It’s been a while since we saw the heavy rains and heard the thunder we got this weekend.
Late this afternoon, storm clouds rolled in …
… and after the much-needed downpour, the skies cleared. Then we saw this.
It’s been a while since we saw the heavy rains and heard the thunder we got this weekend.
Late this afternoon, storm clouds rolled in …
… and after the much-needed downpour, the skies cleared. Then we saw this.
The weather was all over the place today: rain, sun, cold, warm. Jennifer Kobetitsch captured these clouds over Staples High School, just a couple of hours apart.
Hey, at least it didn’t snow!
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.)
Stafford Thomas’ life is filled with intriguing twists and turns.
But if Stanford University had not lost his grad school application, he might never have ended up at Brown — and gone into education.
And he undoubtedly would not have landed in Westport, where he is just settling in as Staples High School’s new principal.
Thomas spoke easily and at length the other day about the journey that brought him from St. Croix to North Avenue. He’s got plenty of time to figure out where he’ll take Staples — he’s just starting to meet with administrators and staff members, and students don’t return until late August — but much of what he’s done in his life had led to this point.
Even if he didn’t realize it as it happened.
Thomas’ mother taught reading in the Virgin Islands, through the Vista national service program. That’s where she met his father, a native of Dominica who ran a driving school. (“I got behind the wheel of a car when I was 5,” Thomas laughs. “And alone at 8.”)
His mother moved back to the States to teach in a private school. Thomas spent his tween and teen years in Manhattan, Queens and Long Island.
Georgetown University wanted him for football. But he was used to getting up at 3:30 a.m. to work construction, so he switched to crew (and early morning rowing practices) there.
After a study abroad year in Florence, Thomas interned on Capitol Hill for the non-voting congressional representative from the US Virgin Islands.
Many Georgetown grads were going into consulting. Thomas did not see himself on that path. His mother — a career teacher — advised him not to go into education. He applied to Stanford’s graduate school for public policy. But he also applied to Brown’s Master of Arts in Teaching program.
Stanford misplaced his forms. So 2 weeks after graduation, Thomas was in Providence. Part of his coursework included teaching and coaching basketball at Lincoln School, a private institution for girls.
That Brown degree led to a job at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York. The staff was young, and he was mentored well.
The next steps in Thomas’ professional development included a dual program at Boston College. He took law classes during the day, and studied educational leadership at night. Highlights included studying the achievement gap in Brookline public schools, a practicum with the principal of a K-8 Catholic school, and a stint at a Shanghai teachers college.
“I was busy,” Thomas says with understatement.
His new degrees led to a position as associate director of policy for Providence mayor (now Rhode Island congressman) David Cicciline. A chance meeting there led to an offer to work with a renowned principal at Barrington Middle School.
Thomas was all of 26 years old.
He learned leadership skills there, and at 30 was handed more responsibilities as an administrator at Mystic Middle School. He worked with talented department heads, and helped start unified arts and sports programs.
Eight years ago, Hillcrest Middle School in Trumbull hired Thomas as principal.
This year, the Connecticut Association of Schools honored it as Middle School of the Year. The award noted that students, faculty, administrators and parents combined to create a community known for innovative teaching strategies, after-school programs and high academic achievement.
Middle school, Thomas notes, is often a difficult time for tweens and young teenagers. His goal was to make the school comfortable (“like a family”) for students, staff and parents. He made sure that staff members went beyond simply knowing students. “Connections are so important,” he says. “It’s all about communication and openness.”
Thomas brings those experiences — as a team leader, communicator and innovator — to Staples. “I can’t imagine a better position in secondary school administration anywhere,” he says.
His new school is esteemed for its academic, art, athletic and extracurricular achievements. But pressures are strong. With students spending their final 4 years there (and at home) before heading into the real world, there’s plenty of emotion and uncertainty. Thomas is mindful of the need to make high school a comfortable, welcoming place for all.
“This is a home away from home, for students and staff,” he says. “We can’t control everything. But we can control what goes on here. We can do all we can to make this a positive, happy time.”
He’ll spend this summer meeting with administrators, staff and community members. He’ll ask what works for them, what’s needed, and how he can support them.
