Staples High School’s senior class has endured a year unlike any in the school’s 136-year history.
But the Class of 2021 faced down challenges and adversity — everything from remote learning and quarantines to shortened sports seasons, canceled plays and concerts, and Plexiglas barriers in the cafeteria — with maturity, resilience and grace.
Yesterday evening, they got their reward. Under a bright sky, in perfect temperatures, they graduated.
All together, as one.
Seniors file onto the stadium field, past a memorial bench dedicated to Tamari Rivera. Their classmate — a beloved member of the basketball team — died in January.
They continue on to their seats of honor, in front of the stage.
In the first outdoor ceremony since 1994 — not counting last year’s drive-thru affair — they were honored by family and staff.
Assistant principal James Farnen leads staff members into the ceremony.
The crowd was smaller than usual; COVID limited the number of tickets. But unlike years past in the fieldhouse, everyone could see.
Bleachers are decorated with signs from departments, clubs and teams, honoring the graduates.
And hear. Principal Stafford Thomas hailed the newest graduates as “respectful, optimistic and bold.”
Principal Stafford Thomas delivers warm, upbeat remarks.
Salutatorian Hannah Even talked about black holes (a metaphor for the past year?). Valedictorian Konur Nordberg gave shout-outs to many classmates, and — alluding to the silver lining of the past year — quoted a 17th-century samurai: “My barn burned down, but now I can see the moon.”
The 469 graduates’ names were called. Proudly, they walked onto the stage and acknowledged the cheers.
James Jennings receives his diploma. From left, assistant principal Pat Micinilio, Board of Education chair Candice Savin and principal Stafford Thomas do the honors. James later joined Marley Lopez-Paul, leading the class in the traditional turning of the tassel.
It was a warm, wonderful ceremony. Quickly and efficiently, it was over. Just as quickly, the Class of ’21 became part of history.
For once, that’s not a cliché.
Benny Zack solos with the Choralaires and senior choral members on “The Road Home.”
Senior soccer players march in together.
Some graduates decorate their mortarboards …
… while others have a snack and water.
The Staples High School Class of 2021: winners in every book. (Photos/Dan Woog)
For Staples Tuition Grants, it was the perfect storm.
In March — just when volunteers with the 77-year-old organization were finalizing awards for the 100-plus graduating seniors and alums currently in college who depend on donors to make education a reality — the coronavirus struck.
More students needed more aid. And fewer Westporters were able to give.
But the community rose to the challenge. A special drive brought in desperately needed funds.
So this spring, STG disbursed more money than ever: $375,000.
That means 107 Staples grads — at 72 colleges and universities across the country — can continue their educations.
COVID also knocked out STG’s annual June ceremony, always a joyful, inspiring event.
But Staples grad and STG booster Margot Bruce did the next best thing: She created a joyful, inspiring video.
It includes brief messages from 1st Selectman Jim Marpe (who notes the importance of a tuition grant in his Ohio hometown, helping him become the first in his family to go college); Staples principal Stafford Thomas; former recipient Scott Bennewitz, the son of a single mom and now a Princeton grad, plus many current and recent recipients.
The video is well worth the 6 minutes. And when it’s over — or even before — you can click here to help Staples Tuition Grants reach its 2021 goal.
The updates provide more specific guidance, and new recommendations for a broad range of sectors. Highlights include new rules for Indoor Recreation; expanded guidance for Outdoor and Indoor Events.
Changes impacting Offices, Personal Services, Hair Salons & Barbershops, Retail, Libraries, etc. include:
Non-essential businesses have the right to refuse service to anyone not wearing a mask.
In the event an employee tests positive for COVID-19, it is recommended the business implement a 24-hour passive decontamination and follow CDC guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting.
Changes impacting restaurants include:
Servers are no longer required to wear gloves.
Indoor performances are now allowed (with the exception of musical vocalists).
In addition, hotels are now permitted to provide non-essential services and amenities (valets, ice machines, etc.).
First, the downtown Fine Arts Festival was moved from always-hot July to much more pleasurable late May. Then the pandemic pushed it back to fall.
