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Comsewogue High School

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.”

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The mosaic includes the Comsewogue logo and the notorious cherry tree. Photo by Leah Chiappino

By Leah Chiappino

Comsewogue High School’s lobby will soon receive a unique face-lift. The Art Honor Society and students in the advanced studios and murals class are putting the finishing touches on a mosaic that spans the entire center of the room. Fully designed by students, it consists of intricately placed pieces of hand-cut glass that reflect in the light of surrounding windows, making the whole piece sparkle.

The high school’s Art Honor Society with art teacher Gina Melton and Assistant Super Joe Coniglione on the right. Photo by Leah Chiappino

The project, which began construction three years ago, was the brainchild of Assistant Superintendent Joe Coniglione. 

“It has been a labor of love,” he said

The area on which the mosaic now sits was once a pit where students could sit and socialize. Eventually, it was filled in with concrete and a mural was painted over it. However, over the years the floor aged and the concrete began to crack, prompting Coniglione to push for something sturdier. 

“My thought process was rather than to paint it and have it crack again, we could have our amazingly talented student do a mosaic,” he said.

He brought his vision to Gina Melton, an art teacher at the high school, who ran with it.

“Both [Coniglione] and I are Italians so we appreciate mosaics,” she said jokingly. “However, mosaics are beautiful, and we figured if they could last through Pompeii, hopefully they will last through Comsewogue.”

Students then began the design process, making sure they included the school’s warrior logo, and aspects of the surrounding area of Port Jefferson Station, including the signature cherry tree outside the school’s window. They also added a starry night sky, as homage to Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, “The Starry Night,” which is a favorite among many students.

The mosaic includes the Comsewogue logo and the notorious cherry tree. Photo from Gina Melton

After the design was approved, students began to install the 2 million pieces, transitioning from glass to tile over time. They have to cut the pieces, lay them out and glue them down. 

Melton admitted the project has been a learning curve. 

“The first year the students were a little hesitant because it was so new,” she said. “545 square feet of space is a daunting task, but now that they’re seeing everything coming together, they’re very proud of it. I can’t even tell you how blessed I am to have the kids I have.”

For students who built the project, the process has had its good and bad times.

 “It’s certainly resulted in many cuts and scratches over the years,” Art Honor Society Vice President Alexa Bonacci said. She added that it was worth it to be able to look back and see what was created. 

While the Art Honor Society only meets once a week to work on it, several students within the club devote their free period and time after school to the mosaic. Bonacci works on it every day. She does not participate in any sports and said most people she knows work on it at least three days per week. She estimated Art Honor Society President Gianna Alcala has worked on it for at least 70 hours.

“This is something so many people are attached to,” society secretary Maison Anwar said. “When you see all the different techniques throughout the piece it makes you feel like everybody has a piece of themselves.”

The project was delayed because of the floor crack and the group of students subsequently having to redo the backboard. The original design was thrown out over the summer, forcing students to have to design much of the  project themselves. This has led the district to host what they call “mosaic workshops,” enabling students to work on the project for entire days at a time. “We made a lot of headway in those days,” Melton said.

Coniglione praised the impact of the program on students. 

“You would be surprised if you sat in Gina’s classroom for a day and saw students who struggle elsewhere in school,” he said. “They excel in her class because she allows students to find their creativity, and finds something good in every person,” he said.

Melton struggled to hold back tears. 

“They are amazing kids,” she said.

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Photo from Comsewogue

When Mike Mosca was formally introduced as the incoming principal of Comsewogue High School at this past January’s district board meeting, he expressed his desire to revamp the school’s business department, saying he was focused on getting his students to the next step of their lives, whether it be college or straight into their careers. 

Comsewogue School District From left: Susan Casali, Jennifer Polychronakos, Michael Mosca, Joseph Coniglione and Jennifer Quinn. Photo from David Luces

Working together with Comsewogue Superintendent Jennifer Quinn, fellow teachers and administrators, collectively they have already begun making changes to the business curriculum at the start of this school year. 

In conjunction with this strategy, the high school has revitalized its School to Career Advisory Committee, which aims to help students with their career paths and become productive members of the community. The group will be made up of teachers, administrators, business leaders, local professionals, community members, students and other stakeholders.

“We think this is something we believe will get our students to the next level,” Mosca said. “We have been reaching out to professionals and asking them, ‘What are you looking for in a candidate?’ and use that help and sculpt our students to be successful post school.”

Mosca said he hopes that the revamped curriculum and committee will help bridge the gap from school to the next stage of a student’s life.

“We want to make the business curriculum focused on career readiness and want to make sure they gain the skills needed for the 21st century and their careers,” he said.

The principal of the high school said it has already begun reaching out to community members, organizations, professionals, business leaders, among others, to see who would be interested in joining the committee. 

As of now, the district has around 50 people who have pledged to join the committee. Together they will provide input on how the business courses can be improved as well as connecting students with professionals in their preferred career path. 

