New Fairfield High School has a new principal: Staples’ James D’Amico.
The announcement was made last night by New Fairfield superintendent of schools Patricia Cosentino. New Fairfield is a town of about 14,000, in northern Fairfield County.
“He’s done a great job in Westport for 18 years,” she said. “He has a strong background in curriculum design. He’s student-centered, and has developed wonderful relationships with students, staff and the community. He has a vision to make New Fairfield High School the best it can be.”
Taking the podium, D’Amico thanked his colleagues in Westport — especially his Staples administrative team. Together, he said, “We try to move mountains to help kids. I’ll miss them tremendously.”
In 2016, new principal James D’Amico stood in the foyer of Staples High School.
A 1994 New Fairfield High graduate, D’Amico has spent his entire professional career in Westport. In 2001, after earning a master’s in education, he was hired as a Staples social studies teacher. He was named department chair in 2005, townwide director of secondary education in 2014, and principal in 2016.
Following John Dodig, and a one-year interim, D’Amico made his own mark by addressing issues like scheduling, graduation requirements and exam stresses. He championed Pathways Academy, an alternative school-within-a-school that opened in September.
This morning, D’Amico told the faculty of his decision to leave. A staff member who attended the meeting said he called it “a unique opportunity to do a job I’ve come to love.”
He said he loved working with the staff, loved the high school, and had not anticipated leaving. But the opportunity was too good to pass up.
He vowed to be “completely dedicated to the school” until June 30, the end of his 3rd year at the helm of the 1,885-student school. This year Staples was ranked the #1 public high school in Connecticut. New Fairfield, with 904 students, was #91.
Superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer said, “We extend our best wishes to Mr. D’Amico as he moves on to his new role this summer, and thank him for his years of dedicated service to our district.”
The search for a new Staples High School principal begins soon.
Last fall, Staples High School principal James D’Amico had a star turn in Players’ production of “Legally Blonde.” (Photo/Kerry Long)
THANKS to the Town of Westport’s Facebook page for providing this video (livestreamed by Jonathan Kaner). It includes 1st selectman Jim Marpe, superintendent of schools Dr. Colleen Palmer, Staples High School principal James D’Amico, and Westport police chief Foti Koskinas.
When word got out that Patty Haberstroh’s family was promoting a hot pepper challenge to raise funds for ALS research, some big names responded:
Shaquille O’Neal. Charles Barkley. Domonique Foxworth. Dan Le Batard. The Miami Heat.
Now the popular Department of Human Services’ program specialist’s fellow town employees have done the same.
Yesterday 1st Selectman Jim Marpe, Staples principal James D’Amico, assistant principals Jim Farnen and Rich Franzis, and former principal John Dodig gathered at Town Hall. After a bit of banter, they all ate eye-tearing, sinus-clearing, unfathomably hot habaneros.
It was not easy. But they did it for Patty.
And when they were done, they challenged others to do the same.
D’Amico dared the Staples science department (whose chair grows his own peppers). Farnen challenged the Staples athletic department (which includes me, as Staples boys soccer coach — yikes!). Dodig named the guidance department.
Marpe topped them all. He dared the entire Board of Education — and superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer — to eat a habanero or jalapeño.
Videos will be posted soon.
But don’t laugh too hard. We may challenge you next.
(Click here for the Haberstrohs’ hot pepper challenge donation page. Video by Justin Nadal, Staples High School media lab instructor.)
BONUS VIDEO: Check out this new video. It features plenty of celebrities — and tons of Westporters too. And after you click on — please keep the ALS Pepper Challenge going!
Every school in Westport is filled with Unsung Heroes: its custodians. Dozens of men and women work day and night. They clean floors, empty trash, move equipment and do countless other tasks so that our kids can learn — and our teachers can teach — in the cleanest, nicest and best environments possible.
I could single out many Westport custodians as this week’s Unsung Hero. I’m focusing on Jose Alvarez — but he stands for all of them.
Jose begins work at Staples High School at 5 p.m. His domain is the first floor — including the main office wing. It’s the most visible part of the school, and the pride he takes in making it shine is palpable.
