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Education

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Scott O’Brien was named as the Rocky Point school district’s new superintendent April 16. Photo from RPUFSD

Following a months-long search process, the Rocky Point school district has selected Scott O’Brien as its next superintendent of schools. O’Brien will succeed Micheal Ring, who is set to retire this summer after 11 years of service to the school district, the last nine years as superintendent of schools. The school board named him to the position at its April 16 meeting.

“During the application process, it became evident that the candidate best suited and qualified to lead our schools into the future was already part of our administrative team,” said board president Susan Sullivan. “In his many years working in our district, Scott has cultivated strong connections with parents, students and residents alike. This, combined with his passion for education, convinced the board that he will continue to serve our district well in this new role.” 

O’Brien, who currently serves as the district’s interim assistant superintendent, has nearly two decades of educational experience in the Rocky Point school district. He served as a principal in the district prior to his current position, most recently for Rocky Point Middle School and previously for Frank J. Carasiti Elementary School.

O’Brien earned his doctorate in educational leadership and accountability at St. John’s University, professional diploma in educational administration at SUNY Stony Brook, master’s in literacy from Dowling College and bachelor’s of science in psychology and special education from Le Moyne College.

“Rocky Point has always felt like a home away from home for me, and I am honored and humbled to begin this new professional journey here,” the incoming superintendent said. “This district is well-regarded for the robust educational offerings we provide to students at all levels … I look forward to working collaboratively with the staff, students and community to take our district to the next level of excellence.” 

Heather Lynch visits Cape Lookout in Antarctica during recent trip that included an NBC TV crew that produced a feature for ‘Sunday Night with Megan Kelly.’ Photo by Jeff Topham

By Daniel Dunaief

Heather Lynch is thrilled that she’s in the first class of scientists chosen as a recipient of the National Geographic AI for Earth Innovation Grant.

An associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, Lynch uses computers to study satellite images to reveal details about populations of penguins.

In addition to determining how many penguins are in an area, Lynch also can use images of the stains penguin poop leaves on rocks to determine what the penguins eat. Krill, which feeds on the underside of ice, is reddish or pinkish, while fish leave a white stain.

Heather Lynch with a penguin. Photo from Heather Lynch

A total of 11 researchers won the grants, which are a combined award from Microsoft and the National Geographic Society and were announced in December. The winners were chosen from more than 200 qualified scientists.

“This is the first grant that National Geographic and Microsoft are doing,” Lynch said. “It’s super exciting to be in the inaugural group.”

To hear from Lynch’s colleagues, she is an extraordinary candidate for a host of awards, including recognition as one of the TBR News Media People of the Year for 2018.

In addition to landing a coveted grant for her innovative research using sophisticated computers and satellite images, Lynch earlier this year made a remarkable discovery using Landsat imagery about a population of Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands in the Antarctic that was largely unknown prior to her published paper.

This archipelago of nine islands, which were named because of the ice that is impenetrable in most years, was home to 1.5 million penguins, which she surveyed using a combination of photos, drone imagery and hand counting. That figure represents a substantial population of a charismatic animal whose numbers often are used as a way to determine the health of a delicate region managed by a collection of nations.

“She does such good work,” said Patricia Wright, a distinguished service professor at Stony Brook University and the founder and executive director of Centre ValBio, a research station in Madagascar. Her discovery of the additional Adélie penguins was “fantastic.”

Lynch received some pushback from people who thought the discovery of these penguins ran counter to the narrative about the need for conservation. Wright appreciates how Lynch shared the discovery with the public, reinforcing her scientific credibility.

“She’s an example of a scientist who doesn’t give in to political pressure,” Wright said. “It’s difficult sometimes to face up to people who have good intentions, but who don’t seem to want to accept the reality.”

While the discovery of the Adélie penguins was remarkable, it doesn’t necessarily run contrary to the notion about the delicate balance of the Antarctic ecosystem, and it also doesn’t indicate that the population is soaring in a way the flightless water fowl never will. Indeed, the 1.5 million penguins may have been higher in the 1990s, although she is working to pin down exactly how much larger they might have once been.

Heather Lynch at Spigot Peak in the Antarctic. Photo by Catherine Foley

Lynch has also won admiration and appreciation from Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who recently won his 14th term and has focused attention on environmental issues.

