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Comsewogue School District

The Port Jefferson school board at an April 2019 meeting. Photo by Kyle Barr
Comsewogue Union Free School District

Two seats are up for Comsewogue’s school board, and both remain uncontested.

Comsewogue’s budget vote and trustee election will occur May 21 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Comsewogue High School.

Comsewogue board of education member and graduate Rob DeStefano

Robert DeStefano

Current trustee Robert DeStefano is looking forward to continuing along with the board, all the while continuing on without longtime superintendent Joe Rella at the helm of the district.

The trustee said he is “born and raised,” in the Comsewogue school district, and has lived in the district for more than 40 years. He is finishing his ninth year on the board and is looking for his fourth term on the board.

“It’s a special place to be, it’s a special place to grow up, it’s a wonderful place to raise a family, and I’m just proud to serve the community,” he said.

With the outgoing Rella and incoming superintendent Jennifer Quinn, DeStefano said he expects it to be a smooth transition.

“As a student of his, and having worked with him, it’s been a wonderful experience,” he said. “Dr. Quinn’s been in this district for so much of the same time, and her accomplishments in the district speak for themselves.”

DeStefano has two kids enrolled in the district and holds degrees in business marketing and business management from New York University Stern School of Business and holds a master’s of business administration degree from Long Island University. He currently works as a product marketing manager at IT company ivanti.

He said he is looking forward to finally beginning work with the $32 million bond proposal, which was passed by residents in a 2018 vote. This summer the bond will begin to address parking lots in the two elementary schools and will improve athletic fields and address other exterior building infrastructure.

“It will allow us to make investments in the district in a variety of ways, in a very fiscally responsible way in the next several years,” he said. 

He said he sees the new budget as fiscally responsible, with the tax levy rise a full percentage point lower than the cap. He said it is especially important, because as he sees it, the economy will eventually take a turn for the worse, following the cycle of boom and bust.

“You can’t just go to the cap because it’s there, you have to be responsible with the funds we get from our residents,” he said. “My time on the board started as we were just trying to pull out of the last recession. I don’t have a crystal ball to say how bad the next one will be, but I know there is going to be one, you don’t need a crystal ball to tell that.” 

Continuing disagreement with New York State over Common Core, DeStefano said he wished there could be more direct dialogue with leadership in Albany. While he appreciated the efforts of representatives like New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), he said the district will continue to respect parents’ decisions to opt out.

Francisca Alabau-Blatter file photo

Francisca Alabau-Blatter 

Trustee Francisca Alabau-Blatter is running again unopposed for her seat on the school board.

Alabau-Blatter did not respond to requests for comment.

Originally from Spain, she moved to Long Island at 13 years old. She has three kids in Comsewogue and teaches Spanish in the Central Islip school district. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art education and a master’s degree in computer graphics.

Port Jefferson School District

Three seats are currently up for vote in the Port Jefferson School District, with two set for a three-year term commencing July 1, 2019 and ending June 30, 2022, and one a two-year term making up for the unexpired term of Adam DeWitt, from May 21, 2019 to June 30, 2020.  With two incumbents running again for their positions, two newcomers are also hoping to offer their services to the school board.

The Port Jefferson trustee election and budget vote will occur May 21 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the Port Jefferson High School.

Ryan Biedenkapp

Ryan Biedenkapp

Ryan Biedenkapp came onto the board last year after Adam DeWitt, then elected to his third term, resigned in August 2018. The then-board voted 4-1 to bring Biedenkapp onto the board after he ran for it in May that year, and now he is seeking a full term in his current seat.

A nine-year resident of Port Jefferson, the candidate said he has three kids enrolled in the district, a 15-year-old and two 13-year-olds. His son, Parker, has autism.

He currently works in the biotech industry in the sales department for biopharmaceutical company AbbVie. 

With having kids of differing ages and experiences, Biedenkapp said he’s able to keep in mind the many young people in the district, from those on sports teams to those with special needs.

“I think having somebody with a broad range of knowledge of what’s offered — what’s available, what’s good, what’s working, what’s not, what do we have that we’re really proud of that we want to keep, what do we think we need to do a little better with,” he said.

Biedenkapp said he, along with the rest of the board, was active and engaged in this year’s search for a superintendent to replace Paul Casciano, who will now be leaving in October. 

“You have to drop your ego, and you have to look for a compromise,” he said. “If you can come at it with a logical, rational act, always placing quality education for your children as true north, then you can come up with some really good decisions.”

While the trustee pointed to the board’s work on the current budget as fiscally sound, he said that with the downvote of the 2017 bond referendum, there needs to be a significant look into school’s infrastructure.

