Tag Archives: Ann Neary

Staples Offers New Pathways To Success

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.

Ann Neary: Staples Teacher Earns Profession’s Top Honor

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.