Tag Archives: Dr. Elliott Landon

Colleen Palmer: A Chat With Westport’s New School Superintendent

Not much gets by Colleen Palmer.

“I noticed the Westport Public Schools website has very few photos of students,” the town’s new superintendent of schools said last week, at the end of her 1st week on the job.

She knows there are privacy issues involved. But, she said, if students are the primary focus of the district — and she is emphatic that they are — they should be a visible focus online too.

It was a whirlwind week for the incoming education leader. She’d just finished 5 successful years in Weston; before that, she was superintendent in Monroe. Palmer also served as a high school prinicipal at Nonnewaug, Hamden and Simsbury.

Dr. Colleen Palmer.

Dr. Colleen Palmer.

She was not looking to leave Weston. She’d invested a lot of time and energy there; the schools are excellent, and she was deeply rooted in the community.

Yet when Westport’s search firm tapped her on the shoulder, she turned around.

Palmer knew this town, from working many years with then-superintendent Elliott Landon. The closer she looked at Westport — learning about initiatives like the 2025 Lens and collaboration with Teachers College — the more excited she became.

The opportunities and challenges here — in a district larger and more diverse than Weston — offered “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Palmer says. “I realized if I didn’t apply, I would always regret it.”

Westport Public SchoolsAfter her appointment this winter — she was the only finalist — Palmer did her homework. She read documents and reports. She made phone calls. As the budget process unfolded, she watched every Board of Education, Board of Finance and RTM meeting she could.

Now, she’s got a nice Town Hall office. But she’s not spending too much time there.

“I’m visiting every school, and meeting every person I can,” she says. “I’m getting to know the facilities, and what goes on behind the scenes. I’m trying to listen and learn.”

Her initial impressions?

“Westport is a very authentic place. Everyone is focused on what’s right for students. They’re passionate, dedicated and inspiring.”

Educators “want to share what they’re doing,” she adds. “There’s a can-do attitude, and a lot of collaborative problem-solving.” One immediate example: addressing space issues at Kings Highway Elementary School.

That’s wonderful. But, I wonder, don’t all teachers and administrators focus on kids?

“There are great educators everywhere,” Palmer counters. “What I see here is such a high level of performance, throughout the entire district.”

In that context, she says, “I tell people: ‘dream big.’ My job is to remove barriers. We’re all looking for better ideas, and better ways to do things.”

Colleen Palmer's Town Hall office has a great view. But she is getting out and around, meeting as many Westporters administrators, teachers and residents as she can.

Colleen Palmer’s Town Hall office has a great view. But she is getting out and around, meeting as many Westporters administrators, teachers and residents as she can.

Palmer looks forward to building on the strong foundation that already exists. She is particularly excited by the “Guiding Principles” initiative, fostering emotional intelligence.

“We have to look at the whole child,” Palmer says. “Success is not bound by academics alone. There’s also the quality of life as they go through the school system, and the tools they have for life.”

She hopes that Guiding Principles values like “kindness with sincerity” will be part of the entire district culture, for adults as well as students.

Using 2 of her favorite phrases — “Failure is not an option” and “Hope is not a strategy” — Palmer calls herself “tenacious and realistic.” She cites a major achievement in Weston — getting a waiver from the state, in order to do holistic rather than formulaic scoring for teacher evaluations — as an example of her ability to do what’s right for students and staff, unencumbered by rigid thinking.

She is not anti-data. But, Palmer says, “we have to be smart. My job as superintendent is to be effective, efficient and coherent. Any goals we set need realistic timelines. And then we have to all hold ourselves accountable.”

Though she calls a superintendent’s job “24/7,” Westport’s new leader has a life beyond school. Three years ago, driving across the Saugatuck River, she saw scullers on the water.

She took lessons at the Saugatuck Rowing Club, and fell in love with the sport. Now, at dawn, she rows a single.

“There is nothing more beautiful than the flat Saugatuck River, as the sun comes up,” Palmer says. “It’s so peaceful and serene. It’s where I do great thinking.”

Palmer — a swimmer — recently joined the Westport Weston Family YMCA too.

She loves cultural events, travel, and her 3 sons and 5 grandchildren. She just built a lakeside house in Vermont. It’s her “grandchild trap.”

