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Alan Baum

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Principal Alan Baum addresses attendees at the 2017 Ward Melville graduation. Photo by Andrea Paldy

By Rita J. Egan

As Ward Melville High School seniors graduate this June, they won’t be the only ones moving on to new endeavors in the fall.

Alan Baum, who has been the high school principal for 10 years, will be transitioning to a new position within the school district in August. He will be taking on the role of executive director of secondary curriculum and human resources in the district office, while William Bernhard, current P.J. Gelinas Junior High School principal, will take over in the high school.

Alan Baum, current Ward Melville principal, will begin a new position in the school district’s office starting in August. Photo from Three Village Central School District

Baum began his career in the Three Village Central School District in the middle of the 2003-2004 school year when he became assistant principal. The Three Village resident said he taught at Commack High School, and before pursuing a career in education, was a lawyer.

Baum said he always had an interest in working in administration, and when the chance came he took advantage of it.

“The opportunity to fulfill these professional goals was presented, and I wanted to take advantage of utilizing the expertise I have developed over my many years as a secondary school teacher and administrator, as well as my knowledge as a former attorney,” Baum said.

District Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich is supportive of the change.

“Dr. Baum possess a strong skill set and professional background — both in the classroom and as part of our administrative team — that will enable our district to develop initiatives to enhance our overall program,” Pedisich said in a statement. “He is committed to ensuring that our students as well as staff are supported in a way that promotes personal growth, and we are confident that he will be a true asset in this new role.”

When it comes to starting his new position, Baum already has goals in mind.

“This new role gives me the opportunity to work more closely with our superintendent and district leadership in helping our district enhance our instruction and resources to promote even greater successes and achievements,” he said.

While the principal is looking forward to his new role, there are aspects he said he will miss of his current position, like the students and staff.

“The day-to-day interactions, excitement and vibrancy of everything that is Ward Melville,” he said he’s going to miss.

During his tenure at the school, Baum tackled difficult issues, including the opioid crisis and introducing gender-neutral graduation gowns.

“Ward Melville is a great institution filled with incredible students and amazing staff.”

— Alan Baum

In a previous interview with The Village Times Herald, he said he never shied away from the local drug problem. In 2014, he was trained to administer Narcan, a medicine used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. After his experience, he had the high school staff trained in its use. Now, all elementary and secondary school staff members in the district have also been trained.

When it came to the debate over gender-neutral graduation gowns in the winter of 2017, while many students and parents were against the district abandoning the tradition of males wearing green gowns and females wearing yellow ones, and switching to green gowns for all students, Baum showed support for the school district’s decision.

“In addition to creating a unified senior class, it is our hope that creating a unifying color scheme will eliminate the anxiety that is caused by forcing a young adult to wear a gown that labels them differently from how they identify,” he wrote in a March 2, 2017, letter to Three Village parents.

When it comes to navigating the issues and concerns that a high school principal may encounter, Baum had advice for Bernhard.

“Ward Melville is a great institution filled with incredible students and amazing staff,” he said. “Be sure to include them in your decision-making process and never lose sight of your objective: to help provide a well-rounded, enriched educational experience for all students. Stay open-minded, be fair and, above all, enjoy this professional opportunity to grow.”

The principal said he is proud of the students of Ward Melville and also had some parting words for them.

“I would like our students to always feel empowered to do their best in whatever they chose to do and always do the right thing — to be positive ambassadors for change not only in our community but our world,” he said. “I would remind them that their actions today can have great ripple effect on our future and to embrace the strong system of support they have not only at our high school, but within our school district and broader community.”

From left, Eliana Sasson, Nicole Freeley, Rebecca Blumenthal, Samuel Kim

On Monday evening, April 23, Emma Clark Library, the family of the late Helen Stein Shack, local elected officials, representatives from the Three Village Central School District and guests from the community gathered to honor the winners of the fourth annual Helen Stein Shack Picture Book Award.

At the ceremony in the Vincent R. O’Leary Community Room, Library Director Ted Gutmann, along with the family of Helen Stein Shack, presented all of the winners a bound copy of their book. In addition, the books will be added to the library’s Local Focus Collection.

