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Comsewogue School District

Students across the country are planning to walk out of school March 14 as a protest calling for gun legislation. Stock photo

The gun control debate in the United States has been fully underway seemingly for decades. Following the shooting in Parkland, Florida, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Feb. 14 that left 17 people dead, the debate has taken on a different tone, and thanks to the activism of survivors, many of whom are high school students, the conversation hasn’t yet retreated to the back burner even a few news cycles removed from the shooting. In fact, the MSD students have ensured their cause will be garnering attention through at least April 20.

Two nationwide student walkouts have been planned and are being promoted on social media.

On March 14, the group Women’s March Youth EMPOWER is calling for students, teachers, school administrators and parents to walk out of schools for 17 minutes, in honor of the 17 Parkland victims,
beginning at 10 a.m. The purpose of the protest, according to a website promoting it, is to shine a light on Congress’ “inaction to do more than Tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods.” The walkout is being promoted on social media using the hashtag #ENOUGH.

“We want students who choose to be involved to have a focus for their efforts so the day and time will be meaningful.”

— Paul Casciano

On April 20, a similar protest is being planned to coincide with the anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. The organizers of this event, simply called National School Walkout, are also calling for those in school buildings to stand up and exit at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes of silence, followed by an “open mic” session in which students will be encouraged to voice opinions. The organizers of this walkout envision a day-long event concluding at the end of the school day.

“We’re protesting the violence in schools and the lack of change that has occurred to stop that,” the website created for the event says. “This issue needs constant attention if we hope to change anything, so multiple events on multiple days is a productive way to help fight for our cause, a safer country.”

Local school districts and students are addressing if or how the marches might play out here, with logistics and safety being of the utmost concern for administrators.

In Port Jefferson School District, administration is taking a hands-on approach in handling a potential protest. Superintendent Paul Casciano said the district’s principals are working with students and teachers to finalize plans.

“We want students who choose to be involved to have a focus for their efforts so the day and time will be meaningful,” he said. He added that when plans are established the district will make them public to ensure parents are informed about what might take place.

Ben Zaltsman, student body president at Port Jefferson High School, shared details about plans for protest, which will take on a tone meant to honor victims rather than a political message. He said initially students expressed a desire to walk out among themselves, but that administration found out and was concerned about safety hazards associated with leaving the building. Instead of a walkout, the district and student
government got together to formulate a plan to commemorate the day and participate in the national movement.

“Something like this is not disruptive. I don’t think it’s political.”

— Ben Zaltsman

Zaltsman, who’s heading to Rice University in the fall, said he and the rest of the high school’s student government met with administration and agreed on a 17-minute ceremony in the auditorium March 14.

“The April one seems like it’s more political — this is to honor and remember Parkland victims,” Zaltsman said of the two rallies. He said he’s not sure how many students might participate in the voluntary demonstration, which will take place during fourth period, but he expects it will be many. He also said it’s possible students will decide to walkout on their own anyway, but that he hadn’t heard of anyone planning to do so.

“My mom said she knew I was already participating and I have a younger brother who is expected to participate too,” Zaltsman said when asked if he’d discussed walking out with his parents. “Something like this is not disruptive. I don’t think it’s political.”

Comsewogue School District Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Quinn said in an email students were working on organizing a demonstration, though the district did not provide specifics in time for print.

Parents in the district have strong opinions on the idea of their kids participating in a political protest
during school hours in a discussion on a Facebook page comprised of Comsewogue community members.

“Instead of walking out and protesting, walk into the cafeteria and talk to kids you normally wouldn’t,” poster Caitlin Mae, a district employee, said while expressing skepticism that a walkout would accomplish much. “Befriend those who don’t have friends. Scold those students who encourage bullying.”

Jessica Glass, the mother of a junior at the high school, said she had discussed the possibility of walking out with her daughter.

“I would be proud of my kids if they had strong views and chose to express themselves in this way.”

— Rachel Begley

“She feels very strongly about reform and is interested in all the aspects of how to bring it about,” she said. “Is gun reform the answer? Is mental health awareness the answer? Is more teacher/parent awareness of students the answer? Is a walk out the best idea? She doesn’t have the answer, but she feels that students in a movement would bring awareness to an issue on a higher level than the awareness is now. That’s what’s important to her, raising awareness in many ways for change.”

