Tag Archives: Brown University

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.

New GFA Head Stresses Balance, Purpose, Community

Greens Farms Academy has had just 3 headmasters in the past 45 years.

As the successor to Jim Coyle, Peter Esty and Janet Hartwell, Bob Whelan has big shoes to fill.

Fortunately, he’s well on his way. He’s 6-5, and a former basketball player and coach.

Even more fortunately, he’s got a strong, eclectic background. Whelan graduated from Brown University in 1991 with a double major in American civilization and philosophy. He spent several years as a founder, singer, songwriter and director of a rock band that recorded with Atlantic Records and toured extensively.

Bob Whelan

He returned to school, earning a graduate degree in education, policy and management at Harvard, then embarked on a career in development, teaching and administration at 2 leading day schools.

Coupled with his profound understanding of the challenges facing today’s students, Whelan is the perfect educator to lead the Beachside Avenue private school into the future.

Brown challenged him to think about his passions, he says. His band, Angry Salad (“despite its name, we were not mad and had no agenda”), was a joyful time. He was surrounded by “talented, artistic, creative people.”

After 6 years in Brown’s development office he taught ethics and writing, coached boys and girls basketball, and rose to associate head of school at Rippowam Cisqua in Bedford, New York.

Whelan’s most recent position was headmaster at 130-year-old Lake Forest Country Day, with over 400 pre-K to 8th grade students just north of Chicago.

There he developed innovative spaces, did cutting-edge work with social and emotional thinking, created a more diverse and inclusive community, and reinvigorated faculty and staff morale.

Bob Whelan, working with young students.

When a search firm approached him about GFA, he was intrigued.

“I’d always associated Westport with creativity and the arts,” Whelan says. “It’s a beautiful community, engaged in local life and the world.”

As he learned more about the school, he realized its students, faculty and mission aligned with his own sensibilities.

He accepted the position last fall. Since then, Whelan has worked with parents and alumni — and been mentored by Hartwell, the departing head.

Whelan is spending this summer meeting individually with staff members, alumni and alumni parents. He feels like an anthropologist, discovering how Greens Farms Academy got where it is, and how it heads into the future.

Before Greens Farms Academy students return in the fall, the new head of school is learning all he can about them. (Photo/Yoon S. Byun)

“I’ve always enjoyed the relationship between teachers, kids, parents and ideas,” Whelan says.

“There are surprises at every turn: learning that the school is coming off its most successful spring in its athletic history, and seeing how the performing arts help students raise their voices. I’m having a lot of fun in this process.”

Whelan is also digging deep into Westport. He’s finding “great energy everywhere” — during an early weekend here, he was amazed at the Fine Arts Festival —  and is thinking about ways to open GFA’s doors to the town.

“There are opportunities for everyone to come in and learn. A school like this has a responsibility to leverage access to a community like this, that’s dedicated to education. It’s important to bring folks behind the stone wall.”

Greens Farms Academy

Being head of Greens Farms Academy — with its beautiful facilities, excellent faculty, strong endowment and high-achieving students and parents — is a great opportunity.

But Whelan is well aware of the challenges.

“The world is evolving,” he says. “As we think about the tools we want our children to have, we also want them to be people of character, who can express themselves articulately. How do we help develop not only those skills, but also help them lead a fulfilling life of purpose, as they contribute to their community? How do we model that here?”

He knows that social media and technology are “incredibly compelling. How do we make the real world relevant to them?”

But, he adds, “kids are kids. Whether it’s the 1960s, ’80s or 2010s, it’s important to preserve childhood. We can’t lose sight that developing skills is not mutually exclusive with developing a sense of balance in life.”

Whelan takes over a school that traces its founding back 93 years. Greens Farms Academy, its new head says, is “more dedicated than ever to deepening its roots in the community. As the school reveals itself to me, I look forward to seeing it reveal itself to those who don’t know it.”

Bob Whelan will be an active leader. Those big shoes will soon be everywhere.

Water, Water Everywhere…

In the 1st World, we don’t think much about water. (Unless — as happened recently in Flint and at Staples High School — it turns discolored.)

But Ben Goldstein does.

Since age 9, Ben — now a Staples senior — has raised money for charity. He’s earned awards from Autism Speaks, for bringing in more than $10,000 a year for 5 years.

As a sophomore — fascinated by business — he decided to start his own venture. He wanted to include a charitable component too.

That summer, Ben took a business course at Brown University. It spurred him to develop an idea, a name and a business plan. He chose Choice Water.

Choice Water logo

Ben spoke with industry professionals, bottlers, plastic manufacturers and deli owners. He learned all he could about the bottled water industry.

