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Mount Sinai Middle School

Black Team wins Battle of the Educators for third straight year

By Bill Landon

Third time was also a charm for Mount Sinai Middle School’s faculty.

Brandon Loomis, a 6-7 physical education teacher and four-year starter in Mount Sinai School District’s faculty game, ignited the crowd with dunk after dunk to help lead his Black Team to a 73-72 win over Mount Sinai High School staff March. 2.

“[I do it for] all of these kids here that cheer us on,” Loomis said. “We hype it up in the elementary school — they get so excited.”

There was time for one last play after the Gray Team scored on a free-throw to break a 71-71 tie, and the middle school team made it count. Elementary school principal Rob Catlin brought the ball down the court and passed to fifth-grade teacher Melissa Drewisis at the baseline, who found nothing but net as the buzzer sounded to win the game, and with it, bragging rights for another year.

High school team captain and floor general Matt Dyroff said the nor’easter howling outside made him think about postponing the Battle of the Educators, and was glad he didn’t.

“We contemplated whether to call it off, but we said, ‘Let’s go with it,’” Dyroff said. “We crossed our fingers, and it worked out well — it’s a great crowd. The excitement that it brings to the kids … it’s always all about the kids.”

The game is organized and sponsored by Mount Sinai Booster Club, and funds raised from ticket sales, concessions and the halftime shooting contest go toward six $1,000 athletic scholarships awarded in June. Booster club President Diane Tabile said if money is needed to fund other projects or events throughout the district, the club is more than happy to share the wealth. Tabile said she loves how the faculty game is different from anything else her club partakes in throughout the year.

“The kids come out and watch their favorite teacher, especially the younger kids, they idolize these teachers,” Tabile said. “I appreciate the faculty coming out giving up their own time so the kids can come and watch, it’s just a great night. If there’s a program maybe they’re lacking funds for, or if a student may need a little help financially, we’re always willing to help out and we’re lucky that we can.”

Tabile’s daughter Alexa, a senior varsity cheerleader who worked the souvenir and snack stand, said the event gave herself and her classmates a unique perspective of their teachers.

“It’s fun to see the teachers,” she said. “You always see them on such a composed level, but to see them differently — letting their hair down — is fun.”

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Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

With the yearly rise in the number of Mount Sinai students who refuse to take standardized tests — in relation to a statewide movement against Common Core — district administrators have rolled out new ways to assess and strengthen learning skills. So far, three months into the school year, school leaders believe students are reaping the benefits.

“We’re doing things differently than we’ve ever done before,” said Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal during a Nov. 15 board of education meeting.

Brosdal said the district has implemented new literacy-based assessment programs to fill a great need to measure the academic abilities of elementary and middle school students. Since the 2012-13 school year, more and more students have opted out of the state’s English Language Arts and Math standardized exams, which are administered to evaluate those in grades three through eight, Brosdal said.

“I don’t necessarily agree with Common Core … but it’s important for kids to take the test because you get information out of them. What do we do to inform us about the kids who don’t take it? Or get more information on those that do?”

— Gordon Brosdal

“We went from a participation rate of 97 percent down to 40 percent,” he said, pointing to the uproar among members of the community over the adoption of Common Core as the main cause. Those against the tests criticize the pressures it places on students and teachers. “I don’t necessarily agree with Common Core … but it’s important for kids to take the test because you get information out of them. What do we do to inform us about the kids who don’t take it? Or get more information on those that do?”

Joined by district principals — Peter Pramataris of the middle school and Rob Catlin of the elementary school — Brosdal showcased the growth of students at both schools as a result of the newly implemented programs. Fountas & Pinnell, which started in September, gauges the reading and comprehension level of individual
students by having them read a book with their teacher three times a year. It’s a more relaxed form of testing that serves to measure a student’s progression throughout the year while also encouraging them to find the fun in reading.

When the student demonstrates overall reading ability and understanding of the text, he or she graduates to more challenging books. Books are organized into letter-based levels, “A” books being Dr. Suess and “Z” books being “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

In a demonstration of the district’s Columbia Writing Program, which was put in place three years ago as a
result of weakness in the subject across the elementary and middle schools, Pramataris compared a middle school student’s writing assignment from the second day of school to a writing assignment in October. As he pointed out, the second assignment was lengthier, and the student’s narrative skills were punchier.