The new superintendent — who prefers “Colleen” to “Dr. Palmer” — replaces a man who served a mind-boggling 17 years, in a very difficult public position.

How long will she be here?

“I love my work. I thrive on it,” she says. “I have a healthy balance in my life. This job has long hours, but I take care of myself.

“I have no exit plan in mind. I look forward to a long tenure here.”

Dr. Landon Looks Back

Way back in 1999, Joyce Landon saw an ad in the New York Times. Westport needed a new superintendent of schools.

She and her husband Elliott loved Westport. When he was superintendent in Ridgefield — a decade earlier — they spent a lot of time here, shopping and riding bikes to the beach. She encouraged him to apply.

He was reluctant. He was happy as superintendent of Long Island’s diverse Long Beach district. Nearly 60, Dr. Landon figured Westport wanted a “crackerjack young curriculum guy.”

His wife persisted. Landon was hired. “Everyone thought I’d be a short-timer,” he recalls.

He certainly was not. He’s been superintendent here for 17 years — nearly 3 times the national average — but the final chapter of his education career is about to close.

Dr. Elliott Landon still has a few weeks left, before cleaning out his office.

Dr. Elliott Landon has a few weeks left, before cleaning out his office.

As Landon prepares to retire — his final day is June 30 — he looks back on his long and remarkable tenure in town.

“I feel like I arrived yesterday,” he says in his Town Hall office. “I’ve had fun. Even with the controversies, I’ve enjoyed it all.”

Landon cites “great Board of Education and community support, and great faculty and administrators. Even during the economic crisis, we held our own. The district did not cut programs. In fact, we’ve expanded them.”

He ticks off his — and the town’s — accomplishments. At Staples, graduation requirements increased from 21 to 25; world language is now a 2-year requirement, with Italian and Mandarin added to the offerings; Science Research, robotics and freshman World Cultures were introduced; music grew; senior internships, the guidance department’s Resilience Project and the Hwa Chong partnership began; John Dodig added “the social and emotional piece,” and guidance, nursing and psychological services were expanded.

Liam Abourezk, BK Browne and Jack Sila showed superintendent of schools Dr. Elliott Landon how they used QR codes on their smartphones, as part of a Staples High project involving art, writing and history.

Staples High School students Liam Abourezk, BK Browne and Jack Sila showed superintendent of schools Dr. Elliott Landon how they used QR codes on their smartphones, as part of a school project combining art, writing and history.

The middle schools added Mandarin and STEM programs, while introducing a  teaming approach. Elementary schools now have literacy and (soon) science coaches.

District-wide, there’s Singapore math, a relationship with Teachers College, and the vision for 2025.

Landon arrived at the start of a major building program. Coleytown Middle School was being modernized; Greens Farms Elementary was reconfigured from the Arts Center, and Bedford Middle School was built on a former Nike missile site.

Meanwhile, the old Bedford Middle was gutted and turned into Saugatuck El. With leadership from Steve Halstead and Dan Kail, Staples was transformed from a dark, cramped and moldy old school into a modern, airy new one.

More recently, Kings Highway Elementary is now fully air-conditioned, while Coleytown El’s gym and cafeteria added a/c too.

Dr. Elliott Landon helped oversee the transformation of the old Bedford Middle School into Saugatuck Elementary.

Dr. Elliott Landon helped oversee the transformation of the old Bedford Middle School into Saugatuck Elementary.

Yet Landon is proudest of the staff he’s helped assemble. “In all those years, we never put limits on hiring,” he says. “We always went for the best people we could find. We picked up people at the top of their game. No one ever stopped us from hiring the best, no matter what the cost.”

He calls the unions — teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals and others — “good to work with. I have no complaints. We might be on different sides of issues, but all of us always wanted the best people, and the best for the kids.”

Landon adds, “The RTM would scream, but it was never personal. And no matter what they said, the Board of Finance always came through in the end.” The result is a staff and school system envied throughout the state.

The retiring superintendent also mentions some of the Board of Ed members he’s worked with: Halstead, Sandra Urist, Gene Cedarbaum, Cheryl Bliss, Linda Merk-Gould, Caryn Gagliano, Don O’Day, Jim Marpe and Michael McGovern, among many others.

