Education

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 Rich Acritelli

“America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.”

Brooke Bonomi, right, during his run from Montreal, Canada, to Hudson, New York. Photo from Rich Acritelli

These words of service, which were spoken  by the late President George H.W. Bush, are the lifelong giving code of Brooke R. Bonomi. He is a social studies teacher, coach and adviser who after 33 years in education will be retiring from Rocky Point High School. This distinguished educator has devoted his entire life to carrying out local and national tasks toward the betterment of his own home community and that of this North Shore school district.

Bonomi’s story began many years ago as a native of Woodside, Queens, who had moved to Syosset when he was 8 years old. This 57-year-old teacher vividly recalled a happy home life that saw his father work as a New York City firefighter and his mom was a housewife who cared for their three children. With a big smile, Bonomi laughs at his memories of playing endless hours of manhunt, competing through soccer and lacrosse and running many miles through the hills of eastern Nassau County and western Suffolk County. Running was a strong fit for Bonomi, who excelled at this sport in college and later ran the Montauk and Long Island marathons.

As a capable student-athlete, Bonomi was also the senior class president for Syosset High School. Always armed with a big smile and a unique personality, he created a contest among the student body titled “Why I Want to Go to the Prom with Brooke Bonomi.” As he mentioned this memory, Bonomi laughed and explained some of his fellow peers perceived this event as being pathetic, while he always saw it as a genius way to garner support for a school function. During his senior year, Bonomi was a three-sport athlete who was recruited by Johns Hopkins, University at Albany and Boston University to play soccer. To make life economically easier for his father, Bonomi received an appointment to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut.  

In 1980, this native of Syosset entered the service where he planned to earn a military education with the chance of playing soccer. While he made it through basic training and conducted sea operation on the Eagle, this military institution was not a good choice for Bonomi. Although he liked being in uniform and the camaraderie of the military, he struggled with his grades and the rigidness of this school, and he was honorably discharged after his first year. In 1981, Bonomi returned home and made plans to enter SUNY Oneonta, where he later majored in political science and speech communication.  

It was at this school that Bonomi flourished with his own independence and creativity. Always a fan of music and performances, he and his friends established the Wondering Winter Wonder Men. This group sang two Christmas songs for a $1 to provide holiday cheer to the students while raising money for charity. Bonomi was also the captain of the cross-country team where he distinguished himself. With his friends, he ran the grueling length from Oneonta to Fire Island and from Montreal, Canada, to Hudson, New York, which was located just south of Albany. During these exhausting journey’s, he traveled a long way on foot and when he needed to rest, Bonomi slept on the lawns of people’s houses. With his witty sense of humor, he was also the disc jockey for the university radio station, worked at a local restaurant, was a resident’s assistant within the student dorms and delivered furniture. This was a golden time for Bonomi as he played sports, ran, worked various jobs and established his own sense of free will he would later use as an educator. Always an avid reader and analyst of history and political science, Bonomi appreciated both his liberal and conservative professors who allowed him to freely present his own views on these subjects. While Bonomi is a free spirit that is often pulled in many directions, he has an agile mind which has allowed him to fully express knowledgeable beliefs on many historical and political topics of discussion.

Brooke Bonomi, left, during a Live Like Susie event. Photo from Rich Acritelli

Once he graduated college in 1985, Bonomi believed that he was going to enter the Peace Corps. It was not until he went home to Syosset that a local neighbor and New York City social studies teacher expressed to Bonomi that he should enter education. Again, Bonomi went back to Oneonta and was enrolled in the education program to enter a field that would become his life’s work. Bonomi learned that there were positions opening up at Longwood Central School District. When he was looking at a map to locate Middle Island, he noticed that Rocky Point was not too far from this district. This Nassau County man learned of Rocky Point through a shirt that his friend wore about this town and school.

In 1986, Bonomi walked into the main office of the Rocky Point High School and ran into longtime teacher, administrator and coach, Michael P. Bowler. This former assistant principal was leaving teaching as a social studies teacher and entering administration. Bowler was the first person that Bonomi met in this entire district and he recollected, “It was in a way serendipitous that Brooke walked into the office that day because we needed to hire a teacher to replace me. I spoke to Brooke for quite some time and I could see that he was full of positive energy and enthusiasm and grounded in a deeply rooted value system … I just had a feeling that he would make a great addition to our school and community. The rest is history.”