 A $400 scholarship was awarded to first-prize winner Rebecca Blumenthal of R.C. Murphy Jr. High School for her children’s book, “Racing Star,” and Ward Melville High School student Nicole Freeley for her book titled “Wally’s Wild Ride.” 

A $100 check for second prize was awarded to P.J. Gelinas Jr. High School student Eliana Sasson for her book “This Is How I Can Help! 10 Ways I Can Help My Community!” and Ward Melville High School student Samuel Kim for his informative children’s book, “Freddy the Fish and His First Election Day.” 

Gutmann explained that the event “really helps us to showcase the wonderful talent we have here, and we thank the authors and their parents for encouraging that and being here tonight.”

Suffolk County Leg. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station), and Carol Nucci [representing Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport)] spoke at the event, and the winners also received certificates from Flanagan, Hahn and Cartright.  

Library Board Treasurer Deborah Blair and Trustee Richard Russell were there to congratulate the winners and Three Village school district BOE President William Connors, Assistant Superintendent Kevin Scanlon, Ward Melville High School Principal Alan Baum, Ward Melville High School Librarian April Hatcher, Murphy Jr. High School English Department Chair Cathy Duffy and Murphy Jr. High School Librarian Betsy Knox were all in attendance.

The Helen Stein Shack Picture Book Contest called for teens in grades 7 through 12 who live in the Three Village Central School District to create a children’s picture book. Each entry could be the work of a single author/illustrator or a collaborative effort of an author and an illustrator. The award is given in memory of Helen Stein Shack by her family.  

“As Ms. Shack clearly knew, children’s literature does a lot for the community, as well as the young children themselves. It helps to promote brain development, it helps to promote language development, literacy skills, as well as creating an important bonding moment for families,” said Cartright.

Two of the grandsons of the late Helen Stein Shack also spoke at the ceremony. Regan Kelly flew all the way from California for the event. Tamir Taylor grew up in Three Village and attended Murphy Jr. High School and Ward Melville High School.  

“A lot of people thank us a lot for creating this event,” mentioned Taylor. “But we really want to thank you guys because our grandmother, mother, was really important to us and by you guys participating and making this event happen and the library for making this happen, you guys give us the opportunity to remember and honor her, which is really special to us.”

The Helen Stein Shack Picture Book Award brings together a large part of the Three Village community — the library, school district, local elected officials, teenagers and their families and all of the children that read these books. As Hahn remarked, “What a great way to encourage teenagers to think about … what’s important to them and how to express that in a way that will resonate with children.”  

 

Ward Melville students are planning a walkout March 14 to remember the Parkland, Florida, shooting victims and to support new gun laws. Photo by Greg Catalano

Local students are planning to join others across the nation to ensure the voices of young people are heard when it comes to protesting gun violence in America and advocating for gun control.

Ward Melville High School students hope to participate in the March 14 walkout at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes to remember the 17 victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The event would be held in conjunction with similar walkouts taking place in schools all over the United States.

“I believe it’s very important to be able to contribute to society because although we may not be able to vote until we’re 18, it’s still our country, and it’s still our future at stake. Students aren’t powerless, and we need to show other students that.”

— Maya Peña-Lobel

One of the student organizers, Maya Peña-Lobel, said it is important to speak out about gun violence in America. She said it is outrageous nothing has been done about gun control after the shootings at Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Orlando nightclub shooting.

“I believe it’s very important to be able to contribute to society because although we may not be able to vote until we’re 18, it’s still our country, and it’s still our future at stake,” Peña-Lobel said. “Students aren’t powerless, and we need to show other students that.”

Peña-Lobel along with fellow student organizers Bennett Owens, Haley Linden, Marielle Leiboff, Charlotte O’Dell and Noah Mond met with the high school’s Principal Alan Baum March 2 to discuss the walkout.

“It was a good meeting overall,” Owens said. “We planned originally on walking out of the front entrance but over safety concerns, [Baum] would rather us walk out of the north side entrance, which is the gym entrance. It wasn’t like his way was ridiculous in any way. Obviously, he had plans that we as students don’t, and he was looking out for our safety.”

