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Huntington school district

Huntington nonprofit affords teachers a creative license

Officials break ground on a Huntington Foundation for Excellence in Education-funded pond at the Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School. File photo

In a time when most news about education is related to highly controversial state-mandated standardized testing, one Huntington nonprofit seems too good to be true.

The Huntington Foundation for Excellence in Education will reach $1 million in funded grants next year since its inception in June 1993, according to the foundation. HFEE is “dedicated to enhancing the quality of the Huntington public schools in education, the arts and athletics,” according to its mission statement. Its funding comes entirely from donations and 100 percent of that money goes back into the school district.

“We are very lucky to have had such concerned parents back in 1993 to have formed such an awesome organization,” Maria Cassar, co-president and board of directors member since 2004, said in an interview this week. “HFEE has donated so much to the district and has become an organization that teachers, parents and students can come to with great ideas for our school district,” she said.

“Teachers come to us with so much enthusiasm for special projects,” Cassar said. She mentioned a hydration water filling station and a cell culture lab at the high school as a couple of her favorite projects from recent years.

Some other grants listed on the foundation’s website include a freshwater ecosystem pond at Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School last May and a donation to the school district’s athletic department that included a three-dimensional climbing wall, a defibrillator and a new shell (a boat used for crew) for the crew team in 2013.

In 2015, HFEE funded grants for a gem stonecutter at the high school, a 3D printer for J. Taylor Finley Middle School and other projects totaling more than $40,000.

Teachers in the Huntington school district understand how lucky they are to have a support system like HFEE that allows them to come forward with creative ideas that often receive funding.

“It’s huge,” Maryann Daly, an employee of the Huntington school district for 33 years, said about the support both financially and creatively that she receives from HFEE. She estimated that she has personally written about $60,000 worth of grants over the years. “It’s what the association between parents and teachers is all about,” she said.

Daly is the chairperson of the district’s SEARCH program, which stands for Scholastic Enrichment and Resource for Children in Huntington. The program is designed to provide hands-on group instruction for the most gifted and talented of the district’s students.

Daly’s job involves implementing a creative curriculum meant to enrich and supplement traditional education, so the assistance that she has received from HFEE and the ability to spread those creative and enriching ideas to the whole district is irreplaceable, she said. Daly said that her position forces her to “think outside the box,” and that is never an issue for HFEE.

One of Daly’s favorite grants was funded by HFEE in 2004. The $15,200 grant replaced the district’s old Starlab, or a portable planetarium, with a brand new one. Another program, which started in 2004 and continued through 2014, allowed fourth-grade students to receive two one-hour lessons from the New York Hall of Science in preparation for a standardized test.

“The Huntington Foundation is absolutely amazing,” Tracey McManus, a teacher at Jack Abrams and an employee of the district for 15 years, said in an email this week. “They have helped me incorporate such unbelievable experiences for my students.” McManus cited a grant for an incubator used to hatch ducks and a grant in 2014 for the pond where she later saw ducks swimming as a couple of her favorite projects funded by HFEE.

Brian Reynolds, an employee of the Huntington school district for 25 years and a current technology teacher at the high school, fondly remembered the “smile from ear to ear” on a student who won a car race on a track for CO2 cars in front of his entire lunch period. He said the boy was virtually skipping through the halls for days after. Reynolds said it was the first thing the boy ever won in his life.

“It is a very exciting year for the Huntington Foundation for Excellence in Education,” Cassar said, looking forward to the 2015-16 school year. “We are all so thrilled to pass the $1 million mark in what we have funded for the school district.”

The foundation offers a few different types of grants to teachers in the district for special classroom enhancement projects, in addition to one $1,000 scholarship for a graduating senior and one scholarship for a lucky sixth-grader interested in a three-day environmental camp, according to the HFEE website.

For more information or to donate to HFEE visit www.huntingtonfoundation.org.

Superintendent proposes adding assistant principal

Superintendent Jim Polansky. File photo by Rohma Abbas

Shifts in staffing will be playing a big role in Huntington school district’s 2015-16 budget, as Superintendent Jim Polansky is recommending funding nearly 19 new positions — including hiring a new assistant principal at the high school.

“I’m just going to warn the board that what I’m about to present to you is what I believe is needed to service the district, K to 12,” Polansky said prior to a budget presentation on staffing on Monday night.

Polansky pitched hiring a new assistant principal at an estimated cost of $143,792, which does not include benefits. The position isn’t included in his proposed approximately $120.1 million working budget, “but I do believe that it’s something worthy of consideration,” he said, noting he’s thought about it for “quite a bit of time.”

The superintendent pointed out that there will be more than 1,400 students at the high school next year and 160 staff members and teachers who require observations and regular reports that can be time consuming for just two administrators.

“To run a building of that size with a principal and an assistant principal as the only two administrators, can it be done?” Polansky said. “Yes. Is it tough to do? Yes.”