Academic Intervention Services — help offered by the state at schools to help  students achieve the learning standards, monitors and helps those falling behind.

“We see weaknesses and we want to make them stronger and really work at it,” Brosdal said. “I believe our students have become better writers and readers and they will only get stronger. We’re going to see a lot of good things.”

Catlin, who was hired as principal of the elementary school over the summer, came to the district already well versed in the new programs and was determined to help initiate them.

“We’ve really developed a district wide action plan this year,” Catlin said. “The absence of meaningful assessment results required us to have meaningful in-house assessments. We can’t be in the dark about how a majority of our kids, who don’t take the state tests, are doing.”

The absence of meaningful assessment results required us to have meaningful in-house assessments. We can’t be in the dark about how a majority of our kids, who don’t take the state tests, are doing.”

— Rob Catlin

Catlin said in the first Fountas & Pinnell session performed by the district, teachers observed that 45 percent of students in lower elementary grades (first and second) performed at or above grade level. In the upper elementary grades (third and fourth) 22 percent of students performed at or above grade level.

“There are many reasons for this,” Catlin said. “As they say, data doesn’t answer questions, it just opens up questions and makes you think more about why things are happening.”

He explained that while students at these grade levels may have understood the books they were reading, they aren’t used to answering the high level of questions about it, and aren’t engaging in enough independent reading to practice these skills.

Now that teachers have that information about the student, they will be able to directly address their needs before the second session, which takes place in January. In the meantime, the elementary school librarian has started leveling books in the library and Scholastic money from the PTO, totaling $4,000, is being used to purchase more leveled books, Catlin said.

“Now we can use resources to really target their needs,” Catlin said. “And we’re able to see progress quickly, which is nice, and not have to wait until April when the state tests are taken.”

Deena Timo, executive director of educational services and another integral player in bringing the programs to the school, said of the state tests: “We’ve always viewed them as just a little snapshot in time and not the be all, end all to assess a child. It’s that, taken with a lot of things done in the classroom throughout the year that give you a good picture of a student.”

While Brosdal said he wishes more students took the Common Core tests in order to prepare for Regents exams once they reach the high school, he agreed.

“When you have to push the state stuff aside you ask, ‘Now what do we have to measure our kids?’” Brosdal said. “In the classroom, are we seeing growth? Are they engaged now where they weren’t earlier in the year? We are reacting to what we’re seeing, trying to put better things in place. I believe we’re heading in the right direction.”

Mother urges a switch back to elementary school

Mount Sinai parents have been asking to move fifth-graders from the middle school back to the elementary school. File photo by Erika Karp

Students in Mount Sinai are expected to grow up a little faster than those in other districts. While a majority of neighboring towns keep their fifth-graders in the elementary school, Mount Sinai, since the early 1990s, moves its 10- and 11-year-olds up to the middle school.

A mother challenged the concept during an Aug. 23 board of education meeting when she asked administrators to consider making fifth grade part of the elementary school again in the future.

The conversation has been ongoing ever since.

Renee Massari, a mother of two elementary school students, proposed the idea last month, saying she didn’t see the academic or social benefit of having fifth-graders learn under the same roof as eighth-graders. In fact, she believed the drastically different environment negatively affected the young students — who occupy their own wing on the second floor of the building.

“I’ve seen it through many of my friends’ children here — many of them don’t excel.”

Renee Massari

“I’ve seen it through many of my friends’ children here — many of them don’t excel,” Massari said during the meeting. “It’s almost like they feel deflated because it’s difficult for them to handle those responsibilities expected of our fifth-graders. Because [realistically], they aren’t middle schoolers.”

Massari explained to the board that, from her understanding, the fifth-graders’ premature graduation to the middle school was prompted solely by a lack of classroom space in the elementary school. She asked if an administrator could evaluate current classroom space, adding the school has seen a declining enrollment rate over the last few years.

“Ideally, I would love for the fifth-graders in this district to have the same transition that 99 percent of the districts on Long Island have,” Massari said. “We can house them in the elementary school, a building they’re familiar with, and keep the same program where they transition from classroom to classroom and get them exposed to that before going to a whole different building.”

Board Trustee Robert Sweeney agreed with Massari and said the decision decades ago to move the students into the next building had nothing to do with education and everything to do with space and misjudgment. He also urged the board to reevaluate the concept.