Now the Westport Downtown Merchants Association has reluctantly announced its cancellation. The next festival — with hundreds of artists, plus music, food, kids’ activities and more — is set for Memorial Day weekend of 2021 (May 29 – 30.
But you can still enjoy this year’s show. Click here for links to over 175 juried fine artists who would have attended, and will be welcomed back next year.
A scene from last year’s Fine Arts Festival.
Back in 2017, “06880” ran a story on Townee. The new company produced authentic, Westport-inspired t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats and more.
This summer they’ve added hand-created tie-dye clothing. “It’s the perfect way to show town spirit and positivity,” say Nick Prior and Theo Vergakis. They’re rising juniors at Staples High School — and they’ll deliver your goods personally.
They also offer tie-dye workshops at small home camps in town. Kids pick their styles, then learn how to tie-dye. The cost is just $20.
For more information, click here or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Theo Vergakis, Nick Prior and Townee tie-dyed tees.
Last night, Westport Public Schools officials presented 3 options for reopening to the Board of Education.
Today at 5 p.m., Westport Magazine’s Dave Briggs interviews Staples High School principal Stafford Thomas, on Instagram Live. The former CNN, NBC Sports and Fox News anchor will ask about that topic, and other important issues.
Search for @westportmagazine on Instagram to hear the interview. Questions can be submitted live (@westportmagazine), or beforehand (@davebriggstv).
The other day, “06880” gave a shout-out to 2020 Connecticut Entrepreneur Award winners Sarah Deren of Experience Camps, Remarkable STEAM and Mark Mathias.
There’s another local honoree (with an asterisk).
FinTron invest placed first in the Venture (Pre-Revenue) category. Their office is on Franklin Street. But they moved from Fairfield in the beginning of March, so that town gets credit for them in the list of winners.
No problem. From here on, FinTron is ours.
Partly cloudy skies are predicted for this weekend. Temperatures will be in the 80s — well below last weekend’s sizzling weather.
No matter what the weather, Westport’s Parks & Recreation staff is ready to welcome beachgoers. They manage the crowds with efficiency and energy.
And smiles — even if you can’t see them, behind their masks!
The Westport Library Book Sale is not accepting any more donations this week. The donation shed is full. Next chance: next Thursday.
And finally … what better way to celebrate the end of another week than with this great put-on-a-smile-on-your-face song? One more reason to love Scotland!
The high school’s Class of 2020 was honored with decorated cars, signs, balloons, music, and an almost 1-on-1 ceremonial turning of the tassel. It was joyful, personal, meaningful and fun.
Of course, a few elements of a traditional graduation were missing: “Pomp and Circumstance,” speeches, and the chance for everyone to see all the graduates at once.
Yesterday — the day of the originally scheduled commencement — a complete video was released. It’s as close to a familiar graduation — say, 2019 — as possible. And it will live forever.
Former media instructor Jim Honeycutt once again worked his magic. He took each element, reimagined it, taped it, and made it — just like the Class of 2020 — both timeless and timely.
John Videler’s drone video sets the scene.
Drone footage from John Videler sets the “Pomp and Circumstance” scene. Staples Players president Sam Laskin serves as emcee. Principal Stafford Thomas delivers a special welcome.
Luke Rosenberg proves he’s not only a masterful choral director, but also a technological wizard. He weaves together remote performances from 40 singers, into a stunningly beautiful “Star-Spangled Banner.”
You wouldn’t know these 40 voices were all recorded separately.
Valedictorian Ben Spector and salutatorian Benji Schussheim speak about their — and their class’s — journey.
Valedictorian Ben Spector and salutatorian Benji Schussheim.
Then comes a slide show. All 437 graduates get 10 seconds each — with congratulatory messages from their families. Orchestra and band musical highlights from throughout the year play in the background, underscoring the many talented students in the school.
No graduation is complete without official certification (from Board of Education chair and “proud parent of a graduating senior Candice Savin), and tassel-turning (by Carly Dwyer and Ben Howard).
After closing remarks from principal Thomas, the video ends with the recessional, over Ryan Felner’s drone footage from last Friday’s parade.
