Education

Joe Rella reflects on his career, his fight over state tests and how music fits into all of it

Retiring Superintendent Joe Rella and incoming Superintendent Jennifer Quinn. Photo by Kyle Barr

Joe Rella, the soon-to-be retired superintendent of the Comsewogue Central School District once, nearly 30 years ago, found himself without a job.

He was in business administration for close to 15 years, saying he had been “on top of the world,” before his company, the last private electric supplier in New York, closed. After he lost his job he did everything he could, from a paper route in the early morning to playing a local church organ, just to add a little extra money into the pot. His late wife, Jackie, went part-time in college and started working at Mercy Hospital. That’s when he saw it, an ad for a part-time job.

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella with students who participated in Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

“I couldn’t even say the name,” he said in a sit-down interview less than a month before his final high school graduation ceremony June 26. “Com-sew-ogue,” he said it phonetically. 

He lived in Farmingdale at the time, but he grew up in Flatbush Brooklyn, where they used to call this area of Long Island “East Jesus,” because “only God lived out here”, there were so few people.

The job was part-time music teacher, where he would be accompanist to a middle school music teacher for a salary of $28,000. Over time, this part-time instructor would become a full-time music teacher, the high school principal, and eventually work his way up to superintendent of the entire district.

Jennifer Quinn, the current assistant superintendent and person tapped to become the next head of school starting in September, said in her 13 years of experience with the district, this climb from music teacher to superintendent was rare. She had never seen it or heard of its like since.

Rella said the jump from music teacher to a district leader wasn’t so much of a huge leap, especially considering his more-than-decade- long experience in business administration, yet he likened the practicality of music to running a school, helping one interact with people, and taking mistakes in stride.

“Because one thing you learn, there is no such thing as a mistake, it’s a springboard to your next part of the piece,” he said.

Quinn described herself as following in Rella’s footsteps. When the retiring super moved from high school principal to assistant superintendent, she became principal. When Rella moved into the big chair, he tapped her to be one of his assistant superintendents.

“It’s not a big shift, because all the programs we’ve done over these years, she’s responsible for,” Rella said.

Quinn has been encouraged to lead discussions and programs, with Rella there to offer advice.

“The fact is he always puts other people before his own ego,” she said. “Because in most places it’s close of business one day and then the next person starts. He’s purposely stepped back and given me the opportunity to start to do things and he’s here to guide me.”

They both described several necessary components for a good district leader. One is to communicate back to residents, and not wait days to respond to emails or phone calls. Another is to “be present,” to have your face and name be known not only by teachers but by students.

“They need to know who you are — kids do, parents do, everybody does” he said. “Pope Francis had a good expression, ‘The shepherds have to smell like the sheep.’”

To say the school district has been inspired by Superintendent Joe Rella would be an understatement. Unlike many other districts where one could be hard-pressed to find people who know the name of their head of schools, the name of Rella often brings an immediate impression. Rella has become a rallying cry for supporting student-first initiatives and programs based on a general idea of “kindness.” Just one example is Joe’s Day of Service, designed by special needs teacher Andrew Harris. 

Beyond Comsewogue, Rella became a name on the lips of New York State officials and even beyond, all due to standardized testing initiatives put forward on both the federal and state levels.

In 2013, the superintendent was at the forefront of protests against Common Core State Standards (implemented late in 2012), writing a letter to New York State officials asking them to address concerns or remove him from office. The letter went viral, and later that year Rella was at the head of a rally held at Comsewogue High School decrying Common Core. He said it became apparent immediately after the first standards were released to school districts that there would be no way to test the exams and offer criticism to the state’s program plans, adding letters sent to all New York superintendents suggested the state expected only a third of students would pass this first round of testing.

“We couldn’t accept what was happening to our children,” he said. “If a teacher comes in and says, ‘I’m only expecting a third of my class to pass this year,’ I would say, ‘Why don’t you throw your keys on the desk.’”

“Pope Francis had a good expression, ‘The shepherds have to smell like the sheep.’”

— Joe Rella

Though it’s been several years, the state’s testing standards still put Rella on a rant, though now he sees the district moving beyond it. Comsewogue implemented a problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum for groups of interested ninth- and 10th-graders. Last year the district relished statistics that said those who were involved in PBL had better overall Regents test scores than their contemporaries, though he said the state was not interested in any kind of replacement for standardized testing with PBL. Instead the district has looked to the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Elementary and Secondary Schools, from which they were granted accreditation in 2017.

