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Comsewogue School District approved the appointment of the new superintendent and other staff Jan. 7. From left: Susan Casali, Jennifer Polychronakos, Michael Mosca, Joseph Coniglione and Jennifer Quinn. Photo from David Luces

By David Luces

Come the start of the 2019-20 school year, a number of new positions will be filled by well-known faces. Meanwhile many school officials are still dreading the day when Superintendent Joe Rella will step down as the district’s head.

The Comsewogue board of education approved new positions at its district board meeting on Jan. 7. 

Joseph Coniglione, who previously served as Comsewogue High School principal, was appointed assistant superintendent for staff and student services on a four-year probationary appointment from July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2023. 

‘This school district prides itself on being a family.’

— Joseph Coniglione

Coniglione has been an educator for nearly 23 years, but before he came to Comsewogue he taught special education in the Brentwood school district for 10 years. He has served the Comsewogue district for the past 12 years and during his time there became the assistant principal and ultimately principal at Comsewogue High School. 

The new assistant superintendent said he is looking forward to continuing to make the school district the best place for its students. 

“Academics is a huge part [of our school],” Coniglione said. “But also, this school district prides itself on being a family.” 

Jennifer Quinn, who has been named the incoming superintendent of Comsewogue School District at the start of the next school year, said she is excited to be working with Coniglione and new principal of the high school, Michael Mosca. 

“The things we were able to do at the high school was amazing,” Quinn said. “We are so proud of that work.” 

Mosca was approved on a three-year appointment from July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2022, and he has previously served as the principal for Islip High School starting in 2014. Before that he served as executive assistant principal in the Comsewogue School District. 

“We worked together many years ago and now I’m re-joining the team,” Mosca said. “I’m excited to be back and we’re going to do some great things.” 

Mosca said his focus is for his students at Comsewogue High School to be ready for the next step whether it be college or straight into their career. He also wants to revamp the school’s business department. 

‘It’s going to be exciting to see how everything transitions to the next level.’

— Jennifer Quinn

Quinn said another focus for the high school will be increasing results of the district’s Problem-Based Learning program, which is a student-centered teaching method in which students learn about a subject through the experience of solving open-ended problems that are often based in real-life examples, for example, figuring out what might be wrong with the sediment in a teacher’s garden.

Additionally at the board meeting, Susan Casali was appointed assistant superintendent for business and Jennifer Polychronakos was named the district’s new assistant superintendent for instruction. 

While those appointed said they are excited to start in their new positions come July, many said they will miss Rella, who announced he would be stepping down back in November 2018.

“We are following the foundation that (former superintendent) Dr. Rella laid for us,” Quinn said. “It’s going to be exciting to see how everything transitions to the next level.” 

File photo by Elana Glowatz

By Sara-Megan Walsh

Two parents are suing the Kings Park Central School District over a 2015 sexting incident, claiming handling of the matter humiliated their sons and violated their freedom of speech.

Andrew J. Fenton, of Fort Salonga, and Thomas Phelan, of Kings Park, filed a lawsuit after their sons were among more than 25 students suspended for having received a sexual video via text message.

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 19, 2017, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, alleges the “suspension of [the students] for receiving a video, unsolicited, which they did not show or send to anyone else, and which bore no nexus to an ensuing school disruption was arbitrary and capricious.” Both Fenton and Phelan seek damages for “humiliation and anguish” of their sons and their records expunged of the suspension.

On Nov. 4, 2015, dozens of Kings Park High School students received a video on their cellphones of two 14-year-olds having sex while at home, according to court documents.

When an assistant principal saw a ninth-grader playing the video in the high school’s cafeteria Nov. 6, school officials began an extensive investigation. The phones of all students who still had the video were temporarily confiscated, according to court documents. School district officials allege both Fenton’s and Phelon’s sons still had the video.

Under Kings Park’s Guidelines for Implementation of School Discipline Policy, “inappropriate texting and use of social media” and “selling, using, transmitting or possessing obscene material” are considered Level IV infractions punishable by up to five days suspension and parental contact.

On Nov. 9 and 10, Kings Park High School Principal Lino Bracco sent certified mail to Fenton and Phelan notifying them that their sons, sophomores at the time, would be suspended for one day for “inappropriate use of an electronic device.” The letter warned that the students were “prohibited from entering upon school grounds for any reason and should remain home under supervision.”

Fenton said he did not receive the Nov. 9 letter in time, and his son was escorted out of the high school on Nov. 10 by two uniformed police officers, according to court documents.