“Her ability to use statistics and mathematics to further conservation biology is pioneering work and worthy of recognition,” Englebright said.

The assemblyman believes scientists and policymakers are still in the early part of the process of understanding the complexity of the ecosystems in the Antarctic.

Finding the penguins on the Danger Islands doesn’t mean the “Antarctic is any less at risk. We still have to place that discovery into its proper context and [Lynch] is helping us do that,” Englebright said.

People who have ventured to the Antarctic with her admire Lynch’s focus, energy
and stamina.

Michelle LaRue, who is a lecturer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, suggested that Lynch was “the most hardworking scientist that I know.”

LaRue recalled a time when Lynch was ill, and she still got up and did her job every day.

“The work we were doing wasn’t easy,” LaRue said. “I know she didn’t feel well and she kept going. She has a lot of perseverance.”

LaRue appreciates how her fellow scientist sees the “forest for the trees,” using a combination of high technology and considerable on-site counting to understand what changes in the penguin population reveal about the region.

Michael Polito, an assistant professor in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University, has also worked with Lynch for years. He appreciates how she’s “not afraid of uncertainty. In science, it’s knowing how well you know something. She’s amazing at taking data and information, which from the natural world is messy, and analyzing it and helping people pull useful and meaningful knowledge from complex situations.”

Ron Naveen, who founded the nonprofit group Oceanites in 1987, has worked with Lynch for 11 years.

“I’m very much proud of her work ethic and the standard of excellence she brings to the job,” Naveen said.

Oceanites collaborates with Lynch and others, Naveen said, to understand how penguins have reacted to climate change in an area where temperatures have been increasing at a faster rate than they have for much of the rest of the world.

Naveen recalls how Lynch, whom he describes as “petite and energetic” lugged around “amazingly heavy equipment,” including a camera for a Google Earth project.

“Whether [Lynch] is hiking, using a satellite or a drone, or lugging equipment that’s heavier than she is, she gets the data,” Naveen said.

He recalled a lab meeting with Lynch, who was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland in the lab of William Fagan. Lynch circled the room as she wrote on the board, sharing statistical language to explain a point.

“I had no bloody idea what she was talking about,” Naveen said. “When she was done, she sat down with a smile, and I raised my hand and innocently asked, ‘Would you mind translating that into plain English?’ Without missing a beat, she did.”

By all accounts, she’s continuing to do that.

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.

Shoreham-Wading River’s superintendent, Gerard Poole, speaks during an April 18 board of education meeting. Photo by Kevin Redding

The Shoreham-Wading River school district is looking to get smart, with the help of New York State funds.

The district is finalizing plans to use the state’s Smart School Bond Act, which makes up to $2 million available for every school district in the state to improve its technology and security infrastructure. The district has been allocated $1,003,429 to make improvements to district computer server infrastructure; purchase new computers, projectors, security cameras; and to install a new security booth at the entrance of the high school parking lot.

The district laid out its plans at an Oct. 23 board meeting, where Peter Esposito, the director of technical services, said the district plans to replace several pieces of data storage equipment to maximize storage capability in switch closets for $430,000. The district also plans to replace all district computers, 450 in all, last upgraded in 2013, with more modern machines for $425,000. The district will replace its 120, 10-year-old classroom projectors with new LCD projectors for $65,000 and add additional security cameras for $18,000.

“It’s been on my desk for the last three years, so it would be good to move forward with this,” Esposito said.

A prefabricated visitors booth for the high school parking lot will be installed for $65,000. While Superintendent Gerard Poole said the district is still working out the final plans for the booth, it could possibly be located along the high school driveway where the road forks to the administration entrance and to the main parking lot. The booth could include a guard-operated gate so school officials can monitor who is entering the high school grounds, even if they are going to use the trails to the south of the school or the North Shore Public Library.

“The way we envision it is it will help somebody get to the high school, get to the library or make the left to come up to administrative offices,” Poole said.

The final version of the plan will be submitted to New York State by the end of November, but Poole said the committee that reviews the plan has been taking about one year on average to approve those documents. He said he expects the visitors booth to be installed sometime after the district revitalizes the high school parking lot over the summer as part of a 2015 capital bond referendum, but that those plans will be changed to allow for the new booth.