The superintendent continued that, since the huge outcry has boiled down into a low simmer, parents have been making the choice for their own children whether they would take the tests. 

“They haven’t budged,” he said.

Rella was diagnosed with stage 4 bile duct cancer in October 2017, though he has told TBR News Media previously a “mango-sized” tumor found on his liver hasn’t grown or spread, and his health played no role in the decision to retire. He said he and his late wife Jackie, who died following a bout with breast cancer in 2016, had long discussed 2018-19 as being his last year, as it would be his 25th in the district and ninth as superintendent.

Now, he’s living with his son and his grandchildren, whose little shoes will soon be running around the Comsewogue school district. He’s looking forward to spending time with his grandchildren while working on his piano and gardening skills. 

But while he will still be close to the district, Quinn said the legacy he left will be attempted to be replicated in the years to come.

“You will never be punished for not being perfect, you will be helped, you will be coached,” she said.

Rella again likened his job to music, and the drive to improve that is always at the forefront of practice, because what is school if not practice for life?

“You’re learning a piece of music — brand- new — you don’t know it, you’re not going to play it perfect right away, but what you do know is with careful practice, you’re going to get better,” he said.

Richard Anderson shows art skills to elementary student. Photo by David Luces

“They give me so much life — so much energy,” Richard Anderson, an Edna Louise Spear Elementary School art teacher said of his students. “It is so much fun.”

Anderson, who has been a fixture at the elementary school for the past 34 years, will retire at the end of the school year. He will be leaving behind a lasting impact on his current and former students over the years. 

Richard Anderson shows the artwork of one of the students. Photo by David Luces

“It has gone by so quickly, but I’ve had a blast teaching something I love,” he said, reflecting on his career. “I’ve been a part of the school community for so long and that’s coming to an end. I’ve been getting all these letters from the kids and it’s really nice but it’s sad at the same time. But it tells me that I have done a good job.”

Anderson’s love for art began when he was young. He fondly remembers a trip to The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan when he was 7 years old and laying eyes on the work of famed artist Chuck Close. 

“My art teacher took me down to The Museum of Modern Art, and they had huge airbrush paintings of Chuck Close and some of his friends,” he said. “At 7 I was like, ‘I want to be an artist just like him.’”

This began a lifelong passion for the Port Jeff art teacher. From there, he would go on to State University College at Buffalo to get his art degree. During that time, he started experimenting with chainsaw wood carvings. He mentioned one of his inspirations was Wendell Castle, a renowned art furniture artist.  

“I had experience with a chainsaw working in the woods, cutting down trees with my father,” he said. 

Anderson would compete in wood carving competitions in upstate New York and found success, winning some events. He said the wood carving scene has really grown over the years and has gotten more refined from carving bears and eagles into more complex designs, such as his rendition of a mermaid carved in wood. 

The elementary art teacher said he enjoys wood carving because it is challenging and pushes his personal abilities further. Anderson hopes to continue to do wood carvings for the village’s harvest festival as well as coming back to the school to do wood carvings for the students. 

Meghan McCarthy, a fellow art teacher at the elementary school, has worked with Anderson for the past two years and says he sets a great example. 

“He’s has been an excellent mentor,” she said. “He’s taught me to approach elementary art as a fine-arts program. He sets the bar high and it shows in the kids’ artwork and shows what they are capable of doing.”

“He laid down a solid foundation for me.”

— Meghan McCarthy

McCarthy said she really lucked out having someone like Rich who has immense amount of experience teaching. 

“He laid down a solid foundation for me,” she said. 

Anderson admits it will be hard for him to retire, but he is looking forward to spending more time with family, getting back into his artistic furniture business and enjoying motorcycling and hunting. 

“I’ve been really blessed to have had a great career and leave a good impact,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to work with some former students of mine and be able to teach some of my former students’ children.”

The Wading River resident said the students motivate him to push himself and in turn he pushes them. 

“It works together, these kids have so much ability and we need to support them,” he said. “I have been given his great gift and it has meant so much to me.”

