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H.E.L.P. International student-athletes boast new uniforms donated from Smithtown school district. Photo from Kimberly Williams

By Desirée Keegan

Athletes in the Smithtown school district have something in common with students in Uganda thanks to the efforts of several educators from across Long Island.

Carisa Eye, a Smithtown High School East varsity field hockey assistant coach and Nesaquake Middle School lacrosse head coach, is the latest educator to get inspired to give uniforms to the H.E.L.P. International school in Masese, Uganda.

Smithtown physical education teacher Carisa Eye helped send over the most recent batch of uniforms to Uganda. Photo from Kimberly Williams

“The things we take for granted over here like uniforms, that are so easily available to us in our school district, are things that kids don’t get in other parts of the world,” Eye said. “The little things go a long way. It makes you feel good to see these kids in our jerseys, and it shows it doesn’t take much to make someone’s day. I want my athletes to understand that.”

Eye originally asked Smithtown administration to coordinate a donation to send to Ghana, after a friend and former Smithtown student, who teaches in the William Floyd school district, asked for help through Facebook. Eye was able to collect a boxful of uniforms with the help of Smithtown athletic director Pat Smith, but her friend could only take some of what she was given. She came across another Facebook post, a press release regarding Smithtown West marine science teacher Kimberly Williams and the work she’d done with her sister-in-law Carolyn Ferguson, and Eye asked Smith to connect her to Williams.

“We do have a bunch of older uniforms we don’t use, and this is a great way of putting them to use for a good cause,” Smith said. “It’s really nice to see some of our teachers wanting to get on board and we hope the kids, who know what we’re doing, can appreciate what we have here.”

The athletic director hopes the district can continue its involvement with H.E.L.P.

“Seeing the photos they look like a team — they were arm-in-arm and you can tell it made such a difference,” he said. “It’s a great thing for us to be involved in. If we can continue to do this for underprivileged kids, we will, and I hope we can.”

While the idea originated with Ferguson’s former Rockville Centre assistant superintendent Delia Garrity, who helped form the school in Uganda with her husband Peter in 2010, she said she was thrilled to hear of the spread of generosity.

Some of the Smithtown uniform donations from physical education teacher Carisa Eye went to students in Ghana. Photo from Carisa Eye

“It’s all word of mouth, which is amazing,” said Ferguson, a Rockville Centre physical education teacher. “The reach has been incredible.”

Garrity, who just returned from one of her trips to Uganda, said her student-athletes’ transformation has been palpable since being outfitted in the gear.

“When we began our athletic program, our children wore whatever clothing they had — which was not much,” she said. “They played with bare feet and kicked a dilapidated soccer ball. A soccer ball was used for volleyball with players hitting the ball over an imaginary net. When we received donations of athletic supplies and uniforms from Rockville Centre and Smithtown schools, among others, our kids were over the top with joy.”

She described some of the changes she’d seen in the young athletes since they were given the uniforms.

“They have more confidence, more belief in themselves as a team, more motivation to practice and a stronger work ethic,” she said. “Our teams win most local tournaments in soccer, volleyball, netball and track and field. Other schools do not want to play against H.E.L.P. Primary in the opening rounds of any tournament because it’s become a powerhouse.”

H.E.L.P. International school’s soccer team in Uganda received the first Smithtown uniform donation in 2015. Photo above from Delia Garrity

The idea of Smithtown contributing to the cause began when Ferguson was talking with Williams during a Christmas dinner. Also in charge of equipment and uniforms in her district, Ferguson detailed how she’d helped Garrity collect jerseys since 2013. Moved by her sister-in-law’s involvement, Williams asked for a donation from Smith, and the first batch was sent over from Smithtown in 2015.

“I think if someone is getting rid of something it should go somewhere before the garbage,” Williams said. “When resources are so limited, there’s always someone who needs it, and I work hard to make sure my kids understand that. Whether it’s uniforms or composition notebooks.”

Ferguson said the jerseys mean more to the children in Uganda than just the ability to play sports.

“Wearing the same uniform gives them pride and it encourages them to keep going,” she said. “That sense of community that perhaps they don’t normally have.”

Eye said the program also gives her pride in where she grew up and now works.