Several others said they viewed students walking out of school at a set date and time as a security concern in and of itself.

“We are all worried about security, I don’t think a walkout is such a good idea,” Edward Garboski said. “By doing so we are allowing our kids to become perfect targets. I would hope our parents see the same thing I see. My kids will not walk out of school.”

Others applauded the idea of students being politically and civically engaged.

“I would be proud of my kids if they had strong views and chose to express themselves in this way,” Rachel Begley said. “They don’t have a vote, so this is one way of making themselves seen and heard.”

While the federal government deals with the political gridlock long associated with gun control, New York is working on action to at least improve safety in the short term, though not to address gun laws.

“Every New Yorker and every American is outraged by the senseless violence that is occurring in schools throughout the country,” state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said in a statement Feb. 28. The state Senate approved a series of bills March 5 that include more funding for security cameras, armed police officers or security personnel for districts that want it, panic buttons, active shooter drills, better emergency response plans, hardening of school doors and more. A package of gun control measures proposed by Senate Democrats was rejected.

Comsewogue board of education President John Swenning and the rest of the board unanimously passed a resolution to establish a $32M bond referendum in May. File photo by Erika Karp

Comsewogue School District is going to ask taxpayers for a little more when they head to the polls in May.

The board of education approved a resolution with a unanimous vote at its March 5 meeting to officially add a referendum on a $32 million spending plan recommended by the district’s Facilities Committee in February. The list of slated upgrades and improvements is more than 100 items long and addresses areas in each of Comsewogue’s six buildings. If passed, the money would go toward improving health and safety, infrastructure, academics, arts and athletics.

“The proposed facility improvements preserve the integrity of the school buildings, address repairs, improve
instructional resources for all and upgrade athletic facilities,” district administration said in a statement.

The list of areas in need of improvement was the byproduct of several meetings and discussions by the committee, a group of 21 professionals from across the Comsewogue community including members of the board, administrators, architects, engineers, former teachers and civic association members. The group was assembled in early January and had been tasked with presenting recommendations to the board.

“I just want to say thank you to the Facilities Committee that spent a lot of time going through our buildings,” board president John Swenning said during the meeting. “This bond was brought to us from the community members. They found what they felt needs to be addressed and they came and presented it to the board. We’re going to accept it just as the committee has submitted it to us.”

Some of the projects include required upgrades to achieve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; repairing parking lots and sidewalks; adding security vestibules at all of the district buildings; fixes to exterior and interior building infrastructure; improving athletic fields and facilities; and kitchen upgrades. If approved by voters, the bond would have a 15-year life with about $3 million in interest. Some of the higher-priced projects included in the committee’s recommendation are: a new roof with solar panels at Terryville Road Elementary School; interior work at John F. Kennedy Middle School, including some classroom and hallway renovations; and upgrades to the high school concession stand building. If passed, the average taxpayer would see an increase of about $120 annually to their school tax bill, based on conservative state aid estimates, which won’t be known until the spring.

“We’ve really touched everywhere that your child could be, from safety in the parking lots and curbs, to every elementary classroom getting a face-lift,” said Stephanie Jaklitsch, a former teacher in the district who also has children attending Comsewogue schools. Jaklitsch is a member of the Facilities Committee and was among the contingent who presented recommendations to the board Feb. 12. “Our students are going to see changes all the way through their education.”

The bond vote will be held at the same place and time as the annual operating budget vote and school board trustee elections. Polls will be open at Comsewogue High School May 15 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The district has suggested it will hold informational meetings going forward to get the community up to speed on the contents of the bond.

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File photo

The Comsewogue board of education had a community bonding experience Feb. 12.

The school district’s six buildings are in need of upgrades and improvements, according to its facilities committee, a group of 21 professionals from across Comsewogue including members of the board, administrators, architects, engineers, former teachers, civic association members and more. The group was assembled in early January, and has been holding workshops and meetings to compile a list of projects to recommend to the board.

