Westport, NY Feed

My new Patreon

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ANNOUNCEMENT: I now have a Patreon to support my project Family Farm to Food Forest. (Also, if you think other people would be in treated in following my progress, share this post.)

Become a Patron!

Between now and April I will be writing fairly steadily on my Major Research Project (MRP) towards my Master of Design degree at OCADU in Toronto. The working title is FAMILY FARM TO FOOD FOREST. And in it I will explore ways to transform our farm in Westport, NY to promote a better future. I am going to be writing up a lot of fascinating stuff, and doing cool graphics to go with it. I thought some of your might like to come along for the ride.

I am using this opportunity to do four things:

  • Come up with a better plan for our farm in Westport, NY.
  • Reconcile Design Thinking with Computational Thinking by arriving at a Pattern Language to describe the farm transformation I envision.
  • Post photos of the farm and my cute animals.
  • Make use of my skills as a science fiction writer & editor to imagine future possibilities for the farm and farms in general.

What you can expect to see:

  • Blog posts with interesting things I have discovered during my research.
  • Visual work, such as collages or sketches which I use while trying to figure it all out.
  • Drafts: extended pieces of prose written for this project
  • Book recommendations: things I've read along the way that I think you should read, too.
  • Maybe some fiction. I think I'm going to write some short stories to help me engage. But I don't promise.

This should be fun!

Offensive GOP Mailer Attacks Localovore Movement

I just got a really offensive GOP attack direct mail piece aimed at Aaron Woolf who is running for Bill Owens' House seat againt Karl Rove-backed Elise Stefanik.

Their point of attack is Woolf's association with organic food through his ownership of a grocery store in Brooklyn. It looks like a nice place, the kind of place that our local farmers have been selling their producrs through as the North Country's farming economy makes a comeback.

ApplesauceThe authors of the mailer seem unaware of the resurgence of small farms in the North Country, many of which are organic or feature naturally grown food. I myself grew (uncertified) organic apples last season and through the Grange Co-packers in Whallonsburg put up apple sauce for commercial sale. The packaging was somewhat like the GOP's imagining of what "Woolf's Pickles" might look like.

His other main sin, in addition to peddling organic food, is that he is, gasp, a filmmaker. Perhaps the GOP doesn't know this, but we have filmmakers here too. Much of Kathy Leichter's Here Today was filmed in Wadhams. There are a number of other small films being produced locally. I just spent the morning finishing a screenplay.

Last fall's I Love NY commerical featuring an orchard was even filmed here. At my orchard.


That's my barn. And those are my apples on the trees. (We had already harvested in that area, so the film company had people in the previous day wiring the apples back on the trees.)

Dear NYGOP: 

Here in the North Country, not only do we care how our food is grown and value small scale agriculture and organic food, but we also have a thriving arts culture. Perhaps some of you might come for a visit before you write your next attack ad.

And you know what the North Country really can't afford? Last winter's heating bills, and the House GOP's plan to roll back the clock on health coverage.


Adirondack Memoir Retreat, October 25 to 28, 2012

Mary BethI am helping my friend Mary Beth Coudal set up at terrific writers retreat in Westport, NY for the end of October. This is going to be a marvellous time, and I hope some of you will consider joining us. The event will be held at Skenewood, a mansion in a secluded spot overlooking Lake Champlain. Mary Beth, whose workshop I enjoyed last summer, is the primary retreat leader, and she has recruited several of us to lead individual sessions.

It's a great time of year in Westport. The food will be great. Some wonderful people are coming. We'll have yoga first thing in the morning to open us up creatively, and walks around the estate and down by the shore. I am really looking forward to this.


Here is what Mary Beth has to say about it:

Continue reading "Adirondack Memoir Retreat, October 25 to 28, 2012" »

Peter wins the CATS Trail essay contest!

Our Winners of the CATS Trails essay contest!

My son Peter Hartwell was one of the winners of the Champlain Area Trails first essay contest. From the Valley News:

 An independent field biology study turned out to be especially fruitful for both teacher and student, as the duos joint essay won first prize in the Champlain Area Trails (CATS) Travel Writing Contest.

Every week since January of 2011, Westport ninth-grader Peter Hartwell and mentor David Thomas Train have been exploring the Champlain Area Trails along shoreline, streams, wetlands, and woods near Westport. Those explorations prompted them to enter the Champlain Area Trails Travel Writing Contest.

Hartwell attends the BOCES program in Mineville. To supplement the Mineville curriculum, Hartwell studies several subjects privately, including field biology, with Thomas Train.

“Peter and I spend time together every Wednesday after school in outdoor science explorations, and we wanted to share what we do and see,” Thomas Train explained. “He is an avid outdoors explorer, with great observation and drawing skills.”