“We’ve had issues, of course,” he says. “But overall, they’ve been very, very good.”

Then-Board of Education member Jim Marpe, Staples principal John Dodig and Westport schools superintendent Dr. Elliott Landon observed a student protest at Town Hall.

Then-Board of Education member Jim Marpe, Staples principal John Dodig and Westport schools superintendent Dr. Elliott Landon observed a student protest at Town Hall.

Landon did not get everything he asked for. The expansion of Staples High and redistricting of elementary schools are two examples.

But overall, he says, Westport has been “a fantastic experience. Despite the challenges, the support was always there.”

Among Landon’s personal highlights: Four years ago, he addressed the Staples graduating class that entered kindergarten the same year he arrived. “I saw an entire generation go from K to 12. Knowing I was in some small measure responsible for that was very fulfilling.”

A couple of years ago, Staples baseball coach Jack McFarland invited Landon to throw out the first pitch on opening day. Without any warmup, he delivered “the most perfect pitch ever thrown,” he recalls.

Not long ago, Landon was certified as a mediator by Quinnipiac Law School. In retirement, he plans to help administrators and teachers settle differences before arbitration.

It’s not a new path. In 1973 — as a young teacher — Landon’s photo appeared on page one of the New York Times, with Albert Shanker. They’d just helped Port Washington negotiate the first 5-year teachers’ contract in the country.

Dr. Elliott Landon

Dr. Elliott Landon

He and Joyce — the woman who convinced him to apply for the superintendency he’s now leaving — do not plan to leave Westport.

They love the town, their home, their neighbors, the beach and library. “I may have time now to join the Y’s Men,” Landon says.

Finally, what advice would he give his successor, Colleen Palmer?

“That’s easy. I’d say, ‘You’ve got great people. Encourage them. Support them. Take their advice. And learn from them.'”


Landon Blasts Regional School Calendar

Starting next fall, Westport will follow the same school calendar as 16 other southern Fairfield County districts. That follows a state Board of Education decision mandating uniform calendars in regions throughout the state. For Westport, it means — among other things — a shortened winter break.

A new bill being debated in the state legislature would allow the Commissioner of Education to withhold 10 percent of a district’s transportation grant from any board of education that does not use the uniform regional school calendar.

Last night, Westport superintendent of schools Dr. Elliott Landon testified before the legislature’s Education Committee (members include local Senator Toni Boucher and Representative Gail Lavielle). Landon addressed not only the proposed bill, but the entire uniform school calendar concept.

He said:

I am here today to speak against this latest legislative proposal which would have the effect of imposing severe financial penalties upon those school districts that do not abide by the unfunded mandate regarding a Regional Uniform School Calendar.

However, I am also here to urge the members of this Committee to do your best to undo in its entirety the unfunded mandate of a Regional Uniform School Calendar. After all, this unfunded mandate was introduced into a Planning and Development Committee bill as a House floor amendment without it ever being discussed or commented upon at a public hearing.

Dr. Elliott Landon

Dr. Elliott Landon

The ability of every school district to create its own calendar for its students and teachers had long been a practice in Connecticut before the mandated Regional Uniform School Calendar became a reality. Consistent with the New England tradition of supporting local control, the state legislature for decades has not interfered with this particular local option for school districts. With this unfortunate unfunded mandate, the Legislature has expressed its disdain for allowing any school district in every community to create a calendar based upon its own very special local culture, local traditions, and local needs.

Landon said that the loss of a full week of recess in February has been hard on families that cannot visit  relatives who do not live nearby. For many reasons, those visits are not possible during the December or April breaks. He fears that parents will take their children out of school anyway, to visit grandparents and other relatives.

Landon added:

I know from firsthand experience that the February recess enables the rash of extended illnesses to be broken as school children are removed from crowded school environments where viruses, colds and other illnesses are shared. Additionally, when schools have been closed during the February recess for an extended 9 day period, the savings of fuel during the coldest month of the year have been substantially reduced.

Harsh winter weather plays havoc with school districts. Heating costs are high in winter too.

Harsh winter weather plays havoc with school districts. Heating costs are high in winter too.

