On July 1, 2003, a small group gathered underneath a pear tree, on a patch of grass separating a rutted parking lot from the sprawling, 1-story Staples High School campus.
Several speakers at the low-key ceremony praised the high school as “the jewel in the crown” of the Westport school system.
Then superintendent of schools Elliott Landon, principal John Brady, 1st selectwoman Diane Goss Farrell, Board of Education chair Sandra Urist and 10 other educators, politicians, citizen-volunteers and Turner Construction Company representatives turned over symbolic shovels of dirt.
Ground was broken for construction of an even more sprawling, 3-story school. Another major chapter in Staples’ fabled history had begun.
The Westport News ran a front-page photo of a young boy helping out:
As the caption noted, 4-year-old Jacob Leaf was the grandson of Dan Kail, chairman of the Staples School Building Sub-Committee.
The paper was wrong, however. Jacob is a member of the Class of 2017 — not 2018.
Tomorrow (Thursday, June 22, 2 p.m.), he and over 450 classmates graduate.
They’ll do so in the fieldhouse — one of the only parts of the building not touched by the $84 million renovation.
The project — completed in 2005 — transformed Staples forever. It is a 21st-century building, and this year’s graduating class have done their high school — and town — proud.
Sitting especially proudly in tomorrow’s crowd will be one of the Westporters most responsible for the modern Staples High School: Jacob’s grandfather, Dan Kail.
Congratulations to all the graduates; to all who made Staples possible, and all who continue to do so.
For James D’Amico, fortuitous timing has been part of every career step. Last week — just a few days into his new job — he reflected on the turns of fate that brought him to the post he’s most excited about: Staples High School principal.
D’Amico grew up in New Fairfield. His mother was a nurse; his father commuted every day by car and train to Brooklyn, where he worked for the New York Transit Authority.
After graduating as an all-state chorus member (tenor) and avid musician (clarinet, sax, a little piano), D’Amico headed to the University of Connecticut. He loved his time there — and met his wife in the marching band. But if he had anything to do over, he says, he’d have taken a gap year to explore himself, and the world.
He earned a BA in communications science, but also fell in love with history. He’d always admired school and his teachers, so with the encouragement of his wife — a teacher – he added a graduate degree in education.
Westport had an opening in 2001. D’Amico parked in front, tried to figure out where the main entrance was, entered the moldy, low-ceilinged building, and interviewed with principal Gloria Rakovic and social studies department chair Elliot Kraut. “I couldn’t believe this was Westport,” he says of the soon-to-be-demolished school.
“They took a chance on a green kid,” D’Amico recalls. It was a wise choice.
His new colleagues were “so creative,” D’Amico says. “And creativity was encouraged.” Friends teaching in other districts were handed curriculum binders; he was encouraged to teach to his strengths.
“From Day 1, my colleagues trusted me. They were very kind — and real characters. I knew I’d found a home.”
Led by challenging, student-oriented mentors like Stephanie Muson, Jackie Boland and Rich Mott, he thrived in the classroom.
When Kraut retired in 2004 and a replacement could not be found, D’Amico became temporary “department liaison.” He enjoyed learning how the entire school ran, and helping staff set goals. The next year, he was appointed social studies chair. He taught 2 to 3 classes, led the Junior State of America club, and also got involved in the rest of the building.
When that position was expanded to include the middle schools, D’Amico gained even more experience. He hated leaving the classroom — but kept his beloved JSA club.
James D’Amico and director of elementary education Julie Droller, in Westport school district headquarters at Town Hall.
After 9 years as department head though, he felt he was growing stale. He looked for jobs beyond Westport.
But when the director of secondary education position became open, he threw his hat in the ring. Older, more experienced administrators applied. A different Elliott –superintendent of schools Landon — again took a chance on D’Amico.
He liked the curriculum and assessment aspects of the job. He helped teachers grow professionally. But, D’Amico admits, “It was an office job. I really did not like being in Town Hall. I learned a lot there — but I realized I need to be in a school.”
He was on the 2015 search committee to find a replacement for retiring Staples principal John Dodig. No one could be found. An interim was hired.
Several months ago, D’Amico’s wife said, “You’re going to apply for that job, right?”
“She knows me so well!” he says. “She knew I’d be happier around kids.” Though they have 4 young boys, involved in a variety of activities in Bethel, she encouraged him to go for it.
In March, Landon announced D’Amico as Staples’ next principal.
“Every morning when I walk through the doors, I say, ‘I’m home!'” D’Amico says.