H.E.L.P. International student-athletes boast new uniforms donated from Smithtown school district. Photo from Kimberly Williams

“I love my teams and I love my town,” she said. “Smithtown has always been supportive, especially of athletics, so it didn’t surprise me when I sent an email and they got back to me right away. They’re always willing to help.”

She said she was moved seeing photos of the smiling faces of Ugandan children donning the red and blue.

“It makes me cry,” Eye said. “They wash their uniforms and lay them out to dry on rocks like prized possessions. I’m going to try to keep donating every year and have my teams participate.”

Williams already handed over another box to Ferguson that has been sitting and waiting on her dining room table. Ferguson will pass the donations, which came from one of William’s former students who teaches in Maryland, over to Garrity to take on her next trip, and the cycle will continue.

“It’s connecting kids through the uniforms,” Williams said. “Smithtown is developing the whole athlete — not just their sports abilities. That makes me thrilled to be part of this.”

For more information on H.E.L.P. International or to find out how to get involved, visit help-uganda.com.

This version corrects the URL for the H.E.L.P. Primary School’s website.

Miller Place board of education trustees Rich Panico and Lisa Reitan are seeking re-election with no challengers actively running against them. Photos from candidates

The Miller Place board of education has two seats up for election, but it seems, with no challengers, that incumbents Rich Panico and Lisa Reitan aren’t going anywhere.

Rich Panico

Panico, a business owner and 20-year resident of Miller Place, was first elected to the board in 2014 and is seeking a second term because he believes the board as it is works well together.

“Right now it’s going really well — it’s a nice calm that we have and, fiscally, we’re in really good shape,” Panico said. “We have really good relations with the different unions and work together with administration well.”

The father of three sons, two currently in the district, tossed his hat in the ring three years ago because, as the owner of a technology-developing company Symbio for 15 years, he thought he could contribute his business expertise to the district. Outside of the board, he runs Friends of Miller Place Sports as well as the Miller Place Touchdown Club.

Looking forward, he said he’d like to focus the board’s energy on mental health within the district in order to prevent suicidal thoughts or actions among students.

“Kids are under so much pressure and the board is trying to do something about it, like putting together some type of program,” he said. “It’s really difficult — we don’t have the answers yet, but, as a group, we’re trying to figure something out in that area. There are some students who will go to counselors, and others who just won’t when they’re in trouble. I want to find a way to make those kids comfortable. Luckily, as a board, we’re all committed to do something, and it’s one of our real big initiatives.”

Lisa Reitan

Also coming off her third year on the board, Reitan, a fourth-grade teacher in the Brentwood Union Free School District for 25 years, is seeking a second term to continue the work she and her colleagues have been doing.

“I feel like the district has come a long way,” Reitan said. “We’ve added programs, clubs, upgraded our buildings, brought in full-day kindergarten, upgraded libraries in the elementary schools, put in a brand new playground, increased communication with the community, all within constraints of the tax cap. This board has worked so well together and we bring so much. We have a lot of consensus … and we’ve done a lot for the kids and that’s most important.”

Reitan, a longtime Miller Place resident and mother of three, said she ran the first time because she thought the board could use a teacher’s perspective. A big push to run again this year, she said, is to defend public education amid the federal government’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education. DeVos has talked about taking funds away from public schools and expanding private education and charter schools.

“That’s wrong and people’s taxes would increase as a result of that,” she said. “I really believe in public schools and the whole idea of education for everybody. I would really like to tow the line with the secretary coming in and make sure our school district gets everything it’s entitled to.”

She added that between the school district and community: “I don’t think you could find a better place to be on Long Island.”

The Philip Groia Memorial Global Studies Collection on display at the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library. Photo from Emma S. Clark Memorial Library

By Susan Risoli

A teacher can change lives. With a $50,000 bequest to Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, former teacher Philip Groia funded a permanent global studies collection. Those who remember Groia, who died in 2014 at age 73, will appreciate the fact that his gift will enrich lives for years to come.

Groia taught social studies and global studies to ninth-graders at Paul J. Gelinas Junior High School and was advisor to the student government. He was “an internationalist,” agreed retired fellow teachers and friends John Deus and Judy Albano in a recent interview. He had an abiding curiosity about people and their lives, they said.