At prior board meetings residents have expressed frustration about new speed bumps installed on the driveway to the high school, saying they’re so hard and short that it forces most cars to slowly roll over them. Residents have said the slowdown has increased traffic going into the school, especially in early mornings, but the superintendent said the speed bumps are working as intended to slow down traffic to 15 mph or less. He added the school has had no problem getting all students in class by first period, though officials will be reviewing the safety protocols for the guard booth as the district develops plans for the new parking lot, with that stage of the bond project going out to bid in January.

At the October meeting, board President Michael Lewis asked if the computers the school would be buying would have to be replaced in another eight years. Alan Meinster, the assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment, said there was no way to tell where technology would go in that amount of time.

“I can promise you if you do this in another eight years you will have the same budget,” Meinster said. “I don’t know where we’re going to be in the next eight years technology wise — what we’re going to be using later on.”

Glen Arcuri, the assistant superintendent for finance and operations, said the school could pay for future technology through capital reserve funds.

The investment plan is available to view on the district’s website, and district officials are currently asking for feedback on the proposal. The board will vote on the finalized version of the plan at its Nov. 27 board meeting.

Coolsmiles Orthodontics in Port Jeff is hosting an event aimed at examining the causes and identifying solutions for bullying. Stock photo

Orthodontists are usually tasked with improving young peoples’ smiles, but the partners of a Port Jefferson practice are taking patient well-being a step further.

Coolsmiles Orthodontics in Port Jefferson is sponsoring an event entitled “End Bullying Now: Here’s How” at 7 p.m. Nov. 5 at Port Jefferson Village Center, a lecture that will be conducted by Jessie Klein, an associate professor of sociology at Adelphi University and author of the 2012 book “The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools.”

The practice will cover the cost of renting the space for the forum and hiring Klein, and the event is open to the public free of charge.

Dr. David Amram, one of the practice’s partners along with Dr. Justin Ohnigan, said he has always viewed his job as not only improving patients’ teeth, but also impacting their overall self-esteem and well-being as a whole.

“When I was younger I had a really great relationship with my orthodontist,” Amram said, which has led him to view his responsibility as broader than just teeth. “I realized what kind of impact that [self-esteem] change could have on an individual.”

Amram said the practice regularly has discussions about trips and events it should sponsor that are meant to foster positivity and build relationships with the families who visit Coolsmiles, like outings to Long Island Ducks baseball games and other similar events and trips. He said the practice’s exposure to dozens of kids everyday inspired them to tailor an event around an anti-bullying message. He shared a story from a young patient that he said has stuck with him.

“One kid asked for a specific kind of jacket for the holidays, he wanted the jacket and he was wearing it, and then it was gone,” Amram recalled. He said the child explained he stopped wearing the jacket he couldn’t wait to get because other kids made fun of it. “I saw that in him and it was heartbreaking … The need for this kind of thing is striking.”

Klein said she is still in the process of planning how the event will actually play out, but summed up the theme as a look at what goes on in society to encourage that kind of behavior from bullies from a psychological and sociological perspective, and to examine ways to foster a more compassionate society. She said she hopes the forum inspires parents to talk to their kids whether they’re being bullied or displaying signs they may be bullies themselves. She called bullying a national epidemic and said more federal and state resources need to be directed toward prevention of the problem, rather than punitive responses and more security to stave off possible school shootings.

“You really need everybody on board with the same message,” she said. Klein commended Coolsmiles for taking on the responsibility of community betterment from the private sector, and setting an example for others, calling their decision to host the event beautiful and positive. “Them stepping up like that is exactly what is needed.”

Those interested in attending can RSVP by email to info@coolsmiles.com or by calling 631-289-0909 by Oct. 25.

Retired teacher Virginia Armstrong, district head of IT Ken Jockers, head Buddhist Monk from Long Island Buddhist Meditation Center Bhante Nanda, and Superintendent Gordon Brosdal prepare to load computers to be donated into cars at Mount Sinai Elementary School July 18. Photo by Kyle Barr

An African proverb states that “It takes a village to raise a child.” Though when helping to get 140 computers in the hands of children overseas, more than just a village is necessary.

