It seemed like a dream, but Andrew Skarzynski finally found a way to gradually move his family to the quiet countryside of Vermont, by accepting the role as Rutland Intermediate School’s new principal.
“We have to focus on nurturing environments where students are comfortable taking risks,” Skarzynski said of the future of education. “And that they know they have a caring adult who is there for them every single day. ... If a child doesn’t feel safe, if a child doesn’t feel secure, connected to someone, their availability to learn is severely compromised.”
His new job is just under three hours away from West Hartford, Connecticut, where his family still lives and his wife serves as a high school science teacher. The couple began planning for the next phase of their lives — once the nest was empty — and their long-anticipated move to the Green Mountain State.
Once the kids are out, though, the plan is to relocate the entire Skarzynski clan northward.
“We love the state of Vermont, some of our best family memories are from up there vacationing, skiing, visiting,” Skarzynski said. “We said why not — let’s see if we can make the transition up here. It happened a lot sooner than we thought it would.”
Skarzynski previously served as a principal in the northwestern corner of Connecticut for two years, after more than a decade at the Capital Region Education Council, where he served as an assistant principal, a principal, a consultant and even helped open a school.
“My biggest worry in education is that we are sitting on the cusp of a tsunami of mental health challenges coming our way,” Skarzynski said of the educational current. “And those are all born out of a really challenging mix of life circumstances, of our current culture in terms of where we are and how we communicate with each other, the coarseness with which we talk to each other and the impact of social media, just pulling our attention away from conversations. ... We forget that people are impacted by this.”
In the age of the smartphone, Skarzynski said limiting screen time was crucial for parents to instill, substituting interactive stimuli — indoors and outside — even just to sit down and have conversation and connection.
“It changes the way kids interact with each other,” Skarzynski said of social media. “I do think there are benefits to technology. ... We need to make sure we are focusing on engagement. ... It’s a balancing act.”
Starting with the Skarzynski administration, all entrances to the RIS and RMS will flow through Keefe Gymnasium during normal school hours for school safety reasons, and visitors will need a photo ID, a visitor’s badge and an appointment if contact with students is required.
A new fifth-grade teacher, several para-educators, a special-education teacher and a professional to work in the therapy room at RIS are all plans in the works, along with the establishment of a relationship and community-building block at the beginning of every day, when classrooms, teachers and students can work on connecting with one another before they begin their studies.
“Rather than kids rushing off into class ... the first 45 minutes of the day will be specific, purposeful time around building community in the classrooms and working with resiliency training,” Skarzynski said. “How are we helping kids adjust and adapt to the things they might be going through?”
Growing up, Skarzynski got his educational feet wet as a swim coach, and spent time as a case manager in social services after he graduated from the University of Connecticut.
Skarzynski then received his master’s degree from the University of St. Joseph, before receiving his school administrative and superintendency licensing through Central Connecticut State University.
He began his classroom career as an English and language arts and social studies teacher for seventh- and eighth-graders before moving on to administration, and Skarzynski said he found himself quite at home in his new city from the get-go.
“Rutland’s community resembles a lot of the communities I’ve served,” Skarzynski said. “Smaller, tight-knit community ... the profile of the district really fit the profile of where I’m most comfortable working.”
After a panel discussion and a written introduction to the families and staff of Rutland City Public Schools, Skarzynski said he spent an entire day in the district alongside Superintendent Adam Taylor and Assistant Superintendent Rob Bliss, who gave him the grand tour of the building and officially introduced him to the glory of Hand-Carved by Ernie on Center Street.
“It was one of the more grueling interviews I’ve ever been on, but it was fantastic the whole time,” Skarzynski said. “They’re such supportive, caring, engaged, committed people.”
Skarzynski said, “(We) understand that kids aren’t perfect, and they make bad choices, which all children do. There (has to be) an adult there who still says, “I love you. I care for you. I’m here for you. I may not like what you did, but I’m still here for you.”
CASTLETON — As a part of Castleton’s new Content Lab, students are helping Green Mountain Water Environment Association (GMWEA) design a series of helpful pamphlets teaching Vermonters about how everything they touch, eventually, ends up in the water.
“Aluminum cleaners, any kind of polish, oven cleaner, hair dyes, chemicals, herbicides, weed killers ... antifreeze, auto transmission fluid ... (even) paint,” said Daniel Hecht, executive director of GMWEA. “Our portion is to educate Vermont citizens as to what not to put in their wastewater ... (so) I proposed a publication of four brochures, each brochure would tell each person what not to flush.”
A grant, which amounted to $10,000 from the EPA to the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission and the Lake Champlain Basin Program, would set up the distribution of free literature to 250 of Vermont’s towns, informing residents how to be more conscious of the things they toss out and what disasters they can turn into for municipal and private waste-water systems.
And the design contract went to Castleton University’s Content Lab, whose students designed, created and published the first round of brochures to be circulated around the state earlier this month, Hecht said.