Owens, a senior, said if plans were to be approved school security would also be on hand for the 17-minute event, and said he hopes students would not receive any disciplinary action for participating as long as they remain civil. Owens said he was working on inviting a speaker to address the crowd, and there will also be a moment of silence. Teachers who are unable to participate would be given orange ribbons to show their support.

“The district is working on a plan in concert with building administration and the board of education regarding this matter,” district spokeswoman Jessica Novins said in a statement March 5 when asked about the event. “Once finalized, the plans will be communicated to students and parents.”

Many parents in the district, like Mike Ferrara, are concerned about the walkout. He said he supports the students’ rights to peacefully assemble and their freedom of speech and believes it’s a teachable moment. But he said he also believes it should be done outside of school hours. The parent said he hopes the board of education will evaluate the decision and consider potential future ramifications.

“Where our responsibility lies as parents and school officials is to provide guidance as to when and where their protests occur and that they are respectfully executed.”

— Mike Ferrara

“Where our responsibility lies as parents and school officials is to provide guidance as to when and where their protests occur and that they are respectfully executed,” Ferrara said. “In my opinion, it is not appropriate that our children be allowed, even encouraged, to walk out during school hours. The impact of their statement will become divisive and disruptive if that is the case. It will also be viewed by many as an endorsement by our school district of a particular position on the issues. For example, if a group of students organized a walkout in support of restrictions on abortions, I believe it is highly unlikely that it would be allowed. Allowing walkouts to make political statements of any kind may open doors that can never be closed.”

Other parents, including local political activist Shoshana Hershkowitz, support the students in their decision.

“As a parent and educator, I think that the walkout is an excellent lesson for students about civil disobedience and the First Amendment,” she said. “This type of action is a cornerstone of the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement and women’s suffrage. The students are seeking change, and this is a way to express that desire. My hope for these students is that they will continue their quest for change with civic engagement.”

Peña-Lobel said the response so far from students has been positive. She said while many of her friends have similar beliefs to her, those with contrasting opinions on guns have been respectful of the participants planning to peacefully stand up for their beliefs.

Organizers have been sharing information on the Instagram account @wmhs_walkout. The account had more than 250 followers as of March 5. Peña-Lobel said it’s important for them to spread the word about the walkout and get as many supporters as possible.

“We want to be taken seriously,” Peña-Lobel said. “This isn’t a joke. This is a real thing about real people’s lives, and it could really happen anywhere and at any time.”

On March 8, students met with Baum once more to be told of the district’s decision. After administrators met with a lawyer, it was decided that students would not be allowed to participate in a walkout.

File photo of Ward Melville by Greg Catalano

The Three Village Central School District is taking a proactive stance to battling drug and alcohol abuse in the community.

In May, residents approved the district’s $204.4 million budget for the 2017-18 academic year, which includes the addition of a certified drug and alcohol counselor. Heather Reilly accepted the position, and sat down with school administrators last week to discuss short-term and long-term plans that not only involve offering one-on-one counseling, but also educational programs in the schools and local area.

Catherine Taldone, director of school and community partnerships, said Reilly will spend one day a week at each of the two junior high schools, and split the rest of the week between Ward Melville High School and the district’s alternative high school, The Three Village Academy. The district is also developing a plan for the counselor to work in conjunction with health class teachers to create a program for sixth-grade students.

Taldone said the time had come to hire someone to address the growing problem.

“In order to help those students and recognize the problems we are seeing in our school district, as well as the problems that are being seen in every school district right now, we felt that it needed and required someone with a specific background and training to address those young people and work as well with families to see if we can make some changes and help some students get the help that they need,” she said in a phone interview.

Heather Reilly has accepted the position of drug and alcohol counselor in the Three Village Central School District. Photo from Heather Reilly

Reilly, a licensed social worker with a master’s degree in forensic psychology, said she has two years of substance abuse counseling, which will be her main focus in the district, along with prevention. She has worked with the Long Island-based nonprofit WellLife Network, which focuses on healthy recovery and wellness, and also has experience conducting screenings for mental health and drug courts. Children can come to the counselor even if a family member or friend is an alcoholic or addict. She said she is looking forward to reaching out to local agencies and developing a program rounded in research-based practices.

