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Comsewogue High School

Attendees of the first North Brookhaven Scholastic Film Festival cheer on filmmakers at Comsewogue High School May 22. Photo by Kevin Redding

Comsewogue High School students with an eye for filmmaking got the Hollywood treatment Monday, May 22, as they walked the red carpet, screened their short films for family and friends, and received awards.

The first annual North Brookhaven Scholastic Film Festival, sponsored by Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) and the Comsewogue school district, gave students, grades nine through 12, the opportunity to showcase their original films, each projected before an audience on the big screen in a mini-lecture hall.

The 18 films, submitted mostly by video production students, were no longer than five minutes and included public service announcements on the dangers of texting and driving and cyberbullying; a documentary on the friendship formed between two foreign exchange students; and a series of narratives, ranging from comedy to romance to horror.

“I think it’s important we create opportunities for people to express themselves, and they are so talented, clearly, from all the ambition that came out of today,” said Cartwright, who handed out individual certificates to the participating filmmakers after the screening.

Attendees of the first North Brookhaven Scholastic Film Festival cheer on filmmakers at Comsewogue High School May 22. Photo by Kevin Redding

The councilwoman got involved after Lou Antoniello, of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association, approached her with the idea to make a  film festival for students as a way to bring more culture to the area.

“I said, ‘why not have one here for Northern Brookhaven?’ as I never heard of a scholastic film festival,” Antoniello said. He said he hopes down the line, as the event grows, scouts from bigger festivals like Stony Brook and the Hamptons will be in the audience and pluck student-produced films to screen.

“The sky’s the limit,” he said.

Antoniello said the festival was open to all school districts within Brookhaven and he hopes more will participate in the next one in September.

Kayla Jones, a 17-year-old senior at Comsewogue, produced two of the night’s entries, the texting and driving PSA, and “Distance,” a black-and-white silent film about a long-distance couple.

“It was really great to have this — I didn’t expect it was going to be as big as it ended up being,” Jones said. “It felt really good to have people see the things I created and like my ideas. It’s such a great experience to see something that was in your mind, on screen.”

Cassavete Porta, a senior classmate of Jones’ who plans to study film in college, directed a music video based on the song “Survive” by The Moog.

“I was raised by two film geeks so basically any song I listen to, I have a scene in my head to go with it,” Porta said on his entry. “It’s a good feeling because everyone clapped and had a good time. When you have an audience, you can tell if your movie is good or bad.”

Karen Verdisco teaches the school’s video production class, wherein students learn basic editing techniques on Final Cut Pro, video editing software, as well as how to work with a green screen. She encouraged her class to participate in the festival.

“I helped them with their story lines, basically guiding them through the process and critiquing their films to help them get better,” Verdisco said. “Just to watch the movies in a crowd and to hear everybody laughing and reacting, it made me feel unbelievably proud.”

Rocky Point Board of Education Trustee Sean Callahan, left, is running for re-election, while Comsewogue High School Principal Joseph Coniglione, right, is running for trustee Melissa Brown’s soon-to-be vacant seat, as she’s choosing not to run again. Photos from Rocky Point school district

Rocky Point has two candidates, an incumbent and a newcomer, vying for two open board of education seats.

With trustee Melissa Brown choosing not to run again, trustee Sean Callahan seeks re-election while Joseph Coniglione, Comsewogue High School principal, is putting his name in the hat.

Sean Callahan

Callahan, a 41-year resident and graduate of the Rocky Point school district, was first elected to the board three years ago. He has worked as an external auditor specializing in auditing school districts, is a certified New York State School Business Official and currently serves as an employment and labor attorney, well versed in bond and civil service issues and other aspects of education and school law.

If elected, he said he wants to continue the communication among all stakeholders that has started to come back to the district.

“When I first ran, there was a breakdown between the administration, the existing board and teachers,” Callahan said. “I believe the board has since made an earnest effort to really talk to the community and teachers to hear their concerns. I’m trying to continue the dialogue — I talk to the custodians, teachers, everybody in the district. That’s what I hope to continue.”

As a member of the board, Callahan has seen a tightening of academic eligibility policies, where students are required to perform well in the classroom before they can take part in any extracurricular activity.

Outside of the board, Callahan has been involved in the North Shore Little League for more than nine years and coaches CYO basketball and soccer for St. Anthony’s Church in Rocky Point. He and his wife have three sons — aged 18, 17 and 15 — enrolled in the high school.

Joseph Coniglione

Coniglione, an educator for 22 years and  principal of Comsewogue High School, has decided to make a run for a seat on Rocky Point’s board of education.

