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Comsewogue High School

Sixth grader Katelyn Murray with Ramsey. Photo by Julianne Mosher

By Melissa Levine 

Suffolk County lawmakers last week unanimously approved a proposal by Presiding Officer Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) to designate April 30 as “Pet Therapy Day” in Suffolk County. 

Nationally recognized as a day to celebrate therapy animals through the efforts of Pet Partners — the nation’s leading organization registering therapy animals for animal-assisted interventions — Calarco felt it was important to mark the day on the county level to recognize the local groups working to improve the health and well-being of Suffolk residents through animal-assisted therapy and activities.

Legislators approved his resolution to designate Pet Therapy Day in Suffolk County at their April 20 general meeting.

Photo by Julianne Mosher

“Therapy animals and their human companions bring joy and healing to people of all ages in many different settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, schools and funeral parlors,” he said. “Designating April 30 as Pet Therapy Day is our way of saying thank you and recognizing all the good these animals and their handlers do to bring moments of joy to people in need in our community, especially given the difficulties of the last year.”

A furry friend joins a middle school class 

Since the onset of the pandemic, Comsewogue School District’s staff and students have endured the same challenge that thousands of schools across the globe are facing recreating normalcy in a time of chaos. 

Comsewogue special education teacher and student character liaison Andrew Harris is no stranger to the many benefits that come with therapy dogs.   

“Normally we visit Stony Brook Hospital’s adolescent psychiatric unit on a weekly basis,” he said. “The kids get a great deal from our visits.”

Harris has been training dogs for over 20 years, so he has grown incredibly familiar with the contagious charm and health benefits that dogs like his dog, Ramsey — a licensed therapy pooch — can bring to people of all ages. 

“It’s funny because the nurses and doctors are always the ones who rush in and cuddle the dog before the kids. After all, they too might be having an especially stressful day,” said Harris.  

Once invited into a particular institution, the dog is able to comfort people in hospitals, nursing homes and schools. 

After a few months of careful planning, Harris devised a therapy-dog-based proposition for the visits at the district’s schools. It didn’t take long to convince the administration to let Ramsey in. 

Photo by Julianne Mosher

Ramsey proudly wears his Comsewogue picture ID and therapy dog bandana upon entering John F. Kennedy Middle School.

Harris said he has taken much time to develop this program for school visits. 

“We have several progressive and successive lessons each time we come into a class,” Harris sad. “On the first visit, it is more of a meet and greet and demonstration of what the dog is capable of.”  

When Harris was tasked with getting his therapy dog certification, he had no idea how elaborate it would be. He went on to describe how certain tasks tested the dog’s ability to remain calm in stressful situations — something Ramsey is great at when demonstrating for students of different abilities.

Harris takes ample time to show the students the difference between a therapy dog (they are for you) and a service dog (they are for the owner). He also demonstrates some typical things a service dog might do by performing tasks like dropping crutches and asking the dog to pick them up and bring them to him. 

The dogs are capable of accomplishing many other feats too, like assisting people up staircases when requested, or alerting someone to wake up who has sleep apnea. 

“When we visit a class for the second time, I have the students do more of the work, instead of the dog and I doing it all,” Harris said. “The students can start by introducing themselves or reading aloud to the dog. Then on our final visit, we sit the dog in the back of the room and have the students do full speeches or presentations.” 

Photo by Julianne Mosher

The most important thing for Harris is that the students enjoy and learn during the time they spend with Ramsey. 

Melissa Levine is a senior at Comsewogue High School

Additional reporting by Julianne Mosher

Photo by Ariana Santos

By Andrew Harris

Comsewogue teacher Camie Zale recently won the contest for Applebee’s Teacher of the Year. 

Students from around the Northeast submitted essays as to why they thought their teacher should win. 

Kevin Hernandez Meza, one of Zale’s students, wrote about all the outstanding things she did for her students inside and outside of the classroom.

It is impressive because Zale is a very humble teacher and we would never have known all the wonderful things she does for her students outside of the school setting until they told us. 

We also heard stories about her support for students long after they have graduated. 

We only heard about all the things the students wrote about. They said how Zale would support them at special events like singing or dance recitals and sports events outside of the school setting.

Also referenced in the essay were the times Zale led students to do special fundraising events which benefited other students who were in need. 

Her student spoke about how she guided her students to raise money for the Special Education PTA by recently having a lollipop sale. 

