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Comsewogue School District

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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.

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Kingstone and Miles Fowler practice distance learning. Photo from Kristina Fowler

During challenging times like these, the Comsewogue School District reacted to be fully prepared to not only provide and keep its classes and academic standards at a high level but also to keep the students’ social and emotional well-being stable despite no longer being in the school buildings.

The administration, staff, students and community saw fit to have educational packets and more in place while the upper grades were provided with Chromebooks and resources online available before school was closed. The technology department was in close contact and continues to be communicating with everyone on a daily basis with updates and more.

“I was happy to receive additional training available up to the very last day,” said Camie Zale, a special education teacher.

“Teachers and students are comfortable with using technology and communicating with various websites and apps on a normal basis,” said Andrew Harris, a teacher at the middle and high school. “Unfortunately, I’m nowhere as savvy as most of these students who have grown up with this technology. If I ever have any problem, I can ask any of my students who usually solve it in a matter of seconds … they are amazing.”

Don Heberer, district administrator for instructional technology, said the 1:1 take-home Chromebook program in the high school and classroom carts at John F. Kennedy Middle School had allowed students and teachers to become comfortable with using the technology for education.

Melissa McMullan, a sixth-grade teacher in the middle school, said the school did a great job getting Chromebooks into kids’ hands. The process, she said, has been tricky to find what works and what doesn’t on an online space.

“The kids and I will solve the need for distance learning together like we always do,” she said.

Students in the elementary schools have grade-level packets posted online along with hard copies sent home. The district is also providing support to both teachers and parents remotely on using the technology.

”Comsewogue has always prided itself on being innovative and willing to try something new,” Heberer said. “We know that it will be a challenging change for everyone; however, Comsewogue staff has worked hard to provide the students, teachers and community resources during this period.”

The Comsewogue district has taken to online as well for interteacher-related processes. Harris said teachers received a message from the Pupil Personnel Services department that they will hold upcoming annual meetings on Google Hangouts as part of their annual review process. It has taken time and effort but he feels he has become comfortable and “up to speed” with the various programs.

“For me, I am learning as I go,” Harris said. “The first day I mostly communicated the way I was most familiar with — I picked up the phone and called most parents to let them know what was going on with their child’s education. From there I switched to text messages, and finally have been using Google Classroom and more as I get better.”

After checking in with several of the students, Harris said many teachers realized they were perhaps giving too much work. One parent communicated that her daughter was working from early morning until about 5 p.m. on her assignments and starting to stress out.

“I think many of the teachers didn’t want the students to feel like they were on vacation and get complacent,” said Joe Caltagirone, a teacher at the high school.

Harris said he wanted his very first assignment to be something light and be beneficial to his students and their families. He posted a YouTube video on how to do Box Breathing, a technique of taking slow, deep breaths to relieve some stress and help concentrate.

“I know people are highly stressed so I asked that the student watch this video first,” Harris said. “I also requested that they teach members of their family how to do it. I know from experience when you teach others you become very proficient at what you’re teaching. I asked them all to comment on how it made them feel.”

Harris, also a yoga instructor, said that breath work is easy to learn and perhaps the best thing people can do in these stressful situations.

Having said all of this, there are many in the Comsewogue community that may not be as comfortable as students are with technology, though there are many people willing to help distribute food and other resources to our senior citizens.

“The problem is that they may not know that there is help out there. Where many of us can easily access social media sites, many of these seniors don’t have the ability to do so,” said Ed Garboski of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association.

“Currently, I’m trying to find a way to bridge that gap,” said Harris. “We are trying to put together an electronic way to have our students write letters to the senior citizens who are being quarantined at local facilities. If we have to, we will have the letters printed and distributed to those seniors directly or through the facility’s printer, so they are not compromised.”

Superintendent Jennifer Quinn stated that the whole staff is committed to doing whatever is necessary to make sure the students continue to get everything they need to have a great education, and much more.