James D’Amico stands proudly in the foyer of Staples High School.
He believes that his district-wide experience gives him a sense of how the elementary and middle schools fit in to Staples.
He also knows many Staples staff members.
“Any job is about relationships,” D’Amico notes. “I have a feeling for how this place works. I know the secretaries, the custodians, the people who make it go.”
As a former social studies teacher, he also knows its history. “I was here with the jackhammers outside my room.”
But he knows he has a lot to learn. He’s spending time with the assistant principals, maintenance supervisors Horace Lewis and Tom Cataudo, and many others to really understand how the many high school pieces fit together.
He gives props to secretary Karen Romano, who has served — and guided — several principals. “On Day 1, she had a folder for me outlining the entire summer,” D’Amico laughs.
However, having been a teacher, he’s well aware that ideas need to be shared — not imposed.
“We’ve got a great school,” D’Amico says. “Our job is: How can we make it greater?”
He plans to listen to ideas. They’ll come from teachers, parents and students.
James D’Amico (left) and former Staples High School principal John Dodig chat during the 2016 graduation ceremony.
“It’s clear Staples is a competitive, high-powered place. We have courses and opportunities other places only dream of. Most kids come here wanting to learn and participate. But what about those who don’t fit into the prevailing goals, or feel too much pressure?”
He’s spoken with Dodig about ways to offer “emotional support.” As a strong supporter of the district’s “Guiding Principles” initiative, D’Amico is eager to carve out time to help implement them.
“How you spend time shows what you value,” he explains. “Right now we value moving kids through 6 or 7 periods a day. I think about systems and policies a lot. There’s a lot of different ways we can do things.”
His 1st staff meeting next month will provide a good introduction to the new principal, and his philosophy. His plan that day is to bring the large, often departmentalized faculty together — in a fun, kind, sincere way.
There’s a lot ahead. But D’Amico understands he needs his own life too. “If I’m not good with my family, I won’t be good with the school.”
His 4 boys are 11, 9, 8 and 6. He’s been involved with their Cub Scouts, baseball, soccer and church activities. He’ll cut down to 1 or 2 of those — but he plans to stay active.
James D’Amico’s career has been all about timing: being in the right place at the right time.
The right place now is Staples. As for timing: School starts September 1.
Outgoing superintendent of schools Elliott Landon announced — in his best snow day voice — that on Monday, June 20, “the Westport Public Schools will be closed!”
Valedictorian Will Andrews delivered a powerful, honest address. He talked about the stresses of Westport, and his own path to self-discovery.
483 seniors received diplomas.
And then — just like that — they were off, on 483 journeys into the real world.
But they’ll always be our kids.
On the way to the fieldhouse, a large board lists graduates’ post-high school plans. (Click on or hover over all photos to enlarge.)
A bulletin board salutes Best Buddies. One of Staples’ most popular clubs, it fosters 1-on-1 friendships between intellectually and developmentally disabled students, and their classmates.
483 diploma covers sit on tables in the fieldhouse. Each graduate receives one. The actual diplomas come later.
A proud soon-to-be grad poses for a photo.
The class of 2016 congregates behind the filedhouse, before marching inside.
Assistant principal Karyn Morgan (left) and grade level assistant Alice Addicks, together one last time. Both are retiring this year.
Grads often decorate their mortarboards. This is one of the best.
Patty McQuone — Staples’ popular attendance secretary — is ready with a box of tissues.
Graduates rise for the national anthem.
Valedictorian Will Andrews has a strong message for his 2016 classmates. On the left in this photo is the mace (topped in blue). It’s carried into the auditorium by the faculty marshal: the educator with the longest continuous service at Staples. This year’s marshal — guidance counselor Denise Honeycutt — retires next week.
Former principal John Dodig (right) and incoming principal James D’Amico chat.
Grant Sirlin (right) and friends accept congratulations from assistant principal Karyn Morgan.
Courtyard balloons honor Staples grads.
Nicole Donovan (right) photographs her family. Graduate Eliza (cap) is surrounded by her 5 siblings.
When the curtain rises this Thursday (April 7, 7 p.m.) on “Mary Poppins,” Ben Frimmer will be in a familiar role: director.
But, he says, the huge sets, challenging acting, singing and choreography make this one of the most adventurous shows he’s ever done.
He’s up to the task. In fact, he was recently nominated for an Excellence in Theater Education honor — sponsored by the Tony Awards and Carnegie Mellon University — by parents and former students. The winner will be announced this spring.