In the past, a large amount of money was raised for a student afflicted with cancer. Hundreds of students and staff held a Walk-a-Thon around the track — It was a beautiful sight to see with so many people participating. 

When the student and his family drove up to see the event, he was extremely grateful and quite emotional. Everyone felt so positive to be able to make a difference in the life of someone who went to their school. 

In the classroom, and with the support of other teachers such as Gia Grimaldi and her leadership, the students learned the necessary planning, financial management, marketing skills and more to make this worthy project a success. 

This is a way to help prepare the students for the real world where they need these valuable skills.

Photo by Ariana Santos

Brian McDonnell, Director of Operations at Doherty Enterprises which oversees Applebee’s said, “Our restaurants are committed to giving back to the local community now more than ever. We’re honored to support local schoolteachers who have transitioned from in-classroom teaching to online teaching, as Applebee’s wants to recognize their dedication and hard work amidst the pandemic.”

It’s wonderful that Applebee’s did this to showcase the good things teachers are doing out there. Sometimes teachers go above and beyond what they ordinarily do in the classroom and nobody hears about it. 

Our local Applebee’s is always willing to help out our district and community in so many ways. They showed up for one of the large fundraising events and cooked a fantastic BBQ with tons of delicious food for hundreds of the kids. 

It was a nice way to show the students that they were doing the right thing and to reward them. The Dougherty organization is one of the few companies that look to give back to our students. We appreciate having them as our neighbors and for what they are doing for our community. Bravo to them and our new Teacher of the Year, Ms. Zale.

Andrew Harris is a special education teacher and student character liaison at the Comsewogue school district.

Julianne Mosher Assistant Superintendent Joseph Coniglione, Superintendent Jennifer Quinn and Board Trustee Corey Prinz join physical education teacher Vincent Roman as he gets vaccinated on Monday. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Comsewogue School District wanted to give back to its community, and by doing so, they got over 300 residents vaccinated. 

Jennifer Quinn, superintendent of the district, said that the board was working to coordinate receiving vaccines to distribute from local drug stores — but it wasn’t happening for a while. After realizing a student worked at Walgreens, they were able to set something up.

“I have to say, they have been so great,” she said.

Quinn said the district initially opened it up to staff, and about 150 people took advantage of it. 

On Tuesday, March 16, socially distanced tables were set up throughout the gym, helping people receive their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“Then Walgreens was kind enough to let us put it out to the general public, and we were able to get other people from the community to be vaccinated,” Quinn added. “We had such a strong response that Walgreens has offered to come in a second day for our community.”

Assistant superintendent Joseph Coniglione said that although it happened quick, everyone is “extremely grateful.”

Photo by Julianne Mosher

Comsewogue students will be returning to a five-day school week starting April 6 and bringing the vaccine to staff and teachers gives them peace of mind.

“We were really concerned about having staff to come back, who wanted to be vaccinated, but were not able to get the vaccination,” Quinn said. “So, this was such a relief.”

Corey Prinz, a board trustee who was instrumental in helping coordinate the event, said that about three weeks ago, the team realized it was important heading toward the full-week re-turn and began working toward this goal. 

“Part of the mindset people had coming back stemmed from the idea that vaccinations are really spread out,” he said.  “And it didn’t actually look so good, so we stuck on it and even under short notice, it’s unbelievable the response we got today.”

Quinn said they are working with the drugstore to allocate another day to host another event soon.

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Celerina Maureen Miguel Cristy, age 53, died April 15 this year of respiratory heart failure resulting from infection by COVID-19. She died at Richmond University Medical Center, Staten Island. Friends called her Rina.

Rina, who grew up in Port Jefferson Station, had a career that intersected with national events in politics and developing the economy, particularly by enhancing global financial security after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Rina Cristy. Go to the bottom of the article to see the date and time for an online memorial.

Rina and her husband of 23 years, Sam Cristy, were parenting two teenage children at the time of her death. The Cristys have lived in Staten Island since 2004. Rina had lived or worked in Port Jefferson Station,  Boston,  metro Washington, D.C., Manhattan and Jersey City.

Born in November 1966 in Chicago, Rina was the first of her family born in the U.S. Her parents, Art and Gloria Miguel, immigrated from the Philippines, then met and married in America. Art was an engineer in aviation, and Gloria was a nurse. The Miguels moved to Port Jefferson Station, where they still live. The gregarious household grew to include Rina’s two younger brothers and two grandparents. Later, the Miguel home expanded again to incorporate Rina and Sam, and soon thereafter a grandson. Four generations gathered daily for breakfast.