Information and quotes provided by Andrew Harris

Comsewogue Won’t Be Stopped by COVID-19

By Deniz Yildirim

Like the rest of New York, Comsewogue School District is facing unprecedented challenges with courage and teamwork. Following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) orders, all six of the district’s schools were closed on Monday, March 16, for a tentative two-week period. Administrators and teachers worked hard to create packets and uploaded countless resources onto the district’s website so students can continue their education at home.

Preparing work for over 5,000 students with numerous and distinct needs such as learning disabilities and language barriers could only be completed with hard work and collaboration. Reading teachers, English as second language teachers, teaching assistants and even special area teachers like music teacher Ellen Rios came together to create comprehensive packets that were sent home with students on Friday, March 13. Parents could come in person to pick them up if their child wasn’t in school to get it themselves.

Superintendent Jennifer Quinn has been regularly calling parents with updates and also informed families that the district is even willing to lend out its Chromebooks to students who couldn’t otherwise access the online learning tools.

“This is a scary time for everyone and our students’ health comes first. We want to share what we have to make them feel safe and help them continue to learn,” said Quinn. “Families are advised to call the district so they can prepare the appropriate materials and ensure a smooth and sanitary pick up.

In addition to student work, Comsewogue is continuously posting statements on its website (in English and Spanish) in order to keep families informed. One such notice comes from Robert Pearl, the district’s new administrator for Pupil Personnel Services and Micheala Finlay-Essig, the assistant director of PPS; they have been rescheduling important meetings regarding student services that will now be “teleconferencing” meetings through Google Meet. The instructional technology department led by Don Heberer has never been more critical and everyone can testify to the key role they are playing.

“We’re here to help our students, teachers and community,” Heberer said. “We have been supporting our teachers through technology professional development, so the teachers can support our students’ learning. We are updating the district website and mobile app daily to keep our community informed and provide vital resources.”

Comsewogue graduate, parent and now teacher Kristina Fowler said she’s never been prouder of her community. Fowler has a unique perspective because she’s been in everyone’s shoes, so it’s particularly meaningful to hear her say that Comsewogue is going above and beyond her expectations. She supports her two sons, fourth-grader Kingston and second-grader Miles and lets them “play” with their friends via FaceTime. Most recently, Kingston and Kristina helped classmate Liam Schneph with a question he had about his new hamster.

“It’s so important to stay connected and let kids be kids,” she said. “Comsewogue won’t be stopped by COVID-19.”

Deniz Yildirim is a librarian at the Terryville Road Elementary School

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Robert Niedig, Robin Hoolahan and Sean Leister deliver bags of food to students who need it. The program is expected to continue as long as the schools remained closed. Photo by Kyle Barr

Though schools in the Port Jefferson area may be closed, districts have been working constantly to get food to the children who may need it now more than ever.

Volunteers and staff help deliver meals at both JFK Middle School and the Comsewogue High School March 19. Photo by Leigh Powell

Port Jefferson Deputy Superintendent Sean Leister and a few volunteers stood inside the high school’s cafeteria Friday, March 20. For the weekend, the district was handing out three meals, one for Friday, Saturday and Sunday respectively. 

The program is based on the district’s previous reduced cost lunch program, but now its being donated to anybody 18 or under free. Nobody has to sign up, and nobody at the door checks if the person lives within the district.

“The program is not restricted, it’s for any child 18 and under that feels they have a need,” Leister said.

When school was normally in session, Leister said the district had 110 students signed up for the program, where around 65 normally picked it up. In the last week or so, the district has been producing around 50 to 60 meals each day. Middle School Principal Robert Neidig has also volunteered to deliver to those resident’s houses who said they were unable to come out to pick their meals up. He said families have been really appreciative, even one young girl who comes to the door so excited to see the meals he’s brought.

“It’s like if I were delivering them candy,” Neidig said.

Each bag comes with a sandwich, bagel or wrap, along with fruit and milk. Any untaken meals are being given to Infant Jesus RC Church for them to distribute any remaining food.

Leister said the district has also applied to New York State to allow them to make breakfast and dinner meals as well. Local residents can get these meals at the Port Jefferson High school from 11 to 1 p.m. on weekdays.

