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Special Education

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The lunch buddies pictured (from left) are Matthew Elvington, Jenna Wade, Mia Cepeda, Hailey Petruzzi and Jackson Edwards-Remy, accepting their awards Monday at a school board meeting. Teachers (from left) Sanchez, Kathleen Masone and Rhiannon Rizzo and Rella were present to thank the students for their kindness. Students Frank Corona, Albiezy Delgado and Emelin Torres Peralta were not at the meeting but also participated in the program, school officials said. Photo by Alex Petroski

Students from Terryville Road Elementary School in the Comsewogue School District were honored at a board of education meeting Monday night for their participation in the school’s Lunch Buddy Program, which pairs special education students with students from other classrooms to have lunch once a week.

“The lunch buddies’ program is based off a research-based program called peer-to-peer, where students from a special education classroom and a general education classroom meet together … to have lunch and practice their social skills,” teacher Kylynn Sanchez said. “Also they can make connections in a more natural setting. The hope is that they’re able to go off on the playground and continue those connections.”

Terryville Principal April Victor said in an email Tuesday she is proud of all the students involved.

“Throughout the year this amazing group of students have exemplified kindness and understanding of individual differences,” she said.

Superintendent Joe Rella echoed Victor’s sentiments Monday: “I think one of the hallmarks of this community is being concerned about other people, not just being concerned about yourself.”

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Louise Pizzuto has taught in Mount Sinai for 28 years. Photo from the Pizzuto family

Saying Louise Pizzuto was born to teach is an understatement.

Pizzuto, 62, started working as a special education teacher at Mount Sinai Middle School in September 1988. After 28 years, the mother of two is retiring to spend more time with her family. The Mount Sinai Board of Education announced Pizzuto’s retirement from her current position in the high school’s Special Education Department. Her last day is June 25.

The Smithtown resident became an integral part of the school district early on in her career.

After seeing some special needs students continuously fail and repeat classes, only to drop out of school after the government passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, Pizzuto pushed for courses to accommodate her students. No Child Left Behind set higher standards that her students couldn’t reach on their own.

“They [kept] raising the bar, but my students didn’t have their academic abilities raised,” Pizzuto said. “In order to meet [the requirements] and close the gap somewhat, we had to really start putting in place some programs.”

The addition of more leveled classes or self-contained classes allowed these students to be taught and learn at their own level. More residents started moving to the school district when these programs were established. They were also incorporated into the high school after it was established in September 1991. Pizzuto was no stranger to going above and beyond for those who needed her help.

“When given students with special needs, she would give up her lunch period to audit a class so that she could learn different methodology to teach her students,” said longtime friend Gloria Musto.

Pizzuto also dedicated whatever free time she had, before, during and after school, to help her students.

Before working in Mount Sinai school district, Pizzuto worked at Concord High School in Staten Island, and stumbled into special education because there was a shortage of special needs teachers at the time. She was able to get a second masters in special education while she worked at the high school.

Pizzuto’s daughter Amanda Pizzuto-Montemarano said her mother goes above and beyond for her students, recalling a time her mother took a student to the doctor for an examination. The student was abusing drugs at the time, and was getting sick. Pizzuto paid for the visit, and helped other students similarly, while giving them the tools they needed to succeed.

Although the high school wasn’t the only educational facility she worked for prior to Mount Sinai, Pizzuto said she fell in love with the program because of the kids she helped.

While her career at Concord differed from her experience in Mount Sinai, making a difference in people’s lives is always the priority for Pizzuto. As a special needs teacher, Pizzuto put her students before the lesson, and by learning their strengths and weaknesses, provided background information on a subject to help them learn the curriculum at their grade level.

Her daughter said going into retirement is a big step.

“She is going to miss teaching terribly,” Pizzuto-Montemarano said. “But now she has grandchildren and they’re going to have the greatest teacher, like me and my brother had.”

Pizzuto’s son Paul-Eric has dyslexia, and used to sneak books home from school. She started spending hours helping her son grasp material from school. He said growing up with a mother who was not only a teacher but a special education teacher, was a gift.

