It’s tough to keep a secret from a school administrator. They’re supposed to know everything.
But a conspiracy of silence — involving colleagues, students and friends — worked this week. When Meghan Ward walked into the Pathways suite at Staples High School yesterday, she had no idea a mural would be unveiled in her honor.
Ward — an assistant principal — heads to a new job soon: principal of John Read Middle School in Redding. In her 5 years at Staples, she’s earned respect and admiration — and changed countless lives — as, among other things, Pathways supervisor.
That’s the “school within a school” offering alternative educational opportunities for students experiencing academic, behavioral and/or life challenges in the traditional setting.
The 4 Pathways teachers work closely with small groups of students. They wanted to honor the woman who helped create the program, then championed it in every setting.
They asked students what would be meaningful to them. Their idea: a bright, evocative mural.
Meghan Ward, in her Staples office. (Photo/Dan Woog)
“Meghan had a vision for how Pathways could run,” says English instructor Ann Neary.
“She imagined how students could engage in school, and what their possibilities could be. She supported teachers’ ideas, met with us weekly, sent us for trainings, and advocated for what we need to make this program work.”
Student Charlotte D’Anna sketched the design. Students voted for the concept. Principal Stafford Thomas okayed painting a classroom wall. Art instructor Tracy Wright helped Neary understand all about mural paints and brushes.
Then the students went to work. They loved what they were doing — and it showed.
Hard at work! Science teacher Tony Coccoli is at far left; English instructor Ann Neary is in the middle. Other teachers (not pictured) are Mike Forgette (math) and Dan Heaphy (social studies).
Alicia D’Anna — a Staples Players parent and professional set designer — organized and managed the process. Her eldest child Sami graduated from Pathways last year.
That alumni connection was evident yesterday when Ward walked in, was moved to tears by the mural — and saw nearly a dozen Pathways alum on hand too.
Meghan Ward, with her mural. (Photo/Maryann Garcia)
Meghan Ward created a pathway to success for a number of Staples students. Her work will be remembered for years — thanks to a mural that now graces a Pathways wall.
At most schools, the assistant principal handles discipline. He — and it’s often a male — breaks up fights, hands out suspensions and tracks down truants.
Staples is not most schools.
There, assistant principals have a wide range of tasks. They handle every aspect of student life, from curriculum and the daily calendar to clubs and activities. They’re involved in attendance, academic integrity, even proms.
That’s just part of the job description. Meghan Ward, for example, oversees online courses, the independent learning experience and Pathways, Staples’ alternative school program. She works with academic support classes, and — particularly this year, with COVID complications — collaborates closely with guidance counselors, pupil personnel services, social workers and psychol0gists to keep students on track.
All of those skills and experiences will help Ward when she leaves Staples this summer. The assistant principal has been named principal of John Read Middle School in Redding.
Meghan Ward (Photo/Dan Woog)
It’s a homecoming of sorts. Ward attended Joel Barlow High School — which her new school feeds into — and loved it. Among other activities, she was Student Council president.
She enjoyed an introductory education class at Providence College, but graduated from Southern Connecticut State University as a political science major.
Her first job was with US Tobacco in Greenwich. Working in governmental affairs, she met an intern who headed back to school for a master’s in education.
That piqued her interest. Ward shifted gears, got her own master’s at Sacred Heart University, and student taught in social studies at Trumbull High, under Jon Shepro.
In 2004, 2 positions opened up a Staples. Shepro and Ward filled them both.
Ward spent 9 years in the classroom. She credits “awesome administrators” with allowing her to “take risks and try new things.” Student-centered classrooms encouraged students to think for themselves.
“I was given a gift to be creative and independent,” she says. “We teach to common standards, but the way we deliver education is our own. The 25 kids in my classroom may be very different from the ones next door.”
Along the way, Ward became certified as an administrator. When she and her husband moved to Maine, she was hired as dean of students for a regional high school.
She loved the opportunity to get to know both “the whole student” — not just the one in a Global Themes or US history class — and the entire sophomore class. The challenges — academic, social, interpersonal, family dynamics — were fascinating. Her principal and administrative team were “totally student-centered.”
The school included an alternative program. It was Ward’s first experience with teenagers who — though school was “not their thing” — followed a positive path.
“Every kid had a passion for something,” Ward says. “One of them loved welding. We figured out how he could get credit for it. Creativity can change the course of someone’s life. If you listen and believe in them when they’re at their lowest point, they’ll respond.”
Ward’s next position was assistant position at Old Orchard Beach High School. She was involved in the alternative education program there too.
She moved on to the principalship of York High School. “An amazing experience!” she says. “The staff and Board of Education were very supportive. The amount of time they committed to kids was incredible.”
She left with regrets, when her family returned to Connecticut. Fortuitously, an assistant principal’s position opened up at Staples, in the fall of 2016.