Meanwhile in the Comsewogue school district, staff and a score of volunteers worked Thursday, March 19 at two separate schools to donate around 1,800 meals to children in need within the district.

Volunteers and staff help deliver meals at both JFK Middle School and the Comsewogue High School March 19. Photo by Jennifer Quinn

Comsewogue School District Superintendent Jennifer Quinn said the staff took everything from the schools cafeterias and even raided the faculty food pantry. Originally the district thought they would be able to only give out 1,100, but they went far above what they expected. 

This is one of the toughest things we’ve ever experienced — we will do what we need to do, together,” Quinn said. “We need to make sure our families are fed and our children are educated, and we are as whole as possible by the end of all this.”

Food included in bags were cold cuts, bread, apple sauce, juice, milk, cereal, cereal bars, and frozen hamburgers and meatballs. Staff and volunteers placed the bags inside the cars of those who drove up to the high school and JFK Middle School. Volunteers also drove meals to families who said they were unable to come by the two pickup locations.

There were around 30 volunteers who came by to offer aid. Quinn said they were offered aid by over 100 residents, but she felt she had to turn most away to try and reduce the chance of any kind of contagion.

The Comsewogue district is expecting nonprofit food bank Island Harvest to donate them another 300 meals come this Monday. Quinn added the district is likely to raid the cafeterias in the other schools, and should have another 1,100 meals after they receive aid from a New York State program giving food aid to schools during the mandated shutdown.

The Comsewogue School District is expecting to host its next bagged food drive Thursday, April 2.

 

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The Clinton Avenue Elementary School was the first building to have solar panels installed on its roof. District officials are planning for a similar setup at the Terryville Road Elementary School. Photos from Noresco presentation to Comsewogue board

By Julianne Mosher

A new initiative has been passed at the elementary schools within the Comsewogue  School District, giving the buildings new solar panel technology and plans to save the district thousands of dollars.

“I’m so excited. … It’s a good project for everyone,” said Susan Casali, assistant superintendent for business. “It’s a win-win for the environment, taxpayers and the district.”

The Clinton Avenue Elementary School was the first building to have solar panels installed on its roof. District officials are planning for a similar setup at the Terryville Road Elementary School.
Photos from Noresco presentation to Comsewogue board

The bidding process was a long one, and after much deliberation, Massachusetts-based energy company Noresco was selected in May 2017. The company then worked to complete a two-year energy efficiency upgrade project in the Clinton Avenue Elementary School that was finished this past month.

These upgrades, which included installing 477 kW of photovoltaic solar arrays on the roof of the elementary school, is expected  to provide Comsewogue more than $1.9 million in energy savings over the next 18 years and will reduce carbon emissions equivalent to removing 435 cars from the road.

“It’s really cost saving, as well as being impactful to the environment,” Casali said. “It will pay itself off in six years.”

The production of the solar panels is estimated at 572,879 kWh during the first year, which is nearly two times the school’s annual consumption. During the 2016–2017 school year, energy use was 307,440 kWh.

Noresco’s project management, SUNation Solar Systems, installed the solar photovoltaic arrays on the roof of the 67,000-square-foot elementary school. The new energy source is expected to save the district approximately $90,000 a year in energy costs during the first year alone. 

Right now, the excess power at Clinton will generate enough for Boyle Road Elementary School. “Since we’re a school district we can’t sell the power back to the plant, but we can reuse it for other buildings,” Casali said. 

She said that the district is planning its next solar panel for Terryville Road Elementary School next summer. 

The late Joe Rella, pictured in June of 2019 with Comsewogue School District Superintendent Jennifer Quinn. Photo by Kyle Barr

There are only so many people who could have done the job that Dr. Joe Rella, the former Comsewogue superintendent, did — teacher, principal and finally head of schools. If the scores of affectionate tributes posted to social media are anything to go on, Rella is one of the few folks you could point to that has made the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville community what it is today.

Rella died last Friday at the too-young age of 69. He had been dealing with a diagnosis of bile duct cancer for the last few years, but still he kept at the job until he finally retired last year. Community members know there wasn’t a day that went by where Rella did not put himself forward for the benefit of the community, whether it was his weekly online story times or his constant attendance as the “piano man” at district concerts. Many in the community can point to examples of outreach and help he bestowed upon employees and students in the district.