Teacher Brooke Bonomi holds a prize a student won during a halftime Simon Says game at the Feb. 8 Basketball game fundraiser. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Pat Sparks

The school year is ending, and I would like to express my thanks to the retiring employees of the Rocky Point School District.

I knew Maria Liantonio and Nancy Stark, teachers at the Frank J Carasiti Elementary School, when I was with the Before and After Care program. These very dedicated educators always impressed me with their kindness and concern for the young students in their care. They have surely left an indelible impression during their combined 50 years of service to the children of Rocky Point, and they will be missed.

Andrew Levine, English teacher in the high school, has provided 20 years of excellence to his students. I personally witnessed his dedication and positive commitment when I performed clerical work for the summer school program a number of years ago. His contribution will undoubtedly be remembered with gratitude by the many students whose lives he has impacted.

Rocky Point High School. File Photo

My youngest son had the good fortune of having been in Thomas Bunnell’s health class, and although he graduated 15 years ago, he remembers his time in Mr. Bunnell’s class as a positive experience, that he was a great teacher and a “nice guy.”  In my opinion, he truly is that, as well as a caring, concerned educator for 24 years. Mr. Bunnell also gave fine example by assisting student community service groups, and his absence will be felt by many who will remember him with gratitude and appreciation for a job well done.

Also retiring are Victoria Pachinger and Theresa Collins, School Teacher Aides with a combined 41 years of service to the children of Rocky Point. These dedicated individuals, along with Joanne Davis, the lead food service worker for 21 years, deserves the thanks of a grateful community for the assistance and care they have devoted to our children for so long.

Virginia Sanseverino, office assistant, has given 19 years of excellent service to the students of this district. I was fortunate to know her on a personal basis when our children were classmates and friends but had an opportunity to witness what a dedicated and committed employee she was when I worked one summer at the middle school. Ginny is an extremely kind and caring individual who helped me with “learning the ropes” while attending to her own work load, and I will always be grateful for her patience and assistance. Her departure will certainly be felt by all.

Congratulations and thanks to Gregory Hilton, Business Manager, who will be retiring in August after 13 years with Rocky Point Schools. Thank you for sharing your expertise with this district, enjoy your next chapter.

Superintendent Michael Ring is retiring after 11 years of service to Rocky Point School schools. During his tenure, the district has seen much change, and the commitment he has exhibited to his position and the dedication he has put forth to achieve desired goals is noteworthy. I am thankful to Ring for the many times he relinquished his own speaking time to allow me to address the retirees at annual BOE meetings. I will remember his kindness and generosity with gratitude and appreciation. Congratulations and farewell Dr. Ring.

Finally, when it comes to Brooke Bonomi, it’s impossible to adequately acknowledge and thank him for his unparalleled service to Rocky Point’s students and, indeed, this entire community. I don’t know what special star was shining down on Rocky Point when he arrived, but I salute the intelligent and insightful individual who approved his hiring 33 years ago! Mr. Bonomi truly lives the “social” in Social Studies.

Although my children were not among his students, I came to know this unique human being through my older son’s participation in “The Singing Santas,” a musical group Bonomi founded early on, which he modeled after a program he participated in while at Oneonta State University. This widely popular club with a large student enrollment performed community service by entertaining in nursing homes, hospitals and a local church soup kitchen during the holidays. Led on by Rocky Point’s ever-cheerful, boyish-looking “Christmas elf” with the mischievous grin, this band of students, from all backgrounds and with different interests, who may never have associated with one another, became a family united to help those who were in need of cheering up or were less fortunate then themselves. The musical merry-making culminated with an annual show at the high school, which starred the students, the faculty, support staff and some brave administrators. Bonomi, the “spirit of Christmas” personified, was the conductor, composer of holiday lyrics set to popular tunes, and skit-writer. He worked tirelessly on each production for the whole year preceding the event. The money collected at the shows benefited needy families in the community.  The group even recorded a CD of the “tweaked” holiday tunes a number of years ago and raised a large sum which was donated to Little Flower Children’s Services in Wading River.