In the wake of the settlement between the Town of Brookhaven and Long Island Power Authority, which will reduce its tax payments to the district over time by 50 percent, the board has had discussions about consolidating or removing school programs with low enrollment. Biedenkapp said it will be a hard decision process going into the future, there are some classes with low turnout that still require a full state-certified teacher to be present.

“When you look at it down at a micro level, it shows were not doing the best we can for all our students,” he said.

He added it’s important the board show their support toward teachers, especially when it comes to Common Core testing or mandated tests that the board has had discussions of recently.

Ellen Boehm

Ellen Boehm

Ellen Boehm, a 26-year resident of Port Jefferson and graduate of Port Jefferson High School, said she is running again for her seven-year seat to help the district deal with issues such as the outcome of the LIPA settlement.

“In consideration of what’s finally been resolved with the LIPA issue, that we have a glide path, as a district and community we have to identify what we want to keep or strengthen in programs, and what’s really not important to us,” Boehm said. “We have an exceptional education program. As a community we have to decide what we have to spend money on when things get tight, and perhaps they won’t get tight … we have to have some very candid conversations.”

The candidate said she has agreed with the incoming superintendent Jessica Schmettan, who said she hopes to resurrect the budget advisory committee, allowing residents to sit down and discuss what will and what won’t be cut in future budgets. She said there are residents who need to be able to talk about the school budget who might be retired or not have students within the school district. She said the district will also need to pay attention to the infrastructure of its schools and grounds and pay attention to what may need to get fixed in the future.

“We all have different interests, and we all need to work together to see that we have a great, stable school,” she said.

Both her daughters are graduates of the school district. 

She said the strengths of the school district are its diverse and in-depth education programs and its wide base of extracurricular activities. 

“We don’t have a lot of wasted spending in the budget,” she said. “The past boards have been pretty fiscally responsible.”

She added the current board works well together, and whenever there is disagreement, it is always handled professionally and openly.

“There’s many times we don’t all come from the same thought process, and the open exchange of ideas and the conversations we have are great,” she said. “It’s not a board that spends time fighting. We all have that common interest to do what’s best for the community.”

Randi DeWitt

Randi DeWitt

Randi DeWitt, 43, said she grew up in Port Jefferson, and while she moved away first for college and later for work, it was its quaint setting that drew her back home, where she has now lived for close to 40 years. She now has two kids in the school district, one in eighth grade, and the other in ninth grade, and she said she felt it was time to run for school board now that her kids are a little more independent.

“It’s a great way to volunteer and to give back to my community,” she said. “I grew up in a family that always encouraged community service.”

The trustee candidate has been a teacher for several years at Mount Sinai Elementary School, teaching first-graders. She has been the designated inclusion teacher in the district for several years and teaches both typical students and students with special needs. 

She said that her education experience, along with having attended schools in Port Jefferson from kindergarten through 12th grade, gives her insight in what needs to be done for the district, especially in terms of the ongoing budget changes the district will experience due to the fallout from the LIPA settlement.

“It gives me some insight and vision for the school district,” she said. “Ultimately I would love to preserve the programs we currently have, while also managing and realizing these fiscal challenges that are going to lie ahead due to LIPA.”

While the district has had discussions about the need to either consolidate or cut programs with low enrollment to stay under budget, DeWitt said while she would love to preserve as many programs as possible, she would like to be there to help determine that important programs don’t get slashed.

“Being a teacher, and having the best interest of Port Jefferson, I would hope any board member running for school board has the needs of the students who attend the schools at heart,” she said. “I would like to be part of that decision-making process.”

Mia Farina

Mia Farina

Mia Farina, a seven-year Port Jeff resident, is throwing her hat in the ring for the second year in a row, saying she could bring a fresh perspective on school security.

Farina has lived in Port Jefferson for seven years, having spent two years in itself trying to find a place to live in the village, saying it was the locally renowned school district that spawned her desire to help raise her now 7-year-old son.

She said her main concern is giving the community a voice on the school board and getting them more involved.

“Everyone talks budget, budget, but my concern is — are the children being lost because we talk about budget every meeting,” she said. 

The candidate has spent 21 years in law enforcement, and currently works as a detective for the New York City Police Department. She said there are several things the district can do to enhance the security of its buildings. While emphasis in Port Jefferson, and many other surrounding districts, has been put on security vestibules and identification card systems, she said she would hope to emphasize teaching kids to notice problem signs and teaching them about warning signs and what to do in an emergency situation. She said it can be taught in a fun and engaging way. 

