Dodig transforms Staples
Published 1:02 am, Wednesday, January 27, 2010
When I was a high school student I recall that my education was considerably broadened by the opportunity to take courses in shop and woodworking, drama, drawing and painting, brick-laying, working in the print shop, making puppets, working with clay, conducting scientific experiments in a real laboratory -- even cooking and sewing.
While I have not excelled in any of these crafts (especially cooking), all of these experiences have turned out to be enlightening and useful. In point of fact, it was my experience in the print shop, where I learned how to set type and print the school newspaper that launched my career as a journalist ...
I bring this up at this time because of the recent publicity about Connecticut Magazine's ranking of Staples High School at the top of the list of high schools in the state, and because of Principal John Dodig's recent talk at the weekly Y's Men meeting, at which he briefed them on important changes for the better at Staples.
Dodig thanked the community for helping him raise the state-of-the-art technological breakthroughs. He described Westport as a "well-educated community" filled with residents "who put their money where their values are." That hits the nail on the head: we have the best education system because we are willing to pay for it.
There are those, of course, who object to the mushrooming size of the education budget, which accounts for the greatest segment of town spending every year, and therefore raises taxes. Invariably, however, they constitute a small minority.
Dodig has brought Staples smartly into the 21st century. For example, instead of shop and home economics as we traditionally think of them, Staples offers a course for students who can instead build a truss bridge that can take a heavy load, or learn to cook like a professional in two "state-of-the-art" commercial kitchens in the school.
There can be no doubt that Westporters should be proud of the academic and technology tools that Staples now offers its students. It's a given that we are rapidly moving into an economy where communications of all kinds will increasingly be even more electronic and online. Certainly, the newspaper business is a daily example of such a trend which, incidentally, brings challenging changes with it.
"We are here to understand how we learn and do something with what we learn in order to stay competitive in today's world," Dodig said. "How we access information has completely transformed education. We are wireless at Staples; kids carry phones and have laptops. Obtaining information is no longer a chore. The trick is now to find tasks and problems to help students learn."
In sum, under Dodig's leadership, the school he runs is far different than the Staples, say, of a decade ago. Today, there is an effort to make certain that every student's need is identified. The focus, Dodig said, is on individual development. In my view, that is priceless -- and the very essence of what en education should be.
I would guess with near certainty that the vast majority of parents want their children to graduate from Staples well equipped to be accepted by an Ivy League school and some of the other superior college in the nation. Why not? That is the school's track record and there is every reason to be proud of our educational system.
On top of this, counselors are on the lookout to give those students who may not well academically, the benefit of placing them in smaller class sizes, and extra guidance in learning how to do what they do best. There was a recent example of two students who learned to make fountain pens on lathes in school and have since become online entrepreneurs as a result of setting up shop, literally, in their garages.
That is the kind of progressive approach I like to see at work. In fact, there is even room for students who may not excel in academics and, instead, want to make a living by using their hands. I believe there remains a need for learning such skills. Staples counselors, I am told, are open to guiding such youngsters to other nearby schools where they can excel in such crafts.
Unfortunately, I would say many Westporters may thumb their noses on such career paths as "blue collar" and therefore undesirable for their kids.
If Staples is, indeed, to meet the needs of every individual student, there should be room for courses that enable them to become craftsmen and craftswomen, and who even work outdoors. Go out West and see what the schools are teaching there -- farming, animal husbandry, building and using tractors and many other big machines not usually linked to education in the East.
During these past 42 years that I have lived in Westport, I find it curious that whenever I have needed to turn to an electrician, a carpenter, a house painter, a tree expert, a mechanic, a plumber, a landscape designer, a roofer, a gutter specialist, bricklayer, a chimney sweeper -- anyone who works with their hands as well as their heads, I invariably have been calling the same people or, if they have retired, their sons and daughters, who have learned their trades, and carry on the businesses for them. We are indebted to them for their generations-old skills and knowledge of how things work and can be repaired.
That is the one missing piece of our education puzzle. I suggest we meet the needs of those young people among us who want to learn a craft or a trade, and hold them in equal esteem as those who graduate cum laude from Harvard B-School and make a million bucks on Wall Street with Goldman Sachs.
Fortunately, Dodig is catering to the individual needs and desires of the kids themselves. That is no easy task in a town where many parents often play a well-meaning but heavy-handed role in trying to influence their children's decisions.
I congratulate Dodig for his innovative leadership, which is showing the way for every student to live up to his or her God-given potential.