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Shoreham-Wading River High School

The Shoreham-Wading River community and football team mourned the death of teammate Thoams Cutinella. File photo by Bill Landon

By Kevin Redding

Frank and Kelli Cutinella have always been this way. Family members and close friends say the Shoreham-Wading River couple, who were married in 1996 and together raised four kids, have always given back, helped others and been there when  needed the most.

“You can’t meet a more solid person than Frankie,” said Kenneth Michaels, Frank Cutinella’s childhood friend and fellow officer within the Suffolk County Police Department. “He’s a model. He’s someone you want to emulate. I’ve never met anybody like him in my life.”

Mount Sinai’s Theresa Biegert said her sister Kelli Cutinella helps no matter who needs it.

Thomas Cutinella hoped to donate his organs. File photo

“She’s so kind and loving and generous, and goes out of her way for everybody — her family, friends and members of the community,” she said.

So after tragedy struck the Cutinellas Oct. 1, 2014, they didn’t buckle, they didn’t wallow. The reach of their generosity only got bigger and stronger. Their mission in life began.

It’s been more than three years since their oldest son, Thomas Cutinella, died at age 16 from a helmet-to-helmet collision with another player during a Shoreham-Wading River football game. Thomas, a star Wildcat and junior at the time of the accident, had aspirations of serving his country and, like his parents, was always looking to lend a hand, or more.

When he was rushed to Huntington Hospital, and after doctors there told the Cutinellas what no parent should ever hear, they honored a wish their son made on his birthday that year to donate his organs to others. His heart, pancreas, kidneys, liver, tissue and skin all went to those in need.

“When Thomas went to get his driver’s permit that year, they asked if he wanted to be a donor even though he wasn’t old enough to register at the time,” said Maria Johnson, Kelli’s mother. “He was like, ‘Yes! What do you mean? Of course I want to be a donor!’ Thomas was a very giving boy. He had to get that from somebody, and he got it from his parents.”

Since his death, mother and father have taken it upon themselves to never stop honoring Thomas’ memory. And in signature Cutinella fashion, they’re bettering the lives of everybody around them in the process.

Frank and Kelli Cutinella have spoken in front of Suffolk County officials, athletic directors and football coaches from across the state about bringing much-needed changes to the sport that took their son’s life, and the culture surrounding it. Having seen firsthand the illegal hit Thomas took when an opposing player rammed the crown of their helmet into the side of Cutinella’s, and the brief celebration among the players and crowd that followed, Frank Cutinella became determined to make the game safer and reduce the unnecessary dangers encouraged on the field.

A former high school football player himself, Frank Cutinella presented his case to save the lives of young athletes to Section XI members, who, in the fall of 2016, began to implement the Tommy Tough Football Safety Standards across the county. In July of this year, Tommy Tough was adopted at the state level, by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. Frank’s next goal is to take it to the  national stage.

Focused on limiting the risk of injury, caused by certain ways of tackling and leading with the helmet, the new safety measures are read before each game by on-field officials and stricter penalties are enforced when it comes to illegal contacts and hits. Educational programs on safety and proper helmet techniques are offered to coaches.

“Frank wanted to make a difference to the game and not let Tommy’s death go unnoticed,” said Tom Combs, executive director and former football chair of Section XI. “These standards make the game safer, bring an awareness to what is an illegal hit and what isn’t, what’s acceptable on the field and what isn’t. It’s helping coaches and players and officials get on the same page and understand that this game can be as safe as possible if we follow certain standards. Frank’s amazing. I don’t think I could’ve found the strength to do what he’s done.”

