR activities, practices, rehearsals.

This message is for parents and students.

To be a healthy and happy adult, it is important to understand closure. Having unfinished business — especially with your parents — will stunt your future growth. You can blame us for any of your problems, but know this: We did the best we could with what we had to work with. We did what we thought was best. As did our parents before us. As will you, too.

A parent’s job — and joys — never ends.

Only understanding, acceptance and closure will prepare us for our next chapter, and our continued growth.

Parents are no longer the gods you saw us as when you were little. We are flawed. To maintain that pretense would be a disservice to you.

I love the annual ritual of Staples’ Back to School Night. It a reunion of sorts for us parents. I jokingly refer to it as “back together.” Many of the couples we knew starting out are no longer together. But for one night we return to the way things used to be.

Now there is a weariness, from years of work and worry. For ourselves and our children, that took a toll.

And so it goes.

As you become upperclassmen, you make some sort of invisible leap.

Part of the payoff for Dave Gusick: Watching his son Sam (3rd from left) in Staples Players’  “Twelve Angry Men.” (Photo/Kerry Long)

The musical ensembles are now pitch perfect. You sound like a single instrument. Your performances are infused with so much emotion that it brings grown men to tears. Seeing a Staples Players production is almost always better than seeing a Broadway show. The quality and standards are so high, and they are performed by our kids, for our town.

Just last week people posted prom pictures. Kids I hadn’t seen since nursery school have grown into such handsome and beautiful young adults!

You are now quicker, stronger, faster, sharper, more inquisitive and engaged than we are.

It is natural to feel nervous and scared about what comes next. I know I am. We have worked 18 years to help you be the best person you can be. To equip you with the skills you need to take care of yourself, and cope with all of the challenges life will throw your way.

To the graduating seniors: You are no longer children. Yet no matter how old you become, even when you are in your 50s and  60s we will refer to you as “our children.”

When each of you walk up to accept your diploma, there will be a community of people extending beyond your parents who have quietly rooted for you and your success.

So that brings us to today. Take a moment to forgive your parents for any mistakes you think we made. Thank us for the innumerable sacrifices you never saw. No matter how you feel about us, your happiness and growth have always been our #1 priority. In return, we asked for almost nothing.

Finally, to the parents: Our job will always be to listen. And to love.

Thank you.