Principal Stafford Thomas.
A list of senior awards is shown. The final shot is 2020 class photo.
“Class” is right. This year’s seniors have shown uncommon maturity, grace and poise, in the face of unexpected adversity. The graduation video is a fitting reminder of a great group.
But don’t take my word for it. Click here, and see for yourself!
Phase 1 is kayak and paddleboard rentals online. Tomorrow (Monday, June 1), those rentals are available online, and for walk-ins.
Wednesday (June 3) is the first day for sailboat and catamaran rentals. Online reservations are suggested; walk-ins are first-come, first-served.
Click here to reserve. NOTE: Renters must present a license or photo ID at the office.
It’s been quite a first year for Staples High School principal Stafford Thomas.
No one could have predicted what happened in March — or since then. But in addition to shepherding the school through distance learning, keeping the lines of communication open with a series of warm, informative videos, and doing thousands of other things that no one ever taught in his education classes, the popular principal hand-wrote congratulatory notes to graduating seniors.
All 433 of them.
It doesn’t make up for what the Class of 2020 missed during their final 3 months. But if anyone still keeps scrapbooks, a note like that should go right in front.
As restaurants throughout Westport reopen, Roly Poly is closing.
Yesterday, employees were wrapping up the final wraps. The longtime franchise on Saugatuck Avenue could not make it through the COVID crisis.
The Fine Arts Festival was supposed to be this weekend. It’s been postponed. The new dates are October 17-18.
But you can still see and buy beautiful paintings, sculptures and photos from the artists who would have lined Main Street today.
Click here to browse. Then mark your calendars for the live event this fall.
One more piece of proof that Westport is on its way to reopening fully:
Our self-important, really obnoxious entitled bad parkers are back!
Yesterday’s Roundup began with news of the rent reduction promised by local landlords Edward and Joan Hyde, to tenants like Westport Yarns.
Breno Donatti — owner of Winfield Street Coffee on Post Road West — quickly emailed, noting that his landlord, Alon Panovka, also agreed to waive April’s rent. He’ll discuss May when the time comes.
“Alon has been great to us in our 4 years here,” Breno says.
Winfield Deli closed March 17. He may even get credit for part of this month. Thanks, Alon! (Meanwhile, feel free to order gift cards to use when Winfield reopens!)
Some rules don’t change. This April 1 — as always — dogs are no longer allowed on Compo, Old Mill or Burying Hill beaches, or the Longshore golf course. Dogs are of course welcome at Winslow Park.
The Parks & Recreation Department also announces that because it’s uncertain when the beaches will fully open, beach emblem sales are postponed until further notice.
Parks & Rec reminds Westporters not to congregate at parks and athletic fields. “We encourage all to get outside and get some exercise, but please do not gather in groups,” says director Jen Fava.
Sorry, Fido. As of Wednesday, life will no longer include a day at the beach.
Originally, the Westport Public Schools planned a 2-week closure. As it becomes clear that the shutdown will last (probably much) longer, the district is adapting to online education.
For Staples High School students, that means more interaction with teachers, in more manageable blocks of time. It’s a new way of learning, and administrators, staff and students are figuring it out together.
Whether you’ve got kids in high school or not — or none at all — a video from principal Stafford Thomas is, well, instructive. It shows how Staples is adapting; it outlines the promises and challenges, and it’s a vivid illustration of the cascading effects the coronavirus is having on us all. Click below to view.
Real estate agencies often compete for listings and sales. But many came together this week, to help fill a huge need at Yale New Haven Hospital.
A doctor told Sally Bohling they needed Lysol wipes, gloves and shoe covers. The William Raveis realtor called her friends contacted Karen Scott and Mary Ellen Gallagher, of KMS Partners @ Compass.
They put out the word to the Westport realtor community. Quickly, literally thousands of contributions poured in.
The booties idea was particularly inspired. “We aren’t hosting open houses, and the winter weather is behind us. So offering the ones we’re not using was a no-brainer,” Karen says.