Thomas Train is certainly no stranger to the trails of the Champlain Valley: He is the guidebook author for the ADK Guide To The Eastern Region.

“I know the CATS trails well and am excited every time a new one is developed, more open space is protected, and I have a new place to explore,” Thomas Train said.

Their jointly written essay, entitled “Wildlife, Connected In and Out of Town,” earned them the first-place prize of $500.

“CATS introduces people to the richness of the natural world in the Champlain Valley, and David and Peter's essay does the same,” contest judge Phil Brown noted.


And in the same issue of the Valley News, columnist Colin Wells congratulates Peter:

Congratulations to Peter Hartwell and David Thomas Train for winning the $500 grand prize in the recent Champlain Area Trails (CATS) Writing Contest with their essay, "Wildlife, Connected In and Out of Town." Peter, a Westport ninth-grader who attends the BOCES special ed program in Mineville, has been exploring our community's woods, streams, wetlands, and lakeshore over the past year in private biology tutorials with author and teacher Thomas Train. The essay they submitted for the CATS contest reflected that year's worth of wandering, observation, and careful record-keeping.

In the way of disclosure, I also tutor Peter a couple of times a week, in the Greek and Latin origins of common scientific terms. We focus on biology, his main interest, but take in other etymological curiosities as well. He's an outstanding student and a good friend. (Ask him what a lithotrophic halophilic cyanophotolytic isomer is, and he'll be happy to tell you, even though it doesn't exist.)

Congratulations, Peter!

American Studio Theatre's production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing on September 4 at 2 PM in Ballard Park

From Ted Cornell:

I hope you are making plans to see American Studio Theatre's production of Shakespeare's incredible Much Ado About Nothing on Sunday, September 4 at 2 PM in Ballard Park in Westport, New York. This is the company founded by Carrie Treadwell and friends which has gathered in Westport every year for the last ten years for one extraordinary weekend of intense inspired concentration to rehearse and present for one performance only one the bard's classics. 

Anyone who saw last year's Two Gentlemen of Verona or the magical Henry V of two years ago will every forget those shows or fail to be there this Sunday. Carrie is playing the sharp witted, unstoppable Beatrice who finally meets and makes her match. Dan Billets who gave us last years hilarious and inventive Two Gents directs, and your blogger returns as the mysterious Friar Frances. Don't miss it.

The 3rd grade with microscopes

The Westport 3rd grade got some microscope time today. First, my son Peter told them about his microscope adventures. Then they looked at commercially prepared slides. And then the looked at samples of pond water from Black Kettle, where they had gone on a field trip, and from Ted Cornell's art farm, both of which are in Wadhams, NY. (See yesterday's post.)

I had hoped to get some shots of what the kids were seeing, but both the kids and the wiggly creatures on slides were moving too fast for us to photograph the microscope views. But here are the kids.



A visit to Edward Cornell's Art Farm in search of water samples for the 3rd grade to look at under the microscope

Ted Cornell

A few days ago, Peter, Elizabeth and I paid a visit to the artist Ted Cornell's art farm, Crooked Brook Studios. The proximate reason for our visit was to collect water samples from his wetland for Westport Central School's third graders to look at under the microscope tomorrow. Peter, who is in 8th grade, has been doing a biology independent study since January and wants to share with the 3rd graders some of the things he's learned.

It was a beautiful day at the art farm, and we had a great time. While exploring, we were accompanied by both my dog Sunshine and by Ted's photogenic black lab, Lily. Here are some of the pictures I took.

The children set out with nets and buckets, past "Rotating Installation of a Minimally Processed Found Object," toward "Floating Stone Cone."


Cornell explains his monumental sculptures like this:

Crooked Brook Studios was first known as an art farm in connection with the Adirondack Harvest Festival’s Farm Tour in 2005. Becoming an art farm encouraged talking about these sculptures as if they were bio-organic eruptions, a conceit which is encouraged by their leisurely and seasonal growth patterns. They began appearing in the wetlands below the pond, and up near the barn and then in the pond, and then up behind the barns, in an area now known unavoidably as the sculpture garden, about five years ago. They were first known as large slow jokes, and they move in the wind and sport a jaunty devil-may-care attitude. They are junk sculptures making use of previous existences. They are environmental sculptures suggesting the creation of a transcendental asylum.

From the perspective of children with buckets, there for creatures and water-fun rather than art, they are landmarks that structure the farm. Destinations. Trailmarkers.

Crooked Brook Studios

Liz crossing Crooked Brook

Tail at Crooked Brook

Liz & Peter in the painting shed

Liz in the painting shed




The complete photoset is here.

Are We Exceeding Our Mandates?