What makes Choice Water different from the bajillions of other water bottles out there is that — based on the label they choose — consumers can direct a portion of the purchase price to different charities. So far, Ben  has lined up 2: Autism Speaks and Child Advocates of Southwest Connecticut.

Using the 99designs website, Ben found a woman in Indonesia to create his logo, and a man in Hungary to design the label.

Ben hit the pavement, talking with local deli and grocery store owners about refrigerator space. It’s not easy competing against Poland Spring and Coke. But Choice Water is on sale in all 4 Garelick & Herbs locations, Oscar’s, Gold’s, Fortuna’s and Village Bagels.

Ben Goldstein and Jim Eckel at Gold's Delicatessen.

Ben Goldstein and Jim Eckl at Gold’s Delicatessen.

“Each store is different,” Ben says. “Competition is different, space is different, the clientele is different.” In one store he may compete against 1 brand of water; in another, 6. He’s learned to adapt his product’s presentation for each store.

Ben believes Choice Water is important because “it’s an easy way for people to do good, while doing something they were going to do anyway. If you have a choice between buying water that supports a local charity, or a bottle from a multi-billion-dollar company…”

In addition, Choice Water empowers consumers to pick exactly which charity they like. Ben hopes to have more choices soon, and more locations throughout Fairfield County.

Westport Sunrise Rotary has honored Ben for his work.

Now it’s up to us. Which water will we choose?

Choice Water bottles


Jim Garvin’s Journey: From Westport To Mars

When national debates turn to scientific matters, some seemingly contradictory themes emerge. We want more emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), while denigrating the humanities. Meanwhile, many prominent politicians cast aside — even mock — scientific evidence in areas like climate change.

It’s time to listen to Jim Garvin.

He’s NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center chief scientist. He got his undergraduate and Ph.D degrees from Brown University, a famously liberal school (with a killer space exploration program).

And he’s a very proud graduate of the Westport school system, where a parade of of committed teachers inspired a love for not only science, but history and languages too.

Jim Garvin. Yes, that's Mars in the background.

Jim Garvin. Yes, that’s Mars in the background.

The other day, Garvin took time out from mapping Mars to talk about the map that — more than 40 years ago — took his family from Beirut and Australia to Westport.

“I was like a kid in a candy store” at Long Lots Junior High and Staples High School, Garvin says. “I had so many great opportunities to exercise my intellectual curiosity.”

In 7th grade, he and his friends wanted to study tides. Their science teacher hustled them into his VW, then drove them to Burying Hill Beach. They wandered around for hours.

That same year, Garvin told social studies teacher Tom Marshall he’d like to draw an ecological map of all the trees surrounding Long Lots. For an entire academic quarter, he did just that.

Staples was even more encouraging for a self-described “eccentric kid,” the 1974 grad says. He was profoundly influenced by physics teacher Nick Georgis (and  his amateur radio club), and AP Chemistry (where Garvin lit fires — “not smart, but they were always contained”), along with advanced French instructor Alice Adolph (“absolutely phenomenal, and very funny”) and AP US History with Dave LaPonsee (“one of the most invigorating educational experiences of my life”).

Garvin says, “I hope those academic freedoms are still alive in Westport.”

Jim Garvin, speaking at his alma mater.

Jim Garvin, speaking at his alma mater.

At Brown — where he was mentored by legendary planetary scientists Jim Head and Tim Mutch — Garvin found his life’s work.  Among his many accomplishments, he’s served as chief scientist for Mars exploration, and led a team of scientists who use the Hubble Space Telescope to explore the lunar surface in search of potential resources for human exploration.

Garvin was born around the time Sputnik was launched. Barely a decade later, men landed on the moon. Then came a robot on Mars.

Garvin is well aware of the power of science. But — in his role with NASA, and in testimony before Congress — he’s also seen the “total lack of scientific awareness” among some prominent people, and the “lack of desire to even care” in others.

Science — funding it, and encouraging students to study it — is not an easy sell, Garvin knows.

“It’s hard,” he says. “Taking AP Physics and advanced multivariable calculus at Staples is tough.” But the challenges are well worth it — individually, and for everyone on our planet, he says. (Not to mention whatever might be lurking on other planets.)

Garvin is thrilled to meet students who share his passion. A recent mentee is Nick Stern — a Staples grad now at Brown, who’s a budding astrophysicist himself.

NASA GoddardBut that’s Westport. Some older, more well-known names in Washington may not share Garvin and Stern’s beliefs in the power of science.

“It’s easy to say ‘I don’t understand climate change’ or ‘Why do we even want to go to Mars?’ Garvin says.

“But we’re all in this together. Our planet is a spaceship hurtling through an enormous universe. We have to be aware of that.”

