Since the beginning of the school year, students have been gathering in the courtyard at Comsewogue High School on their off periods.
“Dr. [Joe] Rella always thought of our Rotunda as our town hall, and now we’ve expanded on his dream, by developing a Town Square,” said Superintendent Jennifer Quinn.
The space started with “Jackie’s Garden” a few years ago after the untimely passing of Rella’s wife, Jackie. Her passing left the school broken hearted, said special education teacher Andrew Harris, making them want to reach out. Harris suggested the idea, and “Dr. Quinn looked at me and said it was a beautiful idea, but asked me if I was sure I wanted to commit … because you know what happens to gardens?”
Harris knew exactly what she meant, having seen several gardens start-up and then eventually fall by the wayside. He promised her that for as long as he is a teacher at Comsewogue, he would make sure to maintain the garden.
The next thing the school knew, Boy Scouts from the High School stepped up and did their Eagle Scout projects to benefit the garden. Joey Rizzo, a junior, built several raised beds. He even created a barrier to protect the garden from other activities. Now-graduate Christian Freda built a raised bed for a student who uses a wheelchair, going further to design and build a bench that has wheelchair access. Last year, James Mantione, a junior, built a trellis that became the backdrop of many senior pictures at graduation.
“These are amazing students who are doing wonderful things for our school,” said principal Mike Mosca. “These projects took up a lot of their own time and efforts while they developed great leadership skills. By next year, don’t be surprised to see grapes, eggplant, or even zucchini, growing from the trellis.”
Soon, community members and businesses asked to pitch in. Rich Crandle, from 4 Corners Produce in Port Jefferson Station, donated many of the flowers, plants and decorations for every holiday, which Harris called extremely generous.
“Ann Marie’s Farm Stand, Agway, and landscapers Chris Friedl, Tommy Deacy and Steve Long are a phone call away and will stop what they are doing just to help out clearing things or delivering soil and mulch,” said Joe Coniglione, assistant superintendent.
The Whole Foods Foundation gave the district a $2,000 grant for the garden, which allowed the garden to expand.
Recently, the school added a sunflower farm in the middle as a result of a class project.
“This year, students gather by the beautiful sunflowers at every lunch period, it’s quite beautiful,” said a senior posing for pictures with friends.
According to Rella, sunflowers were Jackie’s favorite.
“Our life skills class took that idea and ran with it,” said Joe Dimino, who helped with the project-based initiative.
The students planned, researched and set up the garden, watching it flourish. Harris said that they weren’t quite ready to plant after mid-May, but then the unexpected passing of one of the district students occurred.
“I told the students that I really didn’t have a good explanation, but I did know that this year we could plant and dedicate the sunflowers to Jackson, the young middle school student who lost his battle to cancer,” Harris said. “We all got out there and got to work to focus ourselves on something positive in his memory. The students were so proud of their efforts to get it done in time.”
Harris described an amazing thing that started to happen. Students, teachers, clubs and administrators started to “plug-in” various projects at and around the garden. This Halloween, the district plans to conduct a hay ride for the kids who visit for the annual Trick or Treat Streets. Shane Goldberg, who teaches advanced science classes, planted vegetables.
“For a bit, our sprinkler system wasn’t reaching the plants, so one of the AP students designed and implemented a system to keep the soil and plants hydrated,” Goldberg said. “It was the perfect idea and solution to a real-life problem.”
For the past several years, the school’s food service department has served special meals that were designed by and even prepared with the help of Heather Rand’s English Language Learner classes at the middle school. Rand and her classes developed their own “Jackie’s Garden’” at the middle school.
“The amazing thing to see was that these kids enjoyed their hands-on experience while learning a whole new language as well as science,” said John F. Kennedy Middle School Principal Mike Fama.
The ELL teacher said new English language learners were excited and passionate about the garden.
“It became the ideal way to teach science and English because all the students could relate to what we were doing,” said Rand.
In the first year of the garden, Charlotte Johnson, who teaches drama and chorus, serenaded Rella and his family as well as the whole district during an evening where staff, students and families participated.
“There wasn’t a dry eye out there,” Harris recalled one of the parents saying. “It was quite emotional.”
On a daily basis, the school sees students from art, photography, ELA and more using the garden to do their projects. Outside, on a crisp fall day, both Rand and Natalie Rubenstein’s classes were busy measuring plant length and looking into microscopes all while recording data into their science notebooks.
In many ways, the garden has become the focal point of the school and district. Students can be seen doing fundraisers and other activities, some to raise awareness of what is going on around them locally and even internationally. On one occasion, students displayed pride flags, sold cancer awareness shirts, all while sharing space with recruiters from the armed forces. On another table, they were collecting for Comsewogue graduates who are currently serving in the military.
“We are a tight community, and we want those men and women serving to know that we remember them,” said Michelle Mortorano, head of the Parent Teacher Student Association. “Some of the elementary students will be putting hand-written letters inside the boxes we send to show how much they care.”
Soon, the district will display holiday decorations, celebrating the district and community. The rotunda is currently being renovated by art students working on an intricate mosaic that people will see as they enter the school.
“The mosaic in combination with our kind and welcoming attitude — makes this place one of the best places on Earth to walk into,” Harris said.
Harris described a scene at the garden, where a few students were doing their homework in the garden on picnic tables surrounded by baskets of flowers.
“One student looked up and said growing up in this school district and community was one of the best experiences of her life,” he said.
Information for this article supplied by Andrew Harris, Michelle Lautato and Comsewogue High School students.