Ben Frimmer, directing his cast. (Photo/Sophie Driscoll)
One letter in particular stands out. Ellen Knapp wrote of Frimmer’s support of her son, Cooper.
He never wanted to be on stage, she says. And he may never be there again.
But last spring Frimmer encouraged the 8th grader to audition for Lurch, in “The Addams Family.”
In fact, Knapp says, that encouragement was “perhaps the finest example of teaching I have ever experienced.” Frimmer acknowledged Cooper’s misgivings, then sold him on the “thrilling, awesome, intoxicating” thrill of being onstage.
Finally, Frimmer said the magic words: “I believe in you, Cooper.”
He got the part. He was embraced by his fellow actors. He even cut his hair.
Cooper Knapp, as Lurch.
In the finale, Lurch — who lived silently in the play’s shadows — steps to center stage, and belts out the epic song “Move Toward the Darkness.”
The audience went wild.
“Cooper literally found his voice as Lurch,” Ellen says. “And came to life as a man.”
That’s quite a story. This weekend at Coleytown, audiences will see Frimmer’s magic with another cast, in “Mary Poppins.”
Meanwhile, last weekend — a short way up North Avenue — the Bedford Acting Group brought “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” to life.
In a Wonka-like spirit, the cast and crew partnered with Saugatuck Sweets to sell chocolate bars. Each one contained a ticket for a grand raffle prize: a weekly ice cream sundae for a year.
Fifty percent of the proceeds from the promotion benefit the Leah Randon Memorial Scholarship. It’s named for the daughter of a popular Bedford teacher, killed in an accident last year.
Theater is alive and well in Westport’s middle schools. So is creativity, sharing and caring.
As part of the search process for a new superintendent of schools, all Westporters are invited to participate in a brief online survey. Questions include characteristics desired in the next leader. Space is provided for recommendations of individual candidates.
The Board of Education has also planned community forums, as part of the process to replace retiring superintendent Elliott Landon. The next is set for Thursday, September 10 (10 to 11:30 a.m., Town Hall auditorium).
Superintendent of schools Dr. Elliott Landon announced this morning that he will retire at the end of the 2015-16 school year. First Selectman Jim Marpe praised the longtime educator:
I have had the honor and privilege of working alongside Dr. Landon for a number of years, including my 8-year tenure as a member and chair of the Board of Education. Since taking office as first selectman, he and I have remained steadfast in our commitment to collaborating and forging a positive relationship with the town and Board of Education. I look forward to continuing this precedent during the remainder of Dr. Landon’s tenure and with his successor.
Dr. Elliott Landon (right) with First Selectman (and former Board of Education chair) Jim Marpe.
On behalf of the Town of Westport, and as its First Selectman, I wish to congratulate and thank Dr. Landon for his dedication to the Town, its schools and most particularly, the multitude of children for whom he advocated. Through his 16-year career as Westport’s superintendent, he consistently raised the bar of excellence and has made the schools in Westport some of the most successful in the country.
His expertise and advocacy for our school system is laudable. Due to Dr. Landon’s leadership, Westport’s education system has provided and will continue to provide the necessary tools for the next generations to achieve personal growth and success for years to come. I wish Dr. Landon much health and happiness as he prepares for retirement.
Meanwhile, the Westport Board of Education released this statement:
We would like to thank Dr. Landon for leading our schools to tremendous heights during his 16-year tenure. Westport is widely regarded as one of the top school districts in the state and in the nation, and Dr. Landon has been integral to our collective success.
Now, for the first time in 17 years, the Westport Board of Education will commence a search for a new superintendent, who will begin serving upon Dr. Landon’s retirement. The Board is prepared for a thoughtful and thorough search process. We will take the time necessary to find the right candidate to meet the needs of our students for the next generation.
We will conduct a nationwide search, and we will engage a search firm with a national scope that has worked with high-performing districts such as ours. We have exceptionally high standards for the leader we will appoint, and we plan to involve the community throughout the process. The Board will reach out to all of our stakeholders, including parents, teachers, administrators, staff members, students and the broader community for their input on the qualities they seek in a new superintendent.
We will make regular announcements about both our process and our progress, and we welcome your input at all points, starting today. The seven of us can be reached at a single email address: email@example.com.
In addition to thanking Dr. Landon, we want to thank all of the outstanding teachers, administrators and staff members who work on behalf of Westport’s children each day. Our schools are thriving because of all of their professionalism, collaboration and dedication to our students.