Connecticut small businesses and nonprofits impacted by the pandemic can apply for 1-year, no-interest loans of up to $75,000,
The Connecticut Recovery Bridge Loan Program will make $25 million available to state businesses and nonprofits with up to 100 employees. Loans are up to the lesser of either three months operating expenses and/or $75,000. Click here for details.
With sharply decreased train ridership, starting Monday (March 30) Westport Transit will replace commuter shuttles with an on-demand, door-to-platform minibus service. It will operate to and from any Westport location and the Saugatuck and Greens Farms stations.
Calls should be made the previous day before 5 p.m. (Saturday for Monday pickup) for morning commutes, and at least 45 minutes prior to pickup for the evening commute. The phone number is 203-299-5180.
Door-to-door services for seniors and residents with disabilities are unchanged.
It’s a small idea from Hallie and Maya Wofsy, but a great one: Put a red or pink heart on your door. The goal is to show support for all our amazing front-line healthcare workers.
Take a look on your walks through the neighborhood. The hearts are already there. And if you don’t have colored paper or markers, Maya will (very safely) drop one ready-made at your door. Email email@example.com for details.
And finally, when these 2 kids were quarantined in Italy, they decided to play a little Coldplay. On their violins. Their choice of a song — “Viva La Vida” — couldn’t be more perfect.
Someone’s doing great things in the Gorham Avenue/Evergreen neighborhood.
They’re distributing notes in residents’ mailboxes, along with colored paper. The notes ask residents to put the appropriate color in a street-facing window. Green indicates “all ok.” Red means “need supplies.” Yellow is for “elderly/living alone or isolated/mobility issues.”
The note promises that neighbors will monitor the signs, and act as needed. It also offers a phone number to call or text if supplies are needed. Residents can also call that number if they want to help others.
What a great idea — and easy to replicate, in any neighborhood! (Hat tip: Mark Mathias)
Westporter Stephanie Webster’s CTBites is always a great way to keep up with restaurants and bars all around the state. This week’s edition offers comprehensive coverage of places that are open for pickup and delivery throughout Connecticut. There’s also a story about chefs doing good things, and ways everyone else can help them and others.
Greens Farms Congregational Church worship, meetings and religious school are now held online.
But yesterday congregants gathered together — 6 feet apart, of course — at a drive-thru food drive for Inspirica in Stamford (where homeless families struggle without the usual supply of donated food and volunteers to help), and Pivot Ministries (a men’s recovery mission in Bridgeport). It’s social distance — and social support — at its best.
The Yale New Haven Health System needs disposable head covers and caps; disposable gowns, gloves and face masks; N95 respirator face masks; powered air purifying respirators; face shields and goggles; coveralls and scrubs; shoe covers; disinfection wipes and liquids, and general purpose hand cleaners.
All should be in original, unopened packages. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Include contact information so staff can respond.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Newman — a physician assistant at New York Presbyterian / Weill Cornell — is collecting face masks because of the critical shortages at all hospitals in the are, including hers.
She has already picked up hundreds in the area, and can pick up tens to hundreds more from doorsteps in the evenings. Email email@example.com. Anyone with access to larger quantities shoud contact firstname.lastname@example.org to ship them directly.
Elizabeth notes, “I don’t want to take supplies from local hospitals if they need them. If anyone has any to spare they can also try to donate to the local hospital or EMS station. If they don’t need them I’m happy to bring them into the city.
“Also if owners of spas, tattoo parlors, salons, etc. that are shutting down can spare theirs, I know Governor Cuomo is willing to purchase masks at a premium,which could help offset their business losses.”
Garelick & Herbs offers 20% off for any orders of in-kind donating to elderly, low-immune deficiency or in need neighbors. Contact them to help coordinate this; also contact if you are interested in helping in other ways: social distancing delivery, phoning those who are isolated, etc. Email Garelickandherbs@gmail.com or email@example.com; call or text 203-913-9737.
As students adjust to distance learning, Staples High School principal Stafford Thomas is a clear, calming presence.
This morning he offered his second video update. He discussed next steps for students and staff, AP tests, social distancing and more. You don’t have to be a high schooler or parent to appreciate today’s news. Click here, then scroll down under “Announcements” to March 23, and click on the video.