Polansky pitched funding 18.7 additional staff positions next ranging from instructional, noninstructional and administrative employees. The greatest increase in instructional staff is in the area of bilingual and ESL teachers, where Polansky suggested hiring 3.6 additional instructors mostly at the high school.

The increase is needed, Polansky said, because of changes in New York State Education Department requirements governing ESL/bilingual education, which is known as Part 154.

“This does not mean there is a tremendous increase in ESL students, but there is an increase in the amount of services we have to provide for them based on Part 154.2 regulations,” Polansky said. “That hits the high school most significantly.”

School board President Emily Rogan added, “This is not necessarily in terms of the number of kids but the way and how we distribute services.”

School board member Bill Dwyer said the additional bilingual/ESL instructors would cost the district around $300,000 and asked if this cost would qualify as an unfunded mandate.

“That is most definitely what we call an unfunded mandate,” Polansky said.

All told, Polansky is recommending funding four new instructional positions at the elementary school, 7.7 instructional positions at the middle and high schools, six noninstructional positions and one assistant principal at the high school.

Susan Tully, a Huntington resident, urged board members to consider the long-term financial impacts of their present-day budget decisions. She noted that due to high taxes and cost of living, the area is becoming too expensive to live in for young people already, and she doesn’t want to see Huntington become just “a community of a bunch of old people.”

So far, the proposed budget includes funding for 12 contingent positions, meaning most of the proposed increase in staff is already accounted for. However, next year’s proposed $120 million spending plan is still about $408,000 above where it needs to be, as per a state-mandated cap on tax levy increases. Polansky expressed his hope that once the state aid figures become clearer, coupled with pending retirements, the gap will be closed.

The district could see a significant reduction in staff through two early retirement incentives it is offering its administrators and teachers. Five employees, including Huntington High School Principal Carmela Leonardi and Carmen Kasper, the district’s director of foreign language, ESL and bilingual programs, have already taken advantage of the incentive.

Huntington school district staff offer a standing ovation to administrators Carmen Kasper, left, and Carmela Leonardi at a school board meeting on Monday night. The two are retiring at the end of this year. Photo by Rohma Abbas

Two longtime Huntington school district administrators touting a combined tenure of nearly four decades are retiring at the end of this year.

The school board voted to accept the retirements of Huntington High School Principal Carmela Leonardi and Carmen Kasper, the district’s director of foreign language, ESL and bilingual programs, at a meeting on Monday night. The two are opting into an early retirement incentive offered by the district.

Leonardi has been at the district for 24 years and Kasper for 15 years. Both women, who sat next to each other in the auditorium of the Jack Abrams STEM Magnet School on Monday, said while they were sad to go, it was time to move on.

“I loved every minute of it,” Leonardi said. “I really loved every minute of it.”

Leonardi and Kasper earned a standing ovation after Superintendent Jim Polansky announced the news, calling it “bittersweet.”

Kasper said she had been mulling the decision for three years, but kept putting it off. “This year I decided it’s not going to be a ‘next year,'” she said. She also recalled herself shaking as she walked into Polansky’s office to hand him her letter of resignation.

“I said, ‘If I don’t put it here, I’m not going to do it,'” Kasper said.

Before becoming principal of Huntington High School, Leonardi was the educational leader of the Woodhull Early Childhood Center and the principal at Huntington Intermediate School. She has a passion for languages, and is fluent in Italian, Spanish and English, as well as proficient in French. She also studied Latin for six years.

Leonardi led the Huntington Intermediate School to earn the New York Excellence in Education Award, according to her bio on the district’s website. She’s also supported the expansion of honors and AP offerings, which has led to an “increasing number of Huntington students” who have taken AP classes and have done well on AP tests.

During her time at the district, Kasper has secured “significant sums of grant monies” to support the district’s programs and services for ESL and bilingual students, according to her bio on the district’s website. Before coming to Huntington, she taught English, kindergarten, first, second and seventh grades in Peru, served as a bilingual resource specialist at Western Suffolk BOCES, taught Spanish at Eastern Suffolk BOCES and worked as a BOCES regional summer school coordinator.

Kasper has spearheaded after-school and weekend classes to help dual language, English Language Learner and Limited English Proficiency students and their parents. She also coordinated after-school Chinese classes for intermediate-level students “at no cost to the district as a result of her professional relationships in the educational community.”

Leonardi will be leaving the district with a retirement incentive award not to exceed $50,000, while Kasper’s award will not exceed approximately $39,472.

Leonardi and Kasper are not the only ones retiring from the Huntington school district come June 30. The school board voted to approve the retirements of three other instructional staff: guidance counselor Caterina Cain, high school foreign language teacher Carmela Mastragostino and school social worker Vilma Matos, who are all taking advantage of the retirement incentive.

Polansky estimates that a total of 10 staff members will take advantage of two early retirement incentives the district is offering — one for teachers and one for administrators. The deadline to opt into the incentives is today, Tuesday, March 24.