The committee presented a list of more than 100 upgrades considered of the highest priority and identified as the A-list. The projects would take place in each of the district’s schools if a bond referendum were passed. Some of the projects include required upgrades to achieve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; parking lots and sidewalks; security at all of the district buildings; exterior and interior building infrastructure; athletic fields and facilities; and kitchen upgrades among many others.

The total price tag for the A-list would be almost $32 million, paid for during a 15-year period with approximately $3 million in interest, according to the committee. If passed, the average taxpayer would see an increase of about $120 annually to their school tax bill, based on conservative state aid estimates which won’t be known until the spring.

The committee also presented two other potential propositions for the board to consider: one a $9 million B-list of items deemed to be of lower priority and the third a complete overhaul of just the district’s air-conditioning units for approximately $13 million. Members of the committee said after touring the district facilities and buildings, its initial list of projects was in the ballpark of $75 million, which it then pared down to what currently appears on the A-list.

Susan Casali, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, served as the leader of the facilities committee.

“They’ve been phenomenal,” Casali said, of her colleagues on the committee. “It has been a great process, a lot of input, a lot of knowledge. We went through a lot of things and they really worked hard.”

Casali said the committee also took public input along the way from teachers, organizations and others in the community who had requests for upgrades.

“The board needs to know, and the public should know, how very carefully we looked at what items were to make the A-list,” said Joan Nickeson, a member of the Facilities Committee engaged in several aspects of the Comsewogue community. Nickeson also praised the work on the committee of architect Kenneth Schupner and engineer Frederick Seeba.

“The engineers and the architects, I don’t know how well you know these gentlemen, but I was so impressed with their knowledge and their ability to handle a myriad of questions,” she said. “We looked so carefully at every item.”

Stephanie Jaklitsch, a former teacher in the district who also has children attending Comsewogue schools, offered her input as a member of the committee.

“We’ve really touched everywhere that your child could be from safety in the parking lots and curbs, to every elementary classroom getting a face-lift,” she said. “Our students are going to see changes all the way through their education.”

Board of education president John Swenning, and Superintendent Joe Rella each thanked the committee for its thorough work, dedication to improving the Comsewogue environment and generosity in lending each of their personal levels of expertise to the group.

Some of the higher-priced projects included in the committee’s recommendation are: a new roof including solar panels at Terryville Road Elementary School; interior work at JFK Middle School, including some classroom and hallway renovations; and athletic upgrades at the high school to the
concession stand building.

The board will vote March 5 on the recommendations, and if it elects to move forward, to establish the specifics of the bond referendum and how it would appear on a ballot. The referendum would be included as a separate proposition on the same ballot as the annual budget and school board vote to be held May 15.

The full list of project recommendations is expected to be posted and available on the district website, www.comsewogue.k12.ny.us.

This post was updated Feb. 14 for grammatical fixes.

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Terryville Road Elementary School principal, April Victor, with some of her students. Photo from April Victor

By Sabrina Petroski

Goodbyes are never easy, especially when a school district has to say it to a dedicated, longtime advocate for students.

At the end of the 2017-18 school year, April Victor will be retiring from her position as the principal of Terryville Road Elementary School in the Comsewogue School District. Victor, who began in January 2001, said the past seventeen-and-a-half years have been some of the most rewarding in her life.

She said she made it her mission to turn her school into a family, an effort that has encouraged parents, teachers and students alike to work together to foster a safe and happy community.

“That’s what makes leaving so hard, because I’m leaving a family,” she said.

Victor said her proudest achievement was making the school a place where the children are put first, and the teachers and parents have a say in decision making. Once a month the district’s parent teacher association celebrates students who are seen as outstanding citizens, an initiative inspired by the longtime principal. Nominated by their teachers, each student receives a certificate and their picture is put up in the hallway of the school.

“We have to celebrate them, build the kids up,” she said. “We have to be kind and thoughtful, and care about our school.”

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella praised Victor as being a brilliant educator and leader, with the ability to build a great community. Rella’s grandson attends Terryville Road Elementary School, giving the superintendent multiple reasons to keep a close eye on the school’s goings on, and the district leader beamed when asked about the work Victor has been doing in her school.