He stayed late one night, because there were scuff marks he was still working to remove. That’s a regular occurrence: He won’t leave until his area is perfect.
He washes coffee mugs on administrators’ desks. They don’t want him to, but he insists.
Jose is Colombian. He learned English by listening to lessons on headphones, as he worked.
One of his proudest moments was the day he became an American citizen. He’d studied hard for the test. Principal John Dodig arranged for a cake, and a small ceremony. Jose beamed with pride.
“He’s grateful for everything,” says current principal James D’Amico. “And we’re grateful for him. People come in, and can’t believe how clean and shiny the building looks.”
Staples head custodian Horace Lewis — an Unsung Hero himself — says Jose “never takes a day off. He’s always here, and always does his job so well.”
When he does have a vacation, Jose travels. He’s been to Israel and Italy. Of course, he returns to Colombia whenever he can.
But then it’s back to Westport. There is a school to take care of, and Jose is proud to do it.
As they sit down for holiday dinners on Thursday, Staples High School students have much to be thankful for. Loving families, good friends, caring teachers, a wonderful community — those things don’t change.
But this year, they’ll give thanks for something else: No homework.
Principal James D ‘Amico sent this email last week:
I want to take the opportunity to remind everyone that this upcoming Thanksgiving break is a homework-free break.
As a school community we want our school breaks to truly be a break from school to the greatest extent possible. We value school breaks as an opportunity for our students, staff, and families to rejuvenate, spend time with friends and family, and generally find the time for much-needed rest.
School breaks are also a good time for those who may have fallen behind on their work to catch up, without more new assignments piling up.
Through our Collaborative Team of representative teachers, administrators, students, and parents, we developed the following simple definition of homework-free breaks:
No homework should be assigned over these breaks
Long-term project due dates, as well as tests, may not be scheduled for the first 2 days of school following one of these breaks.
The December, February and April breaks will also be homework-free.
Additionally, we encourage everyone to take a technology break over Thanksgiving, and disconnect our devices and engage with each other.
On behalf of everyone at Staples High School I wish you and your families a happy, healthy, and restful Thanksgiving next week.
The Staples High School Class of 2017 is now history.
Over 450 members of the 130th graduating class received their diplomas amid the usual pomp and circumstance in the fieldhouse.
It was a day of celebration, joy, pride — and relief, sentimentality and longing.
Graduates and their parents looked ahead — and back.
And of course, everyone took photos.
For weeks, seniors have filled a large poster with their post-high school plans. Today it was on display for all to see.
Fabian Becerra waited for the ceremony to begin…
… and so did salutatorian Christopher Scherban and valedictorian Emily Schussheim.
The processional into the fieldhouse isn’t a red carpet — but at graduation it can seem like one.
Some seniors decorated their caps with messages. St. Andrews is in Scotland.
Class speaker Megan Hines had a wonderful message. She described never taking AP or honors classes, but finding herself — thanks to caring friends, guidance counselors and teachers. “You are never alone” at Staples, she said.
Listening intently to the student speakers were (from right) superintendent of schools Colleen Palmer, principal James D’Amico, 12th grade assistant principal Pat Micinilio, assistant principal Rich Franzis, and and assistant principal (and proud father of graduate Jimmy) James Farnen.
Shelby Lake got special congratulations from big brother (and Staples Class of 2011 graduate) Court Lake.
Brooke Wrubel posed with her family in the courtyard.
A celebration isn’t complete without some good cigars.
A Better Chance scholars Manny Ogutu and Sam Larkin enjoyed a post-graduation party at Glendarcy House with their proud parents — and a host of well-wishers.
Midterm exams are stressful for high school students. In recent years, as the importance of grades — both real and imagined — has risen, so have student stress levels.
Last week at Staples, staff and administrators — prompted by Student Assembly, and supported by the Collaborative Team — addressed midterms directly. In fact, proponents noted, reducing stress can actually raise test-takers’ scores.