“I want to make sure there’s an open line of communication among parents, teachers and students,” Coniglione said. “The goal should always be to make sound decisions in the best interest of the student’s academic, social and emotional needs. I’m always looking to do a better job [in Comsewogue] and have had great success in this area. It’s really all about the kids. I want what’s best for them.”

Looking to be part of the team, the 15-year Rocky Point resident, and father of two students in the district, grew up in Holbrook and graduated from Sachem High School before earning his master’s degree in reading and elementary education from Dowling College. He taught special education in the Brentwood school district for 10 years, before becoming assistant principal and ultimately principal at Comsewogue. He’s served the Comsewogue district now for the past 12 years.

At Comsewogue, Coniglione said he’s implemented parent and student committees, as well as surveys throughout the school, to gauge a wide variety of perspectives on how to improve the district. He wants to bring more transparency to Rocky Point and encourages the board to open up its books and ask the public what they think needs to change.

In the past, Coniglione said he had been concerned about balancing his role as principal and board member, which is why he never ran previously. But in speaking with administration in both the Comsewogue and Rocky Point districts, he realized there would be no issue.

“There seems to be no conflicts at all — everything is spread out and the meetings I need to be at, I can book around,” he said. “The Comsewogue administration is very supportive of my run and the board told me it wouldn’t be an issue.”

The school budget and board of education vote is on May 16 at the Rocky Point High School gym from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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Suffolk County’s Department of Health encourages residents to take advantage of Narcan training classes at Comsewogue High School, 565 Bicycle Path, Port Jefferson Station on March 27 at 7 p.m. and Longwood Middle School, 41 Yaphank Middle Island Road, Middle Island on March 29 at 7 p.m. The training will enable participants to recognize an opioid overdose, administer intranasal Narcan and take additional steps until EMS arrives. Participants will receive a certificate of completion and an emergency resuscitation kit that includes nasal Narcan. For more information, call 631-852-6109.

Can’t make it on those dates? Hope House Ministries will host a free Narcan Training Workshop on Thursday, March 30 from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at its Human Service Center, 1313 Main St., Port Jefferson in the Sister Aimee Room. Participants will learn the essentials of opioid overdose prevention and receive certification as Trained Overdose Responders as well as an overdose response kit that includes naloxone (Narcan). For more information or to register, please call 631-928-2377 or 631-473-0553.

An original cartoon by Comsewogue High School graduate and Port Jefferson Station native Christina Lettich.

United States citizens owe a debt of gratitude to first responders who put themselves in danger in the name of public safety on a daily basis. A national foundation took a small step toward repaying that debt for a 2016 Comsewogue High School graduate whose father and grandfather were first responders.

Christina Lettich of Port Jefferson Station is a recipient of a scholarship for family members of first responders. Photo from NLEAFCF

Christina Lettich is currently a freshman at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She grew up in Port Jefferson Station, where her family still lives. Her dad Michael Lettich was a member of the Suffolk County Police Department stationed in the 5th Precinct. In 2003, he was disabled in the line of duty. This month also marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Michael’s dad Thomas Lettich, and Christina’s grandfather. In 1992 he died in the line of duty while working as a New York City firefighter when Michael was just 20 years old. To honor her father’s and grandfather’s service, Lettich was one of 28 high school graduates in the nation to be awarded a scholarship from the National Law Enforcement and Firefighters Children’s Foundation in 2016. The scholarships are given out based on academic merit, financial need, community service and exceptional leadership.

“First responders have given so much to defend and protect us,” Al Kahn, NLEAFCF president and founder said in a statement. “How better to honor their commitment to all of us than to ensure that their children achieve their full potential. Helping to better pay for their college and complete their higher education is the least we can do to honor these law enforcement and firefighters’ families.”

Lettich expressed her gratitude for receiving the assistance to pay for her college education, and for the work people like her dad and grandfather do so selflessly.

“I have a great respect for civil servants,” Lettich said in an email. “It is not for everyone and not a job I think I could do. I like to make people laugh and smile.”

Lettich is an aspiring cartoonist and storyboard artist. She is studying fine arts at school and has had 60 of her own characters copyrighted to this point. Her dad recalled what it was like to hear she would receive the prestigious scholarship.

“I had known about the scholarship and asked Christina to apply for it,” he said in an email. “As she was preparing the application and asking me questions and found out more about my dad she realized how important it was to me. I was honored that she received the scholarship and made me very proud.”