Rina is a Comsewogue High School alumna. She attended Emerson College in Boston, graduating in 1988 with a Bachelor of Science in speech communications, advertising, and public relations. In 2000, she received her Master of Business Administration degree in computer information systems from Hofstra University, where she earned the prestigious Hofstra University MBA Fellowship.

Community service is an innate Miguel family hallmark. Rina’s grandfather was an educator and a decorated officer of U.S. and Philippine armies. Rina described her mother as the springboard to political engagement and developing a New Yorker ethos. Rina recalled co-piloting a plane with her father, Art. Such moments inspired her to imagine boundless agency, Rina said. Thus prepared, she moved from Boston to Washington, D.C., to start her career in 1988.

Rina served the Honorable U.S. Rep. George Hochbrueckner (1-NY), Eastern Long Island, administering finance and fundraising in his congressional campaigns. She joined the congressional staff and quickly advanced to senior legislative aide. Reflecting on Rina’s accomplishments, Hochbrueckner commented, “Rina’s diligent activities aided in the funding of the initial as well as the ongoing dredging of Shinnecock Inlet, thus preventing the loss of lives of the local commercial fishermen. She also assisted in the designation of Peconic Bay as a new member of the National Estuary Program, providing special environmental funding to this day.” Her collaboration also secured federal funds for Lyme disease mitigation and education.

Following her congressional work, Rina proceeded to the Defenders of Wildlife conservation society. As aide to the director, she served the executive board and contributed to the conservation of wild lands and restoration of wolf habitats.

The 1990s on Capitol Hill invigorated Rina’s optimism that she could make an enduring contribution in the nexus of public policy and business. The Calverton Enterprise Park is an example. Rina facilitated the legislative steps that converted the federal aviation site to ownership by the Town of Riverhead. This pivot from Cold War defense projects opened the way for emerging environmental health sciences. Calverton now stands primed to open temporary hospital services during the COVID pandemic.

Rina’s pivot to finance came via her Hofstra MBA. She was subsequently hired by the Federal Reserve Bank in Manhattan. There, she supported the U.S. Federal Reserve System’s function in regulating and examining regional and global banks. Her work protected deposits, assessed bank solvency, and engaged protections against money laundering and terrorist financing.

Starting in 2004, Rina developed her specialty as an executive in retail and wholesale banks developing data, personnel, and operations systems for transaction security and compliance with regulations and best practices.

She worked in the Staten Island offices of Independence Community Bank. She proceeded to Rabobank International and ultimately to Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation in Manhattan, where she rose to Director & Group Manager of Compliance Operations before being assigned as Director of Compliance Department, Americas Division.

In the era following the 2001 terrorist attacks, bankers wrestled with costly and demanding federal laws for enhanced fiduciary obligations. Evaluating competition, profits, and best practices called for a newly specialized banker. Banks were tasked to ask clients prickly questions, slow deals, and (perhaps) defer legitimate loans until novel risk assessments were satisfied. The urgent world of finance strained to adopt these subjective analyses. As banks with problems incurred fines, compliance experts like Rina proved essential to keeping banks in good control.

Rina’s policy and bank experience fit this role. Her teams set out to divine regulatory expectations and move banks to comply. Foremost, she assured profit drivers that the evolving security measures were intrinsic to bank success. Rina was gratified to see her early interpretations as an auditor at the Fed gain adoption as trade standards years later.

One of Rina’s work colleagues, Risë Zaiser, bonded with Rina as mentor and friend. They shared triumphs in motherhood and careers. Zaiser tracked Rina’s moves in various banks and trade panels.

“When we first met her, she came in guns a-blazing, and we were talking about how we were going to get her a bat. But she didn’t need a bat. She was just able to convince, and they followed her direction,” Zaiser said.

Industry colleagues noted that Rina was an effective department director because of her genuine humanity, humor, and collaboration. Life in banking cubicles can be fraught, staid, and tedious. One boss recalled surprise, then gratitude in receiving an office hug.

“Smiles can tear down the tallest, thickest walls. The power of Rina’s smile was the selflessness behind it,” he said. “Rina was always positive and upbeat, addressing adversity with that smile. I challenge all of us to take what Rina has given us and pass it along.”