Virginia Armstrong, a retired Mount Sinai educator, joined up with Bhante Nanda, a Buddhist monk from the Long Island Buddhist Meditation Center in Riverhead, and the Mount Sinai School District to help ship 140 retired netbooks, or small laptop computers to children in both Sri Lanka and to the Maasai tribe in Kenya. Thirty will go to Sri Lanka and the rest to Africa. District Superintendent Gordon Brosdal, Armstrong, Nanda and others were at Mount Sinai Elementary School July 18 to help load the computers into cars headed back to the Riverhead facility where they will be shipped out.

“When the world is in many pieces – when people are just pushing each other away, it’s the little guy, the people on the ground that will keep the world going,” Armstrong said.

Both Armstrong and her partner Ron Hamilton have been working together for the past five years to raise donations for children of the Maasai tribe in Africa. Though the school district donated the computers to them last year, the project hit a snag this year when the district learned the shipping cost climbed upwards of $80 per box. The two requested the help of Nanda, who is a native of Sri Lanka, and he agreed to help ship the large bulk of computers as long as he could send some back to his homeland as well. Shipping donated items is something he and his community have been doing for more than two decades.

“We get satisfaction and happiness from helping others,” Nanda said.

Computers set to be shipped and donated to Kenya and Sri Lanka from Mount Sinai Elementary School. Photo by Kyle Barr

Armstrong retired from Mount Sinai after 28 years of teaching. After leaving the district she first decided to climb the 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Afterwards she went to the rural parts of the country to teach. That’s where she met Chief Joseph Ole Tipanko, the leader of more than 5,000 Maasai tribal members who reside in Kenya and Tanzania. His group, the Maasai Good Salvage Outreach Organization, receives outside donations of many necessities and supplies from outside Africa. Armstrong and Hamilton have dedicated the past several years to sending clothing and other supplies for the children there, and the Mount Sinai School District has been a big supporter of their efforts.

“It’s faith over politics,” Brosdal said. “[Chief Joseph] and their culture is so strong, and then we have [Nanda] who’s helping too. It’s become so multicultural.”

The netbooks are all approximately five years old and were deemed obsolete by the district. Ken Jockers, the director of information technology at the school district, said each netbook has been reimaged, meaning all computer files have been wiped and all programs re-installed. All the netbooks currently run Windows XP operating system and contain Microsoft Office programs. Being reimaged means they should require little fixing and maintenance.

“That’s important, because maintenance is so hard in some of these places,” Armstrong said.

Nanda arrived in the United States from Sri Lanka in 2001, and he said he has come to love the cultural diversity of this country. While his group of Buddhists have existed in Port Jefferson for several years, in 2017 they opened their Riverhead meditation center, where Nanda said many people, not just Buddhists, come to meditate and find peace.

With a smile that can illuminate a dark room, Nanda said that doing things like donating the computers, helping children both overseas and in the U.S. is an integral part of his and his community’s beliefs.

“Everybody needs peace and happiness,” Nanda said. “Buddhist, Christian, whatever we are, if we don’t help human beings, and if we don’t help other people we lose a part of ourselves.”

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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.”

Annual enrollment numbers of 2012-13 school year compared to 2016-17. Graphic by TBR News Media

By Kyle Barr

A shadow hangs above the heads of Long Island’s school districts: The specter of declining enrollment.

“From last year, not a whole lot has changed, enrollment is still declining,” Barbara Graziano, the manager of the Office of School Planning and Research for Western Suffolk BOCES said. “What a lot of districts are seeing is there is a significant displacement between their graduating classes being larger than the following year’s kindergarten classes.”

School enrollment across Suffolk County has been in decline for nearly a decade. In last year’s annual report on enrollment, Western Suffolk BOCES, a regional educational service agency, said there was a 9.1 percent overall decline in enrollment in townships from Huntington to Smithtown from 2010 to 2016.

Students at Bicycle Path Pre-K/Kindergarten Center hop off the school bus. Photo from Middle Country school district

Between the 2006-07 and 2016-17 school years, Long Island saw a 6.2 percent decline in enrollment, according to Robert Lowry, the deputy director for advocacy, research and communications at the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Statewide enrollment declined 4.2 percent in the same period. Nearly every school district on Suffolk County’s North Shore has seen at least some decline, and the trend can have tangible effects on a district’s long- and short-term planning.