Frank and Kelli Cutinella sit on Wading River Elementary Schools new `buddy bench,` which was donated by nonprofit Kaits Angels, which was created in memory of Mattitucks Kaitlyn Doorhy. Photo by Kevin Redding

Kelli Cutinella has shared Thomas’ story, and advocated for the lowering of the organ donation registration age across the state, speaking at local school districts like Harborfields and East Islip, colleges like Hofstra and Stony Brook University, and in Albany to support the passing of a law permitting 16- and 17-year-olds to enroll in the New York State Donate Life Registry, which was rolled out in February 2017. She is also a frequent contributor at events put on by LiveOnNY, an organ donation network, and a nonprofit called Long Island TRIO, standing for Transplant Recipients International Organization.

Dave Rodgers, a leader at Long Island TRIO, said he had been following Thomas’ story since the day his death was reported, and was honored to have his mom join his cause. Within the nonprofit, Kelli Cutinella speaks to high school and college students about what organ donation and transplantation means from a parental perspective.

“It’s truly amazing what she’s able to do,” Rodgers said. “She takes it full circle from raising her son and what he and his loss meant to her, to the transplantation process of another person getting that life and then being in contact with all the recipients of Thomas’ organs. Her story is quite compelling.”

Not only is Kelli Cutinella friends with Thomas’ heart recipient, she has been running alongside her at the Tunnel to Towers 5K Run & Walk in New York City since 2015.

Karen Hill, a 25-year-old Washington, D.C., native, received Thomas’ heart three days after his death, while she was a student at Fordham University. When she was 11, Hill was diagnosed with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disease, and had been regulated with medication until she turned 21 and got on a waiting list for a transplant.

“It’s crazy because when I found out I needed a transplant, the first thing I wondered was, ‘Whose heart am I doing to get?’” Hill said. “There is no word in the dictionary that described just how fortunate I was to be able to receive the heart of such a well-loved person. I feel like since the transplant and meeting the Cutinellas, I’ve become a better person in my own life.”

Hill first met the Cutinellas in May 2015, along with the recipient of Thomas’ kidney and pancreas. She has been in frequent communication ever since and has found a real kinship with Thomas’ mother.

“Kelli is almost in a way like a second mom,” Hill said. “She has such a wonderful and warm personality. She and Frank both still have the most positive spirits and are great people to be around.”

Through The Thomas Cutinella Memorial Foundation, the parents are also extremely hands-on and charitable within their son’s school district, granting a special scholarship in Thomas’ name — more than $14,000 in 2016 — to students of Shoreham-Wading River and beyond who exhibit characteristics of kindness, modesty and selflessness. The couple oversaw the building of the new memorial football field, and Frank Cutinella is spearheading the construction of a concession stand and bathroom on the property. Thomas was honored in the form of a buddy bench installed at Wading River Elementary School. At the high school, alongside the football field, a bust was created along with a special seating area by local Eagle Scout Thomas Leda.

Kelli Cutinella, right, and Karen Hill, left, after Hill received Cutinella’s son Thomas’ heart through a donation following his death. Photo from Kelli Cutinella

“It’s overwhelming for them, but they want to give back to the community because the community gave back to them in their time in need,” Michaels said. “Thomas loved that school and that’s where they felt they could truly carry on his memory. The [Cutinellas] were dealt a bad hand, but they’ve turned that bad hand into a royal flush.”

Biegert agreed.

“Kelli and Frank didn’t crawl in a hole and cry about this,” she said. “They opened their arms and thought of what they could do to make it better and make a difference.”

Kenny Gray, a family friend, said the Cutinellas encompass the small-town feeling of Shoreham-Wading River with their strong family values and love of community.

“I know that they will never fully recover from this and it continues to be a struggle for them, but they’re strong and keep life normal for the other three kids,” Gray said. “This tragedy has led Frank and Kelli to do even more for community and friends.”

Kevin Cutinella, 18, their second oldest child who also played on the high school football and lacrosse team and currently attends the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said he’s most proud and admiring of his parents’ strength.

“I love that they haven’t changed at all — they stayed just as stable and strong as a rock,” he said. “It’s just what they’ve always been: strong, focused and helpful. It’s definitely rubbed off on us all.”