“I have a great respect for civil servants. It is not for everyone and not a job I think I could do. I like to make people laugh and smile.”

— Christina Lettich

Michael Lettich said he and his wife Lisa knew from a young age Christina had talent as an artist. Lettich described herself as shy both growing up and presently, but the ability to express herself through her art, along with her time living in Manhattan and attending the School of Visual Arts has helped her break out of her shell.

“SVA is a very expensive school,” she said. “My parents never questioned if I would be able to go there. They would do anything to make it happen. I worked for Home Depot in my senior year and saved money. I am helping pay back some of my student loans and receiving this scholarship was another way that I could help my parents.”

Lettich was a member of the National Art Honor Society and drama club during high school. In her spare time she also volunteered for the Special Education Parent Teacher Association and at Studio E art school in Miller Place.

“We are proud to be a part of helping Christina achieve her academic goals,” Kahn said.

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Skeleton racer nabs first place in 2016 IBSF World Cup race in Lake Placid

Annie O'Shea, of Port Jefferson Station, practiced for the World Cup skeleton race in Lake Placid, NY earlier this week. O'Shea won her first World Cup gold medal in the event on Jan. 8 Photo by Pat Hendrick

On her home track in Lake Placid, Port Jefferson Station’s Annie O’Shea won her first gold medal in a World Cup skeleton race.

O’Shea scored a combined time of 1 minute, 50.34 seconds, beating out Switzerland’s Marina Gilardoni by 0.09 seconds for the top spot. O’Shea slid down the track in a time of 55.26 seconds in her first heat, which was good enough for third place, a tenth of a second behind the leaders. She followed that up with a time of 55.08 seconds in her second run, tying a track record.

Annie O'Shea, who graduated from Comsewogue, recently won her first World Cup gold medal in a skeleton race in Lake Placid, NY. Photo from the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation.
Annie O’Shea, who graduated from Comsewogue, recently won her first World Cup gold medal in a skeleton race in Lake Placid, NY. Photo from the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation.

“I wanted this for so long,” O’Shea said. “Everything I’ve done these past 10 year — to become better and work on myself and the process, has paid off.”

After her second run at the 2016 International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation World Cup event on Jan. 8, O’Shea stood at the bottom of the mountain watching as the only two racers who could beat her time took their turns. When she saw that she’d won, her jaw dropped as she leaped in the air before hugging her assistant scouting coach, Zach Lund.

“I started crying at the bottom and I couldn’t stop,” she said. After the awards ceremony, O’Shea stopped to sign autographs for young fans.

The Port Jefferson Station athlete, who graduated from Comsewogue and was a 2004 outdoor track and field state champion in the pentathlon when she attended SUNY Plattsburgh, had been ranked 11th in the world coming into this World Cup event in Lake Placid, which is home to the “Miracle on Ice” USA men’s ice hockey team that won a gold medal in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

O’Shea said she appreciates the consistent support from her family, friends and community.

“It’s nice to feel when you go home that people kind of have a place for you or are cheering for you,” she said.

O’Shea had previously won a silver medal in December of 2011 in La Plagne, France. This, however, is her first gold at this level of competition.

Tuffy Latour, the head coach of the skeleton team, said O’Shea has been building towards this moment for several years, and has come on strong this year.

“Her potential [has been] through the roof,” Latour said. “It was kind of story book for her. She [was in] third and then put down a very fast heat.”

Port Jefferson Station's Annie O'Shea, center, claimed a first-place finish behind Marina Gilardoni from Switzerland, left, and Laura Deas from Great Britain, right, in the World Cup skeleton race in Lake Placid, NY. Photo from Amanda Bird
Port Jefferson Station’s Annie O’Shea, center, claimed a first-place finish behind Marina Gilardoni from Switzerland, left, and Laura Deas from Great Britain, right, in the World Cup skeleton race in Lake Placid, NY. Photo from Amanda Bird

Her mother, Linda, watched the race at her desk in the Comsewogue School District’s district office. She said she jumped out of her seat and cheered with one of her colleagues who watched the finish with her, drawing a crowd of people to her desk, who were quick to share I the excitement.

“I’m so proud of her,” Linda O’Shea said. “It’s the perfect start to a new year.”

Competitors in skeleton use the same curved ice track as racers in luge and bobsled. Bent over and holding onto the sides of their sleds, they sprint for five to six seconds, then dive headfirst onto their sleds. Clad in aerodynamic suits, they slide down the track at speeds of over 80 miles per hour, banking through turns with slight shifts of their body weight.