“Kids are already inside the school, and the vestibule isn’t going to help protect those kids that are already inside the school,” Farina said. “I would like to implement more hands-on with the children, so that they can notice things, without scaring them … It’s being proactive instead of reactive.”

While Farina admitted she is not as adept with finances as other members of the board, she said the effect of LIPA, and the talk about cutting certain classes or programming, has her concerned. If current students enjoy certain classes, she said, it should only be fair that children like her 7-year-old should get that same opportunity down the road.

“My concern is keeping programs or helping keep from cutting programs when things come down to the wire,” she said. “I would like to sit down, you tell me what the budget is, and let us find ways to keep things, combine things together, or get grants or assistance from other school districts you can share … I need to know that there are other things being looked at.”

This post has been amended from when it was originally published in the May 9 edition of the Port Times Record amending the number of seats contested for the Port Jefferson School District.

File photo

Comsewogue school district representatives said they focused on keeping increases low while dealing with a decrease in school enrollment.

The Comsewogue Union Free School District has proposed a $93,974,755 budget for the 2019-20 school year, an increase of $2,027,025 from last year. 

Included in the budget is a proposed tax levy, the amount of money the district raises from taxes, of $57,279,755, a 2 percent increase of $1,140,786, below this year’s tax levy cap of 3 percent.

One of the main foci of the budget was for child mental health awareness.

“Everybody we met with, everyone was in agreement, students’ mental health and well-being — it was important to put more money into the budget for social and emotional learning and mental health issues,” assistant superintendent Susan Casali said.

One increase came in the form of pupil personnel services from $3,322,061 to $3,678,447. PPL aids students with special needs. 

While the district experienced a total enrollment decline of 40 students, the number of students with special needs has increased, according to the assistant superintendent, and each of those young people is more expensive overall than a typical student. In addition, the district is hiring one additional social worker and a new social worker teacher’s assistant.

“That’s why you don’t see the budget going down — there are students that cost us a lot more money,” Casali said. 

Other major increases include a 27 percent and $696,209 increase in debt services, but this is offset slightly by a $570,000 or 33 percent decrease in interfund transfers.

In terms of state aid, the district received a moderate increase from $31,800,000 to $32,700,000. 

In addition to the budget vote, the district is asking residents to vote on proposition 2, which would establish a capital reserve fund. This allows Comsewogue to set aside money for future capital projects, when it will require district residents again to take money out of the reserve. Casali said this is funded through unallocated funds the district has by the end of the year, and the fund does not increase taxes.

In the meantime, the district is going ahead with the first phase of its bond project; bids were scheduled to go out to companies in April. District voters approved the $32 million bond last year, which the district said would go up in several phases. The first phase, costing about $5.8 million, will complete work on the parking lots at the Boyle Road Elementary School and the Terryville Elementary School, along with the creation of security vestibules in all school buildings and adding new locks to doors throughout the high school building.

The district is lauding its Moody’s bond rating of AA2, and expects to have to keep up on payments for the next three years in order to maintain that rating.

Comsewogue will host its budget hearing May 9 at 7:30 p.m. in the district office board room. The budget vote will take place May 21, in Comsewogue High School from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella congratulates a member of the class of 2016 during graduation June 23. File photo by Bob Savage

By Rob DeStefano

What can you accomplish during a 25-year career at Comsewogue School District? Greatness. Let me explain: While I was a sophomore at Comsewogue, we were introduced to Joe Rella as the new teacher in the music department, a quarter century ago. In the months that followed, students started talking about music, band, theater and jazz with an increased frequency not measurable before. Something special was beginning.

I don’t remember which concert it was, winter or spring, but as a junior participating in the newly reinvigorated jazz band, it happened. We sat playing an upbeat swing-time classic — maybe Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” or Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” — and this new teacher stepped away from the conductor’s podium. We stayed cool, kept playing, though we wondered what was happening. He walked to the audience and offered a hand to his wife. A moment later, this new teacher and his wife were doing the Charleston in front of an audience of parents, while our band played. In that moment, the magic became real. Comsewogue had hired our own “Mr. Holland.” We had our first glimpse of who Rella was.

In the years that followed, class after class grew to appreciate his style — and his impact. His collaboration with our music educators led to a number of new opportunities for students. We had a pep band at home football games. Our theater performances recruited more students, some discovering talent they didn’t know they had. Even more, they found confidence, overcame shyness and lifted each other to perform at higher levels. This influence benefited all the district’s high school students when he became principal in the 1998-99 school year. How he found the time to continue to accompany students in their musical endeavors, I don’t know.

