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BOCES center builds labyrinth to promote mindfulness

The new labyrinth opened at the end of May. Photo from Charlie Tedesco

By Rachel Siford

Eastern Suffolk BOCES’ Centereach Academic Center has taken a creative approach to promoting mindfulness.

The center, which caters to students who require special education or who have severe behavioral issues and learning disabilities, recently opened a labyrinth on its grounds. A labyrinth is a type of maze, or purposeful path, that promotes reflection and meditation within a structured environment.

Principal Susan Goltz said students can get easily frustrated and will sometimes leave the classroom because they are so overwhelmed with their feelings. She and her staff wanted to find a more acceptable way for the students to cope.

“We felt that having a labyrinth on school grounds would give them the opportunity to deal with feelings and teach them mindful strategies,” Goltz said.

Goltz added that students’ emotional issues could lead to interruptions in their education, causing them to fall behind in some subjects.

The school’s faculty and staff want to teach students to use the labyrinth while in crisis.

Mindfulness, which promotes a meditative practice with Buddhist roots, has been a growing trend in the mental health field. It is the state of being aware of the present moment and being able to acknowledge one’s feelings and thoughts.

The labyrinth’s official ribbon cutting was May 29. Goltz said feedback from students to date has been very positive. She plans on giving out a survey to students before and after their use of the labyrinth when school is back in session.

Charlie Tedesco, guidance counselor, had a pivotal role in the research and planning of the labyrinth.

“Sometimes it’s only a matter of having a small challenge to set off a student’s emotional frustration,” Tedesco said in a press release. “The labyrinth project was initiated so students could do something by themselves or they could be accompanied by a counselor. The walking area helps relieve stress and has a calming effect.”

Research from Boston’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, which researches, treats and prevents stress-related illnesses, has shown mindful walking can help reduce anxiety and stress.

“There are several statistics that point to individuals becoming grounded, more centered and focused when they do mindful walking,” Tedesco said.

The labyrinth was designed by the staff and was based on other examples they had seen. Middle Island-based William Moloney Masonry won the bid to construct the labyrinth, and the center secured $25,000 in state funding with help from state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport).

“It is a tool that our students will benefit from,” Goltz said. “Learning how to use mindful thinking in a controlled environment is something they can take into life.”

Commack, Kings Park, Smithtown districts’ numbers dip while Huntington reports increase in students last year

Superintendent James Grossane file photo

Enrollment numbers are in flux for western North Shore school districts like Commack, Huntington, Kings Park and Smithtown, but superintendents are planning accordingly for the future.

A Western Suffolk BOCES report released in March pegged an overall 6.9 percent decline in enrollment numbers of elementary and middle school students from 89,532 in 2008 to 83,336 in 2014. Some of the districts suffering the larger numbers of enrollment dips included Commack, Kings Park and Smithtown — the largest district under the Western Suffolk BOCES region — but Huntington’s district, however, was named one of only three districts to see an enrollment increase over the last few years.

Overall regional enrollment is projected to decline by 5,396 students, or 6.5 percent, over the next three years, as elementary and middle school enrollment figures progress through the system, according to the report.

“The number of births in Suffolk County declined from 21,252 in 1990 to 15,521 in 2013 (preliminary data),” the report said. “Smaller kindergarten classes replaced larger exiting twelfth-grade classes each year since 2008. As these smaller cohorts continue to move through the system, losses are projected in elementary, middle and secondary grade enrollment from 2014 to 2017.”

Commack and Kings Park each suffered a little more than 13 percent dips in enrollment between 2008 and 2014, the report said — the greatest losses of any Western Suffolk BOCES district during that time. But Timothy Eagen, superintendent of schools for the Kings Park Central School District, said there was no need for panic.

Eagen said his district hit historical enrollment numbers back in 2006 at 4,192 students and then saw that figure slowly drop over the following years to 3,511 this year. Looking ahead, Kings Park projected 3,391 enrollment by the coming September.

“The reason for the enrollment decline is fairly simple,” Eagen said. “The incoming kindergarten class has been smaller than the graduating twelfth-grade class of the previous year since 2007.”