Unlike the urban areas of Syosset, Bonomi enjoyed the rural feeling of Rocky Point, dominated as it was by the beauty of the conservation preserve located behind the high school. Bonomi was always known for his enthusiasm, but he was a little hesitant to be involved in different activities. Dan Galvin, the principal of the high school, wanted him to start coaching. At first, Bonomi refused to do so, as he wanted to allocate enough time toward lesson planning for the rigors of his new assignment as a seventh-grade American history teacher. He was originally at the crossroads of the high school, as he was one of the youngest employees to be hired at a time when there were few jobs in this market. Right away he showcased his unique teaching strategies, showing numerous film clips tied to his teaching content, writing songs like “Born an Iroquois,” and even teaching about the brutal cold weather that Continental soldiers had to endure at Valley Forge by standing in a bucket of ice.

As he became more comfortable with his instructional routines, Bonomi coached junior high lacrosse. Since 1986, Bowler and Bonomi have had a tight bond that saw them mold students through education and athletics. As a athlete, Bonomi coached girls junior high, junior varsity and varsity soccer. He ran with his players and personified a can-do attitude through times of both victory and defeat. At a low point during one game, the parents of his own players were openly criticizing their soccer abilities. As the girls were competing, he walked over to the parents and told them to lay off their own kids, as they were doing their best, during a difficult time. This action cemented a trademark of loyalty that Bonomi always presented to his students and athletes that he instructed.  

In 1988, Bonomi brought his musical talents to the students of Rocky Point through his well-known organization of the Singing Santas. This group originally presented musical holiday spirit to the nursing homes, soup kitchens and local Veterans of Foreign Wars posts. Three years later, Galvin expressed to Bonomi that while he was doing an outstanding job outside of the school, there were parents who wanted him to sing for the student body. This began the legacy of a club that spanned from 1988 to 2016. He started the process of creating Christmas skits, playing song parodies that resembled the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen, the Blues Brothers, Bon Jovi, Green Day and Dave Mathews. Bonomi took many artistic chances over the years that ended up making this club into a dynamic legacy.  

This success did not happen overnight, but through the combined determination of himself, the students and staff. Over several decades, Bonomi always promoted colorful skits, the Artic Horns and choirs of students who sang and danced to songs written by Bonomi. Social studies teacher Chris Nentwich was a key member of the Singing Santas who could be counted on to perform any type of acting role. He portrayed Jack Nicholas as Colonel Nathan R. Jessup from the film “A Few Good Men.” This satire was written by Scott Lindsay and the main part of “Colonel Ketchup” was acted by Nentwich, with support from Anthony Nobre, Sherin Shanahan and Andrew Aschettino. Through the colorful words of Lyndsay, he created a unique mini-play that saw the drama of “A Few Good Men,” with the humor of “My Cousin Vinny” through a comedic court room performance that saw Santa Claus put on trial. These were the traits of the Bonomi creed that saw both teachers and students working together to bring an unusual notion come to life. These performances gained the approval of a cheering auditorium. 

A key figure in the Bonomi story is fellow social studies teacher James McCormack. This educator never turned down any type of request by Bonomi for this Christmas production. His favorite part of the Singing Santas was the “Benny Hill” chase scene between Santa Claus and the Grinch. Like that of Nentwich, McCormack was a main figure during these shows and he fully believed that, “There were a million moving pieces and a lot that could have gone wrong, but that old Bonomi magic kicked in and it all worked flawlessly,” McCormack recalled. “That is what Singing Santa’s was — a symphony of controlled chaos with Brooke as the maestro. It was always a joyous experience.”

At the final show for the Singing Santas in 2016, the school was filled with students and their family members that had traveled near and far to thank Bonomi for the countless hours that he spent presenting this enormous pageant. Next to Bonomi was the musical talents of Michael Conlon, a guidance counselor who had been a member of several bands since his youth in Sayville. While Bonomi showed his genius through being an off the cuff individual, Conlon personified a balance in music to personally sing songs. They immediately connected, and Conlon stated, “The memories that I have of the Singing Santas experience will forever bring a smile to my face as it did so many students over the last twenty-five years to perform in many different venues.”  