Mosca said they have plans on doing mock interview days with students, job shadowing opportunities, guest speakers to talk to students and set up possible internships. 

Anthony Ketterer, business education teacher, said he believes this is a great opportunity and advantageous for students at the high school. 

“We want our students to think about their careers and life after high school,” he said. “We want to bring students and professionals together … and continue the strong relationship between the community and the school.”

Ketterer said the main goal is to better educate students and teach them practical skills that they can use in the future. He also said they want to provide resources to students who chose to pursue trade and vocational careers after graduating. 

Beginning in September, administrators and teachers began the first step in the business department revamp when it began offering a virtual enterprise business class to seniors. 

The six-credit course offered through SUNY Farmingdale allows students to essentially run a virtual business, specifically a clothing business, which was chosen by the students. 

Mosca said the class is made up of 10 students and will act as a liaison for the committee on how they can further improve the curriculum for future students. 

The principal also mentioned that members of the committee donated cubicles, desks and other office materials to mimic a real-life business setting.

“We want our students to think about their careers and life after high school.”

— Anthony Ketterer

 

“They are getting real-world experience — they are our pioneers and they are going to be working closely with the committee,” Mosca said.

He wants to make this experience accessible to all students in the district and hopes to expand it younger students down the line. 

In addition, the principal said he wants to make sure they are catering to different fields and career paths that students are interested in nowadays, adding there are “so many directions they can go in now.”

In response, administrators have reached out to professionals in the health care and medical field like St. Charles Hospital and Northwell Health. Local officials and politicians have expressed interest in contributing to the committee. 

Mosca also has plans to eventually create a senior workshop stemming off ideas from the committee. He said there are opportunities to teach students important life skills like changing a tire or filing their taxes.

The committee plans to meet several times a year and its first advisory meeting will be on Nov. 14 at Comsewogue High School. 

“Getting our students exploring these opportunities is the goal,” Mosca said. “They should be thinking about this and their careers as early as possible.”

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At 3-3 in their division, Comsewogue’s varsity football team needed a road win against East Islip when Jaden Martinez punched in from six yards out for a Warrior touch down on their opening drive in the final quarter, and with the point after tied the game at 7-7. With 10:49 left in regulation East Islip scored two unanswered touchdowns for which the Warriors had no answer, to win the game 21-7 in a Div. III matchup Oct. 26.

The loss drops Comsewogue to 3-4 forcing a must win game when the Warriors travel to Miller Place Nov. 1 in their final game of the regular season. Kickoff is at 6 p.m.

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Photography, art, science and several other classes do projects at and around the garden. Photo from Andrew Harris

Since the beginning of the school year, students have been gathering in the courtyard at Comsewogue High School on their off periods. 

Comsewogue students gather for festivities at the ‘Town Square.’ Photo from Andrew Harris

“Dr. [Joe] Rella always thought of our Rotunda as our town hall, and now we’ve expanded on his dream, by developing a Town Square,” said Superintendent Jennifer Quinn.

The space started with “Jackie’s Garden” a few years ago after the untimely passing of Rella’s wife, Jackie. Her passing left the school broken hearted, said special education teacher Andrew Harris, making them want to reach out. Harris suggested the idea, and “Dr. Quinn looked at me and said it was a beautiful idea, but asked me if I was sure I wanted to commit … because you know what happens to gardens?”

Harris knew exactly what she meant, having seen several gardens start-up and then eventually fall by the wayside. He promised her that for as long as he is a teacher at Comsewogue, he would make sure to maintain the garden.

The next thing the school knew, Boy Scouts from the High School stepped up and did their Eagle Scout projects to benefit the garden. Joey Rizzo, a junior, built several raised beds. He even created a barrier to protect the garden from other activities. Now-graduate Christian Freda built a raised bed for a student who uses a wheelchair, going further to design and build a bench that has wheelchair access. Last year, James Mantione, a junior, built a trellis that became the backdrop of many senior pictures at graduation. 

“These are amazing students who are doing wonderful things for our school,” said principal Mike Mosca. “These projects took up a lot of their own time and efforts while they developed great leadership skills. By next year, don’t be surprised to see grapes, eggplant, or even zucchini, growing from the trellis.”

Soon, community members and businesses asked to pitch in. Rich Crandle, from 4 Corners Produce in Port Jefferson Station, donated many of the flowers, plants and decorations for every holiday, which Harris called extremely generous. 

 “Ann Marie’s Farm Stand, Agway, and landscapers Chris Friedl, Tommy Deacy and Steve Long are a phone call away and will stop what they are doing just to help out clearing things or delivering soil and mulch,” said Joe Coniglione, assistant superintendent. 

Joe Rella, Jennifer Quinn and Joe Coniglione during the naming of ‘Jackie’s Garden.
Photo from Andrew Harris

The Whole Foods Foundation gave the district a $2,000 grant for the garden, which allowed the garden to expand.