Ward worked with then-principal James D’Amico to develop the Pathways program. Among her dozens of responsibilities, it’s been among the most rewarding.
The main classroom at Pathways. Other rooms — and the lounge — branch off from here.
She takes the “path” idea literally. “We can actually help create a way for each kid to get what they need to succeed,” she says.
Returning as an administrator to the high school where she once taught was eye-opening. She gained a deeper understanding of the interrelationships between all staff members, and the importance of listening closely to others in order to make the best decisions for “the student, the building and the town.”
Staples is the only Connecticut school building Ward ever worked in. She is grateful for the support and opportunities she’s received, from “special, incredible” colleagues.
Now she heads to a different one — and with a different age group.
“After embracing 9th graders coming to Staples, I’m excited to work with middle schoolers,” Ward says. “Fifth through 8th graders: What do those pathways look like?”
As usual, she’ll listen — to students, their families, the community.
Then Ward — the mother of a 5th and 7th grader herself — will take the lessons she’s learned in Westport and Maine, and apply them to John Read Middle School.
It’s one of Staples High School’s many traditions: Every year, High Honors graduates — the top 4% of the senior class — are celebrated at a dinner.
But this is not your typical snooze-fest. Each honoree is asked to select one teacher to speak on his or her behalf. Each instructor has just a couple of minutes. But in that time they manage to be insightful, poignant, funny and real.
Taken individually, the short speeches give a quick portrait of some of Staples’ highest-achieving students. Taken together, they paint a wonderful canvas of a very diverse class.
This year’s High Honors dinner fell victim to COVID-19. But — showing a resourcefulness worthy of these 19 very bright young men and women — assistant principal for the senior class Meghan Ward helped organize a virtual ceremony.
Each honoree and teacher came to Staples last month. Alone, they were taped by Jim Honeycutt. The former media instructor then stitched everything together, in a video.
It was a shame that the evening could not take place in real time. The good news is: Because it did not, now every “06880” reader can honor our High Honors grads.
The video is posted in two formats: YouTube (below) and Vimeo. Clicking here for the Vimeo link enables you to download it and save; just scroll to the bottom of the Vimeo page.
Every educator knows there are many pathways to students’ success.
At Staples High School, that now includes Pathways Academy.
Opened this fall, it’s a “school within a school.” Pathways provides alternative educational opportunities for students experiencing academic, behavioral and/or life challenges in the traditional school setting.
That’s the long description.
Here’s the short one: For some students, Pathways is a life-saver.
They may have school anxiety or avoidance issues. Perhaps they made mistakes, and fell behind in credits for graduation. Regular classrooms and standard schedules didn’t work for them.
Pathways — created by a team of Staples administrators, counselors, social workers and others — occupies a suite of rooms near the cafeteria.
Warm and welcoming, with a lounge area, computer room and small instructional spaces, it’s where students and 4 teachers spend every morning, from 7:30 to 10:45.
Freed from traditional bells — with more flexibility to move from idea to idea, and room to room — Ann Neary (English), Daniel Heaphey (social studies), Tony Coccoli (science) and Anthony Forgette (math) — work together in a warm, welcoming setting.
Each day begins with a community meeting. On Wednesdays, school outreach counselor Ed Milton offers insights. Every Friday, there’s college and career counseling.
Academic expectations are the same as for traditional core classes. The differences include individualized instruction, peer coaching, experiential learning and interdisciplinary projects.
When the Pathways day ends, students head to electives, world language and phys. ed. classes, community service, work study or internships.
At first, students were referred to Pathways by teachers and administrators. Eight began in September. Now — thanks to word of mouth — that number has doubled, to 16.
The application process includes written answers to questions like “What is your biggest challenge in the traditional high school setting?”, “Describe a situation that did not go well for you (interaction with a teacher, administrator, friend, etc.). Thinking back, how would you have handled it differently?” and “”Describe something you did, made or completed in school that made you proud.”
Acceptance is not automatic. Each student must embrace the idea of the Pathways community.
The main classroom at Pathways. Other rooms — and the lounge — branch off from here.
Pathways is overseen by Meghan Ward. The assistant principal had experience in other schools with alternative education. “‘Other’ is okay,” she says, echoing the academy’s mission. “Students learn the same things, even if the setting or delivery looks different.”
Ward calls the Pathways teachers “incredible. They work really hard — and that’s only half of their course load. They also teach other classes. It’s really a challenge.”
In just half a year, Pathways has already made its mark. Students with attendance issues are coming to school — “and smiling,” Ward notes. Those who previously felt disconnected from Staples now have a “home base.”
There are tangible results too. The other day, Neary’s students completed a play-writing project. They read their works in the Black Box Theater, for members of Westport Senior Center’s writing class.
It was a huge success. The audience loved hearing the powerful, honest voices of teenagers. They provided great feedback — and plenty of support.
Just as Pathways does every day, in its own way: a school within a school.
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