Joseph A. Cognitore, the commander of Post 6249 Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars, always requested the help of the Santas to play for their annual holiday party. Cognitore was always amazed at the role of the students and he expressed that “Bonomi was a constant fixture to bring smiles to all of the people, especially the children that watched these shows. Over the years, he never hesitated to help veterans that were struggling at home or were serving overseas in combat areas.”

Another activity and immense pride for the school that Bonomi led over the last several years was the Be a Nicer Neighbor Club. This organization was originally established from a lesson on the Progressive Era, which Bonomi taught on the need for people to be respectful to each other. Bonomi credited Galvin for promoting the charter beliefs of this group and Principal Bill Caulfied for making it into a reality by formerly making it into a yearly club. 

In the early morning hours, Bonomi and the students cooked breakfast for the staff members, they made food for the homeless and school bus drivers. During the colder months, his students organized food and clothing drives and in the spring they conducted car washes. He helped build two 9/11 memorials placed in front of the school to remember the four lost graduates from Rocky Point. Just recently, he presided over Live Like Susie event to recall the positive joy of Susie Facini and to honor those current students that presented her values of kindness and devotion to the school. For many years, he ran the Senior Citizen Prom for the older residents of the North Shore. Bonomi had the students dress up as waiters, they played music and even ran the Pete Rose casino. He has taken students numerous times to Broadway shows and walked over the Brooklyn Bridge and to Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in New York City.

There has been countless whiffle ball games, square dances, chess matches, after-school films and meetings where he presented his most recent plans to aid society and the nation. Always next to him were staff members where Bonomi is seen exhibiting a dynamic sense of camaraderie. He showcased this through efforts to help the misfortunate in Hubner’s Homeless Helpers. Social worker Jennifer Zaffino has been at pivotal friend at Bonomi’s side for years to promote these social and economic programs. Zaffino, with a immense smile, wanted to thank Bonomi for the “many beautiful, behind-the-scene stories of what comes of most of the fundraised money.” The money is allocated to an account for students in need and has been utilized to help adolescents who experience financial hardship.  “This is a small, but perfect example of how impactful Brooke’s ‘work’ has been for our students and their families,” she said.

And the culmination of his many projects was supremely demonstrated this past winter through the Wounded Warrior Basketball Game. The expertise that Bonomi showed was a colossal effort in creating four teams of players comprised of administrators, teachers, aides, security guards and groundskeepers. It was a student-centered game, as they were the coaches who made draft picks and trades through commentated announcements by Athletic Director Charlie Delargey. This event completely packed the gym, had a massive raffle, Simon Says for the children, shirts that were thrown to crowd and left many people wondering how Bonomi was able to make this event into a massive success. Bowler has watched these ongoing achievements by Bonomi and he stressed that this teacher “has always taught the students around him the value and the importance of reaching out and helping others through community service, and he did it in a way that made it fun for them.”

But while Bonomi has had the support of teachers, staff members and students, none of these vital programs would have been made possible without the loving support of his family. He credits the confidence that he received from the loving support of his wife, Eileen, who has stood by him during every activity. She has been the constant source of encouragement and the main cog of the family to completely guide this household. Bonomi, who is immensely busy, is always known to have stated, “that while it is important to help others, your greatest impact will be on your own children.” As a proud and devoted man to his family, he has utter happiness when looking at his children who are all now young adults.  

Bonomi with his family. Photo from Rich Acritelli

Currently, his son Colin graduated from Scranton University and is employed at a finance firm. His older boy Ryan excelled at his studies at Providence University and now is enrolled in law school where he is working with the Justice Department in Boston, Massachusetts. Lauren, his youngest child, is studying to be a physician’s assistant at Villanova University. Ever the sports fan, Bonomi watches Villanova’s basketball games and likes going to the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. He loved traveling to Woodloch Pines Resort in Pennsylvania and accompanying his wife and children to see the Zac Brown Band at Citi Field. With his family, Brooke has been supportive of his church, where he has organized youth groups, sang at holiday events and sold Christmas trees. While Bonomi brushes aside any personal acknowledgments that praise his talents as a teacher, he has been recognized several times as an educator of the year through different organizations and his church and home town has publicly thanked him for being such a selfless individual. 

As it has not yet hit many of us how hard the loss of Bonomi will be for the high school in September, it will be noticeable not to hear his keys jingling, the sight of him giving out raffle tickets for his Friday raffle and his contagious laughter. One thing is for certain, that many of the senior staff members will have to do more to ensure that the traditions that this educator created over the last several decades are continued from one year to the next for the students of Rocky Point High School.

