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Jennifer Quinn

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Students will walk through security vestibules come first school day

Workers construct the vestibule in Terryville Road Elementary School. Photo by Kyle Barr

With $32 million in the Comsewogue school district’s pocket from a recently passed bond, school buildings are seeing various amounts of renovation and reconstruction throughout
the district.

The Terryville Elementary cafeteria flooring is being replaced. Photo by Kyle Barr

Phase I is a $5.8 million chunk of the $32 million, which voters approved 768 to 315 back in 2018. Work is well on its way this summer, with projects going on in all six of the district’s educational facilities, many of which focus around the same theme, security vestibules.

“They are security traps, so there is a staging area between the two doors,” said Susan Casali, associate superintendent. 

Vestibules are being installed in each of the six buildings, though they’re not uniform in shape and design, having to mold around the current entrances. In the Terryville Road Elementary School, the building’s office is being moved closer to the entrance to allow for windowed access into the vestibule, “like you would see at a bank,” Casali said.

A new addition to the parking lot at Terryville Elementary. Photo by Kyle Barr

This works with the school’s Raptor Visitor Management System, a web-based monitoring software designed to track visitors and electronically check them against public databases. In addition, all employees now use lanyards that can be scanned at the schools’ front entrances to gain access to
school buildings.

All vestibules are expected to contain bullet-resistant glass. It was something that school officials said was part of the planned bond project during committee even before the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, last year. That particular shooting set off a wave of calls for increased school security. If the glass is not installed by the time school starts Sept. 3, the district plans to install it before Jan. 1, 2020.

“We wanted to really increase our security,” Casali said. 

New refrigerator equipment is being installed at several Comsewogue schools. Photo by Kyle Barr

Other than the vestibules, this year’s part of the bond project includes repaving the parking lots and replacing sidewalks at Terryville Road Elementary School and Boyle Road Elementary School. At Terryville, the work has created an additional parking lot for school staff on the north end of the lot, as well as replacing the cafeteria flooring for asbestos abatement. This accounts for a large portion of Phase I funds, with work at Terryville and Boyle costing a combined total of $2,733,435.

All elementary schools will see new kitchen equipment, including a new kitchen walk-in cooler at Terryville and gas conversion and cooled condenser, replacing an old freezer and refrigerator at Boyle Road, Clinton Avenue Elementary and Norwood Avenue Elementary. Norwood will also be getting a replaced kitchen ceiling and serving line reconfiguration. The high school kitchen and cafeteria ceilings are also being replaced with new lighting where the kids will sit and eat.

Associate Superintendent Susan Casali demonstrates the ID system. Photo by Kyle Barr

In addition, doors throughout the district with knobs are being replaced with levers that are American Disabilities Act-compliant.

Phase II, taking more than twice that of Phase I from bond funds at over $11 million, will mostly go to reconstructing sidewalks and roads at the high school and Norwood. The project is also expected to add a batting cage to the high school’s upper gym, renovate the JFK Middle School auditorium, replace Terryville’s roof and replace waterless urinals and sinks throughout the district.

Additional information and pictures about phases I and II of the bond projects can be found at www.comsewogue.k12.ny.us/school_board/bond_status_updates_summer_2019.

There was much finality to this year’s school graduations at Comsewogue school district. As high school seniors got ready to leave for new horizons, superintendents Joe Rella will soon be leaving his position. 

At Comsewogue High School, as the evening sun crept toward the horizon June 26

, blocking in the football field with the cooling shade of trees, as the students were graduating so was Rella, or at least that is how he said he saw it.

Rella was in for his own surprise, as he was brought on stage alongside incoming superintendent Jennifer Quinn and members of the school board. In front of the stage, graduates held up a sign reading Dr. Joseph V. Rella Performing Arts Center. Quinn announced the high school auditorium would now be sporting Rella’s name.

“Clearly you’re a lot smarter than I am. It took you four years to graduate high school, it took me almost 26,” Rella said, speaking to the students with a 2019 tassel on his hat. “Remember, wherever you go and whatever you do, you will always be one of us.”

Steven Nielsen, who lost his 17-year-old son James from a rare form of cancer a little less than a year ago, spoke to the graduating class about his son and what values he could share even after his untimely death.

“I think James is a good inspiration of how to live,” he said. “He was an amazing person, he was smart, he was handsome, he was extremely kind and unbelievably empathetic. Remember that, be kind, use that as an example. Think of other people in everything that you do.” 

Underneath each of the graduates’ chairs, stuck into the rough metal seats, was a Pokémon card. These, Nielsen said, were there to represent each of them had the opportunity to “evolve.”

He and his wife Jean, both teachers in the Comsewogue School District, accepted a diploma in honor of their son, with Steven Nielsen holding the cap and gown his son would have worn to graduation.

To cap off Comsewogue’s graduation ceremony, as the scenery got dark, fireworks rose above the trees of a distant field, and all the newly graduated students stared up at the sky. Unknown to high school principal Joe Coniglione, the field lights would take several minutes to warm up, and so the graduates cheered in the dark, hats flying through the air like tasseled stars.

Joe Rella reflects on his career, his fight over state tests and how music fits into all of it

Retiring Superintendent Joe Rella and incoming Superintendent Jennifer Quinn. Photo by Kyle Barr

Joe Rella, the soon-to-be retired superintendent of the Comsewogue Central School District once, nearly 30 years ago, found himself without a job.

