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.
Every day, Staples High School English teacher Ann Neary inspires students.
Now — with a story published in the International Council of English Teachers newsletter — she inspires 25,000 colleagues around the world.
Her piece also provides special insights into the education in the year 2021. She writes:
I am, at heart, a foodie. I think about my next meal as I am eating the one in front of me. I cannot imagine not spending time to find the best Pink Lady apples in the overflowing apple bin at the market. So, when it comes to getting to know my students when a semester begins, one of the survey questions I ask them is, “What is a food you cannot live without?” The results provide conversation starters and connections for the length of a semester and beyond.
Making connections and building relationships is particularly important during this unusual teaching year when I have 12 students physically in front of me and another 14 behind me on a Zoom screen. It is always important when teaching literature from diverse cultures such as those we visit in World Literature.
As I prepare for my class, I wonder what potential pitfalls might my students face when analyzing text? What sort of questions might I ask to challenge their thinking about literature and culture? How might I support student inquiry? My guiding and compelling “why” for offering selections of literature from around the world, is how do we value the “tapestry of the human condition”? How do we reduce prejudice and bias? How do I make literature the passport to the world?
Essential questions for all units of study ask: what are the points of commonality we notice between different works of literature and people? Where does it diverge? How do we honor all voices and cultures?
One of the points of commonality is food. We all eat. We all have foods we like and love. Writers write about food, students talk about food. One of my go-to sources of literature for easy student access (especially in a hybrid setting) is WordsWithoutBordersCampus. There I found a marvelous story from Korea called Wizard Bakery, written by Koo Byung-Mo and translated from Korean by Jamie Chang. It opens:
The Devil’s Cinnamon Cookies.
2 per serving.
Ingredients: flour, cinnamon, brown sugar, raisins, and a secret extract. The essence of the extract will not be revealed, as certain ingredients may be found revolting. (Baker’s note: Extract contains no known allergens, so not to worry. Besides, you’re not going to eat it yourself!)
Product Details: Give the cookie to someone you don’t like. The cookie will mentally incapacitate the recipient for an average of two hours so that the person will fail in all endeavors, no matter what they may be. If recipient is giving an important presentation or making a speech, subjects and predicates will not match. Recipient will ramble and appear idiotic to anyone present. If consumed on a full stomach, recipient may fail to control a bowel movement. If consumed on an empty stomach, recipient will experience continuous vomiting. Legends say that one infamous lawyer who ate this cookie during court recess was thrown out of court and disbarred!
Students are hooked immediately A few paragraphs in, students read about the other best selling food items offered such as the Broken-heart Pineapple Madeleine that helps heal broken hearts faster but might not be a good choice because it may cause you to get into a meaningless rebound relationship. This gives rise to a wonderful writing prompt where students can mimic the style and concepts themselves. My favorites included:
Cookie Crumbles: a cookie made with all sorts of cookie dough jumbled in one delicious , gigantic cookie. It will take so long to eat such deliciousness that students will forget all about college acceptances and rejections.
Ann Neary with an aaaaaaa-mazing chocolate chip cookie.
COVID Custard: present this creamy delight to your grannie or anyone without teeth or over 65. It will protect them from contracting COVID and allow them visitation rights to your house so they can make some real desserts.
Food brought them into the conversation about literature from another country. But their thinking as they read expanded into recognition that there are many commonalities across the human experience that unite us more than separate us. And that was as I hoped it would be.
As last year staggered to an end, Staples High School English teacher Ann Neary had an idea.
She asked students in her AP Literature and AP World Literature classes to reflect on what they’d seen, felt and observed since the pandemic struck. The assignment: “Pack a trunk with the positive things you learned and/or came to appreciate in 2020, and want to travel with in 2021.”
The answers were perceptive, poignant, and beautifully expressed. I asked Ann if it was okay to share them with “06880”; the students agreed.
Here are a few. As you read them, you’ll be inspired. You’ll tear up.
And you’ll know that the future is in great hands.
I started learning things I enjoy on my own time.
The importance of patience.
Lots of introspection.
Crocheting so many shirts.
Learning to live with and find joy in being by myself.
Seeing the beauty and value in the small things around me.
One Staples High School student’s trunk.
In high school we all go with the flow and let life carry us in the direction it does. But without sports and less social activities, quarantine forced me to control what I did on a daily basis, and be more proactive in living the life I want to live.
I grew to love rock climbing even more.
Really having to focus on self-discipline.
I learned to appreciate simplicity in life.
Once I came to terms that there are things out of your control that will affect you, and that all you can do is improve yourself through things you can control, life is a lot happier.