Well, Bonomi will not be in the school for this upcoming year, but his presence will always be felt by the many lives of the staff and students that he has touched since 1986. You can believe that Bonomi will continue to stay active with his family and will continue doing all that he can do on a daily basis to help his fellow citizens in every possible way. Thank you to Brooke R. Bonomi for making the North Shore into a better place.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

Miller Place valedictorian Lori Beth Sussman and salutatorian Jenna Hoyland. Photos from Miller Place School District

Miller Place High School announced the top students of the 2019 graduating class are seniors Lori Beth Sussman and Jenna Hoyland, who have been named valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively.

Sussman has been an all-county musician involved in the jazz band and pit orchestra. In addition, she was the foreign language national honor society Spanish president, Tri-M co-vice president, varsity tennis member and part of the mock trial club. She also was Mathletes captain, Future Business Leaders of America member and The Cancer Answer project fundraiser founder.

She shared some advice to students who are heading into high school, saying not to be afraid to ask questions and put your foot forward. 

Sussman finished her high school career with a 99.918 weighted GPA and plans to attend Vassar College in the fall. 

“I’m really excited to go to Vassar. They have an open and flexible curriculum.” she said. ”I’m looking forward to learning more.”   

Hoyland has participated in winter and spring track, served as senior council president and service club treasurer and was yearbook editor. This year she was also named a National Merit Commended Scholar.   

The senior shared some advice to her fellow peers and students who are heading into
high school.

“Set high standards and don’t back down from them,” she said.  

Hoyland finished her high school career with a 99.77 weighted GPA and will attend Binghamton University where she plans to study chemistry. 

“I’m excited to meet new people and take on new challenges,” she said. 

Mount Sinai valedictorian Isaac Kisten and salutatorian Kenneth Wei. Photos from Mount Sinai School District

By Leah Chiappino

In light of graduation season, Mount Sinai valedictorian Isaac Kisten and salutatorian Kenneth Wei have taken the time to reflect on their hopes for the future as well as their journeys to the success they have attained thus far in school.  

Kisten has a final GPA of 104.28 and plans to attend the Stern School of Business at New York University as a finance major. He stated that he also hopes to study social entrepreneurship in order to “leverage the use of business to benefit the community in some way.”

At Mount Sinai, he took ten AP courses and earned the AP Scholar with Distinction award. Kisten stayed immersed in extracurriculars at Mount Sinai as the Future Business Leaders of America president and the National Honor Society treasurer. He volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, March of Dimes and the Ronald McDonald House, and worked as the Center Youth Group student leader. 

To boot, he played varsity basketball and won several awards for his performance, such as Basketball All-County Academic and first place at the AICPA National Bank On It tournament. He was named Infant Jesus Basketball All-Star.

Kisten commended his family for his accomplishments. 

“They always had confidence in me and my abilities,” he said. “They motivated and guided me when I needed direction.”

The Kisten family first moved to Mount Sinai from Queens in 2007, a decision Kisten has nothing but positive things to say about. 

“These past 12 years have been amazing,” the valedictorian said. “This school is unparalleled in preparation and opportunities offered to all students. The community of Mount Sinai has been extremely welcoming.”

He added equally high esteem and appreciation for his teachers.  

“Being valedictorian is more of a testament of how exceptional all my teachers have been,” he said. “I simply listened to all of their advice and teaching and success came easy.”

Kisten did not abstain from the opportunity to thank his friends and regarded the school’s senior trip to Disney as his favorite high school memory, citing the “countless memories” that were made in just a few days.

As far as advice to future seniors, Kisten said to “pay attention to the advice of those who went before us. Parents, teachers and all of those who have had more life experiences than us offer guidance that can be the key to success. Always keep in mind the small community of Mount Sinai. It gave us 12-plus years of our lives that we could not find anywhere else.”

Wei earned a final GPA of 104.11, and will be attending MIT as a bioengineering major, with hopes of working in the research field. His extracurriculars included Athletes Helping Athletes Club and Student Council president, as well as playing the flute and piano in the music department. 