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella with students who participated in Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Rella’s appointment as Comsewogue’s superintendent in 2010 coincided with my election to our board of education. To call the last eight-plus years of working with him “unforgettable” is an understatement. Just as he inspired our students, he’s been a source of trust, candor and community to Port Jefferson Station residents, and beyond.

He’s proposed innovative solutions to challenges that threaten public education. He’s stood up for our children and an educational curriculum that prepares them to be their best. He’s advocated logic in the face of unreasonable and irresponsible policies dictated by out-of-touch government actions. As he prepares to retire after nine years as superintendent, his influence on our district, community and public education are deep and long lasting.

Great leaders don’t act alone. At each step in his 25-year journey, Rella has influenced the culture of the departments, schools and communities he’s worked with. Those who became Warriors along the way have become part of this culture of openness, collaboration and unwavering spirit. That makes me very excited for our community and Comsewogue School District’s future.

Our district administration has delivered great community successes in recent years. We’ve weathered the limitations of the property tax cap without compromising the quality of student education. Student access to technology has grown at all levels. Our arts programs are amazing. If you haven’t been to one of our schools’ art shows or musicals lately, I highly recommend them.

We’ve received accreditation from the Middle States Association Commissions on Elementary and Secondary Schools, a first on Long Island for a full-sized district, putting our educational standard significantly above those dictated by the New York State Education Department. Program performance has been on a strong incline. Our literacy program and programs for English language learners are providing stronger foundations toward the educational growth of every student. Our problem-based learning program is proving our students have the analytical, critical thinking skills for 21st century success. They not only pass state exams but demonstrate deep knowledge of topics and an understanding of the world around them.

Rob DeStefano is a Comsewogue board of education member and a Comsewogue High School graduate

On top of all this, our district — and really, our community — culture is unprecedented. Our students are not only academically thriving, but they are responsible stewards of the schools and neighborhoods to which they belong. The number of volunteer initiatives and the number of students who participate is awesome to see. And the latest of these, “Joe’s Days of Service,” is one of the great cultural legacies that I have no doubt will become a lasting part of how Comsewogue students give back to the community that has supported them, even after Rella moves on. Our students, past, present and future, will continue to make us proud.

As incoming superintendent, Jennifer Quinn represents the next stage in our community’s Warrior spirit. She has worked alongside Rella to get us where we are. As our district has been elevated, she has built, evolved and driven the programs that are enabling our students to thrive. I’m extremely excited about the vision she has shared to continue Comsewogue’s trajectory toward the very best in academics, athletics and arts. Our community is becoming a more attractive place to live and raise a family. Ask your local real estate agent to confirm this. Where we’re headed, the place we live will become an even more coveted venue — a benefit for all residents.

Legacy takes many forms. Rella’s real, lasting impact on our community is proven by how we celebrate and carry forward the torch he passes along to us all. The job belongs to all of us. We must not lose sight of what makes ours a special place to be. We must recognize the opportunity ahead of us and continue toward it with the same unwavering commitment. We must continue to work together, support each other and continue to carry Comsewogue forward with pride because, in some way, we’ve all had the blessing of being students of Joe Rella. We are a family of Warriors.

Rob DeStefano is a Comsewogue School District Board of Education member and a graduate of Comsewogue High School.

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Isabella Gordon, 15, organizes the nearly 300 pounds of hygiene products she collected for donation. Photo from Ali Gordon

Inspired by a leadership camp she attended over the summer, Comsewogue High School sophomore Isabella Gordon identified a problem in her community and took it upon herself to fix it. Before she knew it, her bedroom was piled high with feminine hygiene products set for donation.

Isabella, 15, said she had been interested in attending the Eleanor Roosevelt Girls Leadership Worldwide camp, a program offered by the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill in Hyde Park New York aimed at helping attendees gain confidence, develop a voice and unlock one’s leadership potential, ever since her older sister attended more than a decade ago. She went this past summer and met young women from around the world, and upon returning home, she was struck with an idea.

The teenager said she came across a video on YouTube that detailed the difficulty homeless women on their menstrual cycle have in obtaining hygiene products and wasted little time springing to action.

“I was interested and talked to my mom that night and was like, ‘Hey, I want to work on this,’” she said following a Comsewogue board of education meeting Nov. 5, where her mom Ali Gordon has served on the board for three terms. “So for the next week or so me and my sister were kind of just thinking up names for it and we ended up with ‘Hygiene for All,’ came up with a mission statement, because I felt so passionate about it.”