Longtime friend and co-worker Michele Gaffney, of Baiting Hollow, said Pizzuto motivated her to get her masters in teaching when Pizzuto and her family moved to the Island. The two started working in the school district on the same day.

“She really optimizes what a teacher is,” Gaffney said. “She goes the extra mile. She’s just fabulous. Mount Sinai will never have another one like her.”

But Pizzuto hopes for the best.

“I told the principal when I handed them my retirement papers that I just hope that they replace me with another teacher that remembers the students before the curriculum,” Pizzuto said.

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Jessica Ward, center, surrounded by supportive red shirts, holds up a sign in favor of aides. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Jessica Ward sat in a united sea of red shirts before taking to the mic at Rocky Point’s Board of Education meeting on Monday.

“For some of the … board it might just be another item to get done with tonight,” Ward, a Rocky Point resident, said about agenda item No. 22, to eliminate two teacher aide positions. “But it means much more to me, as I am item No. 22.”

Ward’s position at Rocky Point elementary was one of four recently abolished special education aide jobs districtwide. The first two were eliminated at a July school board meeting, the same night the board hired five teaching assistants. When trustees — with Sean Callahan as the lone dissenting vote — terminated Ward and another teacher aide on Monday, they were met with boos from other aides, members of the New York State United Teachers and some residents.

Ward, the former vice president of Rocky Point’s Parent Teacher Association, put blame on Trustee Melissa Brown. She claimed in an interview that Brown wants Rocky Point to emulate the Sachem School District, where teaching assistants are used in the classroom instead of aides.

“She would like to bring teaching assistants because, in her opinion, it will serve the children better. The teaching aides disagree,” Ward said about Brown. “We do a lot more than what they think a teaching aide does.”

Aides give “health and safety support to children,” Brown explained in an email, and are assigned to those special needs students on a case-by-case basis. Many aides build relationships with the children and can identify their moods and needs more easily than other individuals in the school. Unlike teacher aides, teaching assistants are allowed to teach the curriculum in the classroom.

“There are many [special education] teachers who are charged with teaching multigrade levels of instruction in math, social studies and science, on top of trying to teach the students to read,” Brown said. “Teaching assistants provide the students with another teacher in the room to assist in providing academic instruction.”

She hopes more teaching assistants will raise graduation rates for special education students.

But some at the meeting emphasized how important aides were for their children.

One woman said her daughter needed more attention to pass her Regents exams.

“Those teachers could not give that one-on-one to my child,” she said. “She learns differently and those aides saw that and helped her.”

Superintendent Michael Ring said that one of the aides whose position was recently eliminated is working toward a teaching assistant certification, and in the meantime is still working for the district. Executive Director for Educational Services Susan Wilson said other aides could follow the same process.

While Ring said this school year is the first phase of Rocky Point’s move toward more teaching assistants, and there may be more teacher aides replaced with teaching assistants next fall, for now, the staff changes are over.

“I have no intentions of recommending any others to be eliminated,” he said.

But for Ward, losing her position as a teacher aide is a big setback.

“I am a single mother of four children under the age of 12,” Ward said, as her eyes began to tear. “I carry their health insurance so [being eliminated] is very upsetting to me.”

This version corrects the attribution on a statement about the Rocky Point school district’s staffing plans regarding teacher aides and teaching assistants.

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Photo by Elana Glowatz

A Miller Place official will change his rally colors to purple and white this summer.

The Port Jefferson school board hired Robert Neidig as the district’s new middle school principal on July 28, a couple of months after three-year principal Antonio Santana announced he would not return to the position for the 2015-16 school year.

Neidig, an assistant principal at North Country Road Middle School for the past eight years, will start at Port Jefferson on Aug. 17, a letter to the community from Superintendent Ken Bossert said.

A recent press release from the Port Jefferson school district said Neidig has two master’s degrees from Stony Brook University and a doctorate in educational administration from Dowling College, and started his career as a social studies teacher in Babylon before becoming an administrator.

At Miller Place, he “fostered a positive relationship between the school and community, initiated character education programs to improve the school climate, facilitated the implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards and served as chairperson for four academic departments,” the press release said.