Rina was passionate about cultivating professional opportunities for women and developing diversity in business and civic leadership. Hofstra invited her to speak quarterly to business students, and she regularly trained interns. SMBC designated a scholarship in Rina’s name to enhance the Women’s Inclusion Network  professional development project. SMBC noted her continuous mentoring of students and professionals.

“That enthusiasm and willingness to take on things widened her scope,” Zaiser noted. In the Women’s Inclusion Network, Rina was a “tireless devotee,” and she answered a call to be a co-president. “We all voted for her. It was great to work with her. I’m really going to miss her joyfulness.”

Rina was a devoted member of Brighton Heights Reformed Church in St. George. She joined the denomination as a long-time member of the Reformed Church of America at Stony Brook, previously known as Christ Community Church.

Staten Islanders knew Rina as a passionate supporter of families at Dance Dance Dance, Ltd., where her daughter thrived as a student. Many knew Rina through her masterful knitting, which she shared lovingly with cancer patients, premature babies and many friends.

She loved ballroom dancing with Sam. She engaged her kids’ every pursuit with verve, including raising a rescue pitbull. From Rina, her children learned faith in God, the enduring affection of family, and how to cook from scratch.

When Rina contracted COVID, the disease was daily killing 2,000 in the U.S., 8,000 people worldwide. To her family, she endures in death as a true a love and steadfast guide. Quarantined, short of breath, and resolute, she typed her gratitude to the world: “Be kind to each other.”

Rina is survived by her husband, Sam; their children, Alex and Amelia, of Staten Island; parents, Art and Gloria Miguel; brother Arturo Miguel, his wife Kim, and nephew Gabriel; and brother Fernando Miguel, his wife Kim, and nephews Colin, Elias, and Reece.

A family memorial service will be recorded and broadcast on YouTube at 3p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21. Matthew Funeral Home, Staten Island, arranged the cremation. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to ameliorate effects of the pandemic.

The funeral home and Rina’s Facebook page will post updates about observances, including congregational observances in future months at Brighton Heights Reformed Church, Staten Island. To view the memorial, use these links:

Main link: https://youtu.be/7jQKsQzd1r4

Backup link: https://youtu.be/UHYVv2152-c

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New Artwork Four Years, 2 Million Pieces in the Making

Young people at the Comsewogue High School, both current students and graduates, looked down at their feet with a unique sort of pride. There on the floor, amongst a mosaic of approximately 2 million pieces, they could see all the time they spent on hands and knees, carefully laying each and every shard of stained glass and colored pebble by hand. 545 square feet of space, all of it spread out to create an image exemplifying what the students, teachers and admin say make Comsewogue unique.

The new mural, on the other side of the high school’s front doors and vestibule, displays a large Native American man, which the district says represents the area’s historic roots; a tree of knowledge to represent the growth of learning; and a rendition of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” to represent the artists that were at Comsewogue and all those who will eventually find their way there.

High school Principal Michael Mosca said the project started in 2016 when current Assistant Superintendent Joe Coniglione was still principal of the high school. As assistant principal, Mosca walked the halls with Coniglione, who would pause at the entrance to the high school, thinking of what it could be.

“Every time we would walk past this space, he would always stop and he would look at it, and I would see the wheels turning and I could tell something was going on in there,” Mosca said. “It’s something a lot of our students could be proud of and say, ‘This is ours, we did this, and it’s going to showcase our Comsewogue pride.”

Comsewogue senior and first president of the Arts Honor Society, Alexa Bonacci, said “it’s incredible” to see all the hours she and her classmates have put into it come to fruition. Whether it was after school or even during, she said she has gotten 90 hours of community service hours working on this project alone.

Many of those who worked on the project have already graduated, but many came back to their alma mater to see the hours upon hours of work they put into it realized.

Gianna Alcala, a Comsewogue graduate and past president of the Art Honor Society, worked on it for three years, spending time on it even during the summer to help get it all completed. When she started on it during her sophomore year, there was only a section of the Native American’s head and some of “The Starry Night” image. She remembers cutting tiles into fourths or eighths in order to get better detail.  

“I’m in awe,” she said now seeing it all complete. “I could always see it finished in my head, but the fact that it’s actually come to life, it’s amazing.”

Coniglione said creating something new was a learning process, from having to redo a part of it after the floor cracked, and some redesigns of the mosaic from its original design.