By letter dated Nov. 18, Superintendent Timothy Eagen made an offer to parents that they could submit a request for their child’s disciplinary record to be reviewed, and barring any similar incidents, the suspension would be expunged.

Both parents retained Middletown-based attorneys, partners Robert Isseks and Andrew Smith, who sent letters dated Dec. 9, 2015, requesting the suspensions be immediately removed from the students’ records alleging “they never possessed the message in school or on school property.”

Both parents said Kings Park school district’s cellphone policy also infringed on their sons’ right to free speech. “The only way that [he] or any other student could possibly make sure that he did not find himself in an ‘incident similar in nature’ during the coming year is if he stopped receiving text messages all together,” reads the Dec. 9 letter.

An appeal was made to New York State Department of Education, whose Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia ruled Nov. 10, 2016, that the district’s “suspension of [the students] for receiving a video, unsolicited, which they did not show or send to anyone else, and which bore no nexus to an ensuring school disruption, was arbitrary and capricious.” Elia ordered Kings Park school district to annul and expunge the suspension.

Eagen said that as at press time, Kings Park school district had yet to be served with the lawsuit.

“Parents will sometimes address a particular issue through a media solution rather than an administrative or due process solution,” Eagen said. “However, in choosing this path, sometimes parents will share certain personal and/or confidential information that then becomes a part of public record.”

The superintendent said the district’s policy and practice is to not comment on specific student disciplinary matters and/or pending lawsuits.

Attorney Smith could not be reached for comment by press time. Principal Bracco did not return phone calls requesting an interview or comment.

Elwood Middle School’s new principal Christina Sapienza meets and greets students Aug. 24. Photos from Elwood school district

Elwood Middle School students are kicking off the new 2017-18 school year with a new principal at the helm.

Christina Sapienza, the newest middle school principal met sixth- to eighth-graders for their first day Sept. 5. She was  appointed to the position by Elwood’s board of education over the summer.

“We knew we needed to find a real all-star for the students of Elwood Middle School,” said Superintendent  Kenneth Bossert in a statement. “Dr. Sapienza was a candidate who didn’t just want a job, she wanted a position in a district where she felt she could really be successful and make a difference. I am confident that she is the right person to do that here.”

Sapienza said she grew up in Huntington and went to St. Joseph’s College in North Patchogue. She received her doctorate degree in educational leadership from Concordia University in Chicago.

“I’ve always been very passionate about working with middle school-aged students,” she said. “It’s a unique time in their development where they need strong, trusting, loving adults in their lives that can help support them as they develop their sense of self.”

Elwood Middle School’s new principal Christina Sapienza meets and greets students Aug. 24. Photos from Elwood school district

Sapienza has extensive experience as an educator and nearly a decade of administrative experience. In her career, she previously worked as a special education teacher in the Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District and was an assistant principal for Oceanside schools in Nassau for six years. Sapienza is coming to Elwood from her most recent role as assistant principal at Commack Middle School for three years.

“What I recognized very quickly about the Elwood school district is it has a strong sense of community, which I am really excited to be a part of,” she said.

Over the course of the summer, Sapienza said she’s had the opportunity to meet Elwood’s teachers and staff in preparation for her new role. Middle school students and their families were invited to a special meet and greet with the new principal Aug. 24.

The first thing I hear from everyone I meet is, ‘You are going to love it here,’” Sapienza said. “People could not be kinder or more supportive.”

As the new principal, Sapienza said one of her main goals is to get Elwood’s parents, teachers and staff immersed in learning more about the adolescent development of middle school-aged students and how that influences providing instruction and support to them.

This has been a focus of Sapienza’s career as a member of the national Association for Middle Level Education. She has traveled across the country for more than five years as a AMLE presenter teaching other educators about the best practices for teaching middle school-aged children given their stage of psychological and physiological development.

“I hope to bring my passion and passion for middle school learning to everyone who speaks to me,” Sapienza said. “I want to spend this year learning about the Elwood culture and community.”

Jay Matuk smiles in his office. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Cold Spring Harbor Junior-Senior High School will be changing leadership for the first time in more than a decade, as Principal Jay Matuk is set to retire after the current school year ends.

Matuk grew up in New York City, a background he admits is very different than what his students at Cold Spring Harbor have had. He was a bartender at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, where he said he learned how to listen, a valuable trait for the job he’s about to leave. He and his wife moved to Chicago where he taught social studies, and once he moved back to New York he got a job teaching in West Hempstead and eventually landed in administrative roles.