“April Victor has such a tremendous impact on the district and school community,” Rella said. “She will be missed beyond words and is a truly wonderful person.”

In 2007, Victor was named a TBR News Media Woman of the Year in education, for her leadership skills and her efforts to make sure her kids got every opportunity to fulfill their potential. Her peers spoke in glowing terms about their departing colleague.

“Ms. Victor has long had a positive effect on all who have had the opportunity to pass through the halls and classrooms of Terryville Elementary School,” said Robert Pearl, principal of Boyle Road Elementary School. “From children to faculty and staff, she has always been a remarkable anchor within the Terryville community. Her educational expertise, ability to understand the needs of her students and her compassion have enabled her to make a difference in the lives of her students each day. Personally, she has been an outstanding role model for me as I transitioned from teacher to principal.  She truly is the epitome of what every administrator strives to be.”

Victor delivered one final message to the Comsewogue community.

“Thank you for the opportunity to be with your kids and to lead them,” she said. “It’s been a blessing and I hope I made a difference. I’ll miss the energy from the children, and being able to witness their hard work and laughter. I will continue to pray for the community, for safety, joy and love.”

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A coat drive at Comsewogue High School resulted in about 50 coats being distributed to needy people in the Port Jefferson Station area. Photo by Alex Petroski

Residents in the Port Jefferson Station area and beyond need not be left out in the cold this winter.

A somewhat spontaneous winter coat drive sprung up in Port Jefferson Station last week thanks to the efforts of a pair of old friends: a business owner in Nassau County and an employee in the Comsewogue School District. David Jacobson, founding executive director of Collector Car Showcase in Oyster Bay started Layers of Love NY with his longtime friend John Worobey, who provides technology support at Comsewogue, working in the district for 17 years. The organization, which is referred to on its website as a movement, was the byproduct of a brief conversation between the friends earlier this year.

“I went into a classroom last year and there was a child hanging a coat out the window in the middle of the winter,” Worobey recalled during the Oct. 28 coat drive in the Comsewogue High School cafeteria. “I asked the teacher ‘what’s going on? Why is he hanging a coat out the window?’ She said that a lot of the kids in the class didn’t have coats and people donated coats, and his happened to smell like cigarettes. So he was hanging it out the window to air out.”

Worobey said when he told Jacobson about what he had observed his friend was equally taken aback.

“During a casual conversation he said to me some kids come to school with no coats on in the middle of the winter,” Jacobson said. “I was like ‘that’s not okay.’”

Jacobson said they decided they would host a coat drive later in the year and began collecting coats through a variety of avenues. He said they placed Layers of Love NY collection boxes at car dealerships around Long Island; and at The Hoffman Center in Muttontown, a museum named after Maximilian Hoffman, an Austrian-born racecar driver and importer of luxury automobiles in the 1950s; among other locations. On Oct. 1 the museum hosted an event called Driven to America, at which the organization collected even more coats. Jacobson said he heard stories from people showing up to the event who had purchased as many as 10 brand new coats to contribute for the drive.

By the time the event began at Comsewogue, about 250 coats were laid out across the cafeteria tables available for anyone who walked in to look through and pick the perfect fit.

“Whatever we give away today we’re happy,” Jacobson said. The event resulted in the distribution of about 50 coats, with families with multiple children arriving throughout the morning to bundle up ahead of winter. The co-founders of the event each indicated they planned to learn from the 2017 incarnation of their vision and use the information to improve it in years to come.

“It’s a stepping stone, something we’re going to build upon,” Jacobson said.

Worobey said he thought Comsewogue was the perfect location for a coat drive like this because of the community’s inherent nature of giving.

“That makes you feel good,” Worobey said, waving to a group that had just collected several coats and were heading on their way.

Jacobson said the organization will begin collecting coats for a 2018 drive next July. Anyone interested in learning more about Layers of Love NY should visit www.layersofloveny.com.