“Every tile was glued down one at a time, nothing was on a mesh,” he said. “It took place over multiple graduating years, so to have a vision, and to have multiple years complete it with that same vision, is pretty impressive to me.”

Art teacher Gina Melton, a now-20-year veteran of the district, has been at the head of the project since its inception, helping lead the students in the project. The last year saw a huge bulk of the effort go to the mosaic.

“For all the high school kids who put so many hours into this, I’m really so proud of them,” she said.

Coniglione said it’s teachers like Melton who have made such a difference in the beauty of their schools.

“This building was built back in the ’70s, and it’s beautiful because of [Melton] and other art teachers like her doing creative projects within the school,” he said.

Mosca thanked custodian staff for helping to preserve the mural as students were walking around it and for helping finish its border.

Also included in the mural is a small but noticeable mint green homage to former Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella, who passed earlier this year, as well as a butterfly in homage to Rella’s wife Jackie, who was well known for her love of bright, fluttering insects.

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State Dashboard Shows Comsewogue HS With Two Positive Tests, But District Says Not to Worry

PJSD said the Edna Louise Spear Elementary School has been temporarily closed and all students moved online after on student was tested positive. Photo from Google maps

*Update* The night of Sept. 16, Port Jeff Superintendent Jessica Schmettan released a follow up letter about the student who was confirmed positive. She said the elementary school was “thoroughly” cleaned after the district received the news. The New York State Department of Health interviewed the family and district, and has since advised the district that classrooms are cleared to reopen, saying the student was not infectious while on school grounds.

Students who had close contact with the student have been contacted, and contact tracing is underway. 

“The situation today is a reminder about the importance of social distancing, the use of masks, and proper hygiene,” Schmettan said in the letter. “The community needs to remain vigilant in order to avoid closures in the future.”

Original story:

Parents in the Port Jefferson School District received a message Wednesday morning saying a student was tested positive for COVID-19 and that the Edna Louise Spear Elementary School would be closed for the meantime.

“This morning the Port Jefferson School District was notified that a student at the elementary school tested positive for COVID-19,” Superintendent Jessica Schmettan wrote in a message to district parents shared with TBR News Media. “Following our procedures and protocols and guidance from the [New York State] Department of Health, the elementary school is closed today for distance learning.”

The district added they will be conducting contact tracing and disinfecting the elementary school. Parents will be updated as the situation develops.

As of Sept. 15, Comsewogue High School has been listed by the New York State dashboard as having two positive cases in the Comsewogue High School. 

Comsewogue Superintendent Jennifer Quinn described the situation as two siblings who had tested positive for COVID in another country, though she said the name of the country was not released for fear of the students being outed to their peers. They were cleared by the New York State Department of Health to come back to school, though while in school another test taken in the states came back positive.

Quinn said the Department of Health was aware of the situation, and health officials told the district the two students were likely positive because of the viral load still in the body, though they were not infectious. Both students have volunteered to stay home in the mean time.

 

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.”

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.”

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From left, Daniela Galvez-Cepeda, Jovanna Fusco, and Derek Order present to the Comsewogue school board about moving forward after the passing of former superintendent Dr. Joe Rella. Photo by Andrew Harris

By Daniela Galvez-Cepeda 

Imagine one person tapping another, and then this person tapping another, and this one in turn tapping another, and so on. The number of people tapped increases by 1 after every person. Now imagine one initial person tapping two other people, and then those two people tapping two others each, and so on. In this case, the number of people tapped multiplied by 2 after each pass.

Melissa Levine appeals to administrators, board members, students and the whole community about taking Dr. Joe Rella’s message of love to a whole new level and exponentially paying it forward. Photo by Andrew Harris

This is exactly the difference between linear and exponential growth, the former involving only one more person every time, while the latter doubling the number of people every time. Exponential growth is, thus, more powerful, and it is especially relevant when finding ways to connect with your community. At Comsewogue High School, students light torches of optimism in an exponential way during these times of uncertainty.

Right before schools were shut down, Comsewogue students, including myself, showed up at the board meeting March 2. We usually do that. This time, however, we took a little departure from our regular presentation about the latest news from our high school. We wanted to show our appreciation for Dr. Joseph Rella, the former superintendent of the Comsewogue School District who passed away Feb. 21.