Isabella said she set up a Facebook page for her newly formed initiative and asked people to donate products for her cause by sending them to her home. Eventually her bedroom was piled with items in bins waiting to be distributed to those who needed them. Mineola-based nonprofit food bank Island Harvest organized a “stuff-a-bus” event Oct. 6 at Comsewogue’s homecoming football game, during which attendees of the game were encouraged to bring food items to be donated to those in need. Isabella and Hygiene for All provided the food bank with more than 100 boxes of feminine hygiene products, dozens of toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, and deodorants. In all the haul amassed nearly 300 pounds, according to Gordon.

“It was incredibly inspiring to have my 15-year-old come up with the idea,” the BOE member said. “Inspiring and very exciting. She didn’t need much assistance at all. She had a vision for this and really wanted to be able to help people and she’s done that and plans to continue to do that.”

Isabella said she hopes to one day turn the project into a charitable venture and is already interested in expanding it to more communities and school districts. She said she hopes to pursue a degree in medicine, at this point with her eye on one day becoming a midwife. Feminine hygiene products are among the most requested items for all food pantries, as many homeless and disadvantaged women are forced to choose between spending money on items like these and food, according to Food Bank for New York City, which holds an annual campaign calling for products for women.

“I feel very proud, especially of my community, so I’d say it went pretty well,” Isabella said.

To donate visit Hygiene for All’s Facebook page and send a private message to get the address.

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Comsewogue’s board of education applauds Superintendent Joe Rella, seated, during a Nov. 5 BOE meeting, where it was announced he will retire and be succeeded by Jennifer Quinn, deputy superintendent, right. Photo by Alex Petroski

Comsewogue School District took the first step in preparing to bid farewell to a giant in the community during its Nov. 5 board of education meeting.

The board regretfully accepted Superintendent Joe Rella’s intent to retire during the meeting, effective Aug. 31, 2019, and also approved placing Jennifer Quinn, current deputy superintendent, in line to succeed him beginning next school year. Both moves have been long expected, as Rella shared his intention to step away from the district with TBR News Media in a 2017 interview, though the motions by the board made it official and brought the end of Rella’s career at the helm of the district into clearer focus. Both motions drew standing ovations from those in attendance and from members of the board.

Rella was diagnosed with stage 4 bile duct cancer in October 2017, though he said a “mango-sized” tumor found on his liver hasn’t grown or spread, and his health played no role in the decision. He said he and his late wife Jackie, who died following a bout with breast cancer in 2016, had long discussed 2018-19 as being his last year, as it would be his 25th in the district and ninth as superintendent.

“I’ve always believed you leave while you’re having fun, and I’m having fun,” Rella said. 

The district resident said he appreciated the way the community embraced him and credited those interactions with making him a better man. He said he plans to enjoy his retirement spending time with his seven grandchildren. He credited Quinn with spearheading much of the district’s successes of recent years, including attaining a prestigious accreditation by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Elementary and Secondary Schools in 2017, as well as a rapidly expanding problem-based learning curriculum introduced as an alternative learning method aimed at increasing student success in state-mandated standardized testing.

“There was nobody else I would’ve ever wanted to do it,” he said of his successor. “She’ll take this to the next level. She has the street creds because she’s been here. I know there’s an impulse sometimes to do intergalactic searches to find a superintendent, and while the credentials might be outstanding, you don’t know the community and it takes time to build up trust.”

Quinn has been with the Comsewogue district for 13 years, spending four years as high school principal before working side by side with Rella for the last nine as an assistant superintendent and eventually deputy superintendent.

“Joe is the most amazing teacher you could ever ask for, I have learned more than I could have ever imagined working with him,” Quinn said. “He is brilliant. He’s able to see 15 steps down the road. To me that’s a skill that’s so valuable.”

Members of the board of education heaped praise on both administrators in expressing their mixed emotions for the road ahead.

“Everybody knows how amazing Dr. Rella is because he’s so out there and in your face, and in your answering machine and on your cellphone,” board member Ali Gordon said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is how phenomenal Dr. Quinn is and what a team they’ve been all along. She has a phenomenal vision for this district.” 

Board member Rob DeStefano said Rella once gave him advice prior to a big school concert when he was a student and Rella had just began as superintendent.

“What if I mess up, what do I do? Do I stop? Do I keep going?” DeStefano recalled asking Rella ahead of his first big saxophone solo as a high school senior, to which the superintendent replied: “Don’t worry about how it sounds, just play it loud.”

“We’re all very thankful for each of you,” DeStefano said in closing his remarks.

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2018 Regents exam results for Comsewogue students in problem-based learning classes versus traditional ones. Click to enlarge. Graphic by TBR News Media

“Teaching to the test” is a concept that no longer computes in Comsewogue School District.