Lt. Katherine Biggs aboard Comfort, a U.S. Navy hospital ship administering aide to Puerto Rico. Photo by Stephane Belcher

A Naval emergency medicine physician from Port Jefferson Station is trying to provide comfort while aboard a ship named for it in Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria made landfall in September as a historic Category 5 storm, devastating Puerto Rico with sustained gusts nearing 200 mph. When Lt. Katherine Biggs, a resident at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia currently receiving training in military-specific medicine, was offered the chance to travel to the storm-ravaged island, the 2006 Comsewogue High School graduate said it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

Lt. Katherine Biggs and other sailors aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort treat a patient from Centro Medico in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo by Stephane Belcher

Biggs is one of five from the residency program aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship Comfort, which reached Puerto Rico Oct. 3 and does not have a scheduled return date, working on the boat’s casualty receiving area administering medical aide to those affected. Catastrophic flooding, damaged infrastructure and a lack of supplies, drinking water and electricity have created a dangerous situation for most Puerto Ricans trying to restore their regular routine.

“We’ll be here as long as directed and as long as needed,” Biggs said in a phone interview from Puerto Rico. “I’ll stay here as long as they’ll let me.”

She called the trip thus far a great learning experience, and said it’s been a change of pace helping people with severe respiratory and heart issues, for example, because she’s used to providing medical attention to those with traumatic, combat-related injuries. Biggs has treated some with broken bones, but said many of the patients she has been tasked with treating are people with chronic issues that are flaring up because they’ve been unable to take their prescribed medicines for various reasons.

The lieutenant said she knew when she was in ninth or tenth grade at Comsewogue that she wanted to pursue a career in medicine as a way to help people in need. After four years at Binghampton University as an undergraduate, she moved on to medical school at New York Institute of Technology in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, graduating in 2015. Biggs said she was able to afford the schooling thanks to the Health Professions Scholarship Program, a financial assistance offering from the U.S. military, which she heard about from a neighbor. She is in the third year of her residency in Portsmouth, and it is a rarity for residents to be asked to go on a trip like the one she’s on now, according to residency program director Commander John Devlin.

“This opportunity may be tough in the sense of the people struggling, but it is allowing my daughter to do what she was meant to do — help people in need.”

— Laurie Biggs

“I say it’s win-win,” Devlin said in a statement. “The people of Puerto Rico are getting more emergency medicine physician manpower than they would have had, had we gone with the original plan. And from the resident standpoint and the Navy’s standpoint, we are getting five junior physicians that, for their entire career, will have this experience base to carry forward to apply to missions in the future.”

With the help of the “Sea Knights” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron, Biggs and the other residents have been able to personally assist in medical evacuation missions around the island to return people to the ship for treatment via helicopter.

“When I heard about Katie’s plans to head to Puerto Rico I was incredibly proud,” Biggs’ mother Laurie said in an email. “I remember reminding her that this is why she joined the Navy and wanted to become a doctor. This opportunity may be tough in the sense of the people struggling, but it is allowing my daughter to do what she was meant to do — help people in need.”

Biggs’ mother added she knew from an early age her daughter, who is the oldest of four, was a caring and helpful person, ever aware of helping the less fortunate.

“To us she will always just be Katie, the daughter and older sister that is always there when you need her,” she said.

Biggs said her biggest takeaway from the mission thus far has been the dedication of responders on the ground to do whatever it takes to help both individuals and the island as a whole return to normalcy. To contribute to the relief effort, visit the American Red Cross website at www.redcross.org/donate.

Members of the community gather at Jackson Edwards’ Terryville home July 31 to welcome him home from a lengthy hospital stay in Maryland to battle leukemia. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

After more than four months of treatment battling acute myeloid leukemia, a blood and bone marrow cancer, 11-year-old Jackson Edwards returned home Monday from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland to the sound of a Terryville fire truck honking and the cheers of friends and family.

“I don’t know how to put it — it’s such a wave of emotions,” Jackson’s mother Danielle Edwards said. “We’re happy, finally. Jackson’s a little nervous because he’s so far away from the hospital and he’s thin from the treatment, but he’s happy to be with his people.”