We very much appreciate all that Dr. Landon has done for our District and all he will continue to do for the next 13 months. We look forward to the community’s participation as we search for his successor.
It’s a fantastic honor for an educator to be named Connecticut’s Best of the Year.
It’s almost unheard of for 2 from the same district to earn those honors in the same year.
But that happened last night. Dr. Elliott Landon was feted as Superintendent of the Year, and John Dodig was cited as High School Principal of the Year. The awards were presented by the Connecticut PTA.
A large crowd of fellow educators and Board of Education members was on hand in Milford for the twin honors — perhaps a first in Connecticut history.
Both men praised the town, school system and PTAs for their roles in the awards.
It takes a village to raise a child — but a village also needs leaders. How nice that the Connecticut PTA has recognized ours.
First Selectman Jim Marpe, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Elliott Landon and Staples High School principal John Dodig at last night’s dinner. (Photo/Jim Honeycutt)
Got a bone to pick with schools superintendent Elliott Landon, or former Board of Ed chair Jim Marpe?
Don’t like the way Eileen Flug runs the RTM?
Think Charlie Haberstroh is the worst 3rd selectman in history?
Now’s your chance to stick it to these public figures — and many others. (Just added to the list: Rev. Ed Horne. This is a very wide-ranging group.)
They’ve agreed — see, they are nice people! — to sit in a dunk tank tomorrow (Saturday, June 22). You get 3 chances, for just $5.
It’s part of the Sunrise Rotary’s 5th annual Great Duck Race. The free event — from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Parker Harding Plaza — includes kids’ arts and crafts, games, music, face painting, a magician, a bouncy castle, and food.
There’s also a $10,000 raffle. For $20, you get a rubber duck. The 1st 10 (of 3,000) to float across the Saugatuck River finish line win Visa gift cards, ranging from $5,000 down to $500.
It’s all for charity. Sunrise Rotary helps a passel of good causes.
But all that pales in comparison with the chance to dunk the superintendent of schools.
Hurricane Sandy’s wallop struck far and wide. Ita after-effects are still being felt.
Including on the Westport School district calendar.
With the storm wiping out the 3 days built in for emergencies — plus 2 others — adjustments must be made.
Among the considerations:
Not going to school too late in June
Keeping instructional time prior to CMT tests for 3rd through 8th graders in march, and AP exams for high school students in May
The need to plan in advance for any changes, so adjustments can be made by parents and staff.
At its Monday meeting, the Board of Education will be presented with 2 recommendations from Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon. The board could then vote at its December 3 meeting.
One option would eliminate spring recess (April 16-19) entirely. School would still end Thursday, June 20.
The 2nd choice would shift staff development days (“no school” for students only) from January 18 (the Friday before Martin Luther King Day — turning a 4-day weekend into 3) and February 25 (the Monday after winter break) to April 16 and 17 (the Tuesday and Wednesday of spring break). School would end Friday, June 21.
In other words, Option 1 would make one change only: no spring break.
Option 2 would mean, among other things, that students would have a 3-day spring break: Monday through Wednesday, April 15-17.
School calendars always generate controversy. There is never a perfect solution — and changes in mid-year are never easy.
Click “Comments” to weigh in. Rational arguments only, please, on the merits and/or drawbacks of options 1 and 2 — no ad hominem attacks!
(NOTE: Click here for a copy of the current 2012-13 school calendar.)
Despite news reports that Westport schools are opening Monday, no decision has yet been made.
According to a message sent last night by superintendent of schools Elliott Landon, and repeated on the “snow line” (203-341-1SNO):
As of late today, Friday, November 2, electrical restoration and tree crews have been working diligently to restore power to the entire Westport community. Nonetheless, 3 of our 8 schools continue to be without power. Until I can be assured that all blocked roads are open and electricity has been restored to all of our schools, I cannot announce with certainty when our school system will be operating normally.
It is my hope and expectation that we will be able to open all schools on their regular schedules on Monday morning. However, I will not be able to make that decision until sometime over this coming weekend.
As soon as I know that our children can be transported safely to each of our schools and that full power has been restored to all schools, I will communicate with you via email, telephone and our emergency telephone line, 203 341-1766.Thank you one and all for your patience during this difficult time. The safety and well-being of our children and staff is our number one priority.
Well, we do know this: Schools were planned to be closed on Tuesday. It’s Election Day. (Remember that?)
And then there’s the nor’easter bringing heavy rain and possibly snow on Wednesday…
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