“Declining enrollment may push a district toward reconsidering staffing and whether it’s necessary to close a school,” Lowry said.

Smithtown Central School District in the 2012-13 school year had 10,317 students enrolled in the district, and four years later the number dropped more than a thousand to 9,241 in 2016-17. The declining enrollment was cited in 2012, with guidance from the district’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee on Instruction and Housing, as the rationale behind the closing of Nesconset Elementary School, and again in 2017 when the district closed Brook Branch Elementary School.

“Over the last few years, the board of education and administration have been proactive regarding the district’s declining enrollment,” Smithtown Superintendent James Grossane said in an email. “The district
will continue to monitor its enrollment trends to plan for the future.”

“Over the last few years, the board of education and administration have been proactive regarding the district’s declining enrollment.”

— James Grossane

Experts cite factors like declining birthrate, aging population and changes in local immigration patterns as potentially having an impact on local enrollment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report in May indicating the national birthrate in 2017 hit a 30-year low with 60.2 births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44. The national birthrate has been in general decline since the 1960s, but this most recent report is low even compared to 10 years ago when the birthrate was closer to 70 births per 1,000 women. Suffolk County’s population is also skewing older. Census data from the American Community Survey showed from 2010 to 2016 there was an estimated 28,288 less school-aged children between the ages of 5 and 19 living in the county. School closings are probably the most severe action districts tend to take to mitigate the effect of declining enrollment, but it is not the only option.

The Three Village Central School District has seen enrollment drop by about 900 students during the last decade. In its recently passed budget the district said it was making several staffing changes, including consolidating the roles of certain staff members. The district cited declining enrollment along with staff retirements and attrition for the changes, but also promised to add a new high school guidance counselor and an additional district psychologist to give attention to individual student’s mental health.

“While our district, like so many others in our area, have recently been experiencing a decline in enrollment, particularly at the elementary level, we have taken this opportunity to create efficiencies using current staff in order to lower class size and support a number of new initiatives, programmatic enhancements and student support services,” Cheryl Pedisich, the superintendent for Three Village schools said in an email.

“Declining enrollment affects school districts in several ways — perhaps most importantly through the impact on state aid.”

— Al Marlin

Kings Park Superintendent Timothy Eagen said lower enrollment allows for smaller class sizes and for more attention to the mental health of individual students.

“Our students today need a little bit more mental health support than students yesterday,” Eagen said. “Obviously we don’t need as many elementary sections, but we haven’t necessarily decreased our total staffing amount because we’ve been increasing our mental health supports.”

Even with those potential benefits, many districts are still trying to work out the long-term implications of lower enrollment. Al Marlin, a spokesperson for the New York State School Boards Association said enrollment has a large effect on how much state aid a school can procure.

“Declining enrollment affects school districts in several ways — perhaps most importantly through the impact on state aid because New York’s school-aid distribution formula is based, in part, on enrollment numbers,” Marlin said in an email. “Declining enrollment also can make it more difficult for districts to sustain academic courses, including Advanced Placement courses and programs such as sports teams.”

Shoreham-Wading River school district conducted an enrollment study in 2015 that was updated for the 2017-18 school year. The study predicted the district will recede to 1,650 enrolled students by 2025, compared to 2,170 as of May. Along with a declining birthrate and an aging population, the district pointed to low housing turnover from 2008 to 2016 for part of the declining enrollment.

As part of an ongoing Shoreham-Wading River bond referendum voted on in 2015, school classrooms, like those at Principal Christine Carlson’s Miller Avenue School, were expanded to include bathrooms. File photo by Kyle Barr

“It is difficult to predict the exact number, but it is fair to say that the enrollment decline in the district will be continuing in the near future,” SWR superintendent Gerard Poole said in an email.

Superintendents from SWR and Rocky Point school district both said they do not have any plans to close schools, but there is a possibility lower enrollment could affect the districts’ ability to apply for grants.