I became a better reader.
I took more opportunities to help my community.
The Staples lacrosse team was one of many student groups that embraced community service.
I became more confident, outgoing and assertive.
Dinners and 1,000 piece puzzle moments with my family that I really valued, and hope to see more of.
How much I value normal school, going daily, packed cafeterias, etc.
I developed deeper and more meaningful relationships with people.
I became more self-sufficient.
Noticing how everyone is working together, and trying their best to make things work.
I understood that my happiness isn’t dependent on other people, and life is what I make of it.
I started meditating.
Strengthened current friendships, and made new ones.
Hanging out with friends — as in this 2017 photo — became more precious and meaningful.
I developed a better and more diverse appreciation for music.
I realized how much I genuinely like being home. I also realized how much goes into keeping our house going, like doing laundry, cooking, grocery shopping and taking care of our dog.
Bought my truck, and furthered my interest in automotive work.
I realized how much fun and work can be had at any time. There’s always so much to do.
Writing poetry is therapeutic.
We can’t just take family for granted, at least for us who are lucky enough to have loving and kind parents and siblings.
How to handle disappointment, and deal with things that are less than ideal.
How to be a productive member of society, and advocate for change that doesn’t affect me personally.
Many Staples students were galvanized by summer protests about systemic racism.
To prioritize my mental health.
I realized how much I took for granted.
Patience, flexibility, motivation, gratitude, time management, getting out of my comfort zone.
How to be content with only my own company in quarantine. How to entertain myself without copious stimuli.
It’s okay to spend time learning about what you love and what you want to do, instead of always being around people and trying to please others.
Nothing went the way we planned this year, but for the most part things worked themselves out. They usually will.
Taking time to appreciate the outdoors and our yard, and little things like feeding the birds.
Mental health is a lot more important than always trying to prove myself to be perfect.
I’ve picked up new hobbies like aquarium keeping.
Be kind not only to people around you, but especially the people less fortunate than you.
Reading and watching the news; becoming more aware.
Hikes and walks at the beach.
Seeing what other families have gone through with COVID or other issues makes me feel so grateful that my family is healthy and safe.
Whenever I was stressed I would drive around Fairfield County and listen to music.
Learning to appreciate nature when I walk my dog.
In-person school becoming something I look forward to.
Many Staples students realized how much they missed their high school. (Photo copyright Lynn U. Miller)
Time to pause and make sure I’m doing okay and improve myself, instead of just worrying about improving my grades.
There is such great value in complimenting others — especially in the few moments we get to see people in person.
I seriously read epic poetry of my own volition. It’s a unique way to tell stories.
It’s much more challenging to spend time with friends, so I try to live in the moment and enjoy it when I am able to do that.
Cook new foods.
Lack of school-related stress.
I have a new understanding of and respect for my family.
Never expect what is expected. Situations arise instantly. We are always responsible to face them.
I got perspective on the small but important things we may not think about when we have them freely, and in abundance.
My sister is usually at boarding school. I’m grateful she was in quarantine with me, because she makes everything more fun.
I’m proud of learning to value my feelings more. In the past I have been a bit of a people pleaser. This year I finally allowed myself more joy in doing what I wanted, while obviously making sure others were okay.
I love going on 6-mile walks with my friend at 6 in the morning.
Spending every single moment with my family for 4 months allowed me to create amazing memories.
The bond I created with my football team. Despite playing only a few games, we always stayed hungry and excited to play whenever we could.
2020 allowed me to surround myself with the people I love.
Every educator knows there are many pathways to students’ success.
At Staples High School, that now includes Pathways Academy.
Opened this fall, it’s a “school within a school.” Pathways provides alternative educational opportunities for students experiencing academic, behavioral and/or life challenges in the traditional school setting.
That’s the long description.
Here’s the short one: For some students, Pathways is a life-saver.
They may have school anxiety or avoidance issues. Perhaps they made mistakes, and fell behind in credits for graduation. Regular classrooms and standard schedules didn’t work for them.
Pathways — created by a team of Staples administrators, counselors, social workers and others — occupies a suite of rooms near the cafeteria.
Warm and welcoming, with a lounge area, computer room and small instructional spaces, it’s where students and 4 teachers spend every morning, from 7:30 to 10:45.
Freed from traditional bells — with more flexibility to move from idea to idea, and room to room — Ann Neary (English), Daniel Heaphey (social studies), Tony Coccoli (science) and Anthony Forgette (math) — work together in a warm, welcoming setting.
Each day begins with a community meeting. On Wednesdays, school outreach counselor Ed Milton offers insights. Every Friday, there’s college and career counseling.