As if directing the Singing Santas was not enough, the perpetually upbeat Bonomi started another program called BANN or Be A Nicer Neighbor, which also focused on teaching our young people about community service. Over the years, this group held senior citizens proms, fundraisers that benefited various charitable organizations and causes and were inspired by Bonomi’s example to treat one another with respect and kindness. More recently, he devoted an immeasurable amount of his “off” time to plan a very successful Wounded Warriors basketball game fundraiser with his BANN members. This event involved much of the student body, faculty, administrators, and support staff. The proceeds of this enormous endeavor were donated to Rocky Point’s VFW Post 6249 to help wounded war veterans.

It’s difficult to say good-bye or to imagine Rocky Point without Brooke Bonomi. His eternal optimism, joie de vivre and his genuine concern for his fellow man have set him apart as a Rocky Point Schools and community treasure. This well-loved teacher has truly modeled the Golden Rule for all those who have been fortunate enough to have existed in his orbit, even for a short while. Thank you and God bless you, Brooke, for sharing your wonderful gifts with us and for all the good works you have performed for our children and our community. Enjoy the retirement you so richly deserve.

Pat Sparks is a resident of Rocky Point.

Students got to interact with therapy dogs before the start of their exams. Photo from Andrew Harris

In the Comsewogue High School cafeteria, where the air would usually becomes tense with the anticipation of final exams at the end of the school year, signs were posted on empty chairs during regents week which read, “Come pet me… and chill.”

School Social Worker Taylor Zummo said that the dogs had an incredible impact on the students. Photo from Andrew Harris

Quickly those empty chairs filled up and lines started to form behind them. Sitting in the now filled chair was a student who would be taking their regents within the next few minutes. Opposite them was a therapy dog and it’s handler, both welcoming the student to relieve a little stress with a friendly canine.

“They have a calming effect on people,” said Bill Bodkin, a retired teacher and administrator at the high school. “The animals benefit just as much as the humans do. Medically, it lowers blood pressure and the pulse rate of the person petting them.”

Bodkin’s dog, Corey, was trained with the Smithtown-based nonprofit Guide Dog Foundation, and together they often visit hospitals, nursing homes, and schools.

The idea of bringing in dogs before the regents exams was welcomed by high school Principal Joseph Coniglione. The dogs were an instant hit, with students gravitated to the dogs and some stayed with them up until the instant they went to take their exams.

Several other therapy dogs were sent in from Dog Works in Holtsville, where they go through rigorous training to become certified.

“These dogs are very unique, and not all of them make it through the process.” Said Deb Feliziani, who works for Holbrook-based Dog Works and is the owner and trainer for the hounds Gabby, Bette and Comet, all who levelled their training to aid the high schoolers.

In addition to the therapy dogs, district teachers said students were taught meditation and breathing techniques to help lower stress and anxiety before testing.

“As students waited to take their regents exams, in a room that is typically filled with nervousness and fear, there was a lighthearted energy that took over as they interacted with the therapy dogs,” said Taylor Zummo, a high school social worker. “Between the smiles on their faces and the laughs of excitement, it was clear that these dogs had an incredible impact on the students. There is something quite powerful that happens when dogs are in a room, and it was apparent that the students could feel it too.”

Tom King, a special education teacher, has been taking his own certified therapy dog named Bailey, a Labradoodle, to class for years. King and Bailey walked around to students who had pre-testing jitters and were quickly surrounded by them all wanting to pet Bailey.

From left, retired teacher Bill Bodkin, Teacher Dave Hughes and Principal Joe Coniglione said the dogs lightened the mood for students taking the regents. Photo from Andrew Harris

Overall, the visits were a huge success, said Andrew Harris, a special needs teacher and advocate for therapy and service dogs who helped get the dogs to the high school.

“I saw many of my students light up when a dog comes to visit our class,” he said. “I especially see this for students with Autism and decided to make it a part of my curriculum. You would be amazed if you saw the level of excellence these students rise to when they know a dog is visiting.”

Harris added he has been training dogs for years, though he had taken advice from Feliziani to travel to Canada to find the “perfect dog.” This young hound named Ramsey has learned to alert people with medical emergencies and assist with walking up and down stairs. At only 11 months he can climb ladders, complete obstacle courses and assist people. At home, the dog acts a protector and house pet to him and his family.

“He has been in training since the day he was born and has taken rides on various forms of public transportation and socialized with people and other animals,” Harris said. “I think it helps me be a better teacher because you continually learn positive reinforcement.”