Jackson waives to the crowd assembled at his home. Photo by Kyle Barr

Tired from the long trip and overwhelmed by the number of people who had shown up for the surprise homecoming, Jackson only stood outside for a few minutes July 31, waving to his friends and family before heading back inside. They had taken a 6-hour drive to get back to Terryville from Johns Hopkins.

“[Jackson and his mom] had no idea what was here,” Jackson’s aunt DeeDee Edwards said. She had helped plan the surprise homecoming, and was in charge of keeping the mother and son in the dark. “Jackson was counting the stoplights until we got here, and he was so overwhelmed by all the people who came to support him.”

Though the drive home was long, the real difficulty for Jackson and his family was the more than 100 days he spent in Baltimore fighting the rare form of cancer.. Jackson has always been a charismatic young man, according to his family. He’s a typical 11-year-old — he loves wrestling and football. His favorite comic book and show characters are Captain America and Optimus Prime. In December 2013 Jackson was diagnosed with AML. It was the start of an arduous treatment process that saw Jackson go into remission in May 2014.

Around Christmas 2016, Jackson started to feel sick again, and after taking him to Stony Brook University Hospital, the family learned that the his disease had returned and he had relapsed. In April he was transferred to Johns Hopkins in Maryland where he underwent a long and painful process of chemotherapy in preparation for a later bone marrow transplant. Meanwhile, friends and family worked hard to fund raise and help Jackson’s mother in finding options for his treatment.

Deirdre Cardarelli, a friend of the family, worked hard to help throw the surprise welcome for the Edwards’. For months Cardarelli was co-running the StayStrongJackson Facebook page alongside Jackson’s mom, and she was instrumental in forming a T-shirt drive and an Easter egg hunt to support the family’s travel and medical funds. The Facebook page and all the other social media efforts helped galvanize the local community in its support of Jackson, even those who were not necessarily close to the Edwards’..

Onlookers for the surprise homecoming brought signs of support to hold. Photo by Kyle Barr

“I don’t know the family personally, but our oldest, Michael, is in the same school with Jackson,” said community member Yoon Perrone. “We bought the shirts to support the family and we wanted to be here. I can’t imagine one of our own children having the disease.”

For the bone marrow transplant the family had to find a donor that was as close of a match as possible. Rocco Del Greco, a friend of the family, said he felt a deep need to help the young man and his family once he learned of the cancer’s relapse.

“Since I was not so emotionally connected to their son I was able to channel my anger for what happened to the young man,” Del Greco said. He helped to jump-start a YouCaring page to crowd fund for Jackson, which managed to raise more than $8,000. Del Greco  also managed several bone marrow drives during the search for a suitable donor. From January to early April, Del Greco helped facilitate for almost 1,800 people to test their DNA for matches to Jackson.

Finding a sufficient match was not easy for the Edwards’. Jackson’s mother had a 50 percent match from her own marrow. She served as the donor, and the transplant was successful. After about a month-long recovery, the doctors said he was safe to continue treatment from home.

The process kept Jackson away from school and friends and forced him to endure weeks of treatment, including chemotherapy. Jackson was not able to attend his fifth-grade graduation ceremony from elementary school in the Comsewogue School District, but his older brother Cortez James “C.J” Edwards walked up on stage in his place. Jackson’s mother said that while the treatment process and lengthy hospital stay did get tough, her son powered through it by making new friends.

Members of the community gather at Jackson Edwards’ Terryville home July 31 to welcome him home from a lengthy hospital stay in Maryland to battle leukemia. Photo by Kyle Barr

“He met a whole bunch of new people, because he’s very charismatic, and he stole a bunch of other people’s hearts,” she said.

The transplant has left his immune system weak, and for another eight months Jackson is restricted from coming too close in contact with other people while he heals. This will prohibit him from attending school for several months, but his mother said they plan on continuing his education with tutoring.

Though he said he is excited to eventually go back to school, for now Jackson celebrated a Christmas in July, including a tree and presents surrounding it. He was unable to celebrate Christmas with his family when his cancer relapsed back in December.

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 47,000 people were diagnosed with leukemia in 2014, the most recent year on record with data on leukemia.