“It’s a fallacy to have elementary students up there,” Sweeney said. “I think we have to look at it because there’s no educational benefit [to it].”

Superintendent Gordon Brosdal, an admittedly “old school guy” who said he would even like to see the sixth grade in the elementary school, told Massari her proposal would be explored — but classroom space, or lack thereof, in the district’s smallest building remains an issue. He said it will take a lot more than one available classroom to bring back the fifth-graders to the elementary school and expansions on the building would be costly.

Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal and Trustee Robert Sweeney listen to parents’ concerns at a board meeting. The two are in favor of moving fifth-graders back to the elementary school. File photo by Erika Karp

“But in the meantime, what we have to do is make sure the nurturing environment continues in the fifth grade,” Brosdal said.

Teachers, he said, know to treat their students with the same level of care and support elementary school students experience. And although the move up offers a completely new setting, with lockers and classroom changes and multiple teachers during the day, Brosdal sees it as a good transition opportunity.

“Plus, they’re kind of isolated and not mixing with the older grades when they don’t have to,” he said. “At the same time, I understand parents feel their kids are not ready to move up because of maturity and a lot of other reasons, and want them to remain in a nurturing environment.”

In the weeks following the meeting, Brosdal reached out to elementary school principal Rob Catlin, and together they projected six classrooms would be needed in the building to accommodate the roughly 175 students in the current fifth-grade class.

One would be hard-pressed to find three available classrooms, according to Catlin, who is currently in the process of meeting with parents about the issue.

“I’ve heard the same concerns from a couple different people now and I’m reaching out to some parents for some meetings to talk about it,” Catlin said. “As the year goes on, and if the topic continues, I’m more than happy to keep talking. But it’s in an early stage right now.”

Mount Sinai resident Beth Erdmann, whose children are in seventh and 10th grades, said every parent experiences panic in the midst of the elementary and middle school transition but soon realize it’s not a big deal.

“I’ve heard the same concerns from a couple different people now and I’m reaching out to some parents for some meetings to talk about it.”

Rob Catlin

“When it’s your first child, it seems too soon and scary, but they are in their own wing and it’s a nonissue,” Erdmann said. “There were no adverse effects to my children … fifth and sixth grade are still treated as elementary. The location is just in the middle school. I was worried and bothered at the time, [but] my kids were fine.”

Debra Wesolowski agreed, having gone through the transition multiple times with four children.

“Once they were there, I couldn’t imagine them in the elementary school,” Wesolowski said. “Kids are a lot more mature now than years ago … you see how mature and responsible the fourth-graders become as the year goes on [and] by the time they graduate from fourth grade they have outgrown the elementary school and need to advance to the next stage. The middle school does a great job transitioning them.”

But Jennifer Ruger Lazarou, an elementary school teacher, feels the kids are too young.

“I think keeping them in the elementary school one more year is a good idea, and will still make them just as prepared,” Lazarou said. “I teach in a K-through-six building and can’t even imagine the sixth-graders being exposed to middle school any earlier.”

Brosdal said district office and building administrators have begun the exploration of a move.

“It is too early in the process for the board to make a decision one way or another,” Brosdal said. “The expense of such a project would impact the district’s budget and bond proposal.”

School district staff fight for bragging rights while raising money for booster club

By Bill Landon

Mount Sinai school district faculty members were pitted against each other March 3 in the Battle of the Educators. Teachers laced up their sneakers and grabbed a ball, donning black shirts on the middle school side, and gray on the elementary/high school team, for the 16th annual basketball game that raises money for the Mount Sinai Booster Club.

Mount Sinai High School Assistant Principal and Director of Guidance Matt Dyroff, who is the event’s organizer, said the week of practice each team had leading up to the game paid off. In the first quarter, each team traded points until the black team hit a triple to retake the lead, 28-27, before going on a scoring frenzy to take a 10-point lead, 37-27, into the halftime break.

“We do it for our booster club because they do so many things not only for our sports teams, but any other thing we ask their help with they’re more than willing to donate for the cause.”

—Matt Dyroff

“We’ve been practicing hard,” Dyroff said. “A couple of outdoor practices in the cold, but the teams got down to work — they buckled down and it was evident in the score tonight.”