Teachers at the high school said they expect to utilize the dogs in the future in the school district.

Information provided by Andrew Harris

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Melissa Marchese proved herself in sports, was set to graduate June 28

Shoreham-Wading River senior forward Melissa Marchese battles in the paint Feb. 11. Photo by Bill Landon

A community that has become much too familiar to tragedy was left reeling June 14 as Melissa Marchese, 18, a Shoreham resident and senior at the high school passed from her injuries received in a car crash the day before.

Shoreham-Wading River senior Melissa Marchese During an April 22 Softball game. Photo by Bill Landon

Suffolk County police confirmed her death Saturday,  June 15.

Marchese’s father Charlie Marchese posted a lengthy eulogy on his Facebook page. He called his daughter “… brilliant, she was magnetic,” and said she fought long enough in order for doctors to donate her organs, something she had always wished to do.

“She would light up the room with her smile and make everybody burst with laughter,” Marchese’s father wrote. “Melissa was a remarkable athlete. Fierce, determined, and focused. Just try to slide into her at home plate or try to battle her for a rebound. She did not lose. She was a born leader in all facets of her life. Whether barking instructions on the softball field or leading her friends in a dance or a song, everyone would follow her. She did not lose.”

Marchese was in the backseat of a car turning left onto Route 25A from Miller Avenue June 13. The high school was having its senior honoring ceremony. Another vehicle, driven by Ridge resident Michael Troiano, 34, went through a red light and struck Marchese’s vehicle. The two other students in Marchese’s car, Evan Flannery, 17, and Caroline Tyburski, 18, both of Shoreham, were transported to St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson with non-life-threatening injuries. Marchese was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital, where she died a day later.

The Shoreham-Wading River school district released statements Friday and Saturday.

Melissa Marchese battles Mount Sinai senior Gabby Sartori for a loose ball under the boards Jan. 22. Photo by Bill Landon

“We extend our deepest condolences to the individual’s family and friends, and we continue to keep all those involved and impacted by this tragedy in our thoughts during this very difficult time,” the district wrote on its website.

Marchese was well known in the district for her work on the basketball court and the softball field.

Adam Lievre, Marchese’s basketball coach, said he would watch Marchese move around the court and be awed at her tenacity. It was that tenacity, he said, that had her fighting death until the time they could donate her organs.

“She was willing to throw her body anywhere and everywhere to get every rebound,” he said. “I’ve never coached a kid who wanted rebounds so badly, and she went after every ball with this relentless effort. It was contagious when the other kids saw how hard she worked, was an example she led on the court.”

He remembered two cases of her caring personality. One was on the court where she saw eighth-grader GraceAnn Leonard get knocked over, and she “sprinted” over to help her up. The other was in the locker room after the team’s heartbreaking playoff 42-41 loss against Sayville Feb. 12. 

“She was sitting right in front of me in tears, so emotional about losing but so thankful, she said how thankful she was to be a part of the team and how great it was,” Lievre said.

Marchese was known as a standout softball player in SWR, having been recognized as All-League in the Scholar-Athlete Team in March and was committed to the University of Hartford for softball.

Once it became known of Marchese’s hospitalization, a GoFundMe page was started, and within a day raised nearly $20,000. By Tuesday, June 17, the site had raised over $60,000.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to Melissa and the Marchese family,” Joseph Dwyer, the GoFundMe organizer, wrote to the page. “Thank you all for your generous donations during this time of unthinkable sadness and utter despair. God Bless.”

The school district canceled senior finals June 14 and made mental health staff available. The district also invited students to the high school library Saturday for staff to support them.

Melissa Marchese. Photo from SWR School District

Shoreham has become well known for tragedies of this kind. In 2014 the community grieved for Tom Cutinella, who died due to a head injury on the football field. In 2018, the community wrapped hundreds of red ribbons on flagpoles to memorialize Andrew McMorris, who was killed by a drunk driver while out on a hike with his Boy Scout troop. 

The Andrew McMorris and Tom Cutinella memorial foundations both shared their condolences on their Facebook pages.

“No one should ever have to go through this,” a post to the Tom Cutinella Memorial Foundation Facebook page read.

