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.
“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.
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.
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.”