Shoreham-Wading River High School. File photo by Kevin Redding

A new, broader homework policy drafted by the Shoreham-Wading River board of education opened up a dialogue last month between parents and administrators over the best approach to after school assignments throughout the district.

Varying consequences for students who don’t do their homework and an overabundance of assignments over school holidays were main topics of discussion during Shoreham’s Oct. 24 board meeting, in which community members weighed in on a planned revision to the district’s current policy.

In response to a curriculum survey sent out by the district over the summer, parents requested that its guidelines for homework be expanded. While the original policy is merely two sentences on the educational validity of homework, the new two-page proposal aims to better accommodate for individual students and incorporates recognized best practices in the development of assignments.

New homework guidelines could include stricter
penalties, less work on vacations. Stock photo

“The process has certainly put a lens on homework,” Superintendent Gerard Poole said. “Feedback from parents in the survey was a little mixed — the underlying theme was that homework is important but there should be consistencies across grade levels and considerations for home life. We tried to craft something that empowered the buildings to make practices come to life that make sense for students and families.” 

The newly drafted guidelines, titled Policy 8440, encourage teachers to consider students’ time constraints when assigning homework, which should be “appropriate to students’ age” and shouldn’t “take away too much time away from other home activities.”

“Homework should foster positive attitudes toward school and self, and communicate to students the idea that learning takes work at home as well as in school,” the draft policy states.

While it addresses that students should be accountable for all assignments, there are no strict consequences in place for when homework isn’t done, which prompted some parents to voice their concerns.

“I think it’s very important that we establish responsibility and have consequences that teachers themselves are able to have the flexibility to put on children,” said Jeannine Smith, a Shoreham parent with children in Wading River School and Miller Avenue School.

As an educator in an outside district, Smith supported the concept of taking recess away from students in the elementary and middle school who consistently don’t hand homework in.

“I think it’s very important that we establish responsibility and have consequences that teachers themselves are able to have the flexibility to put on children.”

— Jeannine Smith

“It’s the teacher’s job to make sure children are prepared in the future and if homework’s not important in the classroom, children get the message that there is no consequence,” she said.

Shoreham resident Erin Saunders-Morano agreed, saying she believes homework is ultimately the student’s responsibility and shouldn’t be seen as something that falls on the parents.

“As we get older, if you don’t do your job, there are consequences,” Morano said. “I think we should be raising the bar for our students, not lowering it. If students want recess, they should make sure they do their homework.”

But Alisa McMorris, a member of the district’s PTA council, protested the idea, saying students who are working hard all day deserve a break. She also pointed out that difficult and time-consuming projects should not be assigned over vacations.

“I can’t tell you how many times my kids have had projects due the day we get back from Christmas break and it makes me crazy,” McMorris said. “Our Christmas breaks now are doing these projects. Vacation is vacation.”

Michelle Gallucci, a Wading River resident and an English teacher at Smithtown High School East, commended the board for drafting a policy that gives teachers academic freedom based on the students they have in the classroom. She equated the importance of homework to sports practice.

“You can’t take a math class at 9 a.m. on a Monday and not do it again until 9 a.m. the next day,” she said. “You have to practice those skills and get better because your brain is a muscle. Just as students practice for hours after school to get ready for games, students also need intellectual practice.”

By Kevin Redding

With the start of a new school year, the Shoreham-Wading River school district will be led by a fresh team of administrators — a newly appointed high school principal, assistant principal and middle school principal.

Leadership changes within the district began in April when new superintendent Gerard Poole was officially sworn in. Poole previously served as assistant superintendent in the Freeport School District and is replacing interim Neil Lederer.

“It’s truly a privilege and an honor to have the chance to collaborate and build upon the successes of the school district,” Poole said during an April 18 board of education meeting.