The Regional Uniform School Calendar was originally intended to save on transportation costs through regional cooperation and by reducing the cost of professional development.

That proved to be unrealistic, purely wishful thinking, indeed. The vast distances and long travel times between school systems across the state have resulted in generating few, if any transportation savings. In Westport, for example, and all the school districts in Fairfield County, I would venture to say that not a dime has been saved in transportation costs because of the unfunded mandate that all school systems abide by a regional and uniform school calendar.

Landon said that because school districts are required to provide professional learning opportunities for teachers “based on their individual needs identified through the local evaluation process,” that the regional calendar — calling for “generalized regional professional development” — contradicts a key component of the teacher evaluation law. 

Even before Staples High School was founded in 1884, local school districts in Connecticut created their own calendars -- and controlled most of their own education policy as well.

Even before Staples High School was founded in 1884, local school districts in Connecticut created their own calendars.

He continued:

I can share with you unequivocally, that in Westport, for example, the Regional Uniform School Calendar has resulted in not a single reduction in costs for the transportation of students both in and out of our school district, nor have we saved any money at all in the area of professional development.

I would urge this Committee to take forceful action and to recommend to the entire Legislature that the valuable time of our elected representatives be focused instead on far more relevant issues than financially penalizing any school district that refuses to adapt such a calendar, an issue that is most irrelevant when compared to other really pressing issues.

Connecticut Department of EducationFor example, our elected representatives would be performing a much more vital service by focusing on such issues as closing the achievement gap between rich students and students of poverty; ensuring that every student graduates from Connecticut high schools with all the schools necessary to be successful in the complex world they will be inheriting; to fund all school systems appropriately; to fully address the full implementation of the State’s obligation for Educational Cost Sharing; to fix a bilingual education program that limits the ability of the educational community to better address the needs of English language learners throughout the state; and, finally, to place the burden of proof in special education cases where it properly belongs.

Nonetheless, if the Legislature continues to support this unnecessary unfunded mandate, I urge the Legislature to exempt from punishment or financial penalty, any school district that follows a traditional three full week recess calendar in any school year.

Staples High School Expansion Plans Released

The “new” Staples High School is already a decade old. Ten years after opening, the 3-story building still looks fresh.

But the school population has risen. It’s now nearly 1,900 — 100 students over the 1,800 it was planned for. Projections — based on demographic trends, as well as housing starts and the addition of multi-family housing in Westport — show enrollments of 1,900 or so students for at least the next several years.

Staples High School now has 1900 students.

Staples High School now has 1900 students.

With those figures in mind — and current and future advances in areas like science, technology, art, engineering, math, robotics, 3D modeling, social studies and world languages, as well as increased state graduation credit requirements — superintendent of schools Elliott Landon has released a Facility Planning Study.

The 43-page document is based on work by Fuller & D’Angelo (the architects of record for the 2005 addition/renovation), ASW Engineers and CPS Cost Estimators.

The informational guide — conceptual in nature — offers 3 potential building additions. The unanimous recommendation of all parties was a single-level scheme. It provides a 2-story engineering and robotics lab on the southeast corner (near the current horticulture garden); another 2-story conference space opposite it, then more classrooms and auxiliary spaces connected to current corridors and the cafeteria area, toward the gym. This creates a new circulation loop eastward (by the back parking lot) of the current library.

Three views of the proposed expansion of Staples High School. The new construction -- shown in white -- would be on the easternmost part of the current building, from the current horticulture class garden northward toward the cafeteria.

Three views of the proposed expansion of Staples High School. The new construction — shown in white — would be on the easternmost part of the current building, from the current horticulture class garden northward toward the cafeteria and gym.

The cost estimate totals $21.2 million. State reimbursement could return $2 million to the town.

The plan is of course in the early stages. Public input — plus many rounds of commission meetings, beginning with the Board of Education on Monday night — lie ahead.

Staples Students Take Over Town Hall

For a town that celebrates arts in every way, our Town Hall has been a bit art-free.

Until now.

For the past few weeks, Sue O’Hara’s English 3A students have worked on a multi-disciplinary project. All year long, the Staples High School juniors studied the intersection of literature, art and life. Now they’ve put their knowledge, insights and research skills to the test.