(He’ll also spend time with his wife — a kindergarten teacher in Trumbull — and 3 1/2-year-old son. He’s an avid tennis player, and just stopped playing softball.)
“The field of education is about people,” Thomas says. “Communication and transparency are big components of dealing with people. From there, you get to a position of trust.
“Everyone may not agree with every decision. But people need to know how a decision was made. That’s worked well for me in the past.”
He’s been in Westport just a few days. But he knows the town’s expectations are high. “People here want the best for everything — including education. They support the budget, the programs, the facilities. We owe it to them to give them the best.”
Everyone at Staples should have high expectations too, he says. “I’m glad that’s where we are. We should be on the cutting edge. I look forward to all the support and passion. People are very positive.”
Stafford Thomas is too.
And in August, the Staples community will be positively excited to welcome their principal to his new home.
Wow — last week’s Photo Challenge was harder than I thought.
The image itself was obvious: an aerial photo of Staples High School, in its autumnal glory. (Click here for the great shot.)
The challenge was: Where in Westport can you see the actual photograph?
There were plenty of incorrect guesses: Westport Library, the Senior Center, the Board of Education office, Rolnick Observatory, a charging station (!), even Staples itself.
Here’s the correct answer: It hangs in Town Hall — on the main floor, around the first corner to the right as you walk in the front door. To be precise: near the tree warden and Conservation Commission’s office.
It’s just part of a remarkable series of aerial photos, all taken by Larry Untermeyer a few years ago. They provide a great, comprehensive, beautiful bird’s-eye view of our town.
Congratulations Matt Murray, Tammy Barry, Patti Brill, Wanda Tedesco, Bruce Salvo and Andrew Colabella. You must spend a lot of time at Town Hall.
The rest of you: Go see the photos for yourselves!
Now it’s “time” for this week’s Photo Challenge. If you know where in Westport you’d see this, click “Comments” below.
Staples High School is almost 135 years old. The 3-story building — the latest incarnation — was dedicated in 2005. It’s already a teenager.
It replaced a low-slung, 1-story school that was completed in 1981. And that replaced, in turn, the original North Avenue Staples, which opened in 1958 when the high school moved from Riverside Avenue. (That building is now Saugatuck Elementary.)
That 1958 school was actually 8 separate buildings — including a stand-alone auditorium — connected by outdoor walkways. It was a dramatic architectural departure for an educational institution. It was airy, fresh — and controversial.
On January 1, 1959, the Westport Town Crier published a special insert, filled with news stories and photos of the new high school. One piece offered architecture firm Sherwood, Mills & Smith’s interpretation of their work.
Lester Smith described site conditions, educational programs, the need for future expansion, ease of supervision, and the desire to create a “warm, intimate environment scaled to the physical realities of adolescence” as driving forces behind the design.
But he did not say where the inspiration came from.
Ever since the 1950s, Westporters have talked about that school’s “California-style” architecture — and derided it as inappropriate for New England weather.
It turns out the inspiration may actually have come from … Michigan.
Alert “06880” reader and 1971 Staples graduate Fred Cantor offers the inside story below.
While January 2019 will be the 60th anniversary of the formal dedication of the first North Avenue campus, February marks 60 years since the opening of Chelsea (Michigan) High School. How did a school that opened after Staples perhaps serve as its inspiration?
The story begins with science teacher Ken Johnson, who taught at Staples in the 1950s and ’60s. In the mid-50s he attended a conference in the Midwest. Among the topics: effective school design. Materials included a description of a school to be built in Michigan. It would feature 1-story buildings, connected by covered walkways.
Back in Westport, Johnson excitedly discussed the plans with Staples principal Stan Lorenzen. Both men saw the value in keeping students on the move between classroom buildings.
According to Johnson, teachers were having a tough time monitoring students as they congregated in hallways and stairwells at the traditionally built Riverside Avenue school. Keeping students moving between classes meant they always had somewhere to go.
Providing a separate building for each department — English, social studies, science, foreign language, etc. — also made sense.
The need for future expansion was important too. Adding space without knocking down walls was one more attraction. In fact, an addition was constructed just 4 years after the original building opened.
Those same elements were considered in the plans for Chelsea High School.
But why might a yet-to-be-constructed school in a small Michigan town even be discussed at the conference Ken Johnson attended?