He arrived at Cold Spring Harbor in 2006, after serving as principal in the Patchogue-Medford school district, and said he was excited to work in a place with the significant reputation the district had for successful education.

“One of the things that I had really grown tired of, year after year working to put programs together and hire people, would end in programs being dismantled and positions being terminated because the financing wasn’t there,” Matuk said in a phone interview. “Here was an opportunity to be able to come to a school district where there was a real strong commitment to education and to programs and the right personnel.”

Matuk said he found very quickly that here the students understand and appreciate they’re growing up in a unique environment and work very hard.

“What’s amazing about the school is that there is something for everyone,” he said. “There’s over 100 athletic teams … there is a significant level of support. If there’s a club the kids want to form, the district again is very supportive. If there’s eight or nine kids and it looks like it’s something that they could work with an adult after school I love it because then they’re with an adult after school doing what they’re interested in.”

He said he’s proud he has been able to grow the music and art departments during his tenure, by encouraging students to be involved in those classes and giving the teachers the resources they need to do it well. The principal said he hopes the school continues to create opportunities for students after he leaves, with things like business courses and college accounting.

Matuk said he’s also proud of the fact that he started open enrollment at the district, so any student can enroll in any course to take on any challenge they might feel up to.

“If a student wants to take an [advanced placement] course and gets a C in the course, I’m okay with that, because that’s part of the experience,” he said. “To me this is the correct way to go about it.”

Matuk praised the district’s offering of more than 20 AP courses for students and smaller class sizes so students are able to work with teachers on a more personal level.

“Cold Spring Harbor is a school district where it’s cool to be smart,” Maturk said. “You’ll have someone who is a star on the lacrosse team but will also be performing in a school play … kids that are strong academically will be participating in the comedy club.”

The principal said he believes the opportunities supplied to the students at the high school will impact the rest of their lives.

Matuk said he’ll miss the traditions of the school, the activities and programs that staff, parents and students work on every year to help celebrate the district.

Superintendent Robert Fenter said Matuk’s leadership will be missed.

“Mr. Matuk has demonstrated a strong desire to support the many programs in our schools, to support the professionals and support staff who work with our students each and every day, and to ensure that our students were able to engage in the learning experiences necessary to be successful, both in high school and beyond,” he said in an email. “His knowledge of our programs, our students and our community were extremely valuable resources and I will be forever grateful to him for his guidance and assistance.”

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.”

Shoreham-Wading River assistant principal Kevin Vann will be replacing retiring Albert G. Prodell Middle School Principal Linda Anthony this June. Photo from Kevin Vann

Kevin Vann will be returning to his roots this June.

The now assistant principal at Shoreham-Wading River High School will be reentering middle school doors, but this time as principal of Albert G. Prodell Middle School.

“I feel a strong sense of loyalty to Shoreham-Wading River,” Vann said. “The district gave me my first opportunity as an administrator, and I think I’ve developed some great relationships. I thought this was a great opportunity to stretch my wings a little bit and still stay connected to a community that I really have a lot of respect for and enjoy working with.”

Albert G. Prodell Middle School Principal Linda Anthony will be retiring at the end of this school year. Photo from Linda Anthony

Vann will be replacing retiring principal Linda Anthony, who has been at the helm for the last 11 years. An English teacher in Japan for four years, she took a unique approach to special education and at-risk students, also living in California before returning to New York.

Anthony said she’s fortunate for the extended stay that helped her move the Prodell middle school in the right direction.

“A lot of different instructional practices were put into place in the middle school, the culture of the middle school changed quite a bit — I was able to hire about 40 percent of the staff,” she said. “With so many years you can really initiate change, sustain change and then lock change.”

Some of the changes she made include increased collaboration with teachers and the level of rigor for students.

Anthony has a long history with art, and upon retirement, hopes to get back to her roots, too. She also said she wants to assist in some way with the refugee crisis.

After working with Vann, and attending a weekend conference with the soon-to-be principal, Anthony said she knows what he’s capable of doing in his new position.

“I think he will be an outstanding principal and I think he really is the best possible choice,” she said. “He will take the school to the next level. I have full confidence in that.”

Dan Holtzman, principal of the high school, said the last decade has been productive and meaningful, especially having Vann at his side the entire way.

