Greens Farms Academy is a PreK-12, coed school in Westport, CT

Rising Up Together

From the winter 2021 issue of GFA Magazine:

Since Sept. 1, 2020, on any given day a student will see: the maintenance crew perpetually arranging (and rearranging) tents, desks, and chairs; a member of the Advancement team directing traffic and helping Lower Schoolers safely get in and out of their cars; an administrative assistant taking temperatures; the division heads and Mr. Whelan (with his bullhorn and boombox) outside greeting and dismissing students; a staff member proctoring class; a P.E. teacher distributing lunches; coaches monitoring study halls and recess or leading advisory; faculty — on campus and at home — making extraordinary connections in completely new ways. The means by which every member of the GFA community has extended his or her everyday roles to keep everyone together has proved to be varied and boundless. It restores optimism and confidence amid trying times.

There is no question that this year is one for the history books. The anxiety brought on by an unprecedented pandemic had the potential to bring the school year to a halt before it even began. Instead, every student, faculty and staff member, administrator, and GFA family united with a goal of moving forward together. Along the way, new partnerships were formed, unknown talents emerged, the campus was transformed, and innovation became the new normal.

Ray Weaver, Director of Planning and Engineering, has been at the helm of the Facilities and Grounds teams responsible for the campus reformation. Their tasks have included — among many, many other projects — creating classrooms out of squash courts and theaters; devising traffic routes inside and outside; overhauling filtration and ventilation systems to help prevent the spread of airborne pathogens; erecting tents (and later devising how to heat them); and setting up signs, sinks, and sanitation stations throughout the buildings. Weaver’s to-do list never ends, and yet he is most proud of the community’s continued poise.

 “What surprised me the most was how much patience everyone has exuded for the situation and each other,” he said. “The changes this year are all so overwhelming, but the faculty, staff, students, and families have all had the patience to work together to change, evolve, and make it better each day.”

As with any sudden change, this rapid metamorphosis had the potential to flop. Instead, the opposite happened. Heading into the new year, the school did not have to close its doors at all, infections were minimal, and the community became fluent in transitioning from in-person attendance to at-home Zooming when necessary.

“When Mr. Whelan communicated the commitment for every student to have the chance to be on-site, at school every day, no school in the region or even the state had identified such high standards. The idea of seeing, hearing, speaking and interacting with any one of your teachers or peer students each day is so important to the mission at GFA,” said Weaver.

Assistant to the Head of School Gail Gibb has been at GFA for 17 years and attested she can’t remember a time when the school has pooled its vast resources in such a meaningful way. In addition to her myriad duties supporting Head of School Bob Whelan, Gibb takes temperatures each morning for the students and faculty who filter through the front door.

“I’m proud to be contributing to the ultimate goal of keeping everyone safe,” she said with a twinkle in her eye and a smile behind her mask.

Stokes Carrigan, Director of Annual Giving, would normally spend his days meeting with GFA families, garnering additional financial support for the school’s annual expenses. He still does that, but this year he is also outside every morning and afternoon — in every kind of weather — directing pick-up and drop-off traffic alongside other faculty and staff members.

“No matter what your normal role is, you’ve found yourself doing things now that you never expected,” he commented. “I’m proud of my community and my colleagues who have shown an unrelenting capacity to give of themselves whenever they’re asked and for whatever is needed.”

The “classroom” experience has been challenging for teachers and students alike while they navigate the hybrid learning model together. Teachers never know who will be attending class in person or who will be Zooming in from home. This makes a big difference in whether a class can go outside or facilitate other activities, so flexibility with lesson plans has been the key to success.

An added challenge for teachers is just being able to recognize their students, who wear masks all day long. That, combined with adjusting to changing schedules and evolving technology has in a way made a first-year teacher out of everyone, according to kindergarten teacher Katie Mack, who has been at GFA for 10 years.

“As teachers, we are used to being creative. But this is a different kind of creativity that we’ve kind of had to wrap our brains around: how to use spaces in entirely new ways, how to design a classroom in a completely different way,” she said.

Adding a layer of complexity, the faculty members teaching from home must find strategies to engage their classroom students remotely. Communicating is reliant not just on the technology but other factors, like hearing quiet students who are speaking through masks, or seeing the students in the back of the room. To help with this, each remote faculty member is paired up with a “teacher-partner” who is in the room with students to set up technology such as cameras and microphones, and to assist with needs that arise in the classroom. They also enforce health practices like proper mask-wearing, desk-wiping, and hand-cleaning.

