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Commack High School

Dan Graziosi

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported in 2017 there were more than 550,000 homeless in the country. Three alumni from Ward Melville and Commack high schools have asked a simple question: How many are stuck that way simply because nobody can see their résumés?

“You never really know why someone became homeless,” said Dan Graziosi, 22, a Ward Melville graduate. He is chief executive officer of Lazarus Rising, a nonprofit created in 2015 that helps homeless people write their résumés and get ready for job interviews. 

“A lot of the people don’t necessarily see the skills that they themselves have, and sometimes showing this person that they have value is almost more important than making a résumé for them,” Graziosi said.

Matthew Sobel

Co-founders of Lazarus Rising, Ward Melville alum Matthew Sobel, 23, and Commack alum Matthew Rojas, 23, gave birth to the organization wondering, as sophomores at the University of Delaware, that if creating a résumé for them was difficult — two people who considered themselves privileged — then how tough would it be for a person without access to resources such as a computer?

“There’s a really unfortunate number of people who are experiencing homelessness,” Rojas said. “While some are unfortunately addicts, a lot of them don’t have basic things like a printer, Microsoft Word or they just haven’t had an interview in a long time.”

As they first walked into a Delaware homeless shelter in 2014, just a block away from their freshman dorm, the two did not have much in the way of community service experience. Yet at the shelter they met a man named Jeff, that while he had fallen on hard times since the 2008 recession, he also had years of experience managing more than 20 people at a warehouse. The only problem was his résumé was five pages of a single-spaced biography rather than the commonly accepted single page bulleting a person’s most applicable skills.

“It kind of took our breath away knowing that an employer is throwing that right out the window,” Sobel said. “It’s not Jeff’s fault — he just didn’t know what standards there are in résumés.”

In 2015 Sobel, Rojas, Graziosi, along with several other friends and compatriots, incorporated their talents into the non-profit Lazarus Rising, all while they were still undergrads. 

Matthew Rojas

“There is a subset of the homeless population that have the skills to be an amazing employee, but they simply lack the skills that we take for granted like being able to write a résumé,” Sobel said. “We all realized we came from super-fortunate situations, being from where we came from and what schools we came from. I came into college with minimal community service. It’s one of those experiences you really can’t understand until you do it.”

Lazarus Rising has grown to host more than 200 volunteers offering their services either in school or during their free time. They have college chapters at Binghamton University, University of Delaware, University of Maryland and the University of Pittsburgh and professional chapters in New York City and Philadelphia. Graziosi estimates that the organization has aided more than 300 homeless participants.

Volunteers for Lazarus Rising often spend approximately one hour with a homeless person working on his or her résumé. They then spend more time after completing mock interviews or even help the person navigate applying for jobs online.

Rojas said that it is one of the greatest satisfactions of his life having helped these people get back on their feet. “It’s a feeling that what I’m doing actually makes a difference,” he said.

Meanwhile the group hopes to expand its reach in New York state and eventually Long Island, most likely through local colleges like Stony Brook University.

All three alumni are out of college and have either found jobs or starting ones, but that has not stopped any of them from being active in the organization. While Graziosi will soon be taking on a job as a technology consultant for Ernst & Young, a professional services organization, he still plans to run as the nonprofit’s CEO into the foreseeable future.

Graziosi’s mother Sheila, a Setauket resident, said what her son and his friends have been able to accomplish has not only changed their lives, but the lives of many homeless.

“He’s amazing — I’m just so proud of him,” Graziosi’s mother said of her son. “He’s really getting so much out of it.” 

Lazarus Rising is looking for more volunteers. For more information about volunteer opportunities or to donate to Lazarus Rising, visit lazarusrising.org.

Meet the Class of 2018's valedictorians, salutatorians and honor speakers in Smithtown

Commack High School's Class of 2018 throws their caps skyward in celebration. Photo by Karen Forman

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Across the Town of Smithtown, hundreds of graduates stepped forward to receive their high school diplomas last week. Among the graduates are those who have excelled academically, achieving consistently high marks to rise top of their class to earn the titles of valedictorian and salutatorian. 