A few districts are breaking the trend. Huntington Union Free School District has actually seen an increase in school enrollment from 2012 to 2017, but Superintendent James Polansky said in the most recent years that increase has started to level off. Polansky did not want to speculate as to why enrollment in Huntington was not decreasing like other districts, but Graziano said it might be because the district is more diverse and attracts more immigration than nearby districts.

“Every district is different, they have to look at their own schools and communities to see how they deal with enrollment,” Polansky said.

Every year Western Suffolk BOCES releases a report that looks at schools’ current enrollment and compares it to previous years. Graziano, who is working on this year’s report, most likely to be released sometime this month, said the agency expects a continuing decline in school enrollment at least for the next several years. Though eventually, she said, the declining enrollment should level off as entering kindergarten class sizes stabilize. However, there is no telling when that might be. 

“Birthrates do not seem to be increasing, it doesn’t look like, as of right now, that’s going to turn around any time soon,” Graziano said. “But of course, we don’t have a crystal ball.”

High school educational component created to combat teen drunk and districated driving, opioid abuse

A public service announcement, titled “Hey Charlie,” highlights the progression of drug addiction and encourages those struggling with substance abuse to seek treatment. Video from Suffolk County District Attorney’s office

With graduation approaching comes a new outreach program to keep kids safe.

Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini (D) announced an initiative aimed at educating high school students and their parents on the dangers of impaired and reckless driving May 14. The program, Choices and Consequences, is described as a dynamic, engaging presentation that is provided by assistant district attorneys and detectives assigned to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office’s Vehicular Crime Bureau.

“Whether it’s texting and driving, drinking or doing drugs and driving, these decisions can be fatal,” Sini said. “The Choices and Consequences program drives that message home to teens and their parents by using real-life examples that unfortunately have changed lives forever, have taken lives from us prematurely and have devastated victims’ families and friends here in Suffolk County.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading cause of death for people in the United States between 15 and 24 years old is motor vehicle crashes. In Suffolk County, the leading causes of motor vehicle crashes are impaired driving and reckless or distracted driving.

During Sini’s tenure as Suffolk County police commissioner, motor vehicle crashes within the police district were reduced by more than 30 percent as a result of a multi-pronged enforcement effort to increase traffic safety.

“It’s a terrific opportunity for schools to be on the cutting edge of education and prevention. There are a lot of presentations out there, but I guarantee that if you sit through this presentation, it will impact your life and the way you make decisions.” — Tim Sini

“I’m proud to say that the Suffolk County Police Department and its partners have been successful in reducing motor vehicle crashes that result in serious physical injuries or fatalities, but enforcement is just one piece of our approach,” Sini said. “We need to educate — we need to raise awareness of making bad decisions behind the wheel.”

The Choices and Consequences program is based on a presentation created in the Kings County District Attorney’s Office and later adopted by the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office. It comprises facts and statistics on impaired and reckless driving; interactive skits that show how police officers respond to motor vehicle crash scenes and detect impairment; and demonstrations of the impacts of alcohol and drugs on motor skills.

In partnership with the Long Island Council on Alcoholism & Drug Dependence, the scope of the effort has been expanded to educate participants about the dangers of substance use in an effort to combat the opioid epidemic.

LICADD, in conjunction with the Christopher D. Smithers Foundation, a family charitable foundation concentrated on alcohol use disorder and addiction, and on educating the public that addiction is a medical illness, recently released a public service announcement, titled “Hey Charlie,” that highlights the progression of drug addiction and encourages those struggling with substance abuse to seek treatment.

“LICADD is proud to partner with the district attorney’s office as it takes the lead in making sure that this life-saving education is provided to every student and every parent in Suffolk County,” said Steve Chassman, executive director of LICADD. “It’s so important when dealing with a disease that is potentially preventable to get this message out in every Long Island school. This is how we are going to turn the corner on this epidemic.”

Sini invited school districts and community groups across Suffolk County to participate in the program by emailing InfoDA@suffolkcountyny.gov or calling 631-853-5602.

“We have proms, graduations and the summer months coming up, so it’s the perfect time for schools to invite us in to provide this presentation,” Sini said. “It’s a terrific opportunity for schools to be on the cutting edge of education and prevention. There are a lot of presentations out there, but I guarantee that if you sit through this presentation, it will impact your life and the way you make decisions. It is that powerful.”