North Shore residents often rightfully complain of their high taxes, the majority of which stem from school districts, but Rella showed that a school district can become the heart of the local hamlet and the epicenter for every goings-on in the area. It can become the source of pride and culture for residents, not only the entity that simply teaches students for 13 to 14 years at a time.

What we found in reporting on Comsewogue is that doors were always open. Most of the time, officials did not hesitate to speak on either positive events or district issues. In an age where there seems to be more and more red tape between district/school administrators and both journalists and the public, Comsewogue, under Rella’s guidance, showed just how effective being open to public comment could be. In a final interview with Rella before he retired, he spoke to one newbie editor of how important it was to listen to community feedback, no matter if it was negative and no matter if you may disagree with it. As a former music teacher, who brought music into everything he did, he said the important thing was to listen.

Rella was named one of TBR News Media’s People of the Year in both 1995 and 2010 for music and education, respectively. Though the papers have changed editors since then, the editorial staff was amazed reading those old articles, seeing just how much of the same man was in stories 25 years old as he was in articles written about him little more than half a year ago. There is a sense of compassion, of simply wanting to be there, to spread an awareness of purpose amongst students and staff and to act selflessly and to help define a community around a sense of selflessness and compassion.

Other supers have also made the list of People of the Year, including Elwood’s Ken Bossert — formerly Port Jeff superintendent — who has shown a similar sense of community engagement. 

Of course, we do not wish to diminish the hard work of the many heads of schools in our coverage areas, and we know many who have shown strides in district leadership. What we instead ask is for more people to look at the example Rella left in not just defining a school district, but defining neighborhoods and neighbors, of being the precedent which every student and even most residents could look toward. He was the one who looked to building trust not by demanding loyalty, but by creating a space everybody feels they’re on the same side and that all are working toward goals that benefit everyone. 

Rella will be missed, but his example remains one that all should live by.

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 students at Terryville Elementary School were excited for Superbowl 54, and they’ve thought of a generous way to show support for their favorite team.

The student council decided to play their own “Souperbowl,” by decorating large boxes to represent the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs and then asked their peers to fill them with soups and other foods. Whichever team collects the most food will win the Souperbowl.

So far, the students have collected over 200 items and it looks like they will be going into “overtime” and continue collecting until next week. At that time the food will go to local food pantries like St. Gerard Majella Roman Catholic Church in Port Jefferson Station or the pantry at the Comsewogue High School. Student Council advisor Gail Ports said, “this has to be the best game ever because everybody wins.”

Bob Lynch and his dog Kallie visit local schools to offer therapy dog services. Photo by Kyle Barr

Bob Lynch and his dog Kallie are magnetic, or at least it seems that way to watch people come forward, asking gingerly if they can pet the dog, her tail waving frantically.

Coming into the TBR News Media offices, Kallie was the star of the show, and Lynch just let her work her magic. She doesn’t make a sound, instead just walking toward people asking to be petted. 

Lynch, a 73-year-old Mount Sinai resident, has been volunteering his time working with therapy dog services for the past several years. He’s owned Kallie, a keeshond, since she was a puppy, and they have been a team for five years. Though he works part time as a risk management consultant, he finds his biggest joy nowadays is taking Kallie where she’s needed most, on a voluntary basis, through the local chapter of Love on a Leash, which provides these services free of charge.

“[Keeshonds] were bred to be babysitters — when they see kids they light up, they love kids, and going to school is perfect for that.”

– Bob Lynch

Kallie has been to nursing homes, veterans homes and hospitals, but where she’s been that her breed might be best at is at schools. 

“[Keeshonds] were bred to be babysitters — when they see kids they light up, they love kids, and going to school is perfect for that,” he said. “The work in itself is fulfilling, you walk into a room and see the smiles, and see the demeanor of the people change very quickly.”

Lynch will soon be at the Port Jefferson high and middle schools often as part of a new pilot program in the district that they say will relieve stress among students.