The following are my remarks relayed to the Westport Central School Board last night in Westport, NY. I verbally gave a quick summary of this during the first 5 minute comment period, and then submitted the full text to the board for their consideration. —Kathryn

via www.westporteducation.com

My name is Kathryn Cramer and I am a Westport parent. This is our first year in this district.

In response to questions about the budget raised in some widely circulated emails, I set out to find answers about education spending in our school district. By far, the most complex question is whether the Westport Central School District is “exceeding its mandates” and giving its students a “Cadillac” when a “Chevy” will do.

One first must identify the unfunded and underfunded educational mandates. I found a group of Westchester County school districts that had put together a spread sheet. 

The “unfunded mandates” explored in the spread sheet include “Special Education & Special Services”, “NCLB Requirements/Academic Intervention Services (AIS)/RTI”, “Transportation”, “Health & Safety,” “Buildings & Grounds (Not included in Health and Safety)”, “Professional Development”, and “Finance.” In the Westchester districts reporting, “unfunded mandates” amounted to about 16.3% of the budget. If the proportions are the same for our district, that would be a dollar amount of roughly $815,000. 

In terms of the relative size, No Child Left Behind, compliance with Megan’s Law, asbestos abatement, DEC compliance, etc. pale in comparison to the first category “Special Education & Special Services,” which is mostly Special Education. That first category makes up three quarters of the un- or underfunded mandates for the Westchester districts that created the spread sheet.

So the question we are REALLY asking when we ask whether the district is “exceeding its mandates” is whether it is overfunding Special Education—which is to say whether we are buying our Special Ed kids “Cadillacs.” The law entitles all children an “adequate” K-12 education, including those who are more challenging to educate.

I looked at Essex county special ed instructional spending for 2007-2008 from the The New York State School Report Card Fiscal Accountability Supplements. Special Ed instructional spending is a highly volatile number, more volatile for smaller districts, and depends on the needs of individual students which fluctuate from year to year.

The average district spending for Essex County for the school year 2007-2008 was $37,216.09 per pupil. Willsboro and Ticonderoga spent the least per pupil and were substantially below average for New York State, spending only about 75% of what the average NYS school spends. Newcomb and Minerva spent the most per pupil. The ratio between the highest per pupil expenditure and the lowest (Newcomb:Willsboro) is a little shy of 8:1. (The smaller the district, the more volatile the number.)

The bottom-spending five school districts were on average spending only 82% of what the average NYS school spends per pupil on special ed, strongly suggesting that special education is systematically underfunded in some or all of those districts. New York State itself has a special education graduation rate of just over 50%—only slightly better than the graduation rate of Rhode Island school that is in the news because the district fired all the teachers and administrators and is starting from scratch.

I checked where New York State ranked nationally in terms of overall graduation rates. I was surprised to find that it has the worst graduation rate in the Northeast and fits comfortably in the bottom quarter of states along with Nevada and most of the American South. By contrast, our school in Westport has the SAME graduation rate for Special Ed students as for general education students, which is to say about 100%. 

I doubt that anyone would argue that any of these WCS graduates lead such a charmed life that they didn’t need the diploma and to provide it was the equivalent of buying them a Cadillac. The New York State average is nothing to aspire to. The law is that Students are to receive an adequate education, and if these students can reasonably be expected to leave high school with a diploma, we are supposed to make that possible. That is the mandate against which spending is to be measured.

It is technically possible for us to fail to meet these obligations in order to save money, but special education spending is like spending money to comply with building codes. Sure, we could save a bunch of money on the proposed complex up the road if we don’t build to code, but it wouldn’t be a good idea. Ignoring special education mandates makes for more fragile communities less able to bounce back from hard times, just as not building to code makes for more fragile buildings.

An interesting sidelight to this is the issue of how districts that are systematically underfunding Special Education can get away with it. The reason it is possible for them to shirk their responsibilities is that the policing of what services districts provide is largely left up to parents. The annual cost of having a neurologist consult with the parents about this can easily run $800/yr. A private occupational therapy evaluation run $400 - $1,000. A neuropsychological evaluation, the tool of choice for assessing what is really at issue with a child with a complex of learning disabilities, runs $3,500 to $5,000 and private insurance may decline to pay for any of it. A special ed. lawyer costs $500 for the first meeting, and $1,500 for each CSE meeting attended (which could amount to $6,000 a year just for meeting time). So how some of these districts—spending only about $18,000 a year for Special Ed instruction in districts where more than 2/3rds of the students qualify for reduced price lunches—can get away with failing to provide mandated services is unpleasantly obvious.

My general conclusion is that Westport is not “exceeding its mandates” in any large scale way. Rather, Westport Central School is doing a cost-effective job of satisfying its mandates in a state that systematically underfunds Special Education, and that we should be proud of our school and of the community that supports it.