Frank Pugliese


Welcoming new high school principal Frank Pugliese

Pugliese, 45, who has been an assistant principal in the Half Hollow Hills School District for the past 10 years, officially started his new position as Shoreham’s high school principal Aug. 1, taking over for longtime administrator Dan Holtzman.

With 20 years in education under his belt, Pugliese — a Brookhaven native with a bachelor’s degree in history from the State University of New York at Albany and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from Radford University in Virginia — started out teaching social studies at Goochland High School in Virginia and Commack High School before receiving his administrative certification through Stony Brook University.

He was administrative dean of students at Ward Melville High School before settling in at Half Hollow Hills, where he worked as assistant principal for four years at Half Hollow Hills West and six years at Half Hollow Hills East.

Pugliese said he’s looking forward to bringing his years of experience in the high school setting to Shoreham-Wading River, a community he said has already made him feel at home.

“I feel incredibly supported here and it’s clear that everyone wants this to be successful — this is a community that values education,” Pugliese said. “I’ve always really enjoyed high school and being part of that environment, the structure, the bonds and making sure it’s a home away from home for students.”

Having gone through an extensive hiring process, which included multiple rounds of interviews with the district office and community members, he said it was intense but appreciated.

“They really took the process very seriously and wanted to make sure they were bringing in somebody competent for the job and also a good fit for the building and community,” he said. “I can’t wait to be out there meeting everyone at the football games, soccer games and not just become principal of the building, but a real member of the community.”

As principal, Pugliese said, his main priority is to build a strong trust with his students.

“The biggest thing is you have to get to know your kids and have to know what motivates them,” he said. “You also have to really accept the fact that something that may have worked previously may not work again. For me, it’s about being real, being genuine and letting the students know that I care, which can give way to very honest conversations. When they know you have their best interests in mind, that’s when they listen. If they think you’re just feeding them a line, they’ll tune you out faster than anything.”

But most importantly, in his first year, he wants to learn.

“Even though I’ve been here officially since the start of August, it’s not a school until the kids and teachers are here,” Pugliese said. “What I’m hoping for this year is to get to know the teachers, get to know the kids. It’s about learning what this community values and how I can best fit into that.”

Kevin Vann

Kevin Vann moving on up to  middle school principal

The new principal of Albert G. Prodell Middle School is a familiar face to the community. Vann, who will be replacing retiring principal Linda Anthony after her 11 years at the helm, has been the assistant principal at the high school for the last decade. Vann said he jumped at the opportunity to lead a school in the district he knows so well.

“I know the middle school is an excellent school, they’ve had a lot of success and the faculty is highly engaged with the students, so there’s a lot of really good things going on,” he said. “I just want to work with teachers, students and families to continue to move the school in a positive direction.”

Vann, 50, said working in the high school for so long has given him a good sense of what he should expect in the new building.

“I saw the product of the middle school when they came up to the high school,” he said. “The kids are very polite, very engaged, very eager to learn and I know that’s because of the good education and experience they’ve had here in the middle school.”

Before he landed the assistant principal position at the high school, Vann worked in sales before teaching social studies at the middle school level in the Patchogue-Medford School District. He also worked on a grant for the Office of Safe and Healthy Students at Pat-Med, and was the dean of students at Shoreham’s high school.

Vann holds a bachelor’s degree in history and education from St. Joseph’s College and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Touro College.

As Vann prepares for the new job, he said he is already planning on implementing a Chromebook program for sixth-graders this year, but mainly just hopes to build on the middle school’s friendly environment.

“We certainly want to continue to make the school a welcoming place for students,” he said. “I think the social and emotional aspects of middle school is extremely important. We want to make sure that kids feel valued and welcome and safe when they come in. Once that’s taken care, the kids are in a better place to explore mentally and for learning to occur.”

Michael Winfield

High school assistant principal Michael Winfield returns

Winfield is another familiar face to the community. He returns to the same position he held at Shoreham-Wading River in 2014, before he left to serve as assistant principal for sixth grade at Hempstead Middle School.