Eagen said enrollment numbers should stabilize in the not-too-distant future, as the district moves forward with a staff-neutral budget that allows for reductions in class sizes.

“Class sizes are finally moving in a good direction, and I have received some very positive feedback from the community on this,” he said.

The Commack School District, which did not return requests for comment, saw its enrollment figures drop from 7,830 in 2008 to 6,778 in 2014.

Smithtown’s numbers started at 10,844 in 2008 and dropped about 250 students per year to 9,704 by 2014, the report said, and school Superintendent James J. Grossane said the Smithtown Board of Education was working diligently to prepare for the shift. The superintendent said the district is bracing for an ongoing dip through the year 2023, when he projects a total enrollment of 7,316.

The BOCES report said Smithtown saw a 26 percent drop in housing sales between 2007 and 2012 but did note sales went up between 2012 and 2013 by 36.2 percent, showing a generally stabilizing market.

Meanwhile, Smithtown’s BOE convened a housing committee in April 2014 comprised of a broad cross section of school community members as well as members of the Smithtown community at large to analyze the district’s future housing needs in light of a continuous decline in enrollment, Grossane said. That committee made various recommendations to the BOE back in March, including closing one elementary school no sooner than the 2016-17 school year but did not specify which one. It also suggested the BOE considered a potential middle school closure for the 2022-23 school year if enrollment continues to decline at its current rate, pending a study from the BOE’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Instruction and Housing.

The Huntington school district, which did not return requests for comment, was one of three districts to record enrollment increases between 2013 and 2014 at 1.8 percent alongside Copiague and Wyandanch, bringing its 2014 number up to 4,446 from 4,384 in 2008.

The same could not be said, however, for its neighboring school district in Northport-East Northport, where numbers declined from 6,410 in 2008 to 5,686 in 2014.

Huntington school district staff offer a standing ovation to administrators Carmen Kasper, left, and Carmela Leonardi at a school board meeting on Monday night. The two are retiring at the end of this year. Photo by Rohma Abbas

Two longtime Huntington school district administrators touting a combined tenure of nearly four decades are retiring at the end of this year.

The school board voted to accept the retirements of Huntington High School Principal Carmela Leonardi and Carmen Kasper, the district’s director of foreign language, ESL and bilingual programs, at a meeting on Monday night. The two are opting into an early retirement incentive offered by the district.

Leonardi has been at the district for 24 years and Kasper for 15 years. Both women, who sat next to each other in the auditorium of the Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School on Monday, said while they were sad to go, it was time to move on.

“I loved every minute of it,” Leonardi said. “I really loved every minute of it.”

Leonardi and Kasper earned a standing ovation after Superintendent Jim Polansky announced the news, calling it “bittersweet.”

Kasper said she had been mulling the decision for three years, but kept putting it off. “This year I decided it’s not going to be a ‘next year,'” she said. She also recalled herself shaking as she walked into Polansky’s office to hand him her letter of resignation.

“I said, ‘If I don’t put it here, I’m not going to do it,'” Kasper said.

Before becoming principal of Huntington High School, Leonardi was the educational leader of the Woodhull Early Childhood Center and the principal at Huntington Intermediate School. She has a passion for languages, and is fluent in Italian, Spanish and English, as well as proficient in French. She also studied Latin for six years.

Leonardi led the Huntington Intermediate School to earn the New York Excellence in Education Award, according to her bio on the district’s website. She’s also supported the expansion of honors and AP offerings, which has led to an “increasing number of Huntington students” who have taken AP classes and have done well on AP tests.

During her time at the district, Kasper has secured “significant sums of grant monies” to support the district’s programs and services for ESL and bilingual students, according to her bio on the district’s website. Before coming to Huntington, she taught English, kindergarten, first, second and seventh grades in Peru, served as a bilingual resource specialist at Western Suffolk BOCES, taught Spanish at Eastern Suffolk BOCES and worked as a BOCES regional summer school coordinator.

Kasper has spearheaded after-school and weekend classes to help dual language, English Language Learner and Limited English Proficiency students and their parents. She also coordinated after-school Chinese classes for intermediate-level students “at no cost to the district as a result of her professional relationships in the educational community.”