“It’s a very proactive approach as opposed to waiting for there to be an even bigger issue,” she said of the district’s decision to hire a counselor. “I’m very excited to be part of a new program — something that we can really get off the ground and really impact the community in a positive way.”

Reilly will also be available to families and faculty, and will be educating teachers, who she describes as “the first line of defense,” about the signs to look for and trends that sometimes include slang words to refer to drugs.

Reilly said treating children with substance abuse problems is different than working with adults, and it’s important for students to have someone they can trust and receive reliable information from.

“I think with children or adolescents, there’s less thought of the consequences in the future,” she said. “Their brains really aren’t developed in that way yet. It’s really important to come at students in a very nonjudgmental way. It’s normal to have these thoughts of curiosity and experimentation, but you really need to give them knowledge so they can make the most informed decisions. You’d be really surprised how little students know about the long-term consequences.”

The local problem with drugs is something Ward Melville High School Principal Alan Baum said he never shied away from. In 2014, he was trained to administer Narcan, a medicine used to reverse the effects of opioids. After his experience, he had the high school staff trained in its use. Now, all secondary school teachers and nurses in the district have also been trained. Three Village aims to have elementary school teachers qualified in the near future.

Baum said more than 10 years ago there was a substance counselor through BOCES, but the position was removed. He is pleased that the district has now hired someone that can focus on the drug and alcohol issues facing the community. Both Baum and Reilly said another problem is vaping, which is the practice of inhaling or exhaling vapors produced by an electronic cigarette, a device that can also hold marijuana.

Although the principal said he has not seen an increase in the number of kids addicted or seeking help, and has never had to have Narcan administered within the confines of the school buildings in the area, he thought the hiring of a counselor was still a necessary move.

“Just like any other suburban area, this is an unfortunate fact of life that exists no matter where you are,” Baum said. “It’s not unique to Three Village, it’s not unique to Suffolk County. This happens across the state and across the nation. We have a problem and I want to do whatever we can to help and tackle and address this issue.”

Cheryl Pedisich, the district’s superintendent, echoed Baum’s sentiments.

“The Three Village Central School District takes a proactive and steadfast approach to educating our students and residents about the dangers of drug and alcohol use, and has dedicated robust resources to both prevention and intervention services for students and their families,” she said in a statement. “This year, we are proud to expand upon past practices through the introduction of a certified drug and alcohol counselor and an enhanced preventive K-12 curriculum. We truly believe that it is through these initiatives and services that we are able to fulfill our mission of providing a well-rounded social, emotional and wellness program.”

Ward Melville's graduation ceremony will look a little different this year. File photo

Things will look a little different at Ward Melville High School’s graduation ceremony this year.

Gone now are the separate green and gold gowns for males and females. Replacing them, are gender-neutral green ones with gold stoles that feature the high school emblem, breaking the school’s half-century commencement tradition.

“This year, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Three Village Central School District, we are focusing on honoring the traditions of the past, while building new traditions for our future,” Ward Melville High School Principal Alan Baum wrote in a letter posted on the school district’s website March 2.

The letter came after nearly 100 students participated in a walkout March 1, protesting the news of even the possibility of a color change.

One of the factors considered in making the decision was to meet the concerns of transgender and gender-fluid students.

“In addition to creating a unified senior class, it is our hope that creating a unifying color scheme will eliminate the anxiety that is caused by forcing a young adult to wear a gown that labels them differently than how they identify,” Baum wrote in the letter. “This decision also reflects the progressive nature of our district, our high school and our community. Through the use of the unified gowns, we are no longer separating our students by gender; rather, we will be promoting a more inclusive practice at graduation.”

News of the gown change circulated on social media Feb. 28, prompting a number of students to start petitions and participate in the walkout.

