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

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.

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