Administration and faculty in Comsewogue, for the last two school years, have experimented with a problem-based learning curriculum for small groups of interested ninth- and 10th-graders, an alternative to the traditional educational strategy of focusing assignments and assessments toward the goal of performing well on state-mandated standardized tests at the end of the year. Now, Superintendent Joe Rella has data to back up his notorious aversion to one-size-fits-all education and assessment.

In all subjects, Comsewogue students in PBL classes passed 2018 Regents exams, scoring 65 or better, at a higher rate than those in traditional classrooms, according to data released by the district. On chemistry, geometry, algebra II, global history and English 11 exams, PBL students achieved mastery level, scoring 85 or better, at significantly higher rates than their non-PBL classmates.

“We played in your ballpark — we scored runs.”

— Joe Rella

“We played in your ballpark — we scored runs,” Rella said of how he interpreted the data, meaning students taught by alternative methods still displayed an aptitude on the state’s required tests.

Though Rella and the district have taken steps to try to have PBL assessments replace Regents exams, no avenue to do so has been greenlighted by the New York State Department of Education to this point for Comsewogue. Emails requesting comment on the significance of Comsewogue’s test results sent to the education department and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) press office were not returned.

During the 2017-18 school year, about half of Comsewogue’s ninth- and 10th-graders, roughly 300 students, took part voluntarily in PBL classes, which emphasize hands-on learning and real-world application of concepts as assessments — similar to a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation — as opposed to the traditional “Regents model.” The students were still required by the state to take the Regents exams as all students are, and their performance has inspired the district in year three of the pilot to expand its PBL curriculum offerings on a voluntary basis for 2018-19 to its entire student body — kindergarten through 12th grade.

The superintendent said the impetus for the district to experiment with PBL started three years ago, when he and about 20 Comsewogue teachers spent a day at the New York Performance Standards Consortium in Manhattan. The organization was founded on the belief that there was a better way to assess student learning than dependence upon standardized testing, according to its website.

“In traditional settings, the teacher did most of the work, we listened, we copied notes and then we were tested on it,” Rella said. “The way the structure was, you spent a year learning stuff. At the end of the year, you took a test to see what you knew.”

In PBL classrooms, regardless of subject, Rella explained that a problem is initially presented, and students learn skills that are meant to help them practically find an answer to the problem. One group of PBL students during the 2017-18 school year decided to approach opioid addiction as a subject matter. Rella said chemistry students and English students worked on parallel tracks addressing that problem, with the science classes researching and presenting on the science behind addiction and the brain, and the English classes creating a public service announcement on the topic. The students presented and defended their findings and approach to the Suffolk County Legislature, with two students eventually being asked to join the county’s commission on substance addiction, according to Rella.

“It’s the problem that drives the learning rather than, ‘I learn to take an assessment at some future date.’”

— Joe Rella

“You have to acquire knowledge in order to solve the problem, so there is traditional teaching going on,” he said. “But right from the beginning, it’s the problem that drives the learning rather than, ‘I learn to take an assessment at some future date.’”

Rella credited District Administrator for Curriculum and Instruction Jennifer Polychronakos as the driving force behind professional development and empowering district faculty to embrace the district’s new approach.

“We’ve so far created about 20 units of study districtwide that are ready to go for next year and we’ve piloted some of them and worked out some of the kinks,” Polychronakos said. “We’re going to continue to really just take the standards that we have from the state and make them into more of a project-based, or problem-based, learning type of experience for the kids.”

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By Anthony Petriello

Comsewogue High School will be rockin’ for a good cause July 19 with John Elefante, former lead singer of the American classic rock group Kansas.

A concert — called A Night of Hope — is being presented by the Warriors of Faith Christian Club, a group of Comsewogue students who organized the event to benefit the family of Brian McGuire, a district resident, former NYPD detective and 9/11 first responder who died suddenly April 30, leaving behind three children and his wife Karin, according to a GoFundMe page set up on behalf of the family. The event is meant to raise money for the family and for attendees to gather for prayer and discussion, according to a flyer promoting the concert.

Joining Elefante will be Kevin Chalfant, former lead singer for the Alan Parsons Live Project and former member of the world-renowned 1980s rock group Journey.

A benefit concert is being held at Comsewogue High School July 19 at 7 p.m. to benefit the family of a late community member.

Chalfant said he is eager to perform and was dedicated once he was informed about the circumstances surrounding the benefit.

“When John Elefante asked me to join him on Long Island for this wonderful family get together I was very happy,” Chalfant said. “I never knew the officer but when I heard that he was a first responder on 9/11, that’s all it took for me to be committed to this wonderful event.”

