Class of 2020

SWR 2020 Valedictorian Jacqueline Holden and Salutatorian Stephanie Searing. Photos from SWRCSD

Shoreham-Wading River High School announced the top scoring seniors of the Class of 2020 with Jacqueline Holden and Stephanie Searing having been named valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively.

These two well-rounded students both have impressive achievements and interests and have taken advantage of many of the district’s courses and extracurricular activities.

Valedictorian Holden’s achievements include involvement with the Drama Club and Tri-M Music Honor Society, where she serves each club as treasurer; leadership roles as secretary for both Women in Science and Engineering and Students Against Destructive Decisions and varsity captain of Brainstormers. Outside of a busy high school career, she is a leader in St. Mark’s Teen Choir and a Girl Scout.

Holden will study molecular biology at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall. She, along with other valedictorians, were saluted by the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association this year in what would have been their 26th annual valedictorians luncheon, which was canceled due to the pandemic. Instead Superintendent Gerard Poole presented Holden with a commemorative program, congratulatory video, a certificate of achievement and a cherished childhood storybook, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss.

Salutatorian Searing served as vice president of the National Honor Society’s Peer Tutoring, is treasurer of Tri-Music Honor Society, represented her peers as the ex-officio student member of the Shoreham-Wading River board of education, is a member of Mathletes, the varsity track team and the varsity tennis team. Searing is principal violist of the Children’s Orchestral Society and participated in the Plum Island Animal Disease Center High School STEM Forum, a unique opportunity where she presented her findings on the organ shortage in America to scientists from Plum Island, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, University of Connecticut, Suffolk County Community College and Mystic Aquarium among others.

Searing will attend Stevens Institute of Technology where she will major in biomedical engineering.   

“These two students represent the exceptional programming offered at our high school,” Principal Frank Pugliese said. “Their leadership skills and well-rounded academic, athletic, extracurricular and community involvement exemplify the goals of the Shoreham-Wading River School District – providing all students the skills required to become lifelong learners in a self-sufficient manner. We look forward to hearing more about their accomplishments in the future.”

Comsewogue 2020 Valedictorian Daniela Galvez-Cepeda and Salutatorian Gianna Alcala. Photos from CSD

Two young women lead the top of the class at Comsewogue High School. Valedictorian Daniela Galvez-Cepeda and salutatorian Gianna Alcala have near-identical grade point averages, but both have far different plans for their futures.

Galvez-Cepeda finished the year with a weighted GPA of 102.42. During school, she spent much of her time as student government co-president and French Honor Society president, a member of varsity track and field and Athlete Helping Athletes. In addition, she is a National Hispanic Recognition Scholar, Women in Science and Engineering team member at Stony Brook University and a National Merit Scholar Commended Student. 

In her free time, she said she was a junior volunteer at Mather Hospital, where since 2017 she answered visitors’ questions at the front desk in both English and Spanish and provided them with comfort when needed. She also shadowed nurses on their rounds with patients.

She said her best memory of high school was her work setting up a donation drive the school organized in 2017 to help the people in Puerto Rico hurt by Hurricane Maria.

“I walked back and forth from the parking lot, unloading cars and trucks and bringing donations into our school’s auditorium,” she said. “My district neighbors were so generous that we filled up our whole auditorium with donations in only one day.”

In the fall, Galvez-Cepeda will be attending Williams College in Massachusetts where she will double major in math and physics on the pre-med track. She said her goal is to be a trauma surgeon, but she added she is excited to explore other options down the road.

Alcala is moving on to college with a 102.26 weighted GPA. She is a National Merit Scholarship Commended Scholar, Women in Science and Engineering at Stony Brook University, Art Honor Society president, Science Honor Society treasurer, as well as a member of the cross-country, Country Farms equestrian team and band.

She said her experiences with WISE and Art Honor Society were especially important to her high school career, though her favorite memory was traveling abroad with classmates to Spain, France and Italy.

Though she thanked her friends, family and teachers for inspiring her, she added that Galvez-Cepeda, her friend and competitor for the top academic spot, was also a huge inspiration.

“For the past seven years, Dani has been my most brilliant competitor and one of the most kind and generous people I’ve ever known,” Alcala said. “Without her impact on my life, I wouldn’t be half the person I am today.”

The salutatorian will be attending the University of Southern California, Viterbi School of Engineering to study environmental engineering. She said she wants to work toward a more sustainable world, especially in the textile industry. 