Guidance counselors Leslie Hammer and Bill Plunkett, physical education department chair Dave Gusitsch and others created a broad menu of “Midterm Wellness and Enrichment Activities.” Students could choose any (or none) of them during last week’s midterms.
And — tweaking the no-room-to-breathe schedule that had been in place for decades — those activities took place during a 50-minute period between each day’s 2 exams. Previously, the break was just 30 minutes.
Organizers learned that high schools and universities around the country have brought in “therapy dogs,” for students to pets. Research shows that playing with animals is a great way to relax and clear the mind.
Petting dogs has been shown to release endorphins in the brain, leading to relaxed feelings.
The dogs were a smash. Students lined up to chill with the friendly, tail-wagging pooches. One student — whose stress sometimes caused her to have tics — said she’d never felt better in a school environment.
Some activities were physical. There was basketball and track walking in the fieldhouse; badminton and “pound fitness” (drumming) in the gym; free swim in the pool, dance in the pool lobby, and ping pong near the cafeteria. The fitness center was open for cardio, free weights and machine exercise; yoga was in a library classroom, and principal James D’Amico offered “walk and talk” sessions around the school.
Emerson Anvari chose ping pong as a way to reduce midterm stress.
Some options — liked “guided meditation” — were more mindful.
Other activities appealed to special passions. String players were invited to the orchestra room to play Mozart; Players director David Roth directed theater games, while some students played board games.
David Roth got students up and moving with theater games.
In addition, guidance counselors offered free snacks. Healthy food was on sale in the cafeteria. That was a first for midterms — and sales were brisk.
Guidance counselor Deb Slocum (left) and colleagues provided snacks — and positive messages from a bowl.
No one was forced to choose an activity. Some students studied in the library, or chatted with friends in the hall.
Fifty minutes between exams allowed students time to study in the library — and relax, eat healthily and participate in activities too.
Everyone seemed influenced by the environment. Early skepticism was replaced by increasing enthusiasm to try something new, day by day.
Guidance counselor Deb Slocum noted, “The entire mood of the school shifted. It was a great vibe.”
Colleague Bill Plunkett added, “There was a lot of positive energy — and plenty of smiles. Even the kids just sitting around felt relaxed.”
Not every kid got an A+ on every test.
But Staples’ newest midterm tradition passed with flying colors.
“Pound fitness” is a full-body cardio jam session, perfect for de-stressing between exams.
(Photos courtesy of Victoria Capozzi and Dave Gusitsch)
Thousands of Westport students return to school this week. They’ll be greeted by hundreds of administrators, teachers and paraprofessionals who work hard to help our youngsters grow into wise, empathetic and confident adults.
Those students and staff work every day in buildings that are maintained with skill and care by men and women we always see, but seldom acknowledge. Often, we look right past — or through — our custodians.
David Johnson did not. A retired administrator from upstate Connecticut, he has spent the past 7 summers traveling to Westport to run a certification coach for area middle and high school coaches.
The other day, he wrote to Staples principal James D’Amico:
I have come to enjoy my journey to Westport. I am also enriched by being able to share important knowledge and information with those working with our student-athletes. What I have come to look forward to the most, however, is my interaction with your custodial staff directed by Horace Lewis.
Staples’ popular head custodian Horace Lewis leads a great staff.
I travel to numerous high school facilities to teach these classes throughout the year. Nowhere is there a custodial staff as professional and welcoming as the one at Staples. I am always greeted with a smile, which makes me feel like I am visiting family.
Horace is there to meet my needs, making sure I have whatever is necessary. Then he asks what more he can do. He and/or one of his staff check and make sure we are ready to go. He checks with us during the class, and also at the end.
It is not easy to go into someone else’s facility and use unfamiliar equipment. But I never have a concern at Staples. I always know I have the support of Horace, Tom Cataudo and their staff.
Shift supervisor Tom Cataudo and maintenance head Horace Lewis greet staff and students during the 2015 graduation processional.