Because it was designed by prominent modernist architect Minoru Yamasaki. Today, he is best remembered for his design of New York’s World Trade Center.
He was already famous for his 1956 futuristic design of the St. Louis airport terminal. In 1957, his novel plans for Chelsea High were part of an article in Architectural Forum magazine.
Plans for an 8-building school were announced in Westport in January 1956. Political and financial issues delayed official approval by a full year, however. A complete redesign followed — still with 8 separate buildings. Construction finally began in June.
The new Staples High School opened 17 months later. Thanks, in part — perhaps — to a world-famous architect in Michigan.
(Hat tips: former Staples teacher Ken Johnson and his daughter Kelley for their background information. For more on Yamasaki’s plans for Chelsea High School, click here.)
Two months after mold forced the closing of Coleytown Middle School — sending 6th and 7th graders to Bedford Middle, and 8th graders to Staples High School — administrators, town officials and the Board of Education is working hard to find a temporary solution. The Board of Ed says:
Our school district is undergoing an unprecedented situation. Seven weeks ago we voted to move students out of Coleytown Middle School. The Board acted quickly to hire both the architect and industrial hygienist to provide 3rd-party evaluations of the condition of the building.
We are sending this communication to the community to let you know what actions are being taken by the Board to address this situation in both the short- and long-term.
Last Monday, we heard a report from KG+D Architects about their assessment of Coleytown Middle School. KG+D offered very preliminary cost estimates of 3 options to remediate or rebuild Coleytown Middle School, ranging from $25 to $70 million. The report is available for viewing at: http://bit.ly/KGD-CMSReport-2018-11-05.
The Board of Education also authorized the creation of an ad hoc townwide committee to advise and make recommendations to the Board on the short- and long-term needs of our district’s educational and physical facilities. Our town has precedent for these committees and we are moving expeditiously to activate these. People willing to serve on this committee can send an email expressing their interest to Mark Mathias (email@example.com).
Ultimately these decisions lie with the Board, but we are soliciting community input in order to inform our decision-making.
So, what’s happening next?
First, on Thursday (November 15, Bedford Middle School, 7:30 p.m.), an open meeting will be held. The public can hear from and ask questions of Kris Szabo, Dr. Adam Rosen and James D’Amico (Coleytown, Bedford and Staples principals) about progress at Bedford and Staples. District administrators and members of the Board of Education will also be present.
Second, no later than Monday, November 19, we will receive the report from the industrial hygienist on their review and recommendations on Coleytown Middle School.
Third, we are currently constituting the ad hoc townwide committee that will include stakeholders from our town. Dates for the ad hoc committee-related and community events include:
The challenges our town has faced this academic year are substantial. Closing a school during the school year is not a decision that we take lightly. The situation has affected everyone in our schools, and is a test of our ability to handle disruption. Through years of building top teams of teachers, staff and administrators, we are confident in our teachers, staff and administrators.
It’s also clear that this year is different for everyone involved with our education system. This is not the year that anyone planned. Some people have been affected more than others. We have been and continue to work to address everyone’s needs.
Most importantly, we have focused on the safety of our students, faculty and staff and our continuing efforts to provide the top notch education for which Westport is known.
More updates will be coming from Dr. Palmer and the Board of Education as we work through this together.
Finally, we appreciate the feedback we have received from the community. It is your support, varied perspectives and specific insights that help us make decisions that will affect us now and for years to come. Board members’ individual contact information can be found by clicking here. Alternatively, the entire Board can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Videos of our public meetings can be viewed by clicking here.
This week’s edition of “Unsung Heroes” comes courtesy of several Coleytown Middle School parents. They do not want to be named, because they say they speak for many families. They write:
Two weeks ago the administrators, teachers, paras, nurses, custodians, counselors, food service employees and secretaries at Coleytown Middle School began to deal with a crisis. Staff and students reported illnesses, leading to a temporary closing of the school. It quickly morphed into a relocation.
Change can be challenging. But in the face of great change the adults at CMS have shown tremendous flexibility, leadership, and support for the children and families of the Coleytown community.
As Westport superintendent of schools Dr. Colleen Palmer recently said, “A school is not just the building. A school is the staff. A school is the counselors, the administrators. It’s all the caring adults.”