Seniors Brianna LaSita, Charlotte Schmidt and Isabelle Antos were motivated to start a petition on Change.org to support same-colored gowns. The trio sent a joint statement to The Village Times Herald to explain their motive.

“We created our petition in response to the petition that was made in support of keeping the traditional colored gowns,” the three wrote. “As it gained supporters and hateful comments, we decided we needed to support our class and protect our LGBTQA+ peers from the hateful rhetoric featured on signs during the walkout.”

Some of the signs held by students had slogans like “Straight Lives Matter” and “Don’t Tread On Me.”

David Kilmnick, CEO of the LGBT Network, a Long Island-based nonprofit, said the organization heard about the debate after the walkout. He said a few students from the school emailed his group seeking help, claiming they heard anti-transgender rhetoric spewed from students and teachers.

“Through the use of the unified gowns, we are no longer separating our students by gender; rather, we will be promoting a more inclusive practice at graduation.”

— Principal Alan Baum

The CEO said the decision to have one gown color solves the issue of transgender children feeling a sense of anxiety when it comes to choosing a color. He said when making such a decision, most feel that if they choose the color that represents their true identity, they’ll risk harassment from their peers. If they don’t choose the color, they’re “not feeling whole in who they are.”

“This is not as simple as black and white, or even about green and gold anymore — this fair debate over tradition has devolved into an excuse to promote transphobic hate speech,” the petitioner organizers wrote. “That is not what our community is about.”

As of March 8, their petition to support the same colored gowns had almost 700 signatures. One petitioner wrote on the site: “I would be so grateful if we can all leave Ward Melville more loving and empathetic individuals, we should always be working to ensure that all of our class feels comfortable every day but especially a day as special as graduation.”

A senior at the high school, who asked to remain anonymous, said many students were disappointed by the color change, especially after having already had their senior portraits taken adhering to the now-former color tradition. The school rectified the problem by notifying parents March 7 that students could retake their graduation photos at no additional cost.

According to the student, it was felt the gown change was made by the administration after consulting with only a few students.

The senior wrote that even though a portion of the student body felt the change was only based on the needs of transgender students, those upset were not discriminating against anyone, but were just hoping to continue tradition.

“My issue, and the issue that my peers that participated in a walkout protest during class today share, is that a choice is being made that benefits a minute minority of people, not the majority,” the student said. “This is an underlying theme that is playing out across the country. Lawmakers, educators and school administrators are making changes based on what a small population wants, not what the majority of the school or state or the entire nation feels is right.”

Ward Melville’s old cap and gowns were green for boys and yellow for girls. File photo by Bob O’Rourk

Jennifer Segui, who is the mother of two children at W.S. Mount Elementary School, said she was disappointed when she read a number of negative reactions on social media after the decision.

“It would have been so beautiful if the idea of the new graduation gowns had been embraced by all students and parents from the beginning,” Segui said. “Sadly, that didn’t happen. Hopefully, people can learn and move forward.”

But the anonymous student said those who participated in the protest felt as though the administration did not listen to opinions from most of the students when making the decision.

“Instead of listening to our voices, our principal brought our protest in the auditorium, and basically stifled our statements in what was a clear attempt to silence us,” the student said. “It is clear, to me at least, that the school has no intention of doing what is right. They would rather follow in popular culture than face the fact that what they are doing is blatantly unfair. Again, I carry no prejudice. I speak with the basic ideal of a democratic republic that what is done should be decided by the majority.”

Ward Melville isn’t the first Long Island school to break tradition, following in the footsteps of Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington and Island Trees High School in Levittown. Kilmnick said he feels the administration made a bold move in the right direction.

“I think we’re seeing a movement,” Kilmnick said. “Even though Ward Melville is the third school on Long Island to do this, I think we’ll see a lot more on Long Island. And we’re certainly seeing schools across the country getting rid of the separate colored gowns because they’re not inclusive for all students. What the change does, in fact, is let everyone in Ward Melville wear green and gold, from looking at the new gown, and it allows the entire school to move forward as one community, and to celebrate graduation in a safe, inclusive manner — and make graduation celebratory for all.”