The next World Cup skeleton race will take place in Park City, Utah on Jan. 15th and 16th. The World Cup races are the second-largest events in the sport behind the Olympics. The skeleton team is currently preparing for the 2018 games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Ponrakit ‘Rio’ Puorcharoen gets to know New York with a trip to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Photo from Lynellen Nielsen

A new student roaming the halls of Comsewogue High School is getting into a New York state of mind.

Ponrakit Puorcharoen journeyed to Long Island from Thailand this year to attend school because he “wanted to learn about a new culture.”

The 15-year-old foreign exchange student, who goes by the nickname Rio, hails from Nonthaburi, a city near Bangkok and the Gulf of Thailand.

Rio said in a phone interview that he did not get to choose where he was going to be placed, and did not know much about New York before arriving stateside. His host family — Lynellen and Rick Nielsen and their sons, Jeremy and Josh — has tried to show him around, taking him to New York City. He saw the Museum of Modern Art and Times Square, which Rio thinks is “crazy, with the amount of people there.”

His family in Port Jefferson Station got involved in part because of the host mom’s childhood memories.

Foreign exchange student Ponrakit ‘Rio’ Puorcharoen takes a trip to the aquarium with his host family. Photo from Lynellen Nielsen
Foreign exchange student Ponrakit ‘Rio’ Puorcharoen takes a trip to the aquarium with his host family. Photo from Lynellen Nielsen

“When I was a child, my family had a foreign exchange student, and it was a really positive experience,” Lynellen Nielsen said in a phone interview. “I thought it was something that Jeremy should experience as well.”

Jeremy is a senior at Comsewogue High School, two years ahead of Rio, while Josh is enrolled at Hunter College.

Lynellen Nielsen described the process of applying for the foreign exchange program as “serendipitous.”

She and her family had considered hosting a student many times, but didn’t begin the process until she discovered a friend of hers had begun working for the International Student Exchange Programs. After the family applied, Nielsen said once the organization approved them, they were able to choose from a number of students to host for the year.

“We saw [Rio] had similar interests, like animals, cooking, technology and art,” she said. “We thought he would be a great match.”

Although Rio arrived in the United States on Aug. 9, he didn’t get to Long Island until Aug. 22 because he went though a training program.

“His first question when he walked into our house was, ‘What’s the Wi-Fi password?’ so he’s just like any other kid around here,” Nielsen said with a laugh.

Since Rio has adjusted to his new living situation, he and his host family have been able to bond over many different activities. He has cooked basil pork and other traditional Thai dishes for the family, and the host mom, in turn, introduced him to strawberry pie and banana bread.

In terms of school life, Rio said he has not found many differences between school in America and school in Thailand. He said the only real difference is that students don’t get to choose the classes they take back home, and that Americans use the word “soccer” for the same sport he calls “football,” which he finds “a little weird.”

“My favorite thing to do so far has just been relaxing with the family,” Rio said. “They are very chill.”

Robert Pearl will once again take the helm at Norwood Elementary School. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Along with freshly sharpened pencils and blank notebooks, the new school year will also bring several administrative changes to Comsewogue schools.

Special education teacher Robert Pearl will be the new principal at Norwood Elementary School, replacing longtime leader Leah Anesta, and James Hilbert, a John F. Kennedy Middle School social studies teacher and part-time dean, will become the new assistant principal at JFK.

The Comsewogue School Board of Education officially approved Pearl and Hilbert on Monday night, along with some other personnel changes, such as giving 15 educators increased work hours for the upcoming school year, with 10 teachers promoted to fulltime positions.

Pearl served a stint as interim principal from September to December, when Norwood Principal Leah Anesta took a leave of absence to care for an ill parent. Now she is retiring, after being with the district for more than 10 years.

Pearl, who has lived in the community for almost two decades, has said he would like to increase the elementary school’s involvement with parents and the community.

Hilbert’s hiring is part of a more complicated switch.

Comsewogue was operating with a dean at the middle school and one at Comsewogue High School, both part-time officials who had teaching responsibilities. Starting next year, to create more flexibility, those dean positions are being replaced with full-time assistant principals.

Bill Bodkin is retiring as the high school’s dean of students after many years, and is being replaced by two assistant principals: Jinu Mathews, who is already on board, and one more who has yet to be hired to replace Pearl, who entered the high school position upon Anesta’s return but will soon leave to once again step into her shoes.

The middle school already had one assistant principal, Theresa Etts, in addition to part-time dean Hilbert, so there will now be two of those full-time staffers at that school.