Commack High School Honor Speaker: Matthew Ciurleo. Photo by Karen Forman.

Commack High School

Honor Speaker: Matthew Ciurleo

GPA: 105.12 (weighted)

College: Harvard University

Major: Economics

Ciurleo served as president of the National Honor Society, a captain of the varsity boys golf team and was a member of both the Boys Scholar Athletic Leadership Club and Italian Honor Society.

 

 

Kings Park High School Valedictorian Lina Rohrer. Photo from Kings Park school district

Kings Park High School

Valedictorian: Lina Rohrer

GPA: 106.04 (weighted)

College: Not disclosed

Major: Physics

Rohrer plans on continuing her education by studying physics.

 

 

 

Kings Park High School Salutatorian Keiffer Acoba. Photo from Kings Park school district

Kings Park High School

Salutatorian: Keiffer Acoba

GPA: 105.01

College: Carnegie Mellon

Major: Computer Science

Acoba was named among the Top 300 Scholars in Regeneron’s Science Talent Search, a Coca-Cola Scholar finalist, and a Junior Science and Humanities Symposium Regional finalist. He was vice president of the Independent Science Research, co-captain of the math team,  head programmer of the robotics team and president of Science Olympiads.

 

Smithtown High School East honor speaker Matthew Timmel. Photo from Smithtown school district

Smithtown High School East

Honor speaker: Matthew Timmel

GPA: 4.13

College: Florida State University

Major: Business finance, computer  science

Timmel served as president of DECA, senior leader of RYLA, a member of the National Honor Society and played on the varsity boys badminton team.

 

 

 

Smithtown High School West Honor Speaker Kevin Camson. Photo from Smithtown school district

Smithtown High School West

Honor Speaker: Kevin Camson

GPA: 4.08

College: University of Notre Dame

Major: Political Science

Camson served as student liaison to Smithotwn’s board of education; founder and president of Student Pipeline; member of the teen council for the Robin Hood Foundation; founder and leader of Project Smith-Stead; founder of Tables to Enable; a member of the School Start Time Steering Committe; and on track and field.

By Karen Forman

More than 550 Commack High School graduates looked to their future Friday night. 

Commack High School held its annual commencement exercises June 22 on the athletic fields.

“Be present in your daily lives,” Commack High School Principal Leslie Boritz told the Class of 2018. “Be here now for yourself and for others. Living in the present is how we can make a difference.”

After the students tossed their caps in the air, Master of Ceremonies and English teacher James Desmond told the graduating seniors, “While the flight of your caps is limited, may your future never be.”

 

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Jake Nieto’s research findings have potential to reduce the need for painful kidney biopsies

Dr. Prakash Narayan and Commack High Schoo senior Jake Nieto. Photo from Commack school district.

By Kevin Redding

Most teenagers don’t spend their summer developing new scientific methods that have the potential to revolutionize medical care. But Jake Nieto, a senior at Commack High School, is no ordinary teen.

In 2016, Nieto, a then 15-year-old math and science whiz was looking to spend his summer break continuing research he had gleaned in his chemistry and biology classes. He told his Commack science teacher, Richard Kurtz, who connected him with Dr. Prakash Narayan of Uniondale’s Angion Biomedica Corp., a clinical stage organ restoration company that opens its doors to student researchers.

“He was very precocious. His knowledge and abilities were very advanced for someone his age. If I gave him a problem, it would keep him awake at night.”

— Prakash Narayan

In Angion’s labs, Nieto applied his academic strengths — advanced biophysics, statistical analysis, computation — to an in-depth, months-long project on kidney disease. Despite being the youngest person working at Angion, he often worked four days a week from 8 a.m. to sometimes as late as 5 p.m.

“He was very precocious,” said Narayan, the vice president of preclinical research at Angion. “His knowledge and abilities were very advanced for someone his age. If I gave him a problem, it would keep him awake at night. It’s not like if he couldn’t solve it, he’d let it go.”

Nieto said, as with everything in his life, he was driven by genuine curiosity.

