While the first day of the 2021-22 school year for students is today, the teachers and staff of Wilton Public Schools kicked off their return a bit earlier, at Convocation last Wednesday, Aug. 25.

This year, the several-hundred strong staff assembled outside in Veterans Memorial Stadium, rather than inside at the Clune Auditorium, as a concession to COVID-19 protocols. However, Superintendent Kevin Smith looked for the positive, acknowledging it as the first time the entire faculty has been together in-person since August of 2019, and calling it “tremendous.”

“This event is a great example of what I hope that we can accomplish this year. Our goal is to make this year feel as close to normal as we can get. So, we’re together, but we’re outside in the stadium. Being together feels more normal, but with a modification — I think that is how we try to operate,” he told them.

Another bright spot was how literally bright it was. Being outside on a very sunny, very hot summer day was both uplifting yet almost heatstroke inducing, so Smith tried to keep the event to under 30 minutes.

He also set the tone with t-shirts handed out to teachers that were branded with a Superman-like logo, and a Wilton ‘W’ in place of the ‘S’, each in a different shade of blue depending on which school the individual represented — baby blue for Miller-Driscoll, navy blue for Cider Mill, greyish-blue for Middlebrook, and Carolina blue for Wilton High School, and white with navy writing for Central Office administrators. The back of the shirt was emblazoned with the line, “I teach in Wilton. What’s your superpower?”

Smith also accomodated the event to the setting, asking Franey Donovan, who has announced games for more than 25 years as the “Voice of Wilton Sports,” to announce the new teachers as if they were players entering the field. Donovan, whose grown children and now grandchildren have attended Wilton schools, added his own sweet, personal touch as he wished the teachers a great year.

“Congratulations and best wishes to all of our team members! You’re the best and the entire Wilton community appreciates everything you are doing for our children and grandchildren!”

Smith thanked several groups and individuals, including the Board of Education members; his assistant Lucille DeNovio and the Central Office staff; theater manager, Christian Planton; his summer intern, WHS 2020 valedictorian, Rishabh Raniwala; and the administrative assistants and office staff from each of the school buildings.

Notably, he called the district’s custodians to the podium for recognition, and he thanked them for “work[ing] tirelessly to ensure that our school buildings are ready to greet you when you return. This year was no different, except that they also had to unpack and return all of the materials and furniture that we stored last year. Hopefully, your classrooms are looking and feeling more normal than a year ago.”

As is tradition for convocation, Smith announced his “212-Degree Awards,” in recognition of extraordinary staff who have made the extra degree of effort within the district through their work. He explained the significance of the award title:  “At 211 degrees, water is hot. At 212 degrees it boils and makes steam. That steam can power locomotives.”

The first award was given to Mark Esposito, who Smith said was a “colleague [who] has been laboring above the ceiling tiles for the last 18 and a half years, quietly making sure that our buildings’ HVAC units perform optimally. This past year, COVID-19 required that these machines run at maximum output while accounting for thicker filters and balancing fresh air flow with the need for air conditioning. It doesn’t matter the time of day, the mechanical issue presented, Mark Esposito shows up, never complains and gets the job done.”

Smith then turned to the crowd, telling them that the next awards were a bit different because he was recognizing them all for the work they did last year adjusting to teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. “You didn’t go just one extra degree, you want many, and consequently powered our school system.”

“Last year, you were asked to develop and implement a completely new way of teaching. You were asked to learn new instructional models — hybrid and remote; you were asked to learn new tools — Zoom, Schoology, Padlet, Kami, nearpod, screencastify, voicethread, wakelet, to just name a few of the dozens and dozens you utilized last year; you were asked to be the frontline for your students, to welcome them, reassure them, comfort and support them. You did all of this, all while also experiencing the same fear and uncertainty that pervaded the environment while we navigated the school year. You did all these things, but you also came together, worked as a team and kept each other buoyed while keeping your students engaged. You committed untold numbers of hours not only learning and preparing, but also supporting your students, morning, noon and night. You are superheroes. You did go above and beyond. Teaching is your superpower. For that, we are all, this entire community, grateful to you for your presence, perseverance and willingness to keep showing up,” he said, before presenting award placques to each of the building principals.

Smith laid out several broad goals for the year, most prominently working to ensure the health and safety of all Wilton students and staff, through mitigation measures, high vaccination percentages, and established protocols.

He also acknowledged the goal of addressing the unfinished learning due to the pandemic.