“It’s a great way for them to develop their professional skills,” James Lambert, director of marketing and communications for Castleton University said of the Content Lab at Castleton. “It provides great opportunity for students to collaborate with local organizations (and gives them) valuable experience with real clients.”
After submitting some sketches of different materials for the brochure’s advice, students spent the second semester of 2019 and will spend the fall semester working on completing the brochures, many of which will be available at town clerks’ offices and departments of public works, if not sent directly to their homes, Hecht said.
The first volume of fliers is titled “Do Not Flush: Cloggers,” and lists more than a dozen different materials that are often flushed and end up clogging wastewater and septic systems, including “flushable” wipes, which never actually break down, Hecht said.
Also on the list, consumers will find tampons, facial tissues, cigarette butts, hair and dental floss, according to an online PDF of the brochure available on their website.
The brochure also explained the risk of clogs from FOGs — fats, oils and greases — and advises residents to wipe out their salad bowls with an absorbent and disposable towel before washing it.
The brochure also suggests helpful uses for bacon grease and deep-fry oil, including making soap, candles and even bird treats, rather than pouring the fat down the drain where it can create “fatbergs,” or massive mats, once it binds with “flushable” wipes, diapers, feminine hygeine products and other materials that do not ever break down in the wastewater system.
Hecht, who has a background in graphic design, said he could have tried creating a brochure himself, but creating more connections between Vermont’s college systems and companies that can provide references and perhaps a pathway forward serves to inform students of the opportunities open to them once they graduate.
In addition, Hecht said the students at Castleton had admirable design skills and knowledge of modern technologies to create an artistic and black-and-white-friendly design in case some town halls and clerks wanted to print out their own versions of the brochure, which will be free for residents to access.
Rutland will be in the spotlight this year at the Rutland Area NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner next month, as one of the three big awards will go to the city’s former mayor and another will go to students at Rutland High School.
The branch is one of two NAACP chapters in Vermont, and covers more than just Rutland or Rutland County, but this year’s winners were found close to home.
Tabitha Moore, president of the local chapter, said this year the Youth Courage in Action Award will go to the members of Rutland High School’s New Neighbors Club, primarily Jamison Evans, Alex and Noah White and Greta Solsaa, for their work in getting the Black Lives Matter flag raised at the school and for the curriculum that goes with it.
“We’re just so proud of them. That was incredibly difficult, and to be there with them in that moment was an honor for us, to be able to support them. It was so moving to see them work so hard to get that to happen,” she said.
The Courage in Action Award will be given to former Rutland City mayor Christopher Louras for his efforts to bring Syrian refugees to Rutland. Most of the refugees who would have come to the city never made it to Vermont because of changes at the federal level, but Louras said after he lost his re-election bid that he believed the issue was responsible for his loss to former alderman David Allaire.
“He knew going into the decision to try to bring refugees to Rutland — he knew that he was taking a big risk. He knew that he was putting his career on the line, and he did it anyway. That’s exactly what people do when they’re committed to justice and serving the people, not just here but around the globe, most in need of community,” Moore said.
Louras said he was “taken aback by the honor.”
“While I’m honored by the award, there really is — and I said this before — there’s really no courage in doing the right thing. In saying that, I don’t want to diminish the value and honor of the award, but it’s really those who educated me, from my perspective, specifically, former (Rutland City Police) Chief James Baker and Curtiss Reed,” he said.
Louras said Baker and Reed, who is the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, educated him in the importance of diversity, inclusion and compassion.
Louras said what makes him proudest about the refugee issue is the number of people who took up and carried through similar efforts, including the Rutland High School students who welcomed refugee families and arranged the raising of the Black Lives Matter flag.
The Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Neil and Mickie Richardson, of Randolph, who are lifetime members of the NAACP.
Both have been involved in issues of social justice since the 1960s, starting in Massachusetts before moving to Vermont.
In Randolph, they started the group Focus On Racial Equity, or FORE, out of St. John’s Episcopal Church, and supported the raising of the Black Lives Matter flag at Randolph Union High School in January.
Every branch is required to host a Freedom Fund dinner to celebrate the successes of the branch and “to honor and recognize the people in the community who are doing really great work for racial justice and the mission of the NAACP,” Moore said. The Rutland branch’s first Freedom Fund dinner was in 2018.
The dinner is a ticketed event, but Moore said the proceeds allow the NAACP chapter to offer other events at no cost to participants.
The Freedom Fund Dinner is set for 5:30 p.m. Aug. 16, starting at at the Franklin Conference room at the Howe Center. Keynote speaker Maria Stephan, a graduate of Mill River Union High School and the director of the program on nonviolent action at the U.S. Institute of Peace, is scheduled to start her presentation at 6:30 p.m.
A bio posted to the NAACP website said Stephan was previously the “lead foreign affairs officer in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, where she worked on both policy and operations for Afghanistan and Syria engagements.”
Tickets for the dinner can be purchased online at naacprutland.app.rsvpify.com.