Port Jefferson valedictorian Chiara Rabeno and salutatorian Xinyi Hong. Photo from Port Jefferson School District

By Jill Webb

At the top of their respective classes at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School and Comsewogue High School are five talented and smart 2017 graduates.

Chiara Rabeno has earned her place as Port Jeff high school’s valedictorian. She will graduate as an AP Scholar with Honor with eight AP credits and has received a National Merit Scholar letter of commendation along with earning a gold award on the National Latin Exam three years consecutively.

In addition to her commitment to academics, Rabeno was an active participant in athletics during her high school career. She played softball and field hockey, earning an All-Conference distinction two years in a row.

Port Jefferson salutatorian Xinyi Hong and valedictorian Chiara Rabeno during 2017 graduation. Photo from Port Jefferson School District

Rabeno was  president of  National Honor Society, and balanced the rest of her time as a member of the Interact Club, Environmental Club, Science Olympiad, and  a participant in the STEM program.

The valedictorian attributes her success to having supportive family and friends who encourage her, along with finding time to focus on things she enjoys.

“Ultimately by doing what you love to do, I think that you’ll end up doing well in everything else,” Rabeno said in an interview.

In the fall, Rabeno will study biology at Boston College, on the pre-med track to become a doctor.

Like Rabeno, salutatorian Xinyi Hong has  received a gold award for three straight years on the National Latin Exam. She has a lengthy list of academic achievements, including being a National Merit Scholarship Finalist, an AP Scholar with Distinction, and earning the American Chemical Society Award.

Hong’s parents emigrated from China, and Hong herself was born in Germany. Her family came to the United States when she was six years old, moving to Port Jefferson when she was in fifth grade.

Hong served as  co-captain of the Science Olympiad team,  treasurer of the Environmental Club, and sits first chair viola in the school’s orchestra.

Comsewogue High School valedictorian Marissa Kaye Lehner. Photo from Lehner

She said one of her proudest accomplishments is overcoming shyness as a way to contribute to her own personal growth.

“I would be scared to say hi to people,” Hong said in an interview. “That’s something I’ve definitely had to work towards as opposed to something that came easily to me.”

When she attends Duke University in the fall, Hong said she will pursue a science-related field.

During graduation June 23, Rabeno and Hong broke with tradition somewhat, delivering their valedictorian and salutatorian addresses together on stage. They shared the stage  and spoke in tandem about the gifts the other possesses. The address touched on the honesty of Hong and the sentimentality of Rabeno, delivering the ultimate message of needing balance in order to achieve their full potential.

At Comsewogue High School, Marissa Kaye Lehner has been named the class of 2017 valedictorian.

A Nation Merit Scholar, Lehner took nine advanced placement classes during her time at Comsewogue. She was a part of several national honor societies, including music, English, math, science, social studies, and Spanish.

Outside the classroom, Lehner was  co-captain of the tennis team, winning a doubles match during the Section XI conference championships. She was a part of the academics club, math team, Bringing Unity Through Youth club, robotics and Girl Scouts.

Lehner said a key trait in her development as a student and person is she isn’t afraid to ask for help, and frequently encourages others to “rely on the people you have around you.”

Co-salutatorian at Comsewogue High School Lauren Ehrhard. Photo from Ehrhard

Attending the University of New Haven this fall, Lehner will major in national security, working towards a career as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. government.

Two students had matching grade point averages for second place in Comsewogue’s senior class and will share the salutatorian position — Lauren Ehrhard and Lucas Szeto.

Along with taking seven AP classes throughout high school, Ehrhard has been involved with athletics, including softball, and Athletes Helping Athletes, a club designed to teach elementary school students what it means to be a good athlete.

She was a member of Task Club, a community service organization called BUTY, chamber orchestra, and pep band.

One of her favorite experiences was being the director for a Night For Jason, an annual talent show that raises money for Friends of Karen, an organization supporting families with children suffering from cancer.

The biggest force driving her academically is having “really big dreams ahead of me,” Ehrhard said. “I know that the only way to reach that is to get good grades and be the person I know I can be.”