Academic expectations are the same as for traditional core classes. The differences include individualized instruction, peer coaching, experiential learning and interdisciplinary projects.
When the Pathways day ends, students head to electives, world language and phys. ed. classes, community service, work study or internships.
At first, students were referred to Pathways by teachers and administrators. Eight began in September. Now — thanks to word of mouth — that number has doubled, to 16.
The application process includes written answers to questions like “What is your biggest challenge in the traditional high school setting?”, “Describe a situation that did not go well for you (interaction with a teacher, administrator, friend, etc.). Thinking back, how would you have handled it differently?” and “”Describe something you did, made or completed in school that made you proud.”
Acceptance is not automatic. Each student must embrace the idea of the Pathways community.
The main classroom at Pathways. Other rooms — and the lounge — branch off from here.
Pathways is overseen by Meghan Ward. The assistant principal had experience in other schools with alternative education. “‘Other’ is okay,” she says, echoing the academy’s mission. “Students learn the same things, even if the setting or delivery looks different.”
Ward calls the Pathways teachers “incredible. They work really hard — and that’s only half of their course load. They also teach other classes. It’s really a challenge.”
In just half a year, Pathways has already made its mark. Students with attendance issues are coming to school — “and smiling,” Ward notes. Those who previously felt disconnected from Staples now have a “home base.”
There are tangible results too. The other day, Neary’s students completed a play-writing project. They read their works in the Black Box Theater, for members of Westport Senior Center’s writing class.
It was a huge success. The audience loved hearing the powerful, honest voices of teenagers. They provided great feedback — and plenty of support.
Just as Pathways does every day, in its own way: a school within a school.
For more than 2 decades, Ann Neary traveled the world. She was a top fashion marketer, working with the biggest names in the industry.
Then came 9/11.
For 9 months, Neary volunteered at St. Paul’s Chapel. During those long 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. shifts, she had plenty of time to think.
“If I sold a beautiful shirt and it made someone look great, that made no difference in the world,” she recalls thinking.
“But kids make a difference.”
Every day, letters arrived at the makeshift rescue site. Many were from children. Strangers around the globe, they thanked the people working in the pit where the World Trade Center once stood.
Neary wanted to give back to her native city — and work with kids. She earned a master’s degree in education from Manhattanville College. For the next 11 years, she taught English and journalism at DeWitt Clinton High School.
She was fully invested in the Bronx school — with 5,000 students, the largest in New York. She organized playwriting workshops, and brought in big names to work with students.
But the school downsized. Though she’d been there nearly a dozen years, Neary was out of a job.
She went through the rigorous hiring process in Westport. For the past 3 years, she’s taught Advanced Placement Literature and sophomore English at Staples High School. This year, she spends mornings at the school’s innovative Pathways Academy, handling all English instruction.
Ann Neary works with student Hannah Strauss. (Photo/Camryn Zukowski)
Neary’s story is like many Westport educators’: intriguing, involved and important.
But there’s one more unique feature: In December, Neary earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Awarded only after a rigorous, performance-based peer-review process, it’s considered the gold standard — and the highest mark of achievement, in the teaching profession.
In fact, Neary was the only teacher in the entire state of Connecticut to earn National Board Certification this year.
But she joins 2 others in the Westport Public Schools who have also achieved that distinction: Kristina Rodriguez (Bedford Middle School) and Paul Zajac (Staples). District grade 6-12 English coordinator Julie Heller is a former National Board Certified teacher.
Neary began thinking about the National Board process 5 years ago, after meeting an impressive group of teachers at a US Department of Education summit in Boston.
When she learned that Mt. Holyoke College offered a certification component, she applied.
It normally takes 3 years to complete the program. Neary did it in just 1. She graduated last spring with her 2nd master’s. She was officially certified in December.
The certification process is very challenging. “You have to reflect on every move you make as a teacher,” Neary says. “Teachers are naturally busy — there’s not a lot of time for reflection. This forces you to do that.”
She spent much of her time figuring out ways to truly know her students as individuals, then turn that knowledge into curriculum work. That’s been especially important at Pathways, Staples’ flexible, multidisciplinary academy for students who need a different approach to education.
Neary’s certification is a major accomplishment. Fifty percent of educators do not pass on their first try.
And despite Connecticut’s reputation as an education leader, it does not offer much support for National Certification. Many states provide financial incentives, and/or mentors. Connecticut does not.
Still, Neary persevered — and succeeded. The self-reflective process was important, she says.
And it all began in those dark days after 9/11, when Ann Neary first reflected on what was truly important in the world, and answered her own question: kids.
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