We have no problem complaining when something is not right or does not go well. Therefore I feel we have an obligation to recognize work that goes “above and beyond” the call of duty. After 35 years in public education, I know that these individuals (especially a custodial staff like yours) are the lifeblood of the school community. You are most fortunate.
Thank you again for not only sharing your facility with us, but also for sharing such professional staff as well. Best wishes for a great school opening, and an even better school year.
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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.
It’s one thing to teach reading, writing, science, math, world language, music and art. Westport schools do that — and they do it very, very well.
It’s another thing entirely to teach emotional and social awareness; kindness with sincerity; principled thoughts and actions, and a love of learning.
You can’t test those qualities. You can’t quantify them, or describe them particularly well. Most school systems don’t even think about such things.
Called “Guiding Principles,” they’re part of a conscious initiative to add social, civic and ethical education to the school day. And they’re being introduced system-wide, from kindergarten through 12th grade, not only in the classroom but at recess, in the cafeteria — anywhere students gather, and teachers can teach.
Last week, director of secondary education (and incoming Staples High School principal) James D’Amico and director of elementary education Julie Droller discussed what it all means.
James D’Amico and Julie Droller, in Westport school district headquarters at Town Hall.
“We have a robust social skills curriculum,” D’Amico said. “But we realized we needed to recalibrate what we were doing.”
“We’re addressing more needs than even a few years ago,” Droller added. “Society expects schools to do even more now.”
With the help of Deb Sawch (former Staples English teacher, now co-founder/director of Studies in Educational Innovation at Teachers College, Columbia University) and Allison Villanueva (one of Westport’s Teachers College partners), administrators studied how other top-performing schools — as far away as Singapore and Australia, as near as Horace Mann and as diverse as Berkeley’s Haas School of Business — handled social and civic expectations.
But D’Amico and Droller knew they could not impose any directive from the top down. They had to talk simply, without jargon — and there had to be teacher buy-in.
They worked for 18 months with a group of 45 teachers from throughout the district, to determine the best ways to give students (for example) the opportunity to connect, value and accept others; to act with integrity; to be curious, inquisitive, passionate and joyful about learning new things; to persevere, even during challenges; to view mistakes as part of the learning process, and be flexible in all they do.
It’s not enough for youngsters to work together. They also must connect, value and accept each other; act with integrity, and enjoy what they do.
They also wanted to find ways for adults to model those behaviors.
“We don’t want kids who are compliant,” D’Amico stressed. “We want them engaged in learning.”
In reading, for instance, “we don’t want kids to just flip through pages,” Droller said. “We want them to stop, talk with each other, grapple and compare ideas. We want them to ask questions, without waiting for the teacher.”
All well and good. But how does that happen in a school system — and national environment — that demands quantifiable measures, like getting through a unit and preparing for standardized tests?
“That’s a good question,” D’Amico said. “The changes can be subtle. In 8th grade social studies classes, it could mean changing an assignment from ‘Write about the American you admire most’ to ‘Write about the most principled American you admire.'”
Who would you pick as your most principled American?
“We’re naming these principles,” Droller continued. “We’re saying, ‘Here’s what being empathetic means. Here’s what it means to be persistent. Here’s what a growth mindset looks like.'”
This August, Westport hosts its 1st-ever district-wide keynote address. Dr. Marc Brackett — director of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence — will talk about the ability to manage emotions. He believes that emotional intelligence can be taught. In fact, he says, it must be.
Workshops will be offered to parents too, so they can partner with teachers and administrators in the initiative.
“If we don’t have these principles in place, kids don’t learn anything,” D’Amico says. “We can’t go a mile wide and an inch deep. Kids already have access to plenty of information. We have to focus not on what you learn, but how you learn.”
“It’s a shift for our teachers,” Droller admitted. “We’re saying, ‘It’s okay to pare back. It’s okay to develop students as learners,'” not as mere receptacles of facts.
Teachers do this already, D’Amico said. What’s being added is the emphasis on it, as a district-wide focus.
“Teachers own it,” he concluded. “They’re reading books about growth, mindset, grit. This is going to come from them and their colleagues. We’re all excited.”
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