CMS families sent our children off to different schools — Bedford Middle for 6th and 7th graders, Staples High School for 8th graders. Knowing they were heading to the caring adults they have come to know calmed nerves.
Knowing they were heading to caring communities eased minds too. Hearing that the world language teachers at SHS moved classrooms, that the BMS nurses and secretaries made space for the CMS nurses and secretaries proved that, at the end of the day, we are Westport Public Schools. Separate buildings may divide us physically, but not in spirit.
Parents and students alike wonder about extra-curricular activities. There is great optimism that they will continue. CMS principal Kris Szabo said that clubs and activity advisers will communicate with families and students regarding schedules and locations.
Coleytown Company’s production of “The Lion King” had already begun meeting. They were entering auditions and rehearsals when the shutdown and move were announced.
Director Ben Frimmer and company manager Sarah Webster wasted no time getting things up and running after the move. The production is scheduled to open as planned. “I think it’s important to try to provide the students in our community as much normalcy as possible in light of the upheaval they’re going through,” Mr. Frimmer said.
The crackerjack team of custodians, led by Joe DiPalma, has been spread out, still caring for CMS while assisting at BMS and SHS. Their dedication and busy-ness makes it hard to pin them down for a photo, but families are singing their praises for their dedication to the community.
School is about learning — and one of the things we are all learning is resilience. To handle adversity and the unexpected with grace and without compromise is one of the most valuable skills a person can have in life. The adults of Coleytown Middle School have always modeled these skills for our children, but never more so than now.
This modeling is evident in high school students asking 8th graders they know how things are going. At BMS, students look out for the “new” kids in their hallways, pointing the way to classrooms when needed.
People in town have begun referring to the BMS building as Westport Middle School, and the 8th grade wing at Staples as “The Academy.” Whatever the future holds, we are thankful to all — especially to all the Coleytown Middle School staff. They have not skipped a beat.
Honorable mentions are in order for the caring adults at Bedford and Staples who have opened their doors and spaces to Coleytown Middle School, the bus drivers who shepherd our kids to their new spaces, and the myriad others behind the scenes who may have escaped mention here — but who care no less for our children and their ability to learn in a safe, supportive environment.
And — in the aftermath of last night’s powerful near-tornado storm — here is a Bonus Unsung Hero story. It comes courtesy of Brian and Lisa Power:
I’d like to nominate Alex Ducruet as an Unsung Hero this week. Last night during the severe rainstorm, my car stalled in a flooded area a half mile from our home.
As my husband and I tried to quickly figure out the best thing to do, we received a knock on our car window from a neighbor, Alex Ducruet. We had never met Alex, but he quickly became our hero!
He not only offered to help, but did so gladly. He went above and beyond by helping my husband push our car the half mile up a hill to our home. My husband said this was one of the most physically grueling things he’s ever done (and he recently finished his first Ironman Race!). He said there was no way he could have done this without Alex’s help.
We were so grateful for Alex’s assistance in our time of need, and couldn’t thank him enough. His response to us was simple: “I’m a neighbor. This is what we do.”
When my husband and I insisted we wanted to do something to show our gratitude, his only request was that we spread the word about his business. So: When your windows need washing, please contact Alex Ducruet at Gold Coast Window Washers. No doubt Alex will go above and beyond for you — just like he did for us.
A thousand thanks to Alex Ducruet for being our hero!
Today could have been tough. With their building closed due to possible mold issues, Coleytown Middle School 6th and 7th graders moved to Bedford Middle School. Eighth graders headed to Staples High. No one knew what to expect.
The day went great. Staff adapted. Students smiled. There were warm welcomes all around.
And it started even before the Coleytown youngsters entered their new schools. This sign outside Bedford said it all.
There is life after high school.
The annual Retired Staples Golf Tournament was held recently at Newtown Country Club. For decades, they could not dream of getting on the course on a lovely September afternoon. Now it’s no problem.
This year’s champion is Gerry Kuroghlian. However, his scorecard is still being examined by the rules committee.
Can you identify all these legendary educators? Answers below.
(Left to right: Pete Van Hagen, Bill Walsh, Gerry Kuroghlian, Jim Wheeler, Ed Bludnicki, Tom Owen, Bruce McFadden, Bill Brookes)