Former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb appeared yesterday on CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation.” He spoke “outside his Connecticut home” — which, as “06880” readers know, is in Westport.
Click below for the informative interview.
(Hat tip: Dennis Jackson)
As visitors to Aspetuck Land Trust’s 44 trailed preserves increase dramatically — particularly Trout Brook Valley — the non-profit reminds visitors to leave dogs at home. Unfortunately, they create too many opportunities for close human contact. In addition, Aspetuck will closely monitor all areas, to make sure there is proper social distancing. Click here for information on all the preserves.
Back to face masks.
Lea Kaner is the mother of former 2nd Selectman Avi Kaner and fellow Westporter Celia Offir. When the virus hit, over 1,300 employees in her family’s business — Morton Williams supermarkets — had no face masks.
Unpacking shipments, stocking shelves and checking out customers, those men and women are on the front lines. So Lea — an expert seamstress — stepped up.
Kaner and his wife Liz found pattern cut sheets and instructions on the internet. They drove to a store in Milford, and filled the car with fabric and ribbons. Then Lea went to work.
She’s still working almost non-stop to make sure every employee is protected. Plus, they’re the best looking face masks around.
In his first year as Staples principal, Stafford Thomas has earned high grades for his quick understanding of the school, his warm and upbeat manner, and his care and concern for all students.
When he was hired last summer, he never imagined one task would be overseeing distance learning.
Today — with schools closed at least through March 31 due to the coronavirus — the Westport district begins “distance learning.” It means different things for different grade levels.
There are bound to be questions. Administrators in the central office and each building have been communicating with students and parents about what it all means. It is still — as it is nationally — a work in progress.
Staples students have a better idea now though, after a video from their principal.
He begins — as he often does on the announcements — with shout-outs to students. Then he explains what distance learning is, and why it’s important. He ends with some tips on staying healthy (teenage style).
Click below to see how Westport’s high school students are beginning a difficult — but important — part of their educational journey.
(Hat tip to Staples media teacher Geno Heiter, who produced the video. It’s part of “70 North,” the high school’s great media platform. Click here for many other videos.)
Every year on Martin Luther King Day, I tell the story of the civil rights icon’s 1964 visit to Westport. I note that local artist Roe Halper presented King with 3 woodcarvings, representing the civil rights struggle. He hung them proudly in the front hallway of his Atlanta home.
The artwork — once believed lost — has been preserved. When King’s house opens as a National Park Service site, Halper’s carvings will be back in their prominent spot.
Roe Halper, with her “Birmingham Series.”
Another civil rights-era work by Halper already hangs in Westport. All you need to see it is to be sent to the principal’s office.
Shortly after being named Staples High School principal last year, Stafford Thomas learned that the piece was part of the Westport Public Art Collections.
The 5-foot tall wood carving was another work in Harper’s 1963 “Birmingham Series.”
Burt Chernow had selected it for the collection, when he began it decades ago. For many years it was displayed at Coleytown Middle School (Halper’s 2 children went there, when it was a junior high).
When CMS was closed due to mold, the carving was removed and refurbished. Thomas heard about it, and asked town arts curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz for more information.
She asked if he wanted it, to display in his office.
He calls it his favorite piece.
Stafford Thomas and Roe Halper, with the artist’s wood carving in his office.
The other day, Halper visited Thomas. She described the background of her work, and elaborated on the other carvings in the series.
When King visited Westport in 1964, Halper said, she was invited to Shabbat dinner with him at the home of Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein. She brought some of her work, inspired by the March on Washington several months earlier. She told King to choose whatever he wanted.
After the artist sent him the 3 wood carvings, Halper and her husband Chuck visited King and his wife Coretta at their Atlanta home. Coretta explained that the works could not hang separately, as was planned, in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference offices of King, Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young. She brought them together again, in her house.
Roe Halper presents woodcuts to Coretta Scott King. The civil rights leader’s wife autographed this photo “To the Halpers, with deep appreciation and warm personal regards.” The artwork was displayed in the Kings’ Atlanta home for many years.