The money donated through ticket sales and a silent auction will go toward paying for college educations for the McGuire’s three kids. Their oldest son, Thomas, graduated from Comsewogue June 21, and will be attending Suffolk County Community College in the fall. Their son Michael will be entering 11th grade this upcoming school year, and their daughter, Danielle, will be heading to eighth grade.

Local businesses including Chick-Fil-A, School of Rock, and Wahlburgers, among others, as well as clergy from Axis Church of Medford, Harbor Church of Patchogue, Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle, and the Christian Cultural Center in Smithtown are working together to promote and organize the event along with the Comsewogue students. All of the funds raised will be directed to the McGuire family.

Pastor Anthony Pelella of Axis Church is one of those coordinating the event, and said he wanted to be involved just to help a family in need.

“We just wanted to give them something to make them smile,” he said.

Pelella will be delivering a message of hope prior to the concert. He said he believes in the notion that the Port Jefferson community is an extremely interconnected and faith driven place to reside.

“I believe that the Port Jefferson community hurts together,” He said. “When one person hurts we all hurt together, and when one person smiles we all smile together.”

Comsewogue school board President John Swenning also said he is looking forward to the event and raising funds for the cause. While Swenning is not the main coordinator of the concert, he said he is putting his full effort behind it and working to maximize the aid the concert generates for the McGuire family.

“It is humbling to see a community come together to help a neighbor in their time of need,” Swenning said. “There is no place I would want to raise a family other than the Comsewogue community.”

The silent auction will consist of gift baskets and guitars autographed by Elefante and Chalfant.

Assigned seat tickets can be purchased at www.comsewoguehs.seatyourself.biz. Special tickets are also for sale for a meet and greet and dinner with the band, with food provided by Wahlburgers. Tickets for the meet and greet dinner are being sold by Axis Church, which can be reached by emailing info@axisny.org. The event begins at 7 p.m. at Comsewogue High School. Standard admission tickets will also be sold at the door.

Ibuki Iwasaki, Eli Doyle, Luke Begley, Charles Clark finish atop their classes

By Anthony Petriello

Ibuki Iwasaki. Photo by Alex Petroski

At the conclusion of the 2018 school year at Earl L. Vandermeulen and Comsewogue high schools, four graduates stood at the top of their respective classes. These extraordinarily talented students include valedictorian Ibuki Iwasaki and salutatorian Eli Doyle from Port Jeff and valedictorian Luke Begley and salutatorian Charles Clark from Comsewogue.

At Earl L. Vandermeulen, Iwasaki finished the year at the top of the class with a 101.4 cumulative grade point average. Iwasaki was president of the National Honor Society and a member of the Mathletes team, for which she competed in more than 20 competitions, and won the All-County title for the 2017-18 school year.

“I am self-motivated,” she said of her academic drive. “My mother trusts me to seek out challenges.”

She attributed her success to her natural curiosity.

“I like to learn and try out new things whenever I can,” she said.

Eli Doyle. Photo by Alex Petroski

Iwasaki was also a member of the Science Olympiad team, where she was a first-place and third-place winner in various competitions. The team travels to universities near and far to compete against other high schools in a sports-style science tournament sponsored by organizations like NASA, Lockheed Martin and the United States Air Force. Iwasaki had also been a player on the varsity tennis team since eighth grade and was undefeated individually in the league this year. She is a National Merit Scholarship recipient, an AP Scholar with Distinction, and had earned a perfect score for three years at Level IV NYSSMA on the violin. Iwasaki will be attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall but said she has not declared an official major.

“I want to take advantage of all the opportunities MIT has to offer,” she said.

Eli Doyle finished high school with a 100.9 GPA. Doyle said he is grateful to the high school faculty for allowing him to achieve greatness.

Luke Begley. Photo by Alex Petroski

“I appreciate the opportunity my school has given me to achieve what I have achieved,” he said.

In addition to being an exemplary student, Doyle excelled on the field as well as the stage, having played tennis since ninth grade, earning honors from the Suffolk County Junior Tennis League, and working as part of the stage crew for school plays, musicals and concerts. He also volunteered at Jefferson’s Ferry Life Plan Community in South Setauket and spent his time with the residents, earning him the Presidential Volunteer Service Award. Like Iwasaki, he was also a member of the Science Olympiad squad, finishing in first place in both optics and astronomy competitions. He was a member and officer of the Student Organization for all four years of his high school career and had the opportunity to participate in the Simmons Summer Research program at Stony Brook University where he studied ferroelectric fluid, which is a type of magnetic fluid that can be used in many applications from computer hard drives to rocket fuel. Doyle will be attending Brown University this fall where he will study engineering physics.