Noah Staffa, Daniel Perez Elorza, Graham Gudis, senior intern Allie Benjamin and Staples English teacher Sue O'Hara describe the research and writing process. The

Noah Staffa, Daniel Perez Elorza, Graham Gudis, senior intern Ale Benjamin and English teacher Sue O’Hara describe the research and writing process. The “Westport scenes” shown behind them are located just inside the entrance to Town Hall.

They scoured the town’s vast art database for intriguing paintings, drawings and photographs. They plucked their favorite pieces from wherever they were — storage, private offices, whatever — and installed them in Town Hall corridors.

But that’s not all. They dug deep, to learn about each artist and piece of art. They delved into history, culture and social development. They figured out which works would be appropriate where. And they designed multimedia effects — narrations, poems, songs, sound effects — to go along with each, via QR codes.

Liam Abourezk, BK Browne and Jack Sila, with superintendent of schools Dr. Elliott Landon, using QR codes on their smartphones to access more information on the illustrations outside the educator's office.

Liam Abourezk, BK Browne and Jack Sila, with superintendent of schools Dr. Elliott Landon, using QR codes on their smartphones to access more information on the artwork outside the educator’s office.

For example, the Town School Offices on the 3rd floor are now graced by 2 Stevan Dohanos Saturday Evening Post covers — both drawn in Westport, one of the 1946 Staples High School band — as well as a number of photos showing children playing.

Two 1946 illustrations by Stevan Dohanos -- both using Westport models -- hang on the 3rd floor of Town Hall.

Two 1946 illustrations by Stevan Dohanos — both using Westport models — hang on the 3rd floor of Town Hall. “Star Pitcher” shows a gang of boys waiting for their friend to finish mowing, so they can play baseball. “Big Game of the Season” shows the Staples band in action. Both were Saturday Evening Post covers.

Around the corner on the 3rd floor, outside the town’s Finance Department, the art is different. “Westport is about politics, culture and money,” say students in the group overseeing this section — and the art there shows it.

Of course, Town Hall was not totally artless before yesterday. Several large murals already hung above the auditorium, and outside the first selectman’s office and Westport Community Theater.

O’Hara’s students researched each mural, and wrote in depth about what those murals mean to Westport.

Thanks to the Stapleites, Town Hall looks a lot jazzier today than it did before.

And that’s fitting. The nerve center of town — housing not only our chief politicians and educators but also planning directors, engineers, election clerks and the tree warden, among others — was not always municipal offices.

For decades it was Bedford Elementary — a school.

[UPDATE: As Thomas Greene notes in the “Comments” below, he was the boy mowing the lawn in the Stevan Dohanos illustration. All the boys used as models were 6th graders at Bedford Elementary School. So that piece of art now hangs in the building where it began.]

Shelley Somers Withdraws As Staples Principal Candidate

Central Middle School principal Shelley Somers has bowed out of consideration as Staples High School’s new principal.

In an email to parents, the lone finalist for the position said:

Good morning. After a long day yesterday at Staples High School, I have withdrawn my name for consideration for the principal position. As I talked with the various groups of stakeholders in Westport, I realized how important Central and Greenwich are to me.

I look forward to working to create a safe and challenging environment at Central Middle School that meets the needs of all of our students. I feel certain that in collaboration with you, my leadership team, and my teachers and staff, Central will continue to grow and to thrive.

Shelley Somers met with administrators, staff members, students and community members yesterday at Staples. She has since decided to withdraw from consideration as Staples' next principal.

Shelley Somers at Staples yesterday. She has withdrawn from consideration as Staples’ next principal.

Westport superintendent of schools Dr. Elliott Landon said:

I think this is a tremendous loss to the children, staff and families of Westport. The search committee and I unanimously recommended Shelley Somers because we had great faith that she would continue the great tradition established by John Dodig.

Landon said that the search for a successor to Dodig — who retires in June after 11 years as Staples’ principal — will now focus on an interim appointment.

Landon said that the interim principal would not be someone from inside the Westport school system. “Choosing someone from inside does not allow for a full and open process” when a choice is then made for a permanent principal, he said.

However, he noted, current district administrators and employees are welcome to be part of the search process.