Dyroff had a lot of help with the event from Mount Sinai Booster Club member Terese Lumley, the student council members who volunteered their time to help out, and Mount Sinai High School earth science teacher Roger Cardo, who took care of the play-by-play commentary.

With a $5 admission fee and $1 charge to compete in the halftime shooting contest, Dyroff said he hoped the event cold exceed last year’s $3,000 raised, and as students lined both sides of the court to take part in the shooting contest, it seemed the goal may very well be met.

“Each year we’re hoping to improve on the previous year, and preliminary amounts suggest that we’ve approached $4,000 tonight,” Dyroff said. “We do it for our booster club because they do so many things not only for our sports teams, but any other thing we ask their help with they’re more than willing to donate for the cause. No matter what it is.”

Celebrity spectators, in the form of the first-time county championship girls’ basketball team, had fun watching their teachers take the court.

“It’s a fun time, and everyone comes together to watch the game,” senior point guard Victoria Johnson. “Everyone can joke around take trick shots. It’s all for fun, and that’s the best part of it.”

“Everyone comes together to watch the game. … It’s all for fun, and that’s the best part of it.”

—Victoria Johnson

There were no trick shots down the stretch though, as both teams battled through the final 25 minutes of play. The gray team shook off the first-half jitters and chipped away at the deficit to retake the lead, 62-61, with less than two minutes left in the game. The black team battled back to take a three-point lead in the final 10 seconds of the game, but the gray team had one last possession.

With the ball in hand, Mount Sinai boys’ basketball head coach Ryan McNeely took matters into his own hands when Dyroff inbounded him the ball, and McNelly let a three-point shot fly with 2.3 seconds on the clock. The ball rimmed out as the buzzer sounded, and with that, the middle school held on for a 67-64 win, to claim the championship trophy for the second year in a row.

Senior center Veronica Venezia said the event was a much-needed respite while she and her Mustangs team prepares for the Long Island championship against Nassau County’s Elmont March 11 at SUNY Old Westbury.

“It’s definitely a fun night watching everyone come out and play — all of the teachers and their families and a lot of people coming out to join our community,” she said. “It’s a good breather — especially because it’s a basketball game — it’s a great night watching our coaches play against each other.”

After the game, Dyroff weighed in on the girls’ unprecedented success this season.

“Going to the Long Island championship is tremendous,” he said. “The district and the community have been so supportive of it. The girls have put in so much time and it’s come to fruition. The off-season workouts, the summer leagues, the spring leagues, getting out to play — this group has progressed each year and to see it culminate in a county championship is huge.”

By Kevin Redding

A beloved Mount Sinai administrator, whose kindness and compassion have served the district for nearly four decades, is retiring at the end of the year — leaving behind huge shoes to fill.

Mount Sinai Elementary School Principal John Gentilcore dresses up on Election Day in 2008. Photo from John Gentilcore

Every morning for the last 17 years, principal John Gentilcore has stood in front of Mount Sinai Elementary School to greet his students with his warm trademark smile as they hop off the bus.

As part of his daily routine, he also makes a point to put time aside in his administrative schedule to visit classrooms and engage with the kids, oftentimes sitting, legs crisscrossed on the floor with them. When lunchtime rolls around, Gentilcore pulls up a chair and eats with them in the cafeteria, making sure to sit at a different table each day.

“I definitely get more from the kids than they get from me … they’re so genuine,” the principal said, adding that there’s something about the kids that brings a smile to his face.

When Gentilcore became principal in 2000, kindergarten teacher Willow Bellincampi noticed right away just how much the kids loved him.

“Sometimes with the principal, kids are afraid, but when John comes through the door, they’re so happy,” she said. “He’s always around, he gets down to their level, looks them in the eye when talking to them and not a lot of adults do that. ‘I’ll send you to the principal’ is never a threat to them because they love him. He’s compassionate.”

At 60, Gentilcore admitted although it wasn’t an easy decision, retiring at this point in his career will give him more time to spend with family and friends, and travel.

“I definitely get more from the kids than they get from me … they’re so genuine.”

—John Gentilcore

“I’ve been really proud to be part of the Mount Sinai district and I will miss the people, the great faculty, staff, and, first and foremost, I will miss the children,” he said.