Art has been Halper’s life work. She majored in art education at Skidmore College, and after moving to Westport in 1960 began drawing and working with wood. She worked in her basement studio while raising children, and was heavily influenced by events like the civil rights movement.
Halper did wood carvings until 1990, when the physical toll on her back became too great. Now 83, she teaches gifted high school students 3 hours a day, twice a week.
Chances are they won’t get sent to the principal. But if they’re in his office for a meeting — or any other reason — they’ll see their teacher’s work on his wall. Like all good art, it impresses and inspires him every day.
Everyone knows about “safe spaces”: the rooms in a school or college where students can discuss issues openly, free from epithets, putdowns or other attacks.
That’s important, of course. A new program at Staples High School aims to provide a special place to connect, feel comfortable and grow.
But “Connections” — the innovative, twice-weekly project that will keep small groups of students connected with staff members throughout their 4 years on campus — hopes to go one step further.
The goal is to create “brave spaces.” That’s where teenagers and teachers can do more than discuss bias incidents like swastikas or hurtful comments.
It’s where they can think critically about them, learn from them — and learn how to talk about them, openly and honestly and directly.
“Connections” helps students reflect on what it means to be a community member making a difference. It was in the works before Stafford Thomas was named principal, but he has embraced the concept and put the full weight of his position behind it.
Educators — even at Staples — have not always been trained in how to lead discussions of bias and hate. They may feel uncomfortable, and worry that students may feel uncomfortable too.
Marji Lipshez-Shapiro knows those feelings well. “It takes a lot for people to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, and uncomfortable with what can be too uncomfortable,” says the deputy director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Connecticut chapter.
She’s spent nearly 30 years running professional development workshops for teachers, through the ADL. For “Connections,” she designed a special one — much more targeted to the program, to Westport as a community, and to Staples as a school.
“Every school has bias incidents,” she notes. “Too often the district doesn’t want anyone to hear about them. They sweep them under the rug, and they become ‘lumpy carpets.'”
Swastikas and other symbols pop up in bathroom stalls. Racist, misogynistic and homophobic comments are made in hallways, cafeterias and before class.
The ADL program used case studies: actual examples from schools nationwide. They could happen here too.
“We want educators to have tools, to be proactive and reactive,” Lipshez-Shapiro says. “The ‘Connections’ discussions are about prevention and intervention. When there is an incident, we want everyone to learn from it. After all, this is school!”
Lauren Francese — the Westport Public Schools’ 6-12 social studies coordinator, who helped design the workshop — says that it will help all teachers talk about challenging topics, in the classroom as well as during “Connections.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s Connecticut director Steve Ginsburg (a Westport resident) and Marji Lipshez-Shapiro (3rd from right) join Staples High School principal Stafford Thomas (far right) for “brave spaces” training.
Lipshez-Shapiro agrees. What happens, she asks rhetorically, when a teacher overhears a boy tell a friend he’d take a girl to the prom “only if she puts a paper bag on her head”?
“When do you challenge that statement? When do you not say anything?” she says. “Silence is what does harm. But lots of people are afraid of saying the ‘wrong’ thing, or coming down too hard.”
The ADL workshop gave teachers tools to begin nuanced conversations. That way, Lifshez-Shapiro says, they can help students “not just stand up, be brave and say ‘Don’t say that,’ but go beyond.”
In the Staples session, she asked educators to think about their own favorite teachers. What qualities did they have?
And when they were in school themselves, she continued, how did you feel like you belonged? How did you feel when you did not belong?
She also asked teachers to share their own best practices. “These are gifted professionals,” she notes. “They’re already doing excellent things.”
“Every high school needs to do this,” Lipshez-Shapiro says.
Thomas — the new principal — agrees.
He calls the training “timely and especially helpful in preparing our teachers and ultimately our students in navigating brave conversations in a responsible and, most importantly, productive manner.
“It was extremely well received, based on the feedback data. I believe this training and continued assistance from the ADL in the future will go a long way to cultivate a caring and nurturing school community.” He echoed those sentiments at Back to School Night.
“Our teachers were really engaged and energized by these conversations,” Francese adds. “They’re the starting point for making Staples a safer — and braver — space.”
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