At Comsewogue, Luke Begley was named valedictorian, finishing with a 101.5 GPA. Begley is a music-minded scholar as well as a scholar-athlete. He was a member of the NYSSMA All-State Orchestra on the double bass and played midfield on the Comsewogue varsity soccer team. He attributed his academic success to his parents and his teachers.

Charles Clark. Photo by Alex Petroski

“They always motivated me and created an environment where I could succeed, and my teachers always knew how to keep me interested and engaged,” he said.

Begley was also the president of the French National Honor Society, captain of the Academic Quiz Bowl team and an AP Scholar with Distinction during his junior year. He credited his drive to succeed to his close friends.

“We keep a good balance of competition and cooperation where we compete to be the best academically but still help each other when it is necessary,” he said.

Begley will be attending Princeton University this fall where he will be double majoring in physics and music.

Comsewogue salutatorian Charles Clark had a 101.3 GPA to wrap up his senior year. He could not be reached for comment.

The Comsewogue High School Class of 2018 said its goodbyes June 21 at the annual graduation ceremony June 21 on the football field. Valedictorian Luke Begley and Salutatorian Charles Clark addressed the crowd in attendance and the class of nearly 300.

Comsewogue High School students clean headstones at Calverton National Cemetery May 30 as part of Joe's Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Stories of Comsewogue School District students and staff engaging in acts of kindness are hardly rare, but an event conceived by a teacher and several students carried out May 30 somehow raised the bar.

High school teacher Andrew Harris said he thought of the idea of a full day of community service projects last school year, and in talking with some of his colleagues, a larger idea was born. By this school year, the event had a name — Joe’s Day of Service, after Superintendent Joe Rella — and students were making pitches in Harris’ class for how the student body should spend the day.

“There are major problems everywhere — addiction, depression — and the thing is, they say one of the best things to do is to help other people,” Harris said in an interview at Brookhaven Town Hall, where the students were recognized for their efforts by the town board June 14. “I wanted the students to understand that, because they don’t always have the opportunity. I wanted them to get a taste of that just in one day and understand that when you give to others you feel rich.”

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella with students who participated in Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

Ninth-grade students Julia Ratkiewicz and Rachel Plunkett proposed the idea of visiting Calverton National Cemetery, where members of the United States armed forces are laid to rest, to spend the day cleaning gravestones. By May 30, nearly 200 Comsewogue High School students headed to the Calverton cemetery — on seven buses donated for use that day by Suffolk Transportation Service.

“I was in such a good mood, my mom asked, ‘Are you sure you were out cleaning gravestones?’” Julia said.

Rachel, who said she and Julia thought of the idea because they both have veterans in their family and wanted to show their appreciation, said she never imagined their small idea presented in class as a way to give back would turn into a districtwide day of service.

“It’s just the least we could do for them since they did so much for us,” she said.

Eleventh-grader John Quartararo, who also helped organize the trip, called his experience at the cemetery a beautiful day, and marveled at the mood and response from his classmates who participated on the trip.

While the high school students were at Calverton, other Comsewogue kids were at Save-A-Pet animal shelter in Port Jefferson Station, cleaning cages and spending time with the rescued animals. John F. Kennedy Middle School students visited Stony Brook University Hospital to sing in the lobby, then went over to the Long Island State Veterans Home on SBU’s campus to sing patriotic songs and spend time with the veterans living at the facility. Others collected toiletries to donate to the homeless. Some painted rocks as part of The Kindness Rocks Project, an initiative which calls on people to paint inspiring messages on rocks and leave them in places where they will be found by someone in need of a boost.

Comsewogue students are recognized during the June 14 Brookhaven Town board meeting. Photo by Alex Petroski

Local businesses even got wind of Joe’s Day of Service and contributed to the cause. Chick-fil-A, Wahlburgers, Bagelicious Café, Walmart, McDonald’s and Applebee’s Grill and Bar in Miller Place all offered support in one way or another.

Harris and the students involved each credited Rella for setting the tone at Comsewogue and in the community.

“All I did was go to the events and just get blown away at every single one,” Rella said. “It was an unbelievable show on the part of our students. I’m better for having been here. I’m a better person for just having been at Comsewogue. And that’s the way it is.”

Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) commended Harris and the students involved for their efforts.

“I think it’s important that we highlight all of these [acts] because on one day, they provided all of this service to our community, to those in need,” she said. “I just want to say thank you so much for all that you do, Comsewogue, and keep up the great work.”