“He has been my right hand, my support, and even more importantly, my friend,” Holtzman said. “We have worked tirelessly in creating a safe and welcoming learning environment for our students, and I am very proud of the outcomes. I think this transition will prove to be a smart move for the district and Kevin. The strengths he will bring will be an asset to the middle school. I could not be happier or more excited for him.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of change kids go through at that level physically, socially and emotionally. We’re looking to make kids feels supported and know there’s adults in the building that care about them, and try to give them good opportunities to develop and to learn.”

—Kevin Vann

Vann began his career in education at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue, working in the business world prior to earning a job teaching social studies in the Patchogue-Medford School District. He also worked on a grant for the Office of Safe and Healthy Students while in Pat-Med, and was the dean of students at Shoreham-Wading River High School. In both capacities, he said the administrative and disciplinary actions he learned to take will help guide him in his new position. He also earned a master’s degree from Touro College in educational leadership.

Prior to him working in the district, there hadn’t been a tenured administrator in over a decade. Anthony, Holtzman and Vann helped change the Wildcats culture.

“There was a lot of turnover — a lot of inconsistency and a lot of uncertainty with students and parents — so we worked hard to create a culture of acceptance, and a student-centered environment where the students could always come talk to us,” Vann said. “We wanted to have an open line of communication.”

To assist with that, the district brought back an advisory period, where for 15 minutes in the middle of the day, kids can connect with teachers. Advanced Placement training for educators was also added to increase subject concentrations, and the College Board has recognized the school as a result.

“We wanted students to know that their opinions and ideas were respected, and when dealing with parents we wanted them to know our goal was to create the best environment possible for their students to succeed,” Vann said. “I think that really has happened.”

Now, he said he’s hoping he can carry down what he’s learned as assistant principal at the high school, while continuing the current successes already put in place.

“I know they have a highly-engaged staff that’s connected to the students, so I’d look for any opportunity I have to continue to foster that growth,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of change kids go through at that level physically, socially and emotionally. We’re looking to make kids feels supported and know there’s adults in the building that care about them, and try to give them good opportunities to develop and to learn.”

Leslie Boritz is the new principal at Commack High School as of July 1. Photo from Commack school district

The Commack Board of Education announced the appointment of Leslie Boritz as the new Commack High School principal, effective July 1.

The decision capped what the district called an intensive search process for a dynamic leader who will continue to support its vision of student achievement through access and opportunity.

Boritz is a proud Commack alumnus, and has worked as an assistant principal at the high school since July 2011. Her 22 years of service in Commack schools also includes 11 years as an assistant principal at Commack Middle School.

“I have passionately dedicated my life to the students of our community, and will continue to do so,” Boritz said. “I look forward to continuing the traditions and upholding the high standards of our school, and am thrilled to be the next principal of Commack High School.”

Her credentials include master’s degrees in both arts and education, and further degrees in school district administration and supervision. She is the recipient of many honors and awards, including Commack PTA’s Distinguished Service Award.

“The list of Mrs. Boritz’s contributions to our district is endless,” said Superintendent Donald James. “She has served on hundreds of committees, coordinated and designed academic initiatives that benefit our schools and students, and volunteers for countless activities that benefit others. She is well qualified as a leader, with endless enthusiasm and compassion, along with a deep understanding of the culture of our high school and community. We are confident that Leslie will embrace her new position and give it her all.”

Assistant principal Tim Russo smiles at the board of education meeting before his appointment as principal is announced. Photo by Alex Petroski

The Tornadoes have a new leader.

Assistant Principal Tim Russo was appointed principal of Harborfields High School Tuesday night at a board of education meeting.

Russo has been a part of the district for 15 years now, holding several roles over that time as an athletic coach, social studies teacher, student manager, and assistant principal.

“I think my experience in the district, being here so long, gave me an understanding of the culture of the district and the school itself,” Russo said of why he thinks he makes a good fit for the job.

Russo said he’s enjoyed his time at Harborfields and he feels like his time spent there has been an ideal scenario.

“This is the first district I ever worked in, and I couldn’t really see myself ever leaving the district,” he said. “I’m just so happy here. And this is a perfect fit for me; it felt like everything kind of aligned. You’re in the spot that you’d love to be, you get the opportunity to move forward professionally and continue to work still with all of your closest friends and colleagues.”

Current Principal Dr. Rory J. Manning is leaving the position to take over for Francesco Ianni as assistant superintendent for administration and human resources next year. And Ianni is leaving his post to become superintendent of the district, as it was announced earlier this year that Diana Todaro would be retiring in 2017.

“It has been a pleasure to work with Mr. Russo these past years in his roles as teacher, student manager and assistant principal,” Todaro said in a letter to the district. “I wish Mr. Russo much success in his new role and I am extremely confident that he will lead the high school through many new initiatives, in addition to ensuring the high standards of excellence.”