“I just found it so interesting that I could take what I learned from school and finally apply it to actual problems,” he said.

Both of Nieto’s scientific research papers based on that summer’s findings were published by PLOS One, a peer-reviewed, open access scientific journal. The first paper,  published in October 2016, details a formula he came up with and dubbed the “Nieto-Narayan Formula” — that estimates the volume of cysts found in the kidney of a person with polycystic kidney disease.

In a second paper, published this January, Nieto outlined a better approach to determining the amount of scar tissue in the kidney of someone with chronic kidney disease with the aim to alleviate the use of biopsies — the painful process of injecting a long needle through a patient’s back to examine the kidney scarring. For this project, he modified the commonly used elliptical formula in order to obtain more accurate measurements and volume of a kidney.

“I was so excited,” Nieto said. “It was really awesome and humbling to think that something I worked on could potentially be read by other people who are in the field.”

He and Narayan are confident, down the line, that his research has the potential for clinical study and could become part of normal kidney monitoring.

Commack High School teachers Jeanette Collette and Richard Kurtz; Dr. Prakash Narayan, vice president of preclinical research at at Angion Biomedica; and Commack senior Jake Nieto. Photo from Commack school district.

“Jake’s research really opens up the door for noninvasive characterization of kidney disease,” Narayan said. “I believe it can revolutionize the diagnosis and will greatly reduce very painful kidney biopsies. And, of course, for any 15-year-old to walk to spend the summer in a facility here, when other 15-year-olds are doing whatever they’re doing, and achieve this —  I think that’s very remarkable. I’m very proud of him.”

Nieto’s grandfather Ray Ingram, a Queens resident, said he was not in the least bit surprised by this achievement.

“Since he was 4 or 5 years old, Jake was outside looking through a magnifying glass,” Ingram said. “He had a microscope, a telescope, a chemistry set — everything he touched, he took apart and figured out how it worked and figured out a way to improve it.”

At the high school, Nieto is a competitor on the Science Olympiad and mock trial teams. He is president of the Spanish honor society and science honor society, plays trumpet in the marching band, and tutors other students in science and math. While unsure what college he will attend, Nieto knows he wants to study physics and engineering.

When asked if he is ever able to rewire his mind off science, Nieto laughed.

“I try to still have fun and obviously be a normal kid when I’m with my friends,” he said. “But I have my moments where I’ll start looking at something and try to make a scientific connection and be that kind of annoying person. Whenever I see something, I really just want to know why.” 

Commack sophomore Christian Berbert has appealed to Section XI to be allowed to compete on the girls varsity gymnastics team this season. Photo from the Berbert family

As young as 7, Christian Berbert knew what he wanted to do with his life. After his parents set up a trampoline in the backyard, Christian wasted no time in putting it to good use. The natural-born athlete approached the trampoline less as a fun accessory and more as a mini training facility.

“He was like a dolphin to water,” Wayne Berbert said of his son’s first foray into gymnastics. “He just started jumping and flipping within days of having it. This has always been his sport — nothing compares to this.”

But Christian, a Commack High School sophomore and member of Artistic Gymnastics in Hauppauge, is now being forced to defend his dream in front of a panel of county officials.

Christian, 15, has been repeatedly denied the opportunity to join the high school’s girls varsity gymnastics team this season despite three appeals before Section XI, the governing body of athletics in Suffolk County, since the start of the 2017 school year. Because there aren’t any varsity boys gymnastics team in New York State, competing with the girls is Christian’s only shot to pursue his passion in a school setting.

The sophomore has the overwhelming support from members of the girls gymnastics team, his school’s adminstrator and athletic director.

“We will continue to advocate to provide an opportunity for this young man to compete alongside the girls as we feel it would be in the best interests of our student to participate on the Commack team,” read a statement on the school district’s home page Oct. 10, the day of the most recent appeal.

However, the Section XI panel, headed by Executive Director Thomas Combs, has blocked each request, saying Christian carries too much of a competitive advantage over the girls because he actively trains as a gymnast. There is also a concern among the board that his placement on the team will take a spot away from a girl.

