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Staples Principal John Dodig discusses high school in the 21st century

Published 1:04 am, Wednesday, January 20, 2010
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Not so long ago, high school students' backpacks were filled with notebooks, pencils and, perhaps, a calculator. Teens today, however, use laptop computers to take notes in class and iPods and "smart" phones to access a plethora of information.

Smart boards have replaced dry-erase and chalk boards in most school buildings. And research is conducted using online search engines, such as Google, rather than reference books found on library shelves.

Staples High School Principal John Dodig discussed in detail at the Y's Men weekly meeting how technology has helped to transform education. In a talk called: "What a 21st Century High School Looks Like," Dodig described many of the noteworthy programs offered at the Westport high school, which has garnered accolades among industry professionals.

Connecticut Magazine this year ranked Staples at the top of its list for top high schools in the state. In addition, Staples also was recognized by Business Week magazine as one of the nation's premier secondary schools.

Under Dodig's leadership, Westport's students have not only excelled, but they have become leaders among their peers in academics, athletics, the arts and in community service, said Jim Marpe as he introduced Dodig to the standing-room only crowd.

"If Staples is called the crown of Westport education, then John Dodig is considered the town's chief jeweler," Marpe said.

He also noted that Dodig is never found in his office. "His management style is to walk around and be among the students, in the cafeteria, everywhere," Marpe added.

An educator for 41 years, Dodig admits that he enjoys being with the young people. "I've always been interested in education," he said during his opening comments. "I love being surrounded by other people's teenagers, hundreds at a time."

From the start of the school day each morning, Dodig could be found in the main lobby of the high school, greeting most of the students by name. "Of course I don't know all 1,900 students' names, but I know each of their faces," he noted.

This was most likely not the case a generation or so ago when administrators worked from their corner offices and teachers stood in front of their classrooms to teach.

Dodig explained that one of his goals has been to incorporate critical thinking skills into every academic area.

Before students had easy access to iPods, cell phones and laptops -- which today are able to quickly spit out a slew of information on any given subject within seconds -- research projects were focused on obtaining answers to problems supplied by the teacher.

Dodig noted that for today's educators, "the information itself is no longer the end product. Once the students have that information, then the real problem-solving begins."

Staples students are taught how to not only "think outside of the box," but also to attack issues from a completely different and perhaps even unexpected perspective.

Using critical thinking skills, Staples students have repeatedly been successful in the Moody's Mega Math Challenge, a competition comprised of students from about 400 high schools.

Students are given the task of answering complex questions, such as last year's, "Will the Stimulus Act save the economy?"

Using numerical and logical equations, the young people are challenged to come up with a viable response and to back up their theories with concrete mathematical evidence.

This simple day-long exercise has been a valuable experience for, up until now, only a handful of Staples students. However, after learning about the benefits of the annual competition from Dodig, an anonymous benefactor recently donated $5,000 so that a similar contest could be offered to include more Westport students.

Dodig plans to roll out a competition based upon a question focusing on a need in the town. He said that nine teams comprised of five students each will be given a question pertaining to a local issue. "We will, hopefully, see the solution come to fruition in Westport," Dodig said.

Competitions such as the Moody's Math Challenge are "what drives our school," he explained. "We're here to learn but we're also interested in how the process takes place."

Dodig's personal and professional background is as diverse as Staples' student population. At the start of his career, Dodig taught for a year in Baghdad. He then spent a year hitchhiking throughout the Middle East.

Returning stateside, Dodig taught math on an urban campus that he described as, "the most notorious junior high school in New Haven."

After nine years, he assumed administrative positions in Madison, Cheshire and, ultimately, at the helm of Fairfield High School.

Dodig officially retired from this post and only agreed to takeover the reins at Staples as interim principal when the former administrator abruptly left.

Dodig enjoyed his work so much, though, that he asked to have his name put into the pool of potential principal candidates.

One of the hallmarks of Staples High School is that every student matters. "We focus on every single student at Staples," Dodig said. "We find out what their passion is and we strive to help them to grow."

For example, for those who are not interested in pursuing a traditional college preparatory curriculum, Staples offers culinary and technical education programs.

He gave a presentation showing students creating and testing a truss bridge during what used to be called "woodworking" class. ("I made a bowl and maybe a bird house in my woodworking class," Dodig smiled.) He told the Y's Men that the Staples students were required to first ascertain the difference between truss and suspension bridges. They then researched ways to test how much weight their individual bridge could handle.

Judging by the high number of Staples students accepted annually to Ivy League colleges and recognized by national organization for their outstanding scholarship, the Westport high school has stellar academic departments.

When alumni return, they inevitably say that they were "incredibly prepared" for college, Dodig added.

However, Dodig also acknowledged that creating the kind of learning environment necessary to meet young people's needs in the 21st century doesn't come cheaply. "I unabashedly admit to you that it's expensive," he said.

Thanking the taxpayers in town who commit to Westport's education each year, he described the town as a "well-educated community" filled with people who "put their money where their values are."

When asked by one of the Y's Men about how his experience as principal in the Fairfield high school differed from his time spent in Westport, Dodig cited the economic diversity of the two communities. "We have greater resources in Westport than we did in Fairfield," he explained. "Because of that, virtually everyone is successful in school here. It's the resources that you give us that truly make a difference."