I started our presentation. I did a hands-on activity involving all the people in attendance, asking one person to start a “tap one person” chain (that is, in a linear growth manner) and then a “tap two people” chain (that is, in an exponential growth manner). The exercise was very illustrative. People understood that information and values can be spread out much faster exponentially, rather than linearly. And this is exactly what Dr. Rella always showed — he spread so much caring and selflessness in exponential ways. We are now bound to broaden his legacy.

We wanted this meeting to be optimistic. It was our purpose to communicate to our administrators, our community and perhaps most importantly the younger students that we need to not only keep what Dr. Rella started for ourselves, but also pass it on and make it multiply and continue to radiate throughout our district. The tapping exercise was just an illustration, the framework to understand what we students have been doing following Dr. Rella’s teachings.

Excelling in Academics and Sports

Comsewogue senior Derek Order recognized the academic achievements of the senior class and introduced me as the valedictorian of the class of 2020 — an honor I carry humbly. Many students in the district not only perform at high levels academically but also devote so much of their time, energy and focus on volunteer activities in our community. For example, Derek and I go on activities with the Athletics for All group of students with disabilities. 

Students rally together with a “let’s bring it together team” to help inspire the community. Photo by Andrew Harris

“Through Athletes Helping Athletes, I travel with these outstanding high school students helping out special athletes every month,” said Nicole Kidd, the Comsewogue teacher in charge of the athletes. “We have students from all types of sports encouraging our differently capable students to excel.”

“It seems like this kindness is something woven into our programs around here,” commented Matt DeVincenzo, the Comsewogue athletic director.

Furthermore, senior Jovanna Fusco celebrated the achievements that Comsewogue athletes had this 2020. A rousing round of applause went to senior Jake Vecchio, a Comsewogue swimmer who dedicates a large amount of his time off practice to help others. Vecchio not only placed at the state finals in swimming but won the coveted Section XI Good Sportsmanship Award. 

“In addition to grinding out hours of practice daily, many of our athletes participate in different types of community service activities,” DeVincenzo said. 

Arts

Then, junior Sarah Thomas invited everyone to the upcoming music and drama events while highlighting the importance of the arts in our community. Through the school’s productions of different plays and musicals, Comsewogue students express the idea of unity.

Both the music and drama departments in the high school have flourished because of the dedication presented here in our district. It is our steadfast belief that these students will continue to inspire empathy in the world with their voices and unmatchable talent. Along with the creativity culminating in their brilliant minds, the music in their hearts sits restlessly, just waiting to be passed forward exponentially.

Take Away

Finally, junior Melissa Levine wrapped the meeting up with a reflection about Comsewogue’s outstanding resilience — a colossal example of exponential growth. From the classroom to our neighborhoods, Comsewogue has always shown adaptability and strength, even in the most difficult times.

There is no denying that Dr. Rella ignited the torch that lit the path for success for all of our students. Because of him, Comsewogue has athletes being awarded scholarships and earning spots to compete in All County events, brilliant academic minds leaving the community ready to take on the greatest challenges, and talented performers who were taught to fall in love with the music of life again and again.

As an echo to the tapping activity, Melissa then encouraged everyone there, administrators, board members, parents, staff members and the whole community, to share the love Dr. Rella had for us, to pass it forward. 

“One torch can show us the way, but an army of them can be a beacon in the night,” said Levine.

Dr. Rella taught us to take action, to grow the love, to pass optimism forward. Whether we are students, teachers, workers or stay-at-home parents, we are all connected in the same community and we are all responsible for making everybody in our district better. And we have to do it exponentially, so we can see it grow efficiently for all the members of the Comsewogue family. Let’s do it together.

Daniela Galvez-Cepeda is a senior at Comsewogue High School.

Superintendent Joe Rella a his last graduation ceremony, 2019. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr and Monica Gleberman

Dr. Joe Rella, the beloved former Comsewogue superintendent who spent just over 25 years in the district, passed away Feb. 21, with Moloney Funeral Homes and the district confirming his death late Friday night. He was 69.

Community members flocked to social media to share their thoughts and memories about their superintendent affectionately known around the district as just “Rella.”

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella with students who participated in Joe’s Day of Service. Photo from CSD

“So much of what I learned about community was through his unceasing example of what it meant to serve the place you call home,” said Kevin LaCherra, who graduated in 2009. “To bring people in, to find out what they need, to fight like hell to get it and then to pass the torch.”

Rella entered the district as a part-time music teacher, making only $28,000 in salary. He would move on to become a full-time music teacher, then the high school principal and finally, superintendent of schools, which was his final position, held for nine years.