Education, he says — in the humanities as well as the sciences — can fill an important role, at a time of a certain amount of ignorance and fear of the unknown.

His work has pioneered and directed much of what man knows about Mars — and other space exploration — and could shape our planet’s destiny for centuries to come.

And not just in space. The technology Garvin supported that’s mapped Mars in 3 dimensions is now being used to map ice sheets on earth.

The Mars Curiosity Rover in action. Jim Garvin played a key role in its development adn deployment.

The Mars Curiosity Rover in action. Jim Garvin played a key role in its development and deployment.

Garvin calls himself “the luckiest guy alive.” He went to a high school, then a college, that offered enormous academic freedoms. He reached his dream of working in a field he is still “tinglingly passionate” about.

“When I got up this morning, I turned on my computer and had a message from Mars,” he says.

“How cool is that?”

Click below for Jim Garvin’s TEDx talk on the frontier of space:

Click below for a video of Jim Garvin explaining his path from Westport and Brown to Mars (the sound improves after the introduction):

Maggie Kneip’s Amazing Journey: Now Everyone Knows

In the 1980s, life was good for Maggie Kneip. Her handsome husband was a rising star at the Wall Street Journal. They were raising a 3-year-old daughter and newborn son in hip Hoboken. She had great friends, and a loving family.

Suddenly, within 9 months, her husband was dead of AIDS.

Then her real ordeal began.

Over the next 3 decades Maggie’s story became a symbol of perseverance, growth and triumph. It’s also a story with plenty of Westport connections.

Last month, she shared it with the world.

Now Everyone Will Know: The Perfect Husband, His Shattering Secret, My Rediscovered Life was published on December 1 — World AIDS Day. Exploring themes of sexuality, love, humanity,  the damaging nature of family secrets and the power of truth, it’s an important book for all Westporters — even without the local ties.

Maggie Kneip and John Andrew.

Maggie Kneip and John Andrew.

Maggie writes with unflinching honesty and great grace about her life before and after her husband, John Andrew — Brown University graduate, dynamic personality, great lover — was diagnosed with what in those days was a devastating, stigmatizing death sentence.

She describes her growing realization of the hidden life he led as a closeted gay man, and her reaction when she learns of his diagnosis — just weeks after the birth of their 2nd child: “I had to see him. I had to kill him.”

But Maggie set aside her anger, and tried passionately to keep her husband alive. Caring for 2 youngsters and a husband dying a gruesome death seems a herculean task. It was made even harder by her fears that she and her children were also infected — and the revulsive reactions of a few “friends.”

John died in March of 1991, age 36. Maggie felt angry, betrayed, traumatized, heartbroken and desolate.

Maggie Kneip and her children, in June 1991. Her husband had died 3 months earlier.

Maggie Kneip and her children, in June 1991. Her husband had died 3 months earlier.

John’s brother Robert — who lived in Westport — mourned him one way. Maggie was different. She needed to protect her children. They learned never to tell anyone how their father died.

Hoping for a new start, Maggie got a job in publishing. She moved to the Upper East Side. A few years later at work she met a great woman, who lived in Westport.

She decided to leave her small New York apartment for a “perfect turn-of-the-century, walk-to-town, fixer-upper, below-budget saltbox” in Westport.

Her friend introduced her to a circle of “unfettered, insouciant and creative women.” Maggie helped form a book club, with women she grew close to.

Maggie Kneip (Photo/David Dreyfuss)

Maggie Kneip (Photo/David Dreyfuss)

But she avoided all mention of John. She walled herself off from her kids’ friends’ parents, avoiding conversations and even friendships.

Her husband still haunted her dreams. As her son got older, he looked more and more like  his father. But as Maggie’s children went through Staples — successful and active — they did not want to talk about him.

Maggie lost her publishing job. She became an empty nester. It was not until her kids — separately, at their college graduations — surprised her by saying they’d been thinking about their dad, that she decided it was time to tell her story.

So she wrote. And set herself free.

In a writing class at the 92nd Street Y, Maggie met a published author who’d grown up in Westport. Melissa Kirsch was moved by Maggie, and encouraged her to turn her short pieces into a memoir.

Maggie was also inspired by Sarah Herz. The former Westport teacher — a national expert in children’s literature, who died last year — became one of her mentors.

Sarah Herz and Maggie Kneip at Westport's Blue Lemon restaurant.

Sarah Herz and Maggie Kneip at Westport’s Blue Lemon restaurant.

Finding a publisher was not easy. “AIDS is over,” she heard. And, “We don’t know how to market this.” As well as: “This woman is angry.”