Marchese’s wake will be held at Branch Funeral Home, located at 551 Route 25A in Miller Place, on June 20 from 7 to 9 p.m. and June 21 from 2 to 5 p.m. and at 7 to 9 p.m. Marchese’s funeral procession will leave the funeral home at approximately 9:30 a.m. on June 22. A Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. at St. Mark’s R.C. Church, located at 105 Randall Road in Shoreham.

This article has been updated to reflect the name of the eighth-grader who Marchese helped up.

Salutatorian Joshua Vogel and valedictorian Bryant Liu. Photo from RPUFSD

As a result of 13 years of hard work, determination and scholastic commitment, Rocky Point High School seniors Bryant Liu and Josh Vogel have been named the Class of 2019 valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively. 

Liu has a long school career that has included leadership and service experiences. He has taken 11 Advanced Placement courses and was recognized as an AP Scholar with Distinction as well as named a Commended Student in the 2019 National Merit Scholarship Program for exceptional academic promise.  

As a musician, the 2019 valedictorian has received many honors in the local area. He plays bass clarinet and trombone, is a section leader in the marching band and is a level 6 pianist and the first student from Rocky Point to be named an All-State pianist, one of only 12 in the state during his sophomore year. He received the Piano National Guild Supreme Pupil Award, placed second at the American Fine Arts Festival at Carnegie Hall, and receive honorable mention at the American Protégé International Competition of Romantic Music. In his free time, he also served as the accompanist for the seventh-grade chorus and participated in the Steinway Performers Showcase and represented Steinway and Sons at the Smith Haven Mall.

Liu finds time to balance his studies with many additional extracurricular activities.  He is a member of the National Honor Society, Math Honor Society, Math Team, Robotics Team and he has participated with the Pit Orchestra for the high school musical. He also participated on the varsity tennis and winter track teams.  

Outside of school, Liu worked as an intern at Brookhaven National Laboratory and participated at the Summer Research Program at Stony Brook University. He also works at the Chinese Learning Center at Stony Brook where he teaches language and culture to younger students.

Liu will graduate with a weighted average of 104.69 and is bound for the University of Southern California, where he will pursue a career in economics and mathematics.  

Vogel is a dedicated scholar, athlete, actor and a talented musician. He was named a Commended Student in the 2019 National Merit Scholarship program, Advanced Placement Scholar with Honors and will be graduating with a grade point average of 104.51.  

A singer, Vogel has been acknowledged with many honors and awards throughout his four years of high school, including being invited to perform at the SCMEA All-County Music Festival in the Mixed Chorus, the NYSCAME All-County Music Festival, Mixed Chorus and the NYSSMA All-State Conference, Mixed Chorus. This year, the 2019 salutatorian was selected to participate in NAFME All-National Honor Ensembles Mixed Choir that took place in Orlando, Florida, making Rocky Point history as the first district student to participate at this level. Vogel was the co-section leader of the French horns and bass clarinets in the marching band and participated in the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra and the Suffolk Symphonic Choir.  

He has also held a number of leadership roles in the school community, including serving as the president of his class for three years and as a member in the Human Rights, Athletes Helping Athletes and Compassion Without Borders clubs as well as the National Honor Society and Thespian Honor Society.

Vogel will be attending Dartmouth College in the fall, where he will be studying government.

Left, Valedictorian Mahdi Rashidzada; right, Salutatorian Katlynn McGivney. Photos from SWRCSD

Shoreham-Wading River High School announced the top students of the 2019 graduating class are seniors Mahdi Rashidzada and Katlynn McGivney, who have been named valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively.

Rashidzada’s list of achievements includes taking 12 Advanced Placement courses and six honors courses. He is on the school’s track and field team and is vice president of the National Honor Society, captain of the Debate Team, a member of Mathletes, president of the National History Day Club and a member of the Riverhead Youth Court. His list of accolades includes being a Suffolk County Math Teachers’ Association fourth-place honor, as well as school awards in AP Chemistry, AP Language, Spanish IV, Human Physiology and STEM.

Outside of school, he is a Sunday school teacher at the Islamic Center of Long Island, was involved in a local political campaign as an intern and volunteers for Long Island Cares and Stony Brook Hospital. He was also named an RPI Science and Mathematics scholar and a New York State Debate qualifier. He has received National Merit commendation and conducted research on the antimicrobial properties of herbal hydrosols in the high school’s science lab as well as at St. Joseph’s College. 