Admissions Associate Mackenzie Kirkup spent the fall and winter months as she normally would: preparing for open houses, student/family visits, interviews, and tours. At the same time, she was a teacher-partner for four Upper School classes. She said that rather than being an onerous task, being in the classroom has added depth to her connection with the school.

“Attending classes and immersing ourselves in curriculum and student life is a goal we always set for ourselves, but it is usually difficult to keep up with during the busy admission season. This has been an amazing opportunity to get to know both the faculty and current students on a more personal level,” she said.

The teacher-partner role this year also created new ways to engage GFA’s alumni community  — Bella Ferrante ’15, Jeffrey Velez ’10, Christian Alexander ’13, and Christine Phan ’10 all returned to the school this year to help out in the classroom and monitor study halls and lunch.

Ferrante has been a teacher-partner with two of her former teachers, Erin O’Grady (history) and Gail Greiner (English), who are remote this year. Though she is collaborating in an entirely new way, it still evoked a feeling of nostalgia.

“Remembering when I was here as a student and now as a faculty member, it really is an incredible community of support,” she reflected. “The students and teachers have been perpetually inspiring. Their determination to continue to try their best in these difficult micro- and macrocosmic challenges is inspiring.”

For the second rotation this year, junior Antara Ghai took English 11 with Greiner — Ghai’s first experience with a remote teacher. She said having someone there in the room is helpful.

“Having a teacher-partner in the room means there’s someone other than the instructor to talk to about classwork,” she said.

Going into this school year, Ghai was worried that the pandemic would “overshadow” her high school years but was relieved to discover that wasn’t the case.

“While there are a couple of things that are different in class compared to last year, the same can be said about everything else,” she voiced. “I don’t think my experience has been affected at all — I’ve learned as much as I would have if my teacher were in person. In some ways, it allows for more meaningful one-on-one connection with my instructor, as meeting in scheduled time blocks leads to more constructive academic discussion.” 

While every department in the school has been affected by the changes, perhaps no group more so than the technology department, which was tasked last spring with finding immediate online solutions for everyone. This year their roles are no less significant, as successful connections in the classroom still rely heavily upon functioning technology. Since March, every day the small but mighty group — comprised of Tope Aiyegbo, Donna Matte, Rick Kapusta, Nicholas Iacobelli, and Stephen Winard — resolves a growing number of unexpected issues and needs.

“I felt like we had a huge role to play in making this school year successful and making it accessible for both students and faculty who weren’t going to be on campus — giving them as real of an experience as I could,” said Aiyegbo, the department head. His job requires him to be constantly on the go — visiting offices and classrooms to install equipment, troubleshoot, or just to check in. “I’ve never wanted to be a seated administrator,” he laughed.

At the end of the day, what matters most is the student experience. They too had to adapt to changing spaces and schedules throughout the year. Yet anyone walking through the halls can see that the circumstances haven’t damped spirits or slowed anyone down. The smiles on students’ faces shine through the masks.

“GFA has made us feel like we’re all standing for something together. They’ve made such a huge effort,” said senior Max Yates, who has been at GFA since Middle School. “They’re doing everything they can so that we can be together. And I feel very, very fortunate to be able to go to this school and have this experience, even in a situation like this.”

Junior Kavya Krishnamurthy wasn’t sure what to expect when she returned this year. “I came in with very low expectations. And I’m pretty sure — based on my standards — GFA knocked it out of the park,” she said.

With two parents as long-time employees, and himself a “lifer,” annual summer employee and Horizons volunteer, Bryan Matte ’16 has practically spent his whole life at GFA. This year he gained yet another perspective as an Associate Teacher in third grade. There are few who know the school as well as he does, and he’s confident in a bright future ahead.

He assured, “We are fearless in our pursuit of an invaluable school year for our students. We are leaders on our quest for excellence. We are dreamers in the face of the impossible. But most importantly, we are GFA.”

The second half of the year lies ahead, and the pandemic is still in play. We can’t know what challenges await, but we can take comfort in knowing no matter what, it’s “each for all.”