Ianni has been working with Russo for years, originally when Ianni was an assistant principal at the high school and Russo only just a social studies teacher there.

“He’s a great guy with an outstanding personality that works well with kids and the faculty,” Ianni said in a phone interview. “He’s been a great teacher, and coach, and in all of the communities here, he is very well respected. It’s always difficult to bring a great school to next level, but he has the ingredients to be successful and to provide students with the necessary support to go to the next level.”

Russo said is he up to the challenge of bringing the high school to that next level.

“I’ve been given the opportunity to take the school from being outstanding to maybe just a little bit more outstanding,” he said. “I want to be a guide, to lead the faculty and let them understand that we’re confident in everything we do in the buing and we just want to continue to do the right thing for the kids and make sure we continue to be great.”

Alex Petroski contributed reporting.

Harborfields High School. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Harborfields High School Principal Rory Manning was unanimously approved for a promotion by the board of education Wednesday.

He will be taking over as the assistant superintendent for administration and human resources. Francesco Ianni currently holds the position, though he has been tabbed to take over as district superintendent as of January 2017, when the current superintendent, Diana Todaro, retires.

“Dr. Manning, I have to say has performed a truly exceptional job in his position of high school principal,” Todaro said Wednesday at a board of education meeting at Oldfield Middle School. “When we began to seek a candidate for the position of assistant superintendent for administration and human resources we immediately, without hesitation, considered Dr. Manning for this position. Following several interviews and discussions our decision was confirmed, and it was clearly evident to us that he was the best candidate for this position and there was no need for us to conduct the so-called ‘nationwide search.’”

Manning has been the high school principal at Harborfields since 2012. Prior to that he spent time at Sachem High School East as both a principal and assistant principal from 2006 through 2012. He received a doctorate in education, educational administration and supervision from St. John’s University in 2011.

“I’d like to apologize to the board, because today when the proposition to hire Dr. Manning as our assistant superintendent comes up, I’m breaking protocol and saying a resounding ‘yay,’” student representative to the board of education Trevor Jones said, prior to the unanimous vote to approve Manning. “I know my vote doesn’t count, but that’s a fantastic man sitting over there.”

Jones’ address concluded with a standing ovation, and a hug from Manning.

Harborfields High School Principal Rory Manning smiles. File photo
Harborfields High School Principal Rory Manning. File photo

Manning was praised by Jones, Todaro and members of the community for initiatives relating to educational technology that he has been a part of while at Harborfields.

“It absolutely blew me away,” Manning said about the kind words shared about his new position in the district, and the work that he’s done so far. “Trevor Jones and our students, they’re just outstanding and Trevor really speaks from his heart. It really shows. Our students, my students, inspire me to be better everyday. That’s what keeps us going on the hard days, keeps us motivated on the good days. It’s just special working with these kids and their parents, the teachers, the superintendent, the board; it’s just a pleasure to work with everybody here. They call us the Harborfields family, and it really feels that way.”

Harborfields High School received a 2016 National Blue Ribbon award nomination, a distinction given to outstanding public and non-public schools by the National Blue Ribbon Schools program with the U.S. Department of Education. Winners will be selected in September, according to a release on the district website.

“Whenever Dr. Manning talks about the fact that we’ve been nominated as a Blue Ribbon school, he always talks about the students and our teachers who do amazing work,” Jones said. “He never gives himself credit. He deserves some.”

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien was named Administrator of the Year. Photo from Rocky Point school district

When Scott O’Brien read his favorite childhood book, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” to an elementary school class during college, he had no idea how important that moment would be to the future of his career.

“I remember reading the book to them and leaving and saying, ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life. This is what I’m meant to do,’” he said. “I think I always knew.”

The landscape architect major switched his field of study to education. Since then, the Rocky Point Middle School principal has been named Administrator of the Year by the Council of Administrators and Supervisors.

Albert Voorneveld, President of the Council of Administrators, presents Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O'Brien with his Administrator of the Year award. Photo from Scott O'Brien
Albert Voorneveld, President of the Council of Administrators, presents Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien with his Administrator of the Year award. Photo from Scott O’Brien

“I love every minute of being a principal,” he said. “I feel so honored to get this, and privileged to get it, but I just love my job. I love coming to work. I love what I do, and I think it’s just an added bonus to get honored by the people that you work with, that they also feel that that love of my decisions comes through and they value what I’m doing here for them, the staff, the students and everyone in the building.”