Groia never married and had no children, but he thought of his students as his kids and “they adored him,” said Deus. “He was a ‘kids first’ kind of teacher.”

Albano said relating with his students was one of Groia’s strengths, “[He was] ‘Mr. Cool.’ He was very relaxed with the kids, very easy with them.”

Former student Amy Cohas remembered being taken aback on the first day of social studies class, when she found her teacher sitting in the back of the classroom instead of in the customary spot up front. For Groia, it was just another way to connect with kids.

“He was really unusual,” Cohas said in a phone interview. “He had a lot of authority, but he was low-key and funny and affectionate.”

Former Three Village teacher Philip Groia funded a Global Studies collection at the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library. Photo from Tony Calleja.
Former Three Village teacher Philip Groia funded a Global Studies collection at the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library. Photo from Tony Calleja

Groia called his tests “practical everyday applications,” Cohas recalled, and he delivered them verbally to encourage students to think about the material.

His own worldwide travels were often part of class discussions.

“He was trying to expose us to a wider world,” Cohas said. “It raised our expectations as to what teachers could be.”

The bond between students and their teacher was especially strong, Cohas said, the day some kids baked Groia a birthday cake and brought it to school.

“I remember he looked up as he was slicing the cake and said, ‘I don’t want this to go to your heads, but I really love you guys,’” she recalled.

Groia sent his students to Emma Clark to work on their school assignments, and did his own research there too. He had a special interest in early rhythm and blues music, especially the street corner groups that filled 1950s and ‘60s New York City with their vocal harmonies.

His book on the topic, “They All Sang on the Corner,” is part of the library’s holdings. Still, said library director Ted Gutmann, it came as a surprise that Groia’s will provided for Emma Clark.

“I think I did a little bit of a double take, when I saw the figure of $50,000,” Gutmann said. Though Groia’s gift is the first bequest to Emma Clark in Gutmann’s tenure as director, there have been other benefactors in the library’s 125-year history, he said.

The Philip Groia Memorial Global Studies Collection was started last year and includes 100 items on current events and cultures throughout the world.

“Right now it’s basically books,” Gutmann said. “But there are really no strings attached to the gift.” Eventually it may include DVDs or other media.

Gutmann said having a well-curated global studies collection available for all is important to keep people informed, “Especially because so much of what’s happening now is, people group together with their own political beliefs and they don’t listen to what the other side is saying,” he said.

Emma Clark is a natural home for learning about people, their cultures and their governments, Gutmann continued, because “a library is one of the few places these days, it seems, where you can still come and get information without a bias.”

Tony Calleja was a friend.

“He came from a strict household,” Calleja said of his friend. “They expected him to be something different than what he felt. But he was his own man and went through life his own way.”

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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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Athletic director Debra Ferry leaves Port Jefferson after nine years

Deb Ferry volunteers at Miracle League with athlete Brittany Fox. Photo from Ferry

A new year will also bring a new athletic director to Port Jefferson.

After nine years, Debra Ferry is leaving the school district to tackle the athletic department at Half Hollow Hills.

Debra Ferry helped establish the lacrosse program at Port Jefferson and has led its other teams to success. File photo
Debra Ferry helped establish the lacrosse program at Port Jefferson and has led its other teams to success. File photo

“I’m excited and nervous,” Ferry said. “It’s surreal. I established a lot of close relationships and friendships here in Port Jefferson and I’m going to miss the people that I work with. The teachers and the coaches are top-notch; they’re dedicated and compassionate. I love Port Jefferson, but I’m ready to move on and expand my career.”

The Port Jefferson Board of Education accepted the resignation of Ferry at its Nov. 10 meeting, effective Jan. 3. Board President Kathleen Brennan thanked her for her service at the meeting.

Superintendent Ken Bossert also thanked her when reached by phone this week, and wished her luck in her new position.

“I think she did an excellent job being visible within the school community and being a top supporter of our student-athletes,” he said. “We wish her well in all her endeavors. I’m sure she’ll be a great success, and we hope to find someone as committed to Port Jefferson as Debra was.”

Because the school district is small, everyone knew who Ferry was and she had the opportunity to know every student-athlete out on the Royals’ field. Ferry even attended most of the games.