But their arguments don’t hold water, according to Christian’s parents, who have appeared in his defense during the appeals process. Berbert said it’s unfair to claim his son has a competitive advantage since he’s never actually competed against the girls “so there’s no way to determine that.”

He also added that just because Christian’s a boy, it’s wrong to assume he is physically stronger than the girls.

“In gymnastics, strength is not really a determining factor,” Berbert said. “And the girls team doesn’t cut anybody from the team so everyone would be able to participate.”

“It’s deplorable how people in public education can do this to a child,” Christian’s father said. “They should be doing everything in their power to include kids, not exclude them. He’s being told ‘you can’t do the thing you love to do’ and for a 15-year-old kid, that’s tough.”

Christian’s mother, Karen Berbert, said while she agrees with the notion that girls should have equal opportunities, “you can’t diminish the boys and take away from them.”

“The same thing that the board is arguing, that the girls should have every opportunity, and they should, but so should the boys,” said his mother, who fears her son’s inability to compete in high school could affect his chances at receiving scholarships for college. “He wants to be part of the school. He wants to be involved. Gymnastics is his right arm.”

In September, the girls on the team wrote personal letters to Section XI members in support of Christian’s appeal to compete.

Alexandra Lewis, a sophomore gymnast, said the team “will develop more teamwork, school spirit, and positivity by having [him].” Sophomore Stella Rentzeperis wrote it was unfair to deny Christian a chance to compete because “our gymnastics program does not say girls or boys … both genders are allowed.”

Lilli Ferro, a sophomore on the team, said Christian comes to every practice and meet.

“We all really like him and he really wants to be on the team,” Lilli said. “I don’t believe it would hurt us if he was on the team. He would help us.”

Christian’s situation coincides with that of Liam Summers, a 15-year-old sophomore and gymnast at Connetquot High School, who is currently being denied to join his school’s girls team by
Section XI. He was able to be on the team last season because he had never competed in school or in a private club. Now, with more experience, he’s looked at as having a competitive advantage.

Christian, who trains four days a week and three hours each day, said the Section XI board is not
doing the right thing.

“What they’re doing to me and all the other kids trying to do what I’m trying to do is all wrong and completely unfair,” Christian said. “I think I can do real well on the team and give them support and help and just make the team stronger and better. But they don’t see that and, instead, think I’m going to ruin the girls’ chances. They’re completely

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Michael Larson was appointed the new assistant principal of Commack High School. Photo from Brenda Lentsch

By Joseph Wolkin

A new administrator will be walking the halls of Commack High School next week.
Michael Larson was appointed assistant principal of Commack High School this week, after working at the school since 2007.

Larson said he has been set on being an educator since he graduated high school.

Growing up, Larson wasn’t sure what he wanted to do in life. Over time, his love for American history developed into a greater passion for social studies, and eventually it led to him wanting to share his knowledge with others.

Working through the rankings at Commack High School since 2007, Larson went from serving as a secondary social studies teacher, to teaching history, economics and government to being named the school’s newest assistant principal.

Effective Aug. 15, Larson took over the position previously held by Commack High School’s newest principal, Leslie Boritz.

“I’m honored and humbled and honored to serve Commack in this capacity,” Larson said. “One of the things I’ve learned about working in this district for the past few years is that the leaders work very closely together.”

Last year, Larson was promoted to coordinator of student affairs, a position he says helped develop his friendship with Boritz. The job consisted of overseeing discipline and attendance, working with students who have conduct or attendance issues, along with any potential problems with student life at the high school.

“His experience working one-on-one as both a class and student council advisor and as coordinator of student affairs and attendance has provided insight into the culture and views of our children at the high school.”

—Donald James

No longer in the classroom when he was given the new role, Larson admittedly missed developing relationships with kids, which he worked with for 180 days out of the year. However, he said he was able to find a way to still connect with Commack students, even if he was no longer in the classroom with them.

“Having those experiences last year really helped advance my development as an administrator,” Larson said. “The fact that I’m now working as an assistant principal with some of the people who played an instrumental role in my development is truly a blessing.”