He was in business administration for close to 15 years, saying he had been “on top of the world,” before his company, the last private electric supplier in New York, closed. After he lost his job he did everything he could, from a paper route in the early morning to playing a local church organ, just to add a little extra money into the pot. His late wife, Jackie, went part-time in college and started working at Mercy Hospital. That’s when he saw it, an ad for a part-time job.

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

“I couldn’t even say the name,” he said in a sit-down interview less than a month before his final high school graduation ceremony June 26. “Com-sew-ogue,” he said it phonetically. 

He lived in Farmingdale at the time, but he grew up in Flatbush Brooklyn, where they used to call this area of Long Island “East Jesus,” because “only God lived out here”, there were so few people.

The job was part-time music teacher, where he would be accompanist to a middle school music teacher for a salary of $28,000. Over time, this part-time instructor would become a full-time music teacher, the high school principal, and eventually work his way up to superintendent of the entire district.

Jennifer Quinn, the current assistant superintendent and person tapped to become the next head of school starting in September, said in her 13 years of experience with the district, this climb from music teacher to superintendent was rare. She had never seen it or heard of its like since.

Rella said the jump from music teacher to a district leader wasn’t so much of a huge leap, especially considering his more-than-decade- long experience in business administration, yet he likened the practicality of music to running a school, helping one interact with people, and taking mistakes in stride.

“Because one thing you learn, there is no such thing as a mistake, it’s a springboard to your next part of the piece,” he said.

Quinn described herself as following in Rella’s footsteps. When the retiring super moved from high school principal to assistant superintendent, she became principal. When Rella moved into the big chair, he tapped her to be one of his assistant superintendents.

“It’s not a big shift, because all the programs we’ve done over these years, she’s responsible for,” Rella said.

Quinn has been encouraged to lead discussions and programs, with Rella there to offer advice.

“The fact is he always puts other people before his own ego,” she said. “Because in most places it’s close of business one day and then the next person starts. He’s purposely stepped back and given me the opportunity to start to do things and he’s here to guide me.”

They both described several necessary components for a good district leader. One is to communicate back to residents, and not wait days to respond to emails or phone calls. Another is to “be present,” to have your face and name be known not only by teachers but by students.

“They need to know who you are — kids do, parents do, everybody does” he said. “Pope Francis had a good expression, ‘The shepherds have to smell like the sheep.’”

To say the school district has been inspired by Superintendent Joe Rella would be an understatement. Unlike many other districts where one could be hard-pressed to find people who know the name of their head of schools, the name of Rella often brings an immediate impression. Rella has become a rallying cry for supporting student-first initiatives and programs based on a general idea of “kindness.” Just one example is Joe’s Day of Service, designed by special needs teacher Andrew Harris. 

Beyond Comsewogue, Rella became a name on the lips of New York State officials and even beyond, all due to standardized testing initiatives put forward on both the federal and state levels.

In 2013, the superintendent was at the forefront of protests against Common Core State Standards (implemented late in 2012), writing a letter to New York State officials asking them to address concerns or remove him from office. The letter went viral, and later that year Rella was at the head of a rally held at Comsewogue High School decrying Common Core. He said it became apparent immediately after the first standards were released to school districts that there would be no way to test the exams and offer criticism to the state’s program plans, adding letters sent to all New York superintendents suggested the state expected only a third of students would pass this first round of testing.

“We couldn’t accept what was happening to our children,” he said. “If a teacher comes in and says, ‘I’m only expecting a third of my class to pass this year,’ I would say, ‘Why don’t you throw your keys on the desk.’”

“Pope Francis had a good expression, ‘The shepherds have to smell like the sheep.’”

— Joe Rella

Though it’s been several years, the state’s testing standards still put Rella on a rant, though now he sees the district moving beyond it. Comsewogue implemented a problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum for groups of interested ninth- and 10th-graders. Last year the district relished statistics that said those who were involved in PBL had better overall Regents test scores than their contemporaries, though he said the state was not interested in any kind of replacement for standardized testing with PBL. Instead the district has looked to the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Elementary and Secondary Schools, from which they were granted accreditation in 2017.

The superintendent continued that, since the huge outcry has boiled down into a low simmer, parents have been making the choice for their own children whether they would take the tests. 

“They haven’t budged,” he said.

Rella was diagnosed with stage 4 bile duct cancer in October 2017, though he has told TBR News Media previously a “mango-sized” tumor found on his liver hasn’t grown or spread, and his health played no role in the decision to retire. 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.

Now, he’s living with his son and his grandchildren, whose little shoes will soon be running around the Comsewogue school district. He’s looking forward to spending time with his grandchildren while working on his piano and gardening skills. 

But while he will still be close to the district, Quinn said the legacy he left will be attempted to be replicated in the years to come.

“You will never be punished for not being perfect, you will be helped, you will be coached,” she said.

Rella again likened his job to music, and the drive to improve that is always at the forefront of practice, because what is school if not practice for life?

“You’re learning a piece of music — brand- new — you don’t know it, you’re not going to play it perfect right away, but what you do know is with careful practice, you’re going to get better,” he said.

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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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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