Recently, the school added a sunflower farm in the middle as a result of a class project. 

“This year, students gather by the beautiful sunflowers at every lunch period, it’s quite beautiful,” said a senior posing for pictures with friends. 

According to Rella, sunflowers were Jackie’s favorite. 

“Our life skills class took that idea and ran with it,” said Joe Dimino, who helped with the project-based initiative. 

The students planned, researched and set up the garden, watching it flourish. Harris said that they weren’t quite ready to plant after mid-May, but then the unexpected passing of one of the district students occurred. 

“I told the students that I really didn’t have a good explanation, but I did know that this year we could plant and dedicate the sunflowers to Jackson, the young middle school student who lost his battle to cancer,” Harris said. “We all got out there and got to work to focus ourselves on something positive in his memory. The students were so proud of their efforts to get it done in time.”

Harris described an amazing thing that started to happen. Students, teachers, clubs and administrators started to “plug-in” various projects at and around the garden. This Halloween, the district plans to conduct a hay ride for the kids who visit for the annual Trick or Treat Streets.  Shane Goldberg, who teaches advanced science classes, planted vegetables.

“For a bit, our sprinkler system wasn’t reaching the plants, so one of the AP students designed and implemented a system to keep the soil and plants hydrated,” Goldberg said. “It was the perfect idea and solution to a real-life problem.”

For the past several years, the school’s food service department has served special meals that were designed by and even prepared with the help of Heather Rand’s English Language Learner classes at the middle school. Rand and her classes developed their own “Jackie’s Garden’” at the middle school. 

“The amazing thing to see was that these kids enjoyed their hands-on experience while learning a whole new language as well as science,” said John F. Kennedy Middle School Principal Mike Fama. 

The ELL teacher said new English language learners were excited and passionate about the garden. 

“It became the ideal way to teach science and English because all the students could relate to what we were doing,” said Rand. 

In the first year of the garden, Charlotte Johnson, who teaches drama and chorus, serenaded Rella and his family as well as the whole district during an evening where staff, students and families participated. 

“There wasn’t a dry eye out there,” Harris recalled one of the parents saying. “It was quite emotional.”

Many Comsewogue students have used the garden for public projects. Photo from Andrew Harris

On a daily basis, the school sees students from art, photography, ELA and more using the garden to do their projects. Outside, on a crisp fall day, both Rand and Natalie Rubenstein’s classes were busy measuring plant length and looking into microscopes all while recording data into their science notebooks. 

In many ways, the garden has become the focal point of the school and district. Students can be seen doing fundraisers and other activities, some to raise awareness of what is going on around them locally and even internationally. On one occasion, students displayed pride flags, sold cancer awareness shirts, all while sharing space with recruiters from the armed forces. On another table, they were collecting for Comsewogue graduates who are currently serving in the military. 

“We are a tight community, and we want those men and women serving to know that we remember them,” said Michelle Mortorano, head of the Parent Teacher Student Association. “Some of the elementary students will be putting hand-written letters inside the boxes we send to show how much they care.”

Soon, the district will display holiday decorations, celebrating the district and community. The rotunda is currently being renovated by art students working on an intricate mosaic that people will see as they enter the school. 

“The mosaic in combination with our kind and welcoming attitude — makes this place one of the best places on Earth to walk into,” Harris said. 

Harris described a scene at the garden, where a few students were doing their homework in the garden on picnic tables surrounded by baskets of flowers. 

“One student looked up and said growing up in this school district and community was one of the best experiences of her life,” he said.

Information for this article supplied by Andrew Harris, Michelle Lautato and Comsewogue High School students.

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Comsewogue’s football team was relentless in a game at home against Hauppauge Sept. 21, scoring early and not letting up. While the Eagles put in a touchdown in the second quarter and two more in the third, the Warriors kept a consistent tally all the way through the game to finally end it 47-20.

Senior Anthony Cambria had seven receptions, breaking a Long Island record 318 yards, along withfour touchdowns for Comsewogue. Cambria broke the record of 309 set last year by Oceanside’s Jake Lazzaro.

Brady Shannon, a sophomore completed 12 of 16 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns for the Warriors. Senior Jaden Martinez had 12 carries for 207 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. He opened the scoring with an 88-yard touchdown run in the first. Junior Ryan Minaugh made six tackles, including one sack, for the Warriors.

The win puts Comsewogue 1-1 in league, and the team is set to retake the field against Harborfields Sept. 28. Game time is 1:30 p.m.

All photos by Rudy Gray

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Comsewogue’s girls soccer team scored in first 10 minutes into the second half, but the Warrior’s lead proved short-lived Sept. 16. The West Islip Lions answered back with a pair of goal two minutes apart and tacked on an insurance goal late in the final period. With the loss the Warriors slip to 1-3 in the early season.

The Warriors will look to put another game in the win column when they travel to Half Hollow Hills East Sept. 20. Game time is set for 4 p.m.