His favorite memories from high school consist of his tenure running track and field. He joked that his most memorable experience in the sport was splitting a cantaloupe between his legs at the state championships. His skills exceed far beyond that, as in the 2019 indoor track and field season he earned the U.S. #1 Mark for the long jump, was recognized three times as an All- American track star and holds the state record in the sixty meter hurdles. He also competed with professional and Division 1 collegiate athletes at the Toyota USATF indoor championships. 

Wei took 11 AP courses, but his favorite class at Mount Sinai was a ceramics course taught by Eric Giorlando, who doubles as his track coach. Wei praised Giorlando, calling him a “mentor to me over the past four years. He’s taught me a lot and I would like to thank him for all he has done for me.”

Wei’s advice to future seniors was to relax during the college admission process, and not to focus on the immense stress he said students are put through. 

“Nine times out of ten you are going to be happy where you end up regardless,’’ he said. “If there is an extracurricular you want to take, but you are juggling a big STEM class your senior year, go for the extracurricular. Just
have fun.”

Comsewogue valedictorian Ankita Katukota and salutatorian Jessica Sperling. Photos from CUFSD

Comsewogue High School announced the top students of the 2019 graduating class are seniors Ankita Katukota and Jessica Sperling, who have been named valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively.

Katukota finished her high school career with a 101.43 weighted GPA. She served as the varsity tennis captain and interned at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. She was a member of the jazz band, Brookhaven youth court, Women in Science and Engineering and Athletes Helping Athletes. 

She will attend University of California, Los Angeles and plans to study pre-med. 

“I’m really excited to go to UCLA and ready to try something new,” she said. “The school is really well-known for its pre-med program.”

Katukota shared some advice to students who are heading into high school. 

“I would just say keep working hard, get involved in extracurricular activities and keep striving for what you want,” she said.

Sperling, as salutatorian, finished her high school career with a 100.2 weighted GPA. During her time at Comsewogue, Sperling served as   T.A.S.K. club member, student government president, Comsewogue Board of Education student representative, Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association student representative, Spanish honor society vice president and yearbook editor-in-chief. 

Sperling will attend Binghamton University in the fall and study political science. 

“I’m really excited to go Binghamton,” she said. “I’m really interested in law and hope to go to law school [in the future] and possibly go into government work.”

Sperling said she is looking forward to continuing doing work in the community and being active in campus clubs and organizations at Binghamton. 

The senior also shared some advice to students heading into high school. 

“Have a good balance between school and your personal life,” she said. “I think it is really important to have time for yourself and enjoy your high school experience. Before you know it it’s over.”

Photo courtesy of Suffolk Federal

Suffolk Federal presented a total of $30,000 in college scholarships ($5,000 each) to six local high school seniors who will be attending Suffolk County Community College on June 6.

“Supporting our younger generation to become productive community members by providing financial assistance as they undertake their college experience is an important focus for Suffolk Federal,” said Ralph D. Spencer Jr., president & CEO of Suffolk Federal. 

“We are happy to know that the scholarships awarded will help to alleviate some of the student’s financial burden, so they can focus on their future educational and career goals.”

From the $30,000, four of the scholarship award recipients received $5,000 each as part of the Suffolk Federal Scholarship.  In addition, one student, Amber Leon, received an additional $5,000 scholarship provided by the LT Michael P. Murphy Memorial Scholarship Foundation, which was matched by Suffolk Federal for a total of $10,000. 

Also, William Clifford received $5,000 as part of the Michael E. Reilly Foundation Memorial Scholarship for Excellence in Fire Science and Emergency Medical Technology, which is awarded to a student enrolled in a Fire Protection Technology program at Suffolk County Community College.

Recipients were judged based upon their academic achievements, extracurricular and community activities as well as the quality of written essays.

Scholarship recipients, pictured in the front row from left include Gabrielle Cerney of Manorville, Nicole Migliano of Selden, Amber Leon of Ridge, William Clifford of Ronkonkoma, Jaime Cusmano of Centereach and Samantha Varone of Centereach. 

This year’s scholarships are being provided as a result of a new partnership between Suffolk Federal and the Suffolk County Community College Foundation.

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Smithtown school district Superintendent James Grossane addresses the class of 2016 and those in attendance during East’s commencement ceremony June 22. Photo by Alex Petroski

On June 11, the Smithtown Central School District board of education appointed veteran educator Russell J. Stewart as interim superintendent, effective July 3. Stewart joins Smithtown from the Center Moriches  School District, where he currently serves as superintendent of schools. He will be filling in for the position left by James Grossane.