The Stony Brook native attended Stony Brook University for his undergraduate degree in 2004, and received a graduate degree from Plymouth State University in special education in 2006.

Superintendent Donald James said Larson will do great things for Commack.

“Michael is a dynamic educator, who is compassionate and committed to our students,” he said in an email. “His experience working one-on-one as both a class and student council advisor and as coordinator of student affairs and attendance has provided insight into the culture and views of our children at the high school. Michael’s commitment to the students, their parents and his fellow staff members is evident in his many accomplishments at Commack High.”

The decision to make Larson the school’s newest assistant principal, along with naming Boritz as the principal, was part of a ripple effect caused by the retirement news of Commack’s last principal, Catherine Nolan.

In June, Boritz was named as the school’s new principal, replacing Nolan, who retired after holding the position for the last five years. She was the assistant principal at the school since July 2011, in addition to serving as the assistant principal of Commack Middle School for 11 years.

According to U.S. News and World Report, Commack High School is ranked as the 87th best high school in New York out of over 1,200 listed.

Larson lives in Stony Brook and will continue making the approximately 20-minute commute daily to the school that has given him the opportunity to advance in the education world. For that, he said he is indeed thankful.

“The priority for me this year is the continuation of the excellence that has come to represent the Commack School District,” he said. “I want to make efforts to continue an excellent program that’s great in athletics, academics, extracurricular and co-curricular, and expand on the opportunities we’re presenting our students and enhance them as we move forward.”

Teens accused of altering students' grades, schedules

Daniel Soares mugshot from SCPD

Three students from Commack High School were arrested Tuesday morning and accused of breaking into their school district’s computer system to change two students’ grades and nearly 300 students’ schedules, the Suffolk County Police Department said.

Cops identified the three 17-year-olds as Alex Mosquera of East Northport and Commack natives Daniel Soares and Erick Vaysman, alleging they were behind an unauthorized breach of the Commack Union Free School District’s computer system back in July. They surrendered to detectives on Tuesday around 7:30 a.m. and were scheduled to be arraigned at First District Court in Central Islip later in the day, police said.

Attorney information for the three teenagers was not immediately available.

Alexander Mosquera mugshot from SCPD
Alexander Mosquera mugshot from SCPD

Police said they were first notified of the data breach in July, when the Commack school district determined an unauthorized person, or group of people, accessed its network and altered the schedules of nearly 300 students. The district was able to identify the alterations and correct the schedules before students arrived for class in September, the district said. The county police department’s computer crimes section also investigated the breach and found two students’ grades were altered, SCPD said.

The district posted news of the arrest on its website Tuesday morning, but did not identify the students by name.

“We know that the actions of a few students do not reflect on the entire student body,” the Commack Union Free School District said in the statement. “From kindergarten through high school graduation, the district teaches and reinforces the attributes that contribute to good character: courtesy, honesty, attaining pride, responsibility, accountability, compassion, tolerance, endurance and respect. With reinforcement and guidance by their families, our students reflect those values.”

Erick Vaysman mugshot from SCPD
Erick Vaysman mugshot from SCPD

Mosquera was charged with computer trespass and criminal solicitation; Soares was charged with burglary, computer tampering, identity theft, computer trespass and eavesdropping; and Vaysman was charged with computer tampering and criminal solicitation, cops said Tuesday. The arrests came just weeks after the district went public with news of the initial breach, which was posted to its website last month. In response, the district bulked up its data protection protocols by adding security features to student management systems and implementing a 24-hour active monitoring program.

Some of the information that may have been viewed, the district said, included student identification numbers, names, addresses, contact information and schedules. Social security numbers, however, are not in the student management system.

Password protection safeguards and network protocols also prevented any further access to the district’s data management system and kept private and personal information safe, the district said in a statement.
“We believe the initial data breach only involved a very limited number of high school student records,” the district said in a statement. “The district continues to cooperate fully with local law enforcement agencies, and our IT department is working closely with the police to provide digital data to assist law enforcement. In addition, a full electronic security review is underway with a company that specializes in network security.”