Leonardi will be leaving the district with a retirement incentive award not to exceed $50,000, while Kasper’s award will not exceed approximately $39,472.

Leonardi and Kasper are not the only ones retiring from the Huntington school district come June 30. The school board voted to approve the retirements of three other instructional staff: guidance counselor Caterina Cain, high school foreign language teacher Carmela Mastragostino and school social worker Vilma Matos, who are all taking advantage of the retirement incentive.

Polansky estimates that a total of 10 staff members will take advantage of two early retirement incentives the district is offering — one for teachers and one for administrators. The deadline to opt into the incentives is today, Tuesday, March 24.

School building has lasted through ups and downs in Port Jefferson Village

Port Jefferson’s old high school on Spring Street, above, was made of wood and burned down on July 4, 1913. Photo from the Port Jefferson Village Digital Archive

A lot has changed in the last century, but Port Jefferson’s Spring Street school building still stands.

BOCES social worker Christian Scott, special education teacher Patricia Dolan and Principal Chris Williams wear period clothing to celebrate the Spring Street school building's 100th birthday. Photo from BOCES
BOCES social worker Christian Scott, special education teacher Patricia Dolan and Principal Chris Williams wear period clothing to celebrate the Spring Street school building’s 100th birthday. Photo from BOCES

Eastern Suffolk BOCES, which leases the school building from the Port Jefferson school district, recently celebrated the building’s 100th birthday, with festivities that included period costumes and popular music from the era — the 1914 hit “By the Beautiful Sea” and a World War I marching song from 1915, “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag.” There was also a ribbon-cutting ceremony and lots of cake at the school at Spring and High streets, which is now officially called the Jefferson Academic Center.

Though the mood was light that day, the road leading up to the 100th birthday bash was a rocky one.

Another building, the original Port Jefferson High School, once stood in that same place, but it burned down on Independence Day in 1913.

According to the village’s historical archive, it is still a mystery what caused the fire, which started the night before. At the time, many believed that some young people broke into the building so they could ring the bell at midnight to celebrate July 4. They believed the kids started the fire by accident while using matches to light their way in the dark building.

The Spring Street school building went up in 1914. Photo by Barbara Donlon
The Spring Street school building went up in 1914. Photo by Barbara Donlon

There was also a theory that an arsonist lit up the wooden building, according to the archive. A suspect was presented to a Suffolk County grand jury, but he was not indicted.

The current Spring Street building was erected the following year, with the community laying its cornerstone on May 2.

According to Eastern Suffolk BOCES, $75,000 went toward the new brick and stone structure, which had separate entrances for boys and girls on opposite sides of the building.

“The genders may have been separated by doorways, but their education fell under the doctrine that knowledge is power, a phrase carved into the front of the building for all to see,” a press release from BOCES said.

Though the building was once home to all the grades in the school district, the district expanded and it eventually housed only middle school students. When those kids were moved into the Earl L. Vandermeulen High School building on Old Post Road, where they remain today, the historical building was left behind.

Port Jefferson’s old high school on Spring Street was made of wood and burned down on July 4, 1913. Photo from the Port Jefferson Village Digital Archive
Port Jefferson’s old high school on Spring Street was made of wood and burned down on July 4, 1913. Photo from the Port Jefferson Village Digital Archive

Eastern Suffolk BOCES stepped in during the late 1990s. Sean Leister, Port Jefferson’s assistant superintendent for business, said the school district began leasing the building to BOCES in March 1997. And according to BOCES, it has been providing special education services at the Jefferson Academic Center since 1998.

In 2007, the deteriorating Spring Street building got a little lift — district voters overwhelmingly approved a $5.2 million bond to renovate the building, which came with a renewed 10-year lease, the yearly rent of which covered the cost of the improvements. Those included replacing the gym floor, piping and the boilers; improving site drainage; doing work on the electrical system and the foundation; and making the building more handicapped-accessible with additional toilets, a wheelchair lift and an elevator.

The renovations have kept the Spring Street school going strong — it is the oldest school in Suffolk County that still operates as such.

To 100 years more.

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