Christine Austen, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said she was contacted by Lynch last year and submitted it to the curriculum committee as a pilot, which they approved. The pilot program will run twice a month for four months starting in February and ending in May. A mailer and email will be sent to parents asking them whether they would like to opt out of such visits with the dog, whether it’s from allergies or a fear of animals. Austen said the decision of whether the dog is allowed in certain classes would be treated like allergies.

When presented at the Jan. 14 board meeting, some trustees expressed concerns about safety. Austen said the dog trainer would not be allowed alone with a student at any time and would always have a faculty member present.

Tara Sladek-Maharg, who teaches social studies and psychology in both the middle and high schools, originally brought in a therapy dog for her AP psychology class last year. She had become enthused about the idea of a therapy dog in the classroom after witnessing firsthand what a demonstrably positive effect it had on her own father, when trainer Linda Christian and her dog Murphy, also of Love on a Leash, came to Stony Brook University Hospital and showed him love and compassion after he had a seizure and was going through rehabilitation.

“He goes into rehab and he just sits and goes to each individual person and just lays his head down on them — petting the dog is just so calming,” she said. 

Bringing Murphy into the classroom so that the students could review classical conditioning was a transformative experience, Sladek-Maharg said. She has done more research into just why these dogs have such a positive impact on so many. The research shows that being around such dogs has a significant effect on a person’s neurotransmitters and hormones and significantly reduces fear and stress.

Studies have also shown such animals have a positive effect on elementary school students, especially in helping them speak up in public or in class.

“Today our students are very stressed — our staff is very stressed, so having the presence of a dog is just a wonderful outlet,” she said. “They don’t discriminate, especially if they are trained therapy animals. They don’t have any reason to make somebody feel self-conscious, and they have a calming effect on us.”

“Just petting the dog, they get this feeling of unconditional love.”

– Catherine Lynch 

Other school districts that have experimented with therapy dogs in classrooms have come away talking of success. Lynch has been a regular at events hosted in the Longwood school district, Miller Place School District and Ward Melville in the Three Village district. 

Miller Place High School Library Media Specialist Catherine Lynch brings in therapy dogs once a year during testing to help students relax during such a stressful time. One thing she has noticed is students regularly put away their phones when interacting with the dogs, instead talking and petting the dogs or speaking with each other.

“Just petting the dog, they get this feeling of unconditional love,” she said, adding she would like to see the program expanded to multiple times throughout the school year.

In the Comsewogue school district, special education teacher Tom King has been taking his therapy-trained labradoodle to his classes for years. Last June, during exam season, the district brought in multiple dogs into the school cafeteria to interact with students. 

Love on a Leash is a national organization that started in San Diego in the 1980s as a volunteer organization for therapy dogs. The organization has expanded to include chapters across the U.S. and several thousand members. The Long Island chapter was founded about a decade ago and includes over 150 members and just around 25 “active” participants covering Suffolk, Nassau and parts of Queens.

Theresa Schwartz, the chapter president, said schools have been expanding such programs with therapy dogs. When she started about three years ago, schools would ask her to come in during testing times, but that has expanded into doing reading programs in elementary schools, after-school wildlife clubs, SEPTA events and even offering support services during emotionally fraught times, such as when a teacher or a student passes away.

The fact that Love on a Leash is a nonprofit volunteer organization makes the program unique, Lynch said. From the start, people who train the dogs and take them around are also their owners, living with them 24/7, and they have personally seen the ways a dog has helped bring people who are truly suffering a little bit of joy.

“I think I can speak for most of our volunteers doing this kind of thing, [it] makes the team, the dog and the handler, feel better, and makes other people feel better,” she said. “You see what joy your dog can bring to other people.”

Young people in an environment like school, Austen said, respond especially to animals. It has even had a positive impact on faculty.

“It just seems to take down the level of anxiety,” she said. “There are so many instigators of that, whether it’s cellphone use or social media — all of that constant stimulation. Then there are the academics at the high school, and the push to perform.”