The faculty told O’Brien of the nomination in a very unconventional way.

“They had tricked me, of course,” O’Brien said, laughing.

The principal’s staff was adamant about reminding him multiple times of a department meeting in the library one afternoon. When he entered the packed library, he knew something bigger was happening. They presented O’Brien with a wrapped box. Inside, were the nominations by each teacher who wrote a supporting statement, poem or a note of congratulations.

“Before they nominated me for the award, I was well aware that I have a very special staff,” he said. “I feel extremely fortunate to work with not only dedicated and kids-first teachers and staff, but to be able to work together with them to implement change and make our building continuously better for kids. I have reflected on that moment in the library and how grateful I am to be recognized in such a meaningful manner. The work continues and the acknowledgement further signifies the importance and continuation of my role as an educational leader.”

The principal is in his eighth year at the helm of the school, but has been in the district much longer, serving as a special education teacher, assistant principal and principal at the Frank J. Carasiti Elementary School — working in that building for more than a decade. The St. James resident, who attended the John F. Kennedy Middle School in Port Jefferson Station, also worked out-of-state for four years, in Fairfax County, Virginia. O’Brien’s grandparents lived in Rocky Point, so he said he was familiar with the area when he received his first teaching job there.

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O'Brien has created a warm and inviting atmosphere at his school for both his staff and students. Photo from Scott O'Brien
Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien has created a warm and inviting atmosphere at his school for both his staff and students. Photo from Scott O’Brien

Nicole Gabrinowitz, a seventh-grade math teacher who has been with the district for 20 years, said she came down from the high school the same time O’Brien arrived.

“He was very welcoming,” she said. “He’s also really open to new ideas. He knows his entire staff and works hard and uses a lot of techniques you’d use in a classroom at the staff meetings to keep us close.”

A core group of staff members came up with the idea to nominate O’Brien once they heard about the award. Melinda Brooks, the school’s instructional coordinator for six years, said she wrote in her letter of recommendation that “every single person who is employed in his building is inspired to be their very best each and every day. Each year we receive many requests from teachers who want to transfer to the middle school because they want to inspire too.”

Brooks recalled when she met O’Brien in 2010 and he was warm and welcoming.

“I immediately saw that he was one of the strongest leaders in the district,” she said. “He found his calling. He was born to do this.”

On spirit day, Brooks said the principal dressed up as Superman and his wife, Theresa, whom he met while working at the elementary school and now has three children with, had her class make him a quilt for winning the award, which was decorated with all things Superman-related.

“Everyone sees him as Superman and the kids took it quite literally,” she said. “He’s someone that has an open-door policy and is willing to listen and work with you to do what is needed and is best for the community, the teachers, the kids and everyone involved.”

Dawn Callahan, an eighth-grade social studies teacher who has worked at the school since it opened nearly 14 years ago, said O’Brien has been a refreshing change.

He also, according to many, created a strong family atmosphere, and according to Callahan, looks after the staff.

“Last year we had a student that had passed away,” she said. “Knowing that I had that student for over a year and had done home-teaching at her house before she had passed, he called me personally at home to tell me about it over the weekend, instead of me coming into school the next day and finding out about it. That to me makes you realize that the people you work for really consider this a family, as opposed to being just a job.”

She added that O’Brien gives the staff areas to grow in, and the strong vibes within the building trickle down from the top.

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien, center, poses for a photo with some of his staff after earning the Administrator of the Year award. Photo from Scott O'Brien
Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien, center, poses for a photo with some of his staff after earning the Administrator of the Year award. Photo from Scott O’Brien

O’Brien works to instill this in other teachers looking to become administrators. He teaches an administrative program at St. John’s University and The College of St. Rose in his free time.

“I love inspiring teachers to be future leaders and to change the culture of buildings and teach how to do that effectively,” he said, “and teach how to get a building to be able to support powerful learning for kids, and create a building that can be the best that it should be.”

His school is in the running win the Inviting School Award, which is a national award presented by the International Exchange of Educational Practices, and is based on the atmosphere he has created.

Regardless of the accolades and success he’s had in the field, O’Brien is just thankful for the experiences.

“Making decisions in the best interest of students while supporting staff in that process was my goal each year,” he said. “The relationships I have created, supported and maintained over the years with all members of the Rocky Point School community have played a pivotal role in where I am today as a leader. I’ve had such wonderful experiences, especially in Rocky Point, and it’s been such a second home to me.”