Tag Archives: Jeff Doornweerd

Staples Students Climb Ropes Of Empowerment

Every day, students get high at Staples.

Don’t panic. It’s all good.

Actually, it’s great. And exciting. empowering, even life-changing.

They’re using 2 new ropes courses. They climb, swing, and get far beyond their comfort zones.

Teenagers support, encourage and motivate each other to heights — both physical and mental — they never thought they could achieve.

For years, the physical education department taught cooperative games to sophomores. But without much perceived risk, most attempts to collaborate and problem-solve together fell flat.

High ropes and harnesses were the answer.

Students on Staples High School’s outdoor high ropes course — and their supporters on the ground. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Scarice)

Funds came from a $63,000 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant to schools, to use during and after COVID for the social development of students.

Townwide physical education coordinator Christine Wanner made the proposal. Superintendent of schools Thomas Scarice and the Board of Education were fully supportive. The project aligns with the Westport Public Schools’ holistic approach to social emotional learning, mental health and wellness.

The ropes were installed outdoors in a now-unused community garden, and in the indoor fieldhouse.

There are 2 elements: low (without harnesses), and high ones (with them).

Physical education teacher Jeff Doornweerd instructs students in the fieldhouse …

Despite the perceived danger, the ropes elements are much safer than most other physical activities.

“Everything is double- and triple-checked, and backed up,” notes Jeff Doornweerd, a phys. ed. instructor who was instrumental in developing the course.

“Kids approach this with some nerves. They’re very careful.”

Before anyone climbs, student belayers ask: “How are you feeling? How can we support you?”

Many teens have never had to answer those questions, Doornweerd explains. They say honestly: “I’m worried about one certain point. Can you be extra careful there?”

Instructors underwent rigorous training, in Vermont.

… and 2 then climb, helping each other, to the ceiling. (PHotos/Phoebe Miller and Caroline Zajac for Inklings)

The course is “not really about how good you are at climbing ropes,” Doornweerd says. “It’s about how and why you get out of your comfort zone. We spend a lot of time in class talking about that.”

No one is forced to climb. Eventually, most do.

They feel “ecstatic” afterward, Doornweerd says. And that feeling of taking a risk, and overcoming the fear of failure, can stay with them far in the future, in the classroom, the workplace and home.

One athlete — who otherwise would excel in phys. ed. — was extremely hesitant. He changed his mind when he saw how powerfully excited everyone else was.

As the class debriefed, he said, “The only reason I’m telling you this is because I want other people to know and feel the same.”

Up, up and away! (Photo courtesy of Thomas Scarice)

Though the ropes were originally planned for sophomore classes only, Doornweerd worked it into the Bridge program, an academic support initiative that includes 9th graders.

Two weeks ago, Staples went into full lockdown after a bomb threat. That afternoon, teachers focused on students’ emotional needs.

Doornweerd did some leadup activities with his Bridge group, then took them to the ropes course.

As they climbed, teachers leading their own classes on walks outside stopped to watch.

“Students were cheering for freshmen they didn’t know,” Doornweerd says with pride. “It was so powerful. Those kids will never forget that day.”

The phys. ed. instructor is not stopping there.

“Now that it’s here, there are so many ways to utilize this,” Doornweerd says.

“Sports teams — even other groups — can enhance team-building. I can see community events happening too.”

Soon perhaps, many more Westporters will enjoy getting high at Staples.

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Link Crew: A Freshman Lifeline

As the school year ends, Westport’s 8th graders begin the transition to Staples High.

Administrators, teachers and parents have started to prepare them. But the info the adults provide — on courses, curriculums and clubs — is not necessarily what rising freshmen want to hear.

They have more mundane, but crucially important, concerns: Where will I sit in the cafeteria? What happens if my locker is too far from my classes? Will I ever see my friends?

Link Crew knows all the answers. Not long ago, the 80 juniors and seniors were freshmen themselves.

A small number of the 80 Link Crew members.

Link Crew is a student mentorship program. The goal is to make the move from middle to high school — one of the most momentous of a teenager’s life — as easy as possible.

“We want the school to feel smaller,” says Jamie Pacuk, one of 3 passionate advisors. “Not everyone has an older sibling.”

English teacher Pacuk, physical education instructor Jeff Doornweerd and special education teacher Lauren Manosh are 3 very different people, inhabiting 3 very different Staples worlds.

That mirrors the Link Crew model. The advisors seek a diverse group of mentors. Together, they encompass nearly all of the many opportunities Staples offers.

The selection process is rigorous — including a video. “Someone might write well, but can they communicate clearly and easily, and speak from the heart?” Doornweerd asks. “If they’re not comfortable making their own video, how comfortable would they be relating in small groups to other people?”

Once selected, the 40 new juniors join 40 returning seniors in special training. (Every junior wants to return the next year, Manosh says proudly.)

This spring, mentors went to the middle schools to introduce the program. They also led tours, on a recent 8th grader visit.

Leading a recent tour for 8th graders. The Link Crew shirts say “We’ll be there for you.”

In August they contact their small group of rising freshmen — and the students’ parents. They explain who they are, what they’ll be doing, and give them their phone numbers. “Text us any time!” they say.

Before opening day, Link Crews meet for orientation tours. Relationships take root, as freshmen realize they can ask the questions adults cannot — or would not think to — answer.

On the first day of school, Link Crew members wear special t-shirts. They check in with “their” 9th graders frequently, during those sometimes-overwhelming initial days.

The program continues throughout the year. Once a month, mentors do activities during the “Connections” period.

The background to Link Crew is as interesting as the program itself. Funded initially by a 2019-20 Staples and middle school PTA grants, the advisors began visiting schools that already used Link Crew (it’s part of a national program). Advisors’ training was set for April.

COVID closed school. But Pacuk, Doornweerd and Manosh persevered, setting up a virtual model for the 2020-21 school year. “We built the airplane as we flew it,” Doornweerd notes.

In 2020, Emily Epstein and Owen Dolan introduced Link Crew to freshmen via video.

For freshmen beginning their Staples careers at a time of such uncertainty and flux, the program proved crucial. Even online, they felt they had gotten to know upperclassmen. Barriers between classes had been eased.

Pacuk, Doornweerd and Manosh love their 80 Link Crew mentors. “They’re very engaged,” Pacuk says. “They have a real enthusiasm for wanting to make Staples a better place, any way they can.”

The advisors hope to expand the program, adding activities like socials and exam study groups.

Meanwhile, despite starting a major new program in the midst of a pandemic, they tout its success.

“We’re a social species. This gives people their own ‘tribe,'” Manosh says.

“This is a big school,” Pacuk adds. “It’s important to feel part of something — to know you have a network of support.”

A little gesture — a text from a mentor, noting about a student’s absence from Connections — can go a long, long way. “It says, ‘Someone cares,'” Manosh says.