Incumbent Tracy Zamek; newcomers René Tidwell, Ryan Walker win PJ BOE seats after heated campaign

Port Jefferson Superintendent Paul Casciano and Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella. File photos

By Alex Petroski

Voters in the greater Port Jefferson area went to the polls in a giving mood May 15.

Port Jefferson School District residents approved the $44.9 million budget with 774 voting in favor and 362 against, while also passing a second proposition permitting the release of capital funds for a long-planned partial roof repair project at the high school.

“I’m really happy that the community came out and endorsed our spending plan for next year,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said after the results were announced. “It’s really important. They showed a lot of support for public education in Port Jefferson School District, so we’re really, very happy about that.”

Across town in Comsewogue School District, the $91.9 million budget was also passed by an easy margin; 829 to 263. The district’s approximately $32 million capital bond proposition received 768 votes in support to just 315 against. The 15-year borrowing plan includes about $3 million in interest and will provide funds for upgrades in each of the district’s six buildings. The projects selected were the byproduct of extensive planning on the part of the facilities committee, a group of about 20 professionals from across the community.

Port Jeff’s new board of education members Ryan Walker and René Tidwell with re-elected incumbent Tracy Zamek. Photo by Alex Petroski

“We are grateful to our community for its continued support of our schools and our students,” Superintendent Joe Rella said in a statement. “Their approval of the bond and 2018-19 budget will enable us to enhance and enrich health and safety, infrastructure and the three A’s – academics, arts and athletics.”

Port Jeff’s approved budget includes a roughly 2.3 percent tax levy increase compared to the current year, while Comsewogue’s increase will be 2.1 percent.

Tracy Zamek, an incumbent on Port Jeff’s school board, secured one of the three seats up for grabs in a six-way race, securing 604 votes. She’ll be joined on the board by newcomers Ryan Walker, who received 660 votes, and René Tidwell, who got 649. Tidwell and Walker campaigned on a joint ticket, as Zamek did with candidates Jason Kronberg (369 votes) and Ryan Biedenkapp (481 votes).

“I’m honored to be re-elected again,” Zamek said. “I look forward to standing up for the kids in Port Jefferson School District. I look forward to the challenges ahead of being fiscally responsible with the LIPA challenge, as well as keeping Port Jefferson School District intact.”

The discussion surrounding the board of education vote in Port Jeff became contentious at times, especially on social media. Much of the angst can be traced to the possibility of decreasing revenue from property taxes as the district — along with Brookhaven Town and Port Jeff Village — work toward a likely settlement in a legal battle with the Long Island Power Authority over the utility’s assessed property tax value on its Port Jeff power plant, which LIPA contends is over-assessed. The district gets a large chunk of its operating budget revenue as a result of housing the plant.

“I’m thrilled at the turnout,” Tidwell said. “I’m thrilled that the budget was passed, and I’m ready to move forward. Right now, I just want to heal the division in our community and I’ll work together to figure out how we move forward.”

“We’re pleased at the results obviously, and we feel that it’s a time for all of us to come together and to work as a team.”

— Ryan Walker

Walker expressed a similar sentiment.

“We’re pleased at the results obviously, and we feel that it’s a time for all of us to come together and to work as a team,” he said. “I think we’re going to have an amazing board this time and we’re going to accomplish amazing things. So, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to serve the people of the Port Jefferson School District.”

Biedenkapp, Farina and Kronberg did not respond to requests for comment sent via email by press time.

Comsewogue’s board of education vote was a foregone conclusion. Board President John Swenning, incumbent Rick Rennard and first-time candidate Corey Prinz ran an uncontested race for three open seats.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity to serve another three years on the board,” Rennard said, adding he was pleased to hear of the budget and bond approvals.

Swenning, a mainstay on the Comsewogue board since 2005, called the district an incredible place to live in a statement.

“As a board trustee I am honored to work with fantastic administrators, teachers and staff and to represent a very involved and appreciative community,” he said.

Prinz, a district resident since 2004 and a commercial banker at Bank United, said he was thrilled to see the support for the budget and bond and is looking forward to working with the district.

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