Until Neidig officially makes the move to Royals country, the middle school has an interim principal, Leonard Bozza, who was once the Longwood High School principal and has previously served in interim roles in Port Jefferson: once as an assistant principal and once as the high school principal.

In addition to appointing the new Port Jefferson Middle School leader, the school board also added Brentwood’s head of speech and hearing, Jodi Cahill, as the new director of special education and Claudia Smith, currently a Middle Country school district staffer, as the elementary and middle school assistant principal.

Cahill has a master’s in speech language pathology from LIU Post and served on Brentwood’s special education committee, the press release said. Smith has been an elementary teacher for 18 years and has a master’s from Dowling College.

“Each was selected based upon outstanding vision, strong content knowledge, and the ability to collaborate with all stakeholders in an effective manner,” Bossert said of the three new staffers.

The district is still looking for an assistant principal for Earl L. Vandermeulen High School, and Bossert said the goal is to have one appointed before school starts.

Neidig, Cahill and Smith are part of a new lineup throughout Port Jefferson schools. In addition to replacing Santana, the district had to find a replacement for Matthew Murphy, the former high school principal, who announced his departure a few months before Santana. Officials recently promoted Christine Austen to the position from her role as the assistant principal for grades pre-k through 12.

Smith is absorbing Austen’s former elementary and middle school duties and the educator who is hired as the high school’s assistant principal will complete that transition.

“This is an exciting time in the Port Jefferson school district,” Bossert said in the press release. “[It is] a time filled with opportunities for growth and development as new leaders join the team.”

School building handicap accessibility, communication between parents and staff at top of list of concerns

Flanked by members of SEPTA, Stacey Riccardi presents a letter of requests for special education students to the Northport-East Northport school board on Monday, June 15. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Parents and teachers of disabled students have called on the Northport-East Northport school board to address issues ranging from communication to handicap accessibility in the district.

The members of the district’s special education parent teacher association, known as SEPTA, presented a letter of requests to the board at its meeting on June 15 on behalf of the more than 900 Northport-East Northport students classified as having a disability.

Stacey Riccardi, SEPTA vice president, presented the letter and urged the board to “ensure that the needs of our most vulnerable students be met.”

The group plans to submit the letter to the board again on July 1, once incoming superintendent Robert Banzer is present.

The letter requests the district conduct an internal audit of the special education department, with the investigation going back to 2010, when the last assistant superintendent of pupil services, John Lynch, retired and the position was eliminated.

Members of SEPTA say that since then, the lines of communication between parents and the administration have been compromised.

“We’re being held at arms-length as parents; there seems to be a disconnect between the parents and the special ed department,” Cathy Josephson, SEPTA recording secretary, said in a phone interview.

Outgoing longtime school board Trustee Stephen Waldenburg Jr. said another employee absorbed Lynch’s duties, adding that just because a position is eliminated, does not mean those responsibilities are eliminated as well.

“Once Lynch retired, those needs were not ignored; the tasks were taken on under a new title.”

The letter also highlighted other needs, like the elementary and middle school playgrounds becoming compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act — for example, being outfitted with special swing sets — as well as school building entrances. SEPTA members pointed out that entrances to multiple schools in the district are not handicap-accessible, or some that are accessible are only open during school hours and are locked after school hours, when clubs are meeting.

Waldenburg countered, however, that, “There is no intent from the board to be out of compliance,” Waldenburg Jr. said.

“Our buildings and grounds team consistently analyze school facilities and completes upgrades through capitol improvement projects, which are reviewed and approved by the State Education Department,” Thomas Caramore,  interim superintendent of Northport-East Northport said in a statement.

Aside from making facilities more accessible for students with special needs, SEPTA is eager for a more inclusive learning environment. Josephson has a daughter in a wheelchair who was enrolled in the Northport-East Northport school district from second grade to eighth grade. However, she attends high school outside the district, at a facility that has the resources to meet her special needs.

“These students live in this community,” Josephson said. “Why can’t they get an education here as well?”