Ehrhard will be studying criminal justice at the University of New Haven, where she will join the ROTC program in preparation for joining the Air Force post-college.

Co-salutatorian at Comsewogue High School Luis Szeto. Photo from Szeto

Like his co-salutatorian, Szeto took seven AP classes. Szeto said school has always been something that has come easy to him, though that didn’t stop him from putting in his full effort.

Szeto is also proud of his musical achievements — he plays the upright bass. He participated in two different music festivals, the Long Island String Festival and the Suffolk County Music Educators Association festival, and contributed to  the Bay Area Summer Orchestra.

Lisa Szeto, his mother, recalled as a child Szeto told her he wanted to start playing video games. She told him she didn’t have time to teach him how, so Szeto took it upon himself to learn how to read so he could play.

“If he wants to learn something he will learn it with gusto,” his mother said of the memory. “If he doesn’t he will get through it.”

After graduation, Szeto will be attending Rochester Institute of Technology and majoring in computer science.

The Comsewogue School District held its annual commencement celebration June 22 on the high school football field. The graduating class of 301 seniors was led by Valedictorian Marissa Kaye Lehner and Salutatorians Lauren Ehrhard and Lucas Szeto.

Unopposed board of education races go to incumbents, one newcomer in Port Jefferson

Compared to Election Day in November, the May version for school district budget votes and board of education candidates in the Port Jefferson area was seriously lacking in drama.

Board of education races came to a close in the Port Jefferson and Comsewogue school districts May 16 with little suspense, as two candidates ran for two open seats in each district. Both districts’ budgets were also passed, with 82 percent of Port Jeff voters and 79 percent in Comsewogue giving their stamp of approval to the 2017-18 spending plans.

Port Jefferson

Adam DeWitt. File photo by Elana Glowatz

A second proposition on the ballot in Port Jeff was also overwhelmingly passed by the community, allowing the district to release $456,000 from a capital reserve fund to be used on renovations and infrastructure-related improvement projects.

“On behalf of the Port Jefferson board of education, administration, students and staff, I extend my appreciation to the Port Jefferson community for their continued support of our district,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said in an emailed statement. “Through the approval of our school budget, our district will continue to offer our students a high quality educational program. Additionally, the support of Proposition 2 allows the district to replace portions of the high school and middle school roof, continuing our investment in district facilities.”

Port Jeff’s 2017-18 budget will be nearly $43 million, a roughly 3.5 percent increase over last year. Almost $36 million of revenue will come from property taxes. The budget was passed with 338 “yes” to 74 “no” votes.

Adam DeWitt will begin his third term on the Port Jeff board of education after receiving 357 votes. He and newcomer Dave Keegan, with 356 votes, each ran unopposed for two seats.

“I am very grateful to the Port Jefferson community for giving me the opportunity to join the Board of Education,” Keegan said in an email. “I am excited to begin my tenure and to contribute to helping keep the Port Jefferson School District among the best public school systems in the country.”

DeWitt said in a phone interview he was thrilled with the support the community showed for the upcoming year’s spending plan.

“I couldn’t be prouder to continue to serve on the board for another three years,” he added.


Ali Gordon. Photo from Ali Gordon

Voters in Comsewogue passed the district’s approximately $90 million budget by a 789 to 208 margin. The district’s tax levy will be 2.8 percent higher than for the current year.

“I’m very, very thankful to our wonderful community for its overwhelming support of our budget,” Superintendent Joe Rella said in a phone interview.

Ali Gordon, who ran unopposed, will begin her third term on Comsewogue’s board of education beginning in July after receiving 882 votes. Board vice president James Sanchez will also be granted another term, as 846 community members checked off his name.

James Sanchez. Photo from James Sanchez

“There are great things happening in our schools every day, and I’m proud to be part of a team that prioritizes innovation and creativity in education,” Gordon said in an email. She called it an honor to be able to serve the community for a third term.

Sanchez expressed a similar sentiment.

“As an incumbent I am honored to be given the opportunity in serving a third term, allowing me to be the voice and advocate for the Comsewogue families and students,” he said in an email. “I’d like to give a heartfelt thanks for entrusting me as your representative on the board.”