Though the coronavirus cut off in-person learning prematurely for the 2020 senior class, the high school’s academic leaders said though they lacked physical contact with teachers and peers, the important thing is to persevere.

“High school is the foundation that is setting you up for the success that is to come in your life,” Galvez-Cepeda said. “So, enjoy your time with your friends while learning new things in a safe space together.”

The class of 2018 moves tassels to recognize the transition from high school senior to graduate at the Ward Melville High School Commencement June 24. Photo by Andrea Paldy

The 2019-2020 academic year has been one filled with changes, and graduation plans have been no different.

In a letter to Ward Melville High School seniors and families earlier in June, Principal William Bernhard and 12th-grade Assistant Principal Erin Connolly announced that the school was developing a plan to host an in-person graduation Sunday, July 19. The decision came a month after plans were already made to hold five separate ceremonies during the week of June 22, which would have involved seniors being split into groups of five alphabetically and families being required to stay in their cars as one senior at a time got out of each vehicle to accept their diploma.

According to the June letter, the decision to cancel the drive-through graduation this week and revert back to an in-person ceremony was made after Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) earlier in the month signed an executive order giving permission to host in-person graduation ceremonies beginning June 26 with a maximum of 150 people that meet the social-distancing guidelines.

The order propelled the high school to develop a new graduation plan for 2020 with the hopes that future changes will allow an in-person graduation for the class of more than 500 even though they are proceeding cautiously.

“If the current parameters are not relaxed by this new graduation date, the district will continue with the in-vehicle format on Monday, July 20, through Friday, July 24,” the letter reads. “Social-distancing guidelines, including masks and reduced numbers in attendance, must still be in place for any live event.”

The school plans for each graduate to be restricted to two guests, and when students pick up their caps and gowns, there will be a packet with a colored parking pass in order to enter the grounds on graduation day.

Jennifer Catalano, whose daughter Rachael is graduating this year, was pleased to hear the news.

“I’m happy that the school district has gone above and beyond to make graduation as traditional as possible,” she said. “My daughter is happy she will be able to turn her tassel and partake in the traditional cap toss.”

Senior Jake Shangold was also glad to hear of the possibility of an in-person ceremony.

“I know as a senior it would be nice to have the whole class together to share one last moment,” he said. “I know Principal Bernhard and Superintendent Pedisich are doing all they can to make sure seniors are being celebrated.”

Salutatorian Matthew Fiorella, who will be reading a speech at the ceremony along with valedictorian William Sun, is looking forward to a “relatively normal graduation.”

“I was happy that we were still able to have a graduation ceremony when the drive-through plan was created, but being able to have a true in-person graduation is exciting,” he said.

Comsewogue Assistant Superintendent Joseph Coniglione and Superintendent Jessica Quinn delivered cap and gowns to high school seniors June 8. Photo from Quinn’s Facebook

With graduation plans interrupted due to the pandemic, local school districts are trying to find unique options to give seniors their send-off.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed an executive order June 7 that allowed districts to have in-person socially distanced graduations for up to 150 people after June 26. Comsewogue High School, with around 320 students graduating this year, has opted instead to hold several ceremonies online in the latter half of June. 

“Our plan is socially distant and safe,” said Superintendent Jennifer Quinn.

While graduation is still scheduled for July 23, the district is planning a car parade send-off. Seniors will be asked to drive through the front bus loop at the high school on Thursday, June 25, between 12 and 1 p.m. The district expects to play music and have lawn signs with the name and picture for each graduate. Staff is expected to come to the building and cheer passing seniors.

The district is also planning several virtual and distanced events after classes officially end June 16. The district will host a Varsity Awards Night Friday, June 19, at 6 p.m., a Senior Scholarship Night, June 22 at 6:30 p.m. and a Virtual Senior Prom June 23 at 8 p.m., all via Zoom. The district will then host a senior slideshow drive-in movie June 24 at 7:30 and 9 p.m. at the high school south parking lot.

Port Jefferson School District, with a graduating class of just 85, is instead pushing its graduation tentatively to Aug 1 (rain date Aug.2), hopeful that New York continues its trend of declining infections and deaths. 

Port Jeff Superintendent Jessica Schmettan said that date was decided before the June 7 executive order, but in a poll senior students overwhelmingly asked for a later event that can be held in person. Village of Port Jefferson officials have notified the district theywill allow the district to use the Village Center for both this activity and its senior prom, which is also tentatively scheduled for a day or two after graduation.