She’s not. Her writing is insightful, honest and strong. But with no publisher willing to take a chance, Maggie self-published.

The result is a remarkable book. Yet as powerful as it is for readers, Maggie’s memoir has also meant a great deal to her.

Today, Maggie senses a subtle shift in her approach to people. “I’m engaging more. And I’m less judgmental of others,” she says.

She’s become more involved at Temple Israel. She joined a women’s group, something inconceivable a few years ago.

“I think I’m more easy to talk to now,” Maggie says. “I’m happier.”

Maggie Kneip book cover

Maggie praises her beloved book group for being part of the Westport that helped her grow. As members talked about their lives — including the ups and downs in their own marriages — she realized that keeping a secret kept her from connecting with others.

Her book — with an afterword from former Westporter and noted psychologist Dale Atkins — has been well received. “People appreciate my honesty,” Maggie says. “They say it reminds them of that AIDS era, and the people they’ve lost.” She’s been surprised by how many readers are spouses in mixed-orientation marriages.

Now Everyone Will Know acknowledges the power of secrets, and provides a portrait in courage for moving beyond fear and shame.

Maggie’s husband John lived a hidden life. Now she’s come out of her own closet — as the wife of a gay spouse, and the widow of an AIDS victim.

She — along with her children, John’s friends from Brown, and Wall Street Journal colleagues — participate each year in the New York AIDS Walk. They raise funds for this still-awful disease.

And, finally, they talk about John.

(For more information, or to buy Now Everyone Will Know, click on www.maggiekneip.com. Hat tip: Lori Andrews) 

Geoff Gillespie’s JAG Corps Service

Westport is filled with lawyers. We’ve got corporate attorneys, courtroom litigators, and enough tax guys to make Apple envious.

Westport also is filled with Brown University graduates. Many are doing typical Brunonian things: making indie films, deconstructing semiotics, writing blogs.

It’s rare to find a Staples and Brown grad who makes a career as a military lawyer. But Lieutenant Geoffrey T. Gillespie, JAG Corps, US Navy, is a rare — and remarkable — Westporter .

Lieut. Geoffrey Gillespie

Lieut. Geoffrey Gillespie

His parents — both lawyers — raised him to believe that public service is a great and honorable career.

At Brown Gillespie majored in public policy and American institutions. Early on, he set a goal of joining the JAG Corps — the military’s legal arm. “I thought it was a good, substantive way to serve my country,” he recalls.

A couple of weeks into his sophomore year, 2 planes slammed into the World Trade Center; another hit the Pentagon. His motivation grew.

After graduation in 2004, Gillespie taught severe special needs education at a residential school in Massachusetts. He then entered New England School of Law — and applied to the Navy JAG Corps. He was accepted in spring 0f 2008.

He passed his bar exam, and was assigned to officer development school in Newport, Rhode Island. That’s where he completed naval justice training too. His 1st tour of duty, in 2010, was San Diego.

Gillespie assisted servicemembers with legal needs — writing wills, handling tenant and credit disputes, and the like. He then did criminal defense work for courts-martial — everything from minor theft to sexual assault crimes.

“It’s very rewarding to participate in the military justice system,” Gillespie says. He is both an attorney and an officer, given plenty of responsibility and earning valuable leadership experience.

Geoff Gillespie, off duty.

Geoff Gillespie, off duty.

A year ago, he deployed to Afghanistan. He can’t talk much about his work there, beyond saying he was a legal advisor in the area of detention operations, and participated in training missions.

His year there was “incredibly rewarding, both professionally and personally.” Days were long, but everyone worked “extremely hard, in a real team effort. There was a total commitment to the mission.” Gillespie calls it “the fulfillment of the hopes I had, to make a material, positive impact in an area important to the United States.”

During long days in Afghanistan, Gillespie was sustained by thoughts of Westport. “Being from a town like this motivated me even when I was tired,” he says.

“Westport gave me a reason to remember what we’re fighting for — hometowns, families, people. That’s why I serve.”

Gillespie returned home in April. After a stop in Westport, he’s temporarily assigned to the Naval Justice School in San Diego.

Next month, Gillespie transfers to Okinawa. He’ll serve as legal advisor for the installation commander.

JAG CorpsGillespie hopes to make the Navy JAG Corps his full career. He’s had many jobs, and enjoyed everything he’s done so far. He looks forward to added responsibilities, passing on what he knows to new JAGs, and continuing to improve the Corps’ services.

The only hesitation in Gillespie’s voice comes when I tell him this story will run on Memorial Day.

“I’m not a veteran,” he says. “I haven’t done as much as many other people. Can you please be sure to say I’m proud to support everyone who sacrifices much more than I do?”