“Do what you love,” Rashidzada said when asked to share some sentiments with his fellow graduates and future seniors at the high school. “It is important to find what you love and what you’re good at and really pursue it.” 

He will major in neuroscience on the premed track and said he looks forward to entering the freshman class at the University of Pennsylvania in September.    

Throughout high school, Katlynn McGivney has participated in a well-rounded educational, academic, athletic and volunteer career. She has taken advantage of the school’s numerous AP and honors courses and has been recognized with excellence awards in Biology Honors, Chemistry Honors, French III and AP Capstone Seminar. She has played volleyball since ninth grade, softball since eighth grade, ran winter track and has received a varsity letter for three years. McGivney is secretary of the school’s student government and a member of the National Honor Society as well as the Women in Science and Engineering Club. As for community service, she enjoys her work in the district’s Round Out summer camp as a volunteer and has also volunteered for local community programs. She is a page at the North Shore Public Library and plays travel softball for the Long Island Crush and club volleyball. 

McGivney succinctly summed up some words of wisdom for her peers with, “Make the most of your high school experience and enjoy it while you can. It will be over before you know it.” She has committed to study at Hamilton College to pursue biochemistry and play on the softball team.

“I am proud and honored to have Mahdi and Katlynn represent Shoreham-Wading River High School as our top two students,” Principal Frank Pugliese said. “They both exemplify the mission and vision we all have for our students while they are here and as they head out into college and careers — maximizing their potential, creating responsible citizens and fostering a lifelong appreciation for learning.”

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Liberian students reading samples of Mount Sinai’s Journeys books. Photo from Emmanuel Urey

Little more than 4,516 miles separate Mount Sinai from Bong County, Liberia. That didn’t stop the Mount Sinai School District from extending a helping hand to children across the world. 

It all began when the district was transitioning to a newer textbook program and were wondering what they could do with the trove of older textbooks. 

Liberian students reading samples of Mount Sinai’s Journeys books. Photo from Emmanuel Urey

Elizabeth Hine, Mount Sinai Elementary School assistant principal, said they didn’t want the books to go to waste. Initially they considered several options for the books, including contacting other school districts to see if they wanted the books as well as BOCES and other organizations, but they were still left with a large heap of books crowding their closets. 

Hine was then given an idea, courtesy of her daughter Kathleen Alfin. A friend that went to graduate school with her at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was looking to build a school for a number of villages in Liberia. 

“She told me that he was starting this school for these villages,” she said. “She showed pictures of the villages and she told me he could use these books.”

Emmanuel Urey, Alfin’s friend, last year came up with a plan to build a four-classroom school with a bathroom and office facilities in his village of Gormue, which is located in an isolated part of Liberia. Urey set up a GoFundMe page two years ago to help with the construction of the school. As of today, 63 people in total have raised close to $5,000 of the $10,000 goal. 

Gormue and its surrounding villages have no access to school, according to the page. The only nearby elementary school is a two-hour walk for these villagers and there are no transportation facilities in this area. 

Hine and Urey got in contact, and the Mount Sinai district agreed to donate the books to Liberian’s native school. Last month, Urey traveled to Mount Sinai Elementary to thank Hine and other school officials for the upcoming donation. At Mount Sinai, Urey was given a few sample books to bring back to his village, while they continued to get the majority of the books to Liberia.  

Alfin, who now teaches at the United States Military Academy in West Point, said Urey was her linguistic tutor during graduate school and she was trying to learn his native language. 

“I think it is great what they’ve been able to do,” she said. “This is not something that happens every day.”

Later in May, Urey visited Gormue and gave the sample books to the children and interim school master. Currently Urey, Hine and others are working on getting a Rotary Club in New York to ship the books to a Rotary Club of Monrovia in Liberia. 

This is not the first time Mount Sinai district has been able to help children overseas. In July 2018, they helped shipped 140 small laptop computers to children in both Sri Lanka and to the Maasai tribe in Kenya. 

“It means the world to another country.”

— Gordon Brosdal

Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said the school board needed to approve the donation but once they had heard what Hine was planning to do, they were immediately on board to help.   

“I’m really grateful for them for letting us do this,” he said. “I want to thank Elizabeth and her daughter for bringing this to our attention.”