“We know from you and from the learning data we have that some things weren’t taught, some standards weren’t addressed. That’s ok. This year a chunk of our professional learning is going to address a framework referred to as accelerating learning. There are several components to this framework and I suspect none of them are actually new learning for us – rather, it’s a deepening of learning and making connections between strategies. Our desire is to address unfinished learning, close achievement gaps and help students maximize their academic success,” Smith said.

Finally, Smith introduced an unexpected keynote speaker — fifth grade student Elyse Pencu who currently serves as “Ms. President U.S.” Smith also called up several of Elyse’s teachers, who he said were “superheroes [who] have all in their own way, helped form and grow this impressive young lady.”

We’re including Elyse’s speech, both because it was so impressively motivational but also because it’s almost hard to believe that she’s only 10 years old. It’s worth a read, to know the message Wilton’s teachers will carry with them this school year. As she told them, “To do great things, we need great teachers, we need great mentors. We need you.”

Hi! My name is Elyse Pencu and I’m entering 5th grade at Cider Mill.

I never thought I’d be standing here today in front of all of you, at the age of 10, with the eyes of every teacher and staff member in the entire school district staring back at me. In fact, I think I might have had a dream like this once. Or…..maybe it was a nightmare? I can’t remember.

But truly, it’s such an honor to be given this opportunity. You are not just teachers, you are mentors, you are heroes, you inspire and motivate. Actually, each of you are the reason why most families in our community chose to move to Wilton. When I asked my parents why we moved to Wilton, they quickly replied, “the schools,” and this is a typical answer you hear around town. But it’s not because of the buildings — it’s because of you, the teachers inside of them. It’s because not only do you teach your students, you spend time to listen to us, encourage us, and celebrate us.

I have accomplished many things in the short 10 years that I’ve been alive. One of my recent accomplishments, which is what has brought me here to you today, was participating in the Ms. President U.S. program, which teaches girls all about local, state, and national government and encourages girls to participate in a campaign at the end of the program. My platform was about littering — how we can stop it and ways to help clean up our community. I was so proud to win and become Ms. President U.S. of Wilton.

But I have to admit, I’ve had a lot of help along the way. To do great things, we need great teachers, we need great mentors. We need you.

After winning Ms. President U.S. of Wilton, I wanted to keep my campaign promise of organizing town clean-ups. I approached Dr. [Jen] Falcone to pitch an idea of a school-wide contest to pick up litter. Dr. Falcone was immediately supportive in making my vision happen and the school’s Zero Waste Committee also stepped up to support me by sponsoring a pizza party for the winning class. Even the town stepped in, allowing me to work directly with the Conservation Commission to organize a town-wide clean-up that had been previously cancelled due to COVID restrictions.

Last year, another one of my accomplishments was starting a pen-pal friendship with a veteran who was from Wilton, but now lives in Missouri. I looked forward to receiving his letters and photos and I know that when I mailed my letters and photos, it gave him something to look forward to also. My family was very proud of me for that and I was proud of myself, but I know that if it weren’t for my teacher, Ms. Levenherz, who gave me the idea and encouraged me, it never would have happened.

In every accomplishment of every student, one of you is behind it. And your impact extends far beyond just the school year.

One example of this is my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Sullivan. During my first piano recital, when I was in second grade, there she was — my teacher from two years before — in the audience, cheering me on.

Your impact also extends beyond just the students who are in your classroom. An example of that is my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Lovelace. I told her how proud I was of my sister, who was then in fifth grade, because she wrote and published her own fantasy novel. Upon hearing that, Mrs. Lovelace invited Ashley into our classroom to read some chapters of her book to our class. By doing that, not only did she inspire the kids in my class that doing something like publishing your own book is possible, but she made Ashley feel special and encouraged her to continue writing.

I’d like to share a quote from someone who was before my time, but I’m pretty sure you have heard of him — Mr. Rogers. He once said: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘it’s not my child,’ ‘not my community,’ ‘not my world,’ ‘not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”

You all are my heroes. In fact, when I was little, whenever someone asked what do you want to be when you grow up, I would always respond: “a teacher.” You could say that it runs in my blood, as both of my grandmothers were teachers — one even taught at Middlebrook. They are role models for me, but they weren’t the only reason I wanted to teach. I had all of you to look up to. You are my role models. The support I’ve received from my teachers and my community has gotten me to where I am today. And I know that it will continue to help me as I get older.

Last year tested all of us — you as teachers and us kids as students. There were some tough times — whether it was due to technology issues, having to get used to masks all day, or just missing the ability to be less than 6 feet apart from each other. But despite the challenges, or maybe because of the challenges, you continued to motivate and inspire us. We’ve experienced a lot of changes because of COVID, but having our teachers as role models is something that we as students know will never change.

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