The longtime education leader, who has earned a doctorate in modern world history, a Master of Arts in history and a Master of Arts in sociology from St. John’s University, among several other degrees. He was also dean of students at Bellport Middle School, social studies chairperson at upstate New York’s Spring Valley High School, assistant principal for operations at Riverhead High School and administrative supervisor for the Hempstead High Annex.

Winfield will be replacing Vann, who will be leaving the position to become principal at Prodell Middle School.

“I’m looking forward to, again, working with the school, the community, the parents and to really get their students prepared for work, career and beyond,” Winfield said. “I want to help them become lifelong learners who embrace learning, embrace life and become good citizens. I’m excited to be here.”

The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe is located at 5 Randall Road in Shoreham. File photo by Wenhao Ma

Shoreham’s Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe is hosting the Electric Dream Expo Saturday, July 8 — a community event honoring science innovator Nikola Tesla’s 161st birthday, as well as the 100th anniversary of the dismantling of Tesla’s famous wireless transmitting tower. The Electric Dream Expo is comprised of an afternoon Science & Innovation Expo from 2 to 6 p.m. on the site of Tesla’s last existing laboratory in Shoreham, with exhibits, demonstrations, food and entertainment.

There will also be an evening of Tesla entertainment, called Summer Electrified!, from 8 to 10 p.m. at Shoreham-Wading River High School, 250A Route 25A, Shoreham, featuring Tesla-inspired performances.

Technological innovation of the past, present and future is the expo’s theme, and attendees at the daytime Science & Innovation Expo will experience Tesla-themed exhibits and activities for all ages, including a HAM radio presentation, displays by The Museum of Interesting Things and Long Island Radio & TV Historical Society, Tesla coil exhibit, 3-D printer and robotics demos, interactive exhibits of Tesla inventions and a Tesla car display.

Tours and a special presentation of innovation will feature the history of Tesla’s 187-foot wireless transmitter tower, built on the Shoreham site in 1907 and dismantled 100 years ago. The tower’s base remains as a focal point, along with Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Laboratory, built from 1901 to 1905 by renowned architect Stanford White, and now being renovated into an immersive science and education center.

The Summer Electrified! an evening of Tesla entertainment, features ArcAttack!, a musical light show using Tesla coil technology, as well as a unique lineup of performances and readings focused on Tesla’s life and legacies.

Admission to the Science & Innovation Expo is $15 for ages 13 and over, $5 for ages 5 to 12 and free for children under 5. Tickets for the Summer Electrified! performances are $25 per person 13 and over, $12 for ages 5 to 12 and free for children under 5. Admission to both events is $35 for 13 and over, $15 for ages 5 to 12 and free for children under 5. A special price of $25 per car covers admission to the daytime Science Innovation Expo for all passengers, and is limited to the first 50 car tickets purchased. Tickets can be purchased at www.teslasciencecenter.org.

A map of the Rails to Trails project provided by the county’s Department of Public Works. Photo from Legislator Sarah Anker’s office

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) will host two public information meetings to discuss the proposed design for the Port Jefferson-Wading River Rails to Trails project. The two dates for the public meetings are:

•March 22 at 6 p.m. at Shoreham-Wading River High School, 250 Route 25A in Shoreham.

•April 5 at 6 p.m. at Miller Place High School, 15 Memorial Drive in Miller Place

The proposed trail, a project that was spearheaded by Anker, is a 10-mile-long shared-use recreational path.

The path will be built along the abandoned Long Island Rail Road right-of-way, which currently is owned by the Long Island Power Authority. The trail will run through the hamlets of Port Jefferson Station, Mount Sinai, Miller Place, Sound Beach, Rocky Point, Shoreham, East Shoreham and Wading River.

These meetings will give residents an opportunity to hear from the Suffolk County Department of Public Works regarding the plan for design and construction of the trail. For more information, contact Anker’s office at 631-854-1600.