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Manhattan

Rob Catlin will be the new principal of Mount Sinai Elementary School. Photo from Rob Catlin

Mount Sinai Elementary School has a new principal in Rob Catlin — a passionate administrator from New York City who, like his predecessor, puts kids first.

Catlin, 36, principal of River East Elementary School in Harlem from 2011 to 2016, was appointed by the board of education during its May 9 meeting, effective in July. The appointment came just months after longtime principal John Gentilcore, who served the district for a total 30 years, announced he would be retiring at the end of the school year.

Prior to his five-year principal gig, Catlin, a Babylon native, taught first grade and served as a math coach and staff developer at PS 11 in Chelsea, Manhattan. He’s since worked in the New York City Department of Education Central Offices.

Rob Catlin reads a book with his son Ben. Photo from Rob Catlin

He and his wife, Michele, after years of living in the city, look forward to settling down on Long Island with their three-year-old son, Ben.  Mount Sinai, Catlin said, was a perfect fit.

“What drew me here was the warm, tight-knit, small community — it was the kind of place I could see myself in,” Catlin said. “As a principal, I’m very involved with the kids and try to build strong relationships with the families and students. To me, it’s important to build trust. I want to make sure parents know they can come to me, send an email, stop by my office.”

As principal, Catlin added, he likes to empower teachers to make decisions and kids to be independent thinkers.

“Coming into a new setting, I’m looking forward to spending lots of time in the classrooms, listening to concerns, listening to what people hold dear and love about the community, maybe some things we could do better,” he said. “And use that to really drive the vision of the school.”

Catlin, who graduated from New York University with a degree in elementary education and then Hunter College with a master’s degree in literacy, beat out seven other candidates screened by the district’s school-based organizations, staff, administrators and board following Gentilcore’s February announcement.

“[Rob] Catlin emerged as the favorite after impressing many members of each committee,” wrote Superintendent Gordon Brosdal in a statement on the district’s website.

Catlin said the school’s commitment to the arts, recent integration of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project — with which he has plenty of experience — and overall climate made him feel right at home during the interview process.

Following in Gentilcore’s footsteps, Catlin said he’s also not the kind of principal to hide behind closed doors and be seen as an intimidating authority figure. Even if he’s in a meeting and a student peeks his head in the door, Catlin laughs, he’ll invite them in.

Rob Catlin with former student Orion Edgington. Edgington dressed up like his former principal for Halloween. Photo from Jessica Davis

“I always want to be accessible to the kids and want them to see my office as a place to just come talk, or tell me about concerns they [might] have,” said Catlin, recalling a River East student he used to bond with as principal. “I would talk to him, spend time with him whenever he was having a bad day … and if I was having a bad day, I would go talk to him. I get as much out of these relationships as the students do.”

Jessica Davis, the mother of one of Catlin’s River East students, Orion, regarded him as “a great and attentive leader,” who would stand outside the school to greet the kids as they got off the bus every morning.

“He always kept time open to greet children and parents and converse with them — he knew many of them, if not all of them, by name,” Davis said. “He has a very good spirit — one time [for Halloween], my son dressed up as Mr. Catlin and pretended to be the principal. Mr. Catlin took him around the school with him.”

River East Principal Mike Panetta, who served as assistant principal under Catlin, said Catlin is easy to get along with, sets clear expectations and has good interpersonal relationships with teachers and students.

“I think [Rob] is going to be successful wherever he goes — he really cares about kids and wants to do what’s best for them and the school,” Panetta said. Catlin, he added, “brought a lot of socio-emotional programs and clubs for kids and expertise in math” to River East.

Stating “Gentilcore is the kind of principal I aspire to be,” Catlin said he looks forward to getting advice from the veteran administrator this summer before he bids farewell.

In an email, Gentilcore wrote: “I would like to extend my congratulations to Mr. Catlin and wish him the very best in the years ahead.”

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One hundred years ago this week, The New York Times has reported, the worst terrorist attack on the United States until 9/11 occurred in New York Harbor. Black Tom Island, supposedly named after an early African-American resident and owned by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, lay next to Liberty Island and was the site of three-quarters of the American-made ammunitions readied for shipment to Allied forces in World War I. Stored in warehouses, in railroad cars and on barges on the small island, the munitions were targeted with small fires shortly after midnight on July 30, 1916, and the first explosion had the force of about a 5.5 earthquake on the Richter scale. It blew out windows of buildings in lower Manhattan and Jersey City, damaged the skirt and torch of the Statue of Liberty, shattered the stained glass windows in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and windows in Times Square, shook and possibly damaged the Brooklyn Bridge, threw people out of their beds and was heard as far away as Philadelphia and Maryland.

On that fateful night, some 2 million pounds of small arms and artillery ammunition were on the island, along with 100,000 pounds of TNT on Johnson Barge No. 17. Initially small fires broke out along the mile-long pier, and while some of the guards fled, fearing explosions, others attempted to fight the fires and called the Jersey City Fire Department for help. The first and largest explosion, at 2:08 a.m, produced a rain of bullets and fragments, followed by mists of ash that made fighting the fires impossible; and the smaller fires burned for hours, causing explosions throughout the night.

While hundreds were hurt, surprisingly only a few people were killed, including a policeman in Jersey City, the railroad chief of police, the barge captain and an infant thrown from its crib a mile away. Two guards were quickly arrested for having triggered the disaster by lighting smudge pots on the pier to keep away the ever-present mosquitoes until it was realized that the pots were too far from the fires to have been the cause. Further investigation, which continued for years, identified the culprits as German agents who were trying to stop the shipments.

Until early 1915, the neutral United States was able to supply any nation with arms, but after the blockade of Germany by the British Royal Navy, only the Allied forces could purchase arms. Imperial Germany sent secret agents to the U.S. to obstruct production and delivery, and some of them caused havoc and civilian panic in the ensuing years. An effective weapon was the “cigar bomb” that was silently attached to the hulls of departing American munitions ships and only exploded after the vessels were well out to sea. Many ships, with their cargo and crew, were lost that way.

President Woodrow Wilson was desperately trying to cling to neutrality before the coming, tightly contested election against Charles Evans Hughes, chief justice of the Supreme Court and former New York governor. Wilson, as the president who had kept the nation out of war, initially refused to recognize the explosions as the work of the Germans. But after the election indisputable evidence forced his hand, and by early 1917 he prepared the country for war against Germany.

After the war, the railroad sought payment for damages under the U.S.-German Peace Treaty (1921) signed in Berlin and, at last in 1953, an agreement was reached for $50 million to be paid to the railroad. Dozens of railroad cars, six piers and 13 warehouses had simply disappeared into a huge crater filled with water and debris after the first explosion. For practical purposes the island, with its causeway to the mainland, had disappeared. Final payment was not made until 1979. In today’s currency, damages are estimated at $500 million.

Landfill projects through the years time have enabled what little was left to be incorporated into Liberty State Park. A single plaque there tells the tale of the largest terrorist attack until our time.