“The kids are sometimes surprised to see her at games, especially making the hike all the way upstate for big playoff competitions, but she was there,” said Rod Cawley, the boys’ cross country and track and field coach. “In my 32 years at Port Jefferson, she’s been our best athletic director. She’s very honest, she’s supportive and she’s fair.”

Originally a teacher, working in Manhattan for one year and in the Bronx for two before becoming a physical education teacher at Northport in 1999 — while also coaching the varsity field hockey program and working as an assistant for the girls’ lacrosse team — Ferry wasn’t sure administration was the route she wanted to take, but soon changed her mind. After looking for positions, she found an opening at Port Jefferson, where she built the foundations of an ever-growing program and learned the ins and outs of the position.

Among her numerous accolades, she was the 2008 Athletic Director of the Year for Eastern Suffolk County Hoops for Hearts and was a Port Times Record Person of the Year in 2012.

“I love athletics,” she said. “I love the kids on the field and sports and the rules and regulations. The intimacy of a small school district and knowing the kids is definitely a benefit.”

Another benefit was learning how to manage her time, juggling her duties as athletic director, attending games and being the 1st vice president for Section XI, among her other responsibilities and roles as a member of many of the section’s committees.

Athletic Director Deb Ferry snapped this photo of Port Jefferson wrestler Matteo DeVincenzo pinning an opponent.
Athletic Director Deb Ferry snapped this photo of Port Jefferson wrestler Matteo DeVincenzo pinning an opponent.

“It’s a lot of commitment and it’s about prioritizing,” Ferry said. “Being on the field is important to me, not just to show support for Port Jeff but to show support to all of the kids. I see them in the halls the next day and it’s fun to talk about the games with them. Every year is different, every team is different, but the success of the athletics here is all about the coaches and the students.”

The Royals experienced such success this fall, when the girls’ soccer team took home the school’s first state championship title in that sport. Ferry was at the game, and also attended a cross-country competition the same weekend, according to Cawley.

“Going up to states, I felt like I was part of the state championship team,” Ferry said. “The kids make you feel very welcomed and supported. It’s rewarding.”

Although it will be different in the bigger Half Hollow Hills school district, with two middle schools and two high schools, Ferry is looking forward to the new chapter.

For the coaches she leaves behind, it’s bittersweet.

“I kept busting her chops, telling her I’m not letting her go,” Cawley said, laughing. “But I want her to do the best she can do and achieve whatever she wants to achieve and be wherever she would be happy.”

Mike Maletta, a wrestling coach who has been a teacher at the school for 23 years, said he will miss Ferry, who he called a stable force for the program she helped build, including helping to establish the boys’ and girls’ lacrosse teams.

Maletta saw the effects of Ferry’s leadership firsthand, especially with his wrestlers.

“Every time I was at the state tournament with my wrestlers, you could see her walking around with a camera around her neck, taking pictures,” he said. “A lot of those pictures make it to the end-of-the-year senior awards banquet and it went above and beyond what a lot of athletic directors do. She was always there supporting our program and those pictures meant a lot.”

He also said she was a big help in staying all day to be an announcer and handle paperwork at the team’s Bob Armstrong Memorial Tournament.

The Port Jefferson girls’ soccer team admires their plaque after winning the state championship this fall. File photo by Andrew Wakefield
The Port Jefferson girls’ soccer team admires their plaque after winning the state championship this fall. File photo by Andrew Wakefield

“That right there will be a huge loss for me,” he said. “She was there making sure everything was done, because during the day, I’m all over the place and it’s nice having someone there helping out the program. There’s a comfort level with having someone you’ve known for nine years, and her leaving is really going to affect me.”

Ferry will remain Section XI’s vice president, but other roles will change, as her new school district is in a different conference. She will also remain involved with the New York State Public High School Athletic Association as the female representative for Section XI.

The outgoing athletic director said it’s been nice to feel appreciated and recognized for the job that she’s done, but feels most proud of the kids and the coaches for the working relationships everyone had and for making her feel supported.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to have developed professionally at Port Jefferson,” she said. “I hope I left a mark here. … I am part of the program, but I feel it’s more than that. That’s the benefit to working in Port Jefferson. The coaches and players make you feel like you’re part of the team.”

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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.