If successful, which she expects the program will be, she wants to expand it to the elementary school, where studies have shown therapy dogs have a positive impact on helping people speak up in class.

 

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The Port Jefferson Station and Terryville communities came together Dec. 18 to show that a National Guard Airman and community member is still remembered.

Comsewogue School District and Brookhaven Town officials gathered with community members at the corner of Bedford Ave. and King Street to honor Tech Sgt. Dashan Briggs, a Port Jeff Station resident who was assigned to the 101st Rescue Squadron, 106th Rescue Wing of the National Guard. He was among those killed when their helicopter was shot down in March, 2018. The 30-year-old was one of seven airmen on board carrying out a mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, an American-led mission to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Underneath the sign for King Street now reads “Tech. Sgt. Dashan J. Briggs Way.” The street sign’s designation came after Brookhaven town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) sponsored and helped pass a town resolution in June.

“Tech. Sgt. Dashan Briggs was a husband, father, grandson, friend, neighbor,  and dedicated service member our country with honor and distinction,” she said. “We remember Briggs as a wonderful representative of our community and a leader who was committed to his work and to helping others.”

Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said Briggs’ sacrifice can be better be remembered by both school and community.

“As a mother your heart breaks for the sacrifice the family has given for our nation and that’s
the reality for protecting our freedoms,” she said. “It’s such an honor for the family and the sacrifice, but its really important for his children to see this from the community. The kids may not remember this specific moment, but as they grow up and travel through the school they will always remember seeing their father there every day.”

Before the street sign unveiling, the school district presented Briggs’ family with a portrait of their husband and father at the Boyle Road Elementary School. Both of Brigg’s children are in the Comsewogue school district.

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said the portrait does a great job as a reminder to everybody who moves up through the district.

““I think the portrait following the kids as they get older is a wonderful thing,” he said. “A whole generation of kids who grow up in this school and the school district will learn the lessons of sacrifice and service of country through the example of Tech. Sgt. Dashan Briggs. It’s a great way to honor him, it’s a great way to honor his family and it’s a great benefit to all of the kids in this school district.”

Additional reporting by Monica Gleberman

This post was amended Dec. 19 to add additional comments from Councilwoman Cartright.

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File photo

By Monica Gleberman

Comsewogue district officials took extra precautions after a non-life-threatening statement required the removal of a high school student Monday morning.

At 11 a.m. Monday morning, Superintendent Jennifer Quinn sent out a robocall alerting the community there was an incident at the high school that required immediate attention.

“Many of you are at work, but I just want to share some information with you because I think you’ll be hearing about it,” she said. “We had a student at the high school who made a comment that we took very seriously, it concerned us.”

Although Quinn did not go into details about the comment or the student, she did say there was no damage done to the school and none of the students were in immediate danger.

Within minutes of the call, parents began posting on social media with concerns about what happened and asking for more details from the district. School board President John Swenning responded with a post online, “all is safe at the [high school]. A comment was taken seriously, and action was taken. There was no immediate threat to any students or staff.”

In a private message, when asked if the board of education would make an official comment, Swenning said all comments are taken as “true threats” and the district followed protocol which included getting the Suffolk County Police Department involved.

The SCPD confirmed the incident in a statement via email Monday afternoon, adding that the student involved in the investigation made the “statement” in question on Friday, December 13, which the district was made aware of Monday, December 16.

In the email, the SCPD wrote, “The statement could have been perceived as a threat. The student was taken for evaluation and an investigation determined there was never a threat to the students or the faculty.”

Swenning praised the district and the police for their help. “Kudos to [the] administration and SCPD for their quick response.”

At the end of the school day, the administrators put up an alert on the district’s website with an update from Quinn. The new information included that the school psychologist was called in to help with the student once the administrators were made aware of the incident. Additionally, there were no weapons discovered on school premises and “[to the] best to our knowledge, the student did not have access to any,” the alert stated. “The student will not be attending school until we are confident that they are not a threat. Furthermore, appropriate discipline is being taken. Please be assured that the safety and welfare of all of our students and staff is always our number one concern.”

This post will be updated when more information becomes available.