In an interview with TBR News Media before his retirement and final graduation ceremony in 2019, Rella had likened the act of running a school district to music, all based in a learning process for both the students and for him.

“Because one thing you learn, there is no such thing as a mistake, it’s a springboard to your next part of the piece,” he said.

The district planned to decorate school buildings with blue-and-gold ribbons come Monday and make counselors available for students who may need it, current Superintendent Jennifer Quinn said Saturday. The district was closed Wednesday, Feb. 26 to allow teachers and students to attend his funeral.

Quinn had worked with Rella for 13 years. In a phone interview Saturday, the current superintendent had nothing but great things to say about her predecessor and mentor. If anything, she said Rella “did not want people to remember him sadly. He wanted them to smile and laugh. He just loved everybody.” 

Rella’s wife, Jackie, passed in 2016 following a struggle with breast cancer. The superintendent himself had been diagnosed with stage 4 bile duct cancer in 2017. Despite his sickness, he would stay on in the top position for another two years. 

Comsewogue Superintendent Joe Rella congratulates a member of the class of 2016 during graduation June 23, 2016. File photo by Bob Savage

It was that dedication, even in the face of sickness and loss, that built up so much trust between him and the community over the years. Quinn said he was humble, always the one to take the blame if plans didn’t work out, but he was always ready to heap praise on others.

“He made everyone important,” she said. “He never shied away from a tough problem and tried to make everything better — he always did.”

Others in the district said Rella’s example pushed them to do more and to do better. Andrew Harris, a special education teacher in the high school, created Joe’s Day of Service in 2018. Named after the then-superintendent, the program asked students to do volunteer work around the school and the greater community. Students have traveled all the way to the Calverton Cemetery in both 2018 and 2019 to clean graves and plant flags.

Harris said there are hundreds of examples of Rella’s kindness, such as driving over an hour to take care of a teacher’s mother who was suffering from cancer.

“In many ways, just like they call the middle of our country the ‘flyover states,’ Port Jefferson Station used to be like a ‘drive-through town’ — people were on their way to another town as the destination,” Harris said. “That all changed with Dr. Rella’s leadership. No matter where you went, and especially as a teacher, when you say you are from Comsewogue and Port Jefferson Station, people know where you came from and the legacy. It makes us all proud to say it.”

The school board accepted Rella retirement in November 2018. He had said in previous interviews his diagnosis did not factor into his decision to retire, and it had been his and his wife’s intent to make that year his last.

“Joe and Jackie were the face of Comsewogue for many years,” said John Swenning, school board president. “Their dedication and support to our administrators, teacher, staff, parents and most importantly our students is nothing short of legendary. Dr. Rella is the Italian grandfather that every kid deserves to have. He will be missed dearly.”

School board trustee Rob DeStefano had known Rella since his sophomore year in Comsewogue high, when the to-be super had joined the district as the new music teacher. DeStefano would be elected to the board coinciding with Rella’s appointment as head of schools. One memory that cemented the famed superintendent in his mind, according to a previous column he wrote for TBR after Rella’s announced retirement, was during a jazz band concert he and his wife got up on stage and started to dance the Charleston.

Rella speaks out against standardized testing in 2015. File photo

Despite the loss, the Rella name lives on in the district, particularly in the high school courtyard, full of sunflowers, named Jackie’s Garden after his late wife. As the superintendent participated in his final high school graduation ceremony last year on June 26, students rolled out a new plaque, naming the high school auditorium the Dr. Joseph V. Rella Performing Arts Center.

His funeral, held Wednesday, Feb. 26, at St. Gerard Majella R.C. Church in Port Jefferson Station, drew huge crowds of family as well as school officials and community members.

Those same Community members and school officials gathered outside the high school Wednesday morning before the funeral. At just after 10 a.m., a hearse bearing Rella and a procession drove around the circle outside the high school, his final visit to the institution residents say he cared so deeply about. Members of both the Port Jefferson and Terryville fire departments hung a giant flag above the ground for the hearse to drive under. Residents and students held blue and yellow signs, all thanking the superintendent for his life of work and service. 

Quinn said they will be working out the details for a larger memorial sometime in the near future.

“He embodied the Comsewogue culture — pushed it and all of us forward,” said 2019 graduate Josh Fiorentino. “To say I know how he wanted to be remembered would be a lie. However, I and many others will remember him as a Warrior. The truest of them all.”