Before becoming principal of the elementary school, Gentilcore taught several grade levels and coached girl’s varsity soccer at Friends Academy, a private school in Glen Cove, after graduating from SUNY Oneonta.

As the son of a superintendent — his father — and an elementary school principal, Gentilcore said he received informal education at the dinner table with them.

He was first named principal at the school in 1987, before being named the assistant principal at Mount Sinai Middle School in 1991, and principal in 1995. Ultimately, he landed back at the elementary school in 2000, where he said he “felt at home.” In 2003, he received his doctorate from Hofstra University.

Mount Sinai Elementary School Principal John Gentilcore dresses up in pajamas with students. Photo from John Gentilcore

“There’s something about kids that is very refreshing,” he said. “The elementary school is where their educational journey begins and it’s where we can start a real foundation together. Throughout the day, if a little one needs my assistance, I’ll conference with them. I try to make each day a little bit better than the day before.”

Although reluctant, the school board voted to accept Gentilcore’s August retirement.

“He is the consummate elementary school principal, a gentleman who deeply cares about his students, and we will miss him as a board and a school district,” Board trustee Robert Sweeney said during the Feb. 15 meeting.

Assistant principal Elizabeth Hine considers Gentilcore the best mentor she could ask for.

“I can’t say enough about how wonderful he is as a boss and a principal,” she said. “He taught me how to handle students, parents, everything … he’s just amazing. He enjoys what he does. It’s all about the kids, and he keeps that in the forefront of his mind and that’s how he makes all his decisions. It’s going to be a challenge for a lot of teachers to come in on a daily basis knowing he’s not going to be there.”

Isabella Panag, Kelly Wang, Zekey Huang, Snigdha Roy, and Mount Sinai Middle School Principal Peter Pramataris during the board of education meeting, where certificated were presented to winners and runner-ups of the district-wide spelling bee. Photo by Kevin Redding

By Kevin Redding

Two Mount Sinai students, sixth grader Zekey Huang and fourth grader Carrie Wang, will represent the district in the Long Island Regional Scripps Spelling Bee at Hofstra University next month. The two spelled their way to victory in building-wide competitions held at the middle school and elementary school, which were judged by administrators and members of the English faculty.

Last week, at the district’s board of education meeting at Mount Sinai Middle School, students from both buildings, grades one through eight, who participated in the annual spelling bee in December, were presented with certificates of recognition on behalf of the board.

“As a former athlete and former teacher, I love academic competition and I’m really just so proud of all the participants,” Mount Sinai Middle School Principal Peter Pramataris said. “They participated [in the spelling bee] with class, and the excitement they bring to the building is great.”

Among the four middle school finalists were seventh graders Isabella Panang and Kelly Wang, who tied for third place; seventh grader Snigdha Roy, who, according to the principal, had been in a “fierce, back and forth battle” with Huang during the competition, won second place; and 11-year-old Zekey, who ultimately took first place by spelling “flammable.”

“They participated [in the spelling bee] with class, and the excitement they bring to the building is great.”

— Peter Pramataris

This is the second time Zekey, who said he’s “happy and really excited,” will represent Mount Sinai at Hofstra, having competed after winning the spelling bee as a fourth grader. He and Carrie will be taking a written test Feb. 5 and, assuming they pass, will be competing in the traditional oral portion on the stage of John Cranford Adams Playhouse on Feb 12, with the hopes of making it to the National Scripps Spelling Bee in Washington D.C. during the spring.

“We’re very proud of him,” Zekey’s father, Edward, said. “He has accomplished a lot in the elementary and middle school, and we’re very thankful for the opportunity that the school gave us.”

Speaking about Carrie, Mount Sinai Elementary School Principal John Gentilcore said the fourth grader is poised, beyond her years and is preparing to compete on a daily basis.

“When she stops me in the hallway, she gives me a word to spell, and when I stop her in the hallway, I give her a word to spell,” Gentilcore said in a phone interview. “It’s nice to see her excitement shine through and [we’re] very excited for her.”

The principal said during the spelling bee, the 9-year-old and her fourth grade co-champs quickly made their way through the fourth grade list of words, ending up with words at the eighth grade level in the final round. In terms of reaching the finals in Washington, Gentilcore said he’s knocking on wood.

“Typically,” he said, “one of the older students will win, but anything can happen.”