“We’re waiting to see if gathering limits are lifted a little bit more and have more guests and families there like we usually have,” Schmettan said.

The village is also giving a unique opportunity for seniors, using its drive-in movies and showing the John Hughes classic “The Breakfast Club” June 20 exclusively for graduating seniors at its location uptown in the parking lot north of the train station. The village is paying for the drive-in expenses.

Chris Friedl, of Backwoods Landscaping and a Comsewogue High School graduate, plants sunflowers for Comsewogue’s graduating seniors. Photo by Andrew Harris

Comsewogue school district is trying to leave its seniors with a little bit more than a diploma for all those who saw their last high school year cut short.

Assistant Superintendent Joe Coniglione and Superintendent Jennifer Quinn look at the sprouts of sunflowers in Jackie’s Garden. Photo by Andrew Harris

The district has planted hundreds of sunflowers in the high school courtyard, known as Jackie’s Garden after the late wife of former Superintendent Dr. Joe Rella, who in February also passed away. 

The seeds number over 320, and should bloom into massive golden yellow flowers by the fall. 

The plantings came together thanks to Chris Friedl, 26, from Backwoods Landscaping. A 2012 Comsewogue graduate, he said he was very empathetic to the 2020 graduating class who were missing out on so much as a normal senior year. 

“It sucks, there’s no other way to put it,” Friedl said. “Going through all they’re going through with all this adversity, it’s incredible.”

Andrew Harris, a special education teacher in the district, said he floated the idea to district officials earlier this year. Friedl jumped at the chance to help. He was also the person who donated material for Jackie’s Garden several years ago. He has come back now and again to provide small upkeep to the flower boxes. 

After clearing and cleaning the empty planting boxes, the district hosted a ceremony May 16 where students’ names were read as the landscaper planted the seeds.

Friedl asked if he could plant a seed for Joe and Jackie Rella. Though the garden was meant for students, Harris told him he could.

“He always remembered my name out of thousands of students,” Friedl said of Rella. “Nobody had a bad word to say about him or Jackie, which just says miles about the kind of people they were.”

A day and a half after they were planted, Harris said he came back to the garden. There, growing in the earth, he thought he saw weeds. Normally sunflowers take five to 10 days before one sees them start to sprout, but the two seeds planted for the Rellas were indeed springing from the earth.

“The hair on the back of my neck started to stand up,” Harris said. “I remembered how when I told Dr. Rella about this particular butterfly that kept coming back to our garden, even though we never had any butterflies before. He told me in his gruff Brooklyn-accented voice, ‘Andy, I believe with every fiber in my body that that is a sign from Jackie.’ I looked at the new sunflower sprout and had no doubt about what it meant.”

Official info on Comsewogue graduations is still to be determined, though students were delivered their caps and gowns this week.

Friedl offered some advice to seniors.

“Stay strong, the entire community is behind you, and keep your path,” he said. “The community really wants you to succeed.”

Stock photo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced a new executive order June 8 that New York State would be extending the deadline for mailed in absentee ballots for school budget and board of education votes to Tuesday, June 16.

Many districts are still collecting ballots via drop off to district offices on June 9 by the end of the business day at 5 p.m. Absentee ballots can still be mailed to districts and will be accepted until June 16 at 5 p.m.

This also comes with the announcement the state would allow school districts to conduct graduations ceremonies, though they must be outside, adhere to social distance guidelines and must contain 150 people or less. Some school districts said those figures may be too restrictive.

“The recent approval for small gatherings for graduation, while welcome news, requires seniors to be separated into multiple different ceremonies,” said Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Gerard Poole in a public letter. He asked residents to encourage local and state leaders to revisit the matter.

The Stony Brook School hosted a car processional to celebrate the class of 2020 May 23. For the celebration, the school invited seniors and their families to decorate their cars, show school spirit, and parade through campus. 

As cars drove up Chapman Parkway, the road that cuts down the middle of the school’s grounds, each student was announced and greeted by members of the school community, including faculty, staff and dorm parents. Because of space and social distancing constrictions, only seniors and their immediate families were permitted to attend. 

Sterling National Bank, which is situated directly in front of the school, offered their parking lot for cars to line up before the procession to help provide extra space for students waiting for their moment to shine.

The event was also live-streamed for those who were unable to attend. All in attendance were required to respect social distancing guidelines and to remain in their cars at all times.