Caramore said that no student in the district has ever been denied services due to accessibility, and that students have remained educated in their home schools.

“Our schools should be as inclusive as possible to ensure the special education student has access to the least restrictive environment,” according to the letter presented to the board. It refers to the fact that many disabled students who live in the Northport-East Northport district, like Josephson’s daughter, do not attend school in the district because the schools do not always have the facilities, programs or educators to ensure a proper education for the them. Disable students are frequently enrolled in BOCES instead.

SEPTA wants special needs students to be able to “access the same school their siblings and neighbors attend.”

Caramore said that the community’s concerns are being heard.

“The board and administration will continue to carefully review the concerns raised by the members of the community.”

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Maria Rivas washes windows at Buffalo Wild Wings as part of a work-study program. Photo by Erika Karp

By Erika Karp

Tyler Butler, a 16-year-old special needs student at Centereach High School, has a plan. He wants to go to Suffolk County Community College, get married and have a family, but he knows he needs a job first. Butler has taken a step in the right direction though, thanks to the life skills’ work-study program at Centereach High School.

Jacob Robinson learns work skills at Buffalo Wild Wings in Centereach. Photo by Erika Karp
Jacob Robinson learns work skills at Buffalo Wild Wings in Centereach. Photo by Erika Karp

On a Thursday morning, hours before Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar in Centereach is crowded with customers, Butler, along with three of his peers, is diligently getting the restaurant ready for business. Butler is laying down mats, while Maria Rivas, 18, washes windows; Anthony Miglino, 20, sets up chairs; and Jacob Robinson, 16, fills Wetnap caddies.

While the students’ disabilities vary, all of them are learning skills to help them become more independent as they enter adulthood.

“They need to experience real-life situations [and] real-life jobs,” said Debbie O’Neill, a 26-year special education teacher in the Middle Country Central School District.

O’Neill, along with Peggy Dominguez, who has been teaching in the district for 27 years, advocated for and initiated the work-study program three years ago.

In the beginning, O’Neill and Dominguez were surprised by how many businesses didn’t want help and that some people felt the students were being taken advantage of. Today, students rotate between different local businesses five days a week visiting places like Old Navy, The Home Depot, Holiday Inn Express and St. Charles Hospital.

Dominguez said that many of the skills people take for granted are ones their students don’t have, but by immersing them in a real job situation, they’re able to work on social skills and become more independent. The program has also grown tremendously this year to more than 50 students, as many who in the past sat for the Regents competency tests have transitioned into the life skills program.

Centereach High School Principal Tom Bell said in a phone interview that the program is beneficial for all students, as the life skills students are more immersed in everyday school life. “They feel more part of the school,” he said.

In addition to the off-campus work-study, younger students, along with those who aren’t ready to work off campus, are working on campus. This year, the students are helping district staff with clerical and custodial tasks, in addition to running a campus store and a café. Students who run the café bake items, take orders, deliver goods and keep inventory.

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Anthony Miglino is part of a work study program at Centereach High School. Photo by Erika Karp

According to special seducation teacher Darla Randazzo who runs the café, the work-study program has helped build the students’ confidence. Randazzo said that by the time a student leaves school, they will have a resume or portfolio that showcases all of their skills.

“When they leave school, they’ll have more skills to bring to the job,” she said.
Superintendent Roberta Gerold said the program is still growing as more students are now opting to participate in work-study instead of attending BOCES programs.
Gerold said it is a wonderful thing that the students are learning to be as independent as possible.

Rivas, who has been participating in the off-campus work-study program for three years and has attended BOCES in the past, said she enjoys the program because she can learn about everything. While she has a part-time job on the weekends, she is hoping she could get another one at Buffalo Wild Wings.

So far, two students have been offered jobs, and while this seems like a small number, Dominguez said it is a major accomplishment. Often times, the small achievements are the best kind.

A few days ago, while working at The Home Depot, Butler correctly directed a customer to the outdoor lighting fixtures. As the students were walking back to the bus, they saw the customer leaving the store with what he was looking for.

“Sometimes the successes are small,” Dominguez said. “But it makes such a difference.”

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