The superintendent said they didn’t want to discard these books even though they had found a new reading program. 

“Sometimes you want to discard things, but you don’t realize that these things could be valuable to other people that are so needy,” he said. “It means the world to another country.” 

The process of getting the rest of the books to the school in Liberia is still ongoing, according to Hine. The materials will be used by six villages and about 150 students in the new school. The construction of the school is almost complete; the building was recently roofed and they are building a well to supply the school with water. Classes are expected to start September 2019. 

To donate to the GoFundMe page for the school, visit: https://www.gofundme.com/Emmanuelurey.

Seniors Annalisa Welinder, left, and Ava Schully, valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively. Photo from PJSD

Two young women, Annalisa Welinder and Ava Schully, have, respectively, attained the title of valedictorian and salutatorian for the Port Jefferson Class of 2019. 

Welinder has an impressive and diversified high school résumé, including taking eight honors and 12 Advanced Placement courses and one college-level class. She is an Advanced Placement Scholar, a Presidential Scholars Program nominee and a National Latin Exam four-time gold medalist. She serves as president of the Latin Club, is a member of Mathletes and member of the school’s Academic Team. Welinder is also a member of both the track team and tennis team.

A violinist, Welinder is a member of the prestigious National Youth Orchestra, where she served as a concertmaster in 2017, with which she traveled to numerous concert halls, including Carnegie Hall. She and her brother have run a summer music camp — Sound Strings Long Island — for all age levels and she is a frequent award winner for various violin competitions. Welinder is also interested in creative writing endeavors.

Asked for some words of wisdom to share with future graduates of the school, Welinder had an uncomplicated response. “Everything seems easier and more doable if you enjoy it,” she said.

Welinder is excited to enter the freshman class at Stanford University in September.

Schully, as salutatorian, commended her family, peers and teachers who have helped her succeed in school and other aspects of her life. 

Schully’s list of achievements is comprehensive and includes taking 10 AP courses, four honors courses and two college-level courses. She was on the school’s soccer team in ninth grade and has run on both the school’s track team and cross-country team. She is a member of the Peer Leadership, Interact, Drama and Latin clubs as well as a member of Tri-M Honor Society and Sources of Strength.

Schully took a service trip to Peru to help build a clean water system for local people, attended a six-week intensive study of classical music at the Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan, took part in the Philadelphia International Music Festival and recently performed on cello in the National Association for Music Education All-Eastern music conference in Pittsburgh. Her extracurricular activities include being a member of the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York and Stony Brook University Young Artists Program. She has received numerous school awards and is active in the local community.

Schully’s plans after high school include exploring how music can promote community partnerships and cross-cultural relations. She has committed to Brown University where she plans to create her own major that focuses on a mixture of topics including ethnomusicology, human development, international relations, education and nonprofit organizations in an interdisciplinary context.

“Challenge yourself in classes you’re actually interested in and take part in extracurricular activities that you love,” she said. “Don’t worry about doing what you think a college admissions office might want to do and just pursue your passions. The rest will follow.”

By David Luces

Over 500 school kids from six different schools gathered on the grounds of the Smithtown Historical Society on May 17 as they were brought back to a pivotal time in our country’s history.

The Smithtown organization hosted its annual Civil War re-enactment as visitors were taken back to the 1860s and got a chance to experience how life was for soldiers and civilians during this time period.

Re-enactors and living historians from the 67th New York Company, 9th Virginia Infantry, Company C and 30th Virginia Infantry, Company B, dressed in authentic wool uniforms, spoke to the students about life during the 1860s, showed them how meals were prepared, ran military drills, displayed different types of weaponry from the era and demonstrated a skirmish between Union and Confederate troops.

Guests were also able to visit and talk to a battlefield doctor and were shown a cavalry demonstration by Boots and Saddles Productions. The cavalry showed students how different types of weapons were used while riding into battle and members took turns slashing at balloons tied to a wooden pole with a sword and then showed the difficulty of shooting a firearm while on a horse.

“I think it’s great that the students are here and they seem really excited,” said Smithtown Historical Society trustee Brian Clancy. “It’s a day off from school for them and they are learning something.”

For more information on the Smithtown Historical Society and its educational programs, visit www.smithtownhistorical.org.

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