The Commack School District is investigating reports of students from its high school spotted wearing offensive T-shirts once again, administrators said.

The district said on its website that pictures surfaced on social media from an off-campus house party during spring break last week showing students sporting anti-Semitic T-shirts. It was the second incident of its sort over the last several months, adding onto a September occurrence when students posed for photos wearing T-shirts that spelled the word “rape.”

“Our attorneys have advised us that given the fact that this incident took place off campus, during a recess, and during an event that was not school-sponsored, the school is limited in its ability to address this matter,” the district said on its website. “However, the district is taking all necessary steps to investigate and will impose discipline related to this where legally permissible.”

The names of the students were not disclosed, as the district is not legally permitted to do so.

Back in September, the district disciplined five high school students after pictures of them wearing inappropriate T-shirts surfaced on social media. A statement on the district’s website at the time outlined the incident, which occurred during the last period of classes on Thursday, Sept. 18, when all Commack High School seniors assembled on the bleachers of the varsity field to take the annual senior photo. Soon after that photo was taken, another picture was posted on Twitter of five smiling male students in T-shirts spelling out “rape,” with a sixth pretending to be bound by the wrists.

Moving ahead, the district said it would continue to provide programs to reinforce student sensitivity of others.

“The district would like to state that the actions of these students are not representative of the student body at Commack High School, and is committed to the district’s mission statement to foster a caring community of learners. We do not condone or permit any form of discrimination, bullying, or hateful messaging,” the statement said. “The district will also make counseling available to any student involved in or affected by this incident. The welfare of our students is always our paramount concern.”

Annual St. Baldrick’s event brings in five figures after students shave heads to benefit good cause

Commack High School students and administrators take turns trimming their hair or shaving it off completely to benefit cancer research. Photo by Jenni Culkin

By Jenni Culkin

A line of students from Commack High School trailed from the school’s gymnasium doors to the next hallway.
The students eagerly waited to cut their hair for a worthy cause while the room buzzed with music, pizza, smoothies, an auction and the countless surprised faces of the brave people who lost inches of hair to raise money and awareness for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

“Hey, free haircut!” one student joked.

According to St. Baldrick’s official website, the event, which took place on March 6, raised $75,304.50 by the end. During the event, students played all kinds of volunteering roles to join the fight against cancer.

“It’s a great cause,” said David Malinovsky, an 11th-grade Commack High School student who had his head shaved. “It’s one of the most special things that we can do besides giving money.”

Even some of the female students hopped into the chairs to get their hair cut significantly shorter. Some female students even decided to have their entire head shaved for the cause.

“My uncle recently died of cancer,” said Carrie Fishbane, a 12th-grade student who had her entire head shaved. “I’m doing this in memory of him.”

Others decided not to lose their precious locks but to still help out in other ways.

“I think it’d be fair for a change if everyone else had no hair,” says Kyle Critelli, a 10th-grade student.

Critelli volunteered to sweep hair from the gymnasium floor. Other students got involved by selling food, drinks and merchandise that would all benefit the students.

Even nonstudents from the community got involved in the effort. Tara Forrest, a professional hairdresser with 17 years of experience, has been volunteering to cut hair for St. Baldrick events for three years.

“My whole family does it,” Forrest said with excitement,

Forrest said she was first inspired to donate her time and effort after one of her young son’s classmates was diagnosed with kidney cancer. She told her son Michael that his classmate’s remission is credited to “people like us that raise money.”

With that inspiration, Michael, who is now in second grade, has helped to raise roughly $10,000 through St. Baldrick’s within three years.

But the Forrest family was not the only one to let a personal situation inspire them to participate in charity work.

Lee Tunick, a math teacher from Commack High School, became the advisor for Yodel Kadodel, an extracurricular club at the school that raises awareness and money for cancer research with various activities throughout the year. The club has been running a St. Baldrick event for the past six years. Since then, roughly $450,000 has been raised.

“I have a friend whose daughter is sick,” said Tunick. “You feel so helpless from one parent to another. You want to do something to help if you can.”

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