Jeremy And Dustin Say: “Teach Here!”

This past spring, Staples students Jeremy Dreyfuss and Dustin Lowman were casting about for an interesting end-of-the-year senior internship.

Media production teacher Jim Honeycutt wanted something real, authentic and important for them.

Meanwhile, superintendent of schools Elliott Landon and director of human resources Marge Cion needed a video to show job candidates — potential teachers — what the Westport school district is all about.

It sounded like a great idea.  But it turned out nothing like what the educators expected.


“I originally thought it would be a recruitment-type thing — very factual, not real personal,” Dr. Landon says.

That’s not what Jeremy and Dustin had in mind.

The longtime friends decided to revisit their old schools, and talk to former teachers.

They took their video camera to King’s Highway Elementary  School and Coleytown Middle.  There — and of course at Staples — they conducted interviews and shot film.  They researched the schools and town, added special footage, and produced a professional-looking video that gives anyone considering teaching here a unique teenage/inside view of the system.

Which, now that the Westport educators think about it, is entirely the point.

“This really makes a memorable impression,” Dr. Landon notes.  “Their personal insights and affection for the district really come across strongly.  It’s very creative and different.”

In the video, Jeremy and Dustin say that they continue to visit former teachers.  They add, “some of our deepest connections” were made in school.

They filmed a wide variety of teachers:  men and women of different ages, backgrounds and subject matters.

The seniors asked questions like “How did you end up in Westport?”  And, “What do kept you here?”

The answers — delivered in each teacher’s personal style — include concepts like “the environment,” “the experiences,” “the challenge,” “being in the forefront” and “learning from colleagues.”

And — over and over and over again — “the kids.”

Dr. Landon proudly posted the video on the district website’s human resources page.

Before clicking “play,” prospective teachers learn that students here are empowered to use their creativity.

Once they watch the 12-minute video, potential applicants are even more impressed.

“If someone is looking for an environment in which kids themselves say they had a fabulous experience — they loved their teachers, learned a lot and grew here — that will have a real positive impact on the type of people we’re trying to attract,” Dr. Landon says.

Who will then influence the next generations of Dustin Lowmans and Jeremy Dreyfusses, who in turn…

Westport, Weston Schools In Early Talks On Consolidation

Back to the future?

“06880” has learned that Westport and Weston school officials have started preliminary negotiations to consolidate the 2 districts.  The reason:  substantial budget savings for both towns.

The plan would involve Weston High School students attending Staples.  With approximately 1,700 students at Staples, and 800 at Weston, double sessions may be needed.

Weston High, meanwhile, would become a middle school for students from both towns.  Coleytown would be the obvious choice for closure, due to its proximity to Weston.

Coleytown El may also be shuttered.  Students would be distributed throughout Westport’s 4 other elementary schools.

The two Coleytown schools could then be sold, presumably to private developers.  One possible use — though no one will say so publicly — is for a new YMCA.

Weston High School

“Weston students went to Staples until 1970,” Westport superintendent of schools Dr. Elliott Landon said.  “This sounds radical, but it is something that the 2 towns did for many years.  In today’s economic climate, we have to look at every option.”

The proposal is far from firm, Landon emphasized.  He did confirm that talks have been held with his Weston counterpart, Jerome R. Belair.

“I think this is the kind of innovative, out-of-the-box thinking that we encourage all our students to engage in,” said Staples principal John Dodig.

“I don’t know much about Weston, but the superintendent has asked me to find out.  I’m sure they have areas of strength that we could build upon, just as we have a number of strong programs that Weston students could benefit from.”

“We either consolidate buildings, or cut personnel and programs,” explained Westport Board of Education chairman Don O’Day.

“Is this a solution I would choose?  No.  But in today’s economic climate, we may have no other choice.”

The 2 towns have cooperated educationally long after Weston High opened.  Two examples:  the high schools field a Staples-Weston co-op ice hockey team, while for several years the Staples gymnastics team practiced in Weston.

“06880” will provide updates as the talks continue.  But we wonder:  If Weston rejoins Westport, what about Wilton?  Until 1955, Wilton students attended Staples too.

(For more on the proposed Westport-Weston schools consolidation plan, click here.)