“Mr. Stewart is a highly respected administrator who brings with him the professional experience, educational knowledge and interpersonal communication skills the board requires to effectively lead our school district during this transition period,” said Smithtown BOE president Jeremy Thode. 

During his nine years as superintendent of Center Moriches, Stewart successfully oversaw the introduction and expansion of a number of programs, including the implementation of a districtwide International Baccalaureate endeavor, creation of a community service involvement program for high school students and expansion of a comprehensive K-12 8:1:1 program. He was also responsible for the enhancement of school safety through various efforts, such as increased security protocols and the promotion of a positive school culture and social-emotional wellness programs. Additionally, he oversaw the successful completion of a comprehensive capital improvement project.

“I thank the board for this opportunity and am excited to work with them and confirm my commitment to the students of Smithtown,” Stewart said. “I also look forward to collaborating with the community, students, staff and my central office colleagues to create a unified vision and further enhance the educational opportunities for all students.” 

As part of his more than 30 years of educational experience, Stewart has served as principal, assistant principal, dean of discipline and chairperson for health, physical education and interscholastic athletics at Commack High School. He was also an assistant principal and principal at Western Suffolk BOCES Consortium. Stewart spent his first 10 years in education as a health and physical education teacher.

A resident of Manorville, Stewart holds a bachelor’s in health and physical education from the University of Sioux Falls and a master’s in school administration and supervision from New York University. 

The board is actively continuing its search for a permanent superintendent of schools and will keep the community updated as the progress continues.

Bethel Hobbs Community Farm in Centereach holds an annual community race to raise money for the farm. Photo by Kyle Barr

To address the critical shortfall of skilled young and beginning farmers and ranchers, congressional leaders, including Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), introduced June 13 the Young Farmer Success Act. If adopted, the bill would encourage careers in agriculture, by adding farmers and ranchers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, an existing program that currently includes teachers, nurses, first responders and other public service professions. Under the program, eligible public service professionals who make 10 years of income-driven student loan payments can have the balance of their loans forgiven.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin speaks during an interview at TBR News Media. Photo by Kevin Redding

“Our country’s farmers are part of the backbone of our nation, and while they are critical to ensuring American families have food to put on the table, all too often the next generation of farmers is finding that a career in agriculture makes it difficult to put food on their own table,” Zeldin said. “After graduating college, aspiring farmers are saddled with crippling student loan debt and the daunting costs of agricultural businesses, oftentimes driving them from a career feeding our country.” 

The new legislation will allow the next generation of farmers to pursue a career serving the American people, eliminating the disincentive to study agriculture in school and getting them on the farm when they graduate.

Farming is an expensive business to enter, in part because of skyrocketing land prices. Young and beginning farmers often see small profits or even losses in their first years of business. With the majority of existing farmers nearing retirement age, and very few young people entering the farming or ranching profession, America is beginning to face an agricultural crisis. Since the Dust Bowl, the federal government has taken steps to support farmers, and the Young Farmer Success Act supports farmers through a different approach — finding a tangible pathway to pay off student loans that will offer incentives to a new generation of career farmers.

“Eighty-one percent of the young farmers who responded to our 2017 national survey hold a bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree,” Martin Lemos, National Young Farmers Coalition interim executive director, said. “This means there is a very small population of beginning farmers without student loan debt. With the average age of farmers now nearing 60 years, and farmers over 65 outnumbering those under 35 by 6:1, we need to do more for the next generation of farmers to succeed. We are grateful for the bill’s bipartisan champions, Representatives Joe Courtney (D-CT), Glenn ‘G.T.’ Thompson (R-PA), Josh Harder (D-CA) and Lee Zeldin. With the support of Congress, we will encourage those who wish to pursue a career in farming to serve their country by building a brighter future for U.S. agriculture.”

In 2011, National Young Farmers Coalition conducted a survey of 1,000 young farmers and found 78 percent of respondents struggled with a lack of capital. A 2014 follow-up survey of 700 young farmers with student loan debt found that the average burden of student loans was $35,000. The same study also found 53 percent of respondents are currently farming, but have a hard time making their student loan payments and another 30 percent are interested in farming, but haven’t pursued it as a career because their salary as a farmer wouldn’t be enough to cover their student loan payments.

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.

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