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Dawn Callahan

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O'Brien, was named Administrator of the Year earlier this year. He is seen with assistant principal James Moeller, on left, during an award ceremony. File photo from Scott O'Brien

By Desirée Keegan

Walking into Rocky Point Middle School, you’re greeted with smiles and hellos everywhere you turn. The hallways are filled with Eagles pride, whether it’s the large painting of the school’s mascot on the wall or children’s classwork lining the hallways.

Students are laughing, working diligently in classrooms or holding raffles for clubs with good causes.

The Middle School was one of just five middle and high schools in New York to receive the 2016 Inviting Award from the International Alliance for Invitational Education.

The feat wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for Principal Scott O’Brien, who was also named Administrator of the Year by the Council of Administrators and Supervisors.

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien plays air hockey with a student inside the school’s recently-added recreation room. Photo by Desirée Keegan

O’Brien wanders about the hallways, as students smile, wave or greet him, he stops to help a student who is having trouble opening her locker. Rounding the corner he enters several classrooms to see how the teachers’ days are progressing, or to let the home economics teacher know he loved her homemade cookies.

Social studies teacher Dawn Callahan has noticed the improvements O’Brien has made first hand, being in the district for 21 years.

“It was a big change; a 150 percent turnaround of what we were experiencing,” she said, adding that she takes a lot of pride in what goes on in the district, because she grew up in Rocky Point. “Things used to be so close-minded years ago, and he made it that you had a voice. You could run ideas by him and he does the same back — you feel included in what’s going on in the building. I think all the positive change is a reflection of how hard everyone works together, and for the students.”

Because of O’Brien’s dedication to the district, and change in culture he’s created at the helm of the school, he and the rest of the staff at Rocky Point Middle School are Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

To O’Brien, 2016 was one of the most productive and exciting years to date.

“We had many new initiatives that yielded incredible results beyond our expectation and imagination,” he said. “Getting to a place where you can be recognized and acknowledged for that high-level atmosphere takes time. I don’t think it’s something that happens overnight and it certainly isn’t something that just has to do with me as a principal.”

As part of the inviting school application process, the staff learned about what they do well, while also learning what areas to improve. Over 60 educators from all around the world came to visit the school, talk to students and observe classrooms.

“It was a proud moment for me,” O’Brien said. “We took the things we needed to work on, and we starting working on them right away.”

A survey to students was created to see what they thought was missing. An overwhelming majority wanted different ways to occupy their free time. So O’Brien partnered with the Parent-Teacher Association to use Box Top funds and create a recreation room where the kids can play during lunchtime. Inside the rec room is a basketball shoot, pingpong table, foosball table, air hockey table, an old school video arcade system, a television with a Nintendo Wii and video games, a stereo system and bean bag chairs.

“It’s really been a big hit with our kids,” O’Brien said. “They love it.”

The school also hosts club fairs at various times throughout the year to show students that there’s no one-time signup. He said he’s seen marked improvement in enrollment.

“You can take anything to his desk, and he never puts a damper on any of your ideas. He’s the best thing to ever happen to this school. He came into our lives and we all benefited from it.”

— Kristen LaBianca

“This is the age where they’re learning who they are, and they start forming their identity here, so the more opportunities we give kids at the middle school age to participate in activities, the better the end result will be,” O’Brien said. “There’s been a noteworthy increase in student achievement and graduation rate, and I feel very proud to be a significant part of that. I feel that we have such a strong culture and climate for kids and parents and staff.”

English teacher Joseph Settepani, who was named a Teacher of the Year in 2016, runs the Natural Helpers club. The group raised more than $2,000 in November for its Dimes for Diabetes cause and is currently raising money for Dogs for Dylan, after a seventh-grade student lost his three dogs in a house fire.

“I’ve had many experiences in different school environments and this is an amazing building,” he said. “Everyone comes together as a team to do everything they can. These are very, very altruistic, caring kids. They feel they can’t do enough.”

Assistant Principal James Moeller added that other changes he and O’Brien made were mixing the grade levels during lunch.

“You’d think that was a great way to keep things separate so there would be less problems, but we integrated the grades, and we found the kids interacted more with others and there was less influence of clicks,” he said. “They sort of self police one another.”

Since the school doesn’t have a playground, being that the building shares space with the high school next door, it’s tough to have recess, but a system has been worked out where during warmer months, kids can go outside and run around. Moeller said the staff loves it as teachers have noticed when the kids can burn off some energy, they’re more focused during the rest of the school day.

Pride cards were also established as a part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Students are awarded pride cards when a faculty member sees someone displaying positive behavior, whether it be holding the door open for someone or picking up a classmate’s books after they’ve fallen on the floor.

This year, the Rocky Point Middle School was named a 2016 Inviting School, recognizing the building, one of five in New York, to for going above and beyond to display a positive and friendly learning environment for students. File photo from Scott O’Brien

“The idea behind it is to reward kids for doing the right thing, as opposed to being reactive and giving them a consequence when they make a mistake,” Moeller said.

Being a part of the school since it opened in 2002, Settepani, like Callahan, has also seen the changes O’Brien made for himself.

“It’s been an amazing transformation,” he said. “It’s evolved light years. We’re finally all on the same page. We speak about how fortunate we are to work in this type of environment — to feel supported, respected and validated. No one cares about taking credit for anything, and everyone just thinks about what they can do to help.”

Art teacher Kristen LaBianca, who has been in the district for 23 years, came over to the school the same time as O’Brien and said the positive atmosphere he has created isn’t confined within the school walls — it gets out in the community.

“Ideas are never turned away,” she said. “You can take anything to his desk, and he never puts a damper on any of your ideas. He’s the best thing to ever happen to this school. He came into our lives and we all benefited from it.”

Spanish teacher Bruce Wolper, who has been at the school for five years, said he’s enjoyed the changes during faculty meetings. He said O’Brien always starts with something positive, asking who has good news whether it be personal or in the classroom, and there’s always a laugh.

“I would walk through fire for him, and for Jim Moeller, too, who is just as good,” the 30-year teacher said. “They’re a great team. They play off each other fantastically.”

O’Brien thinks it’s a great age to feed into the kid’s self-esteem and is constantly seeing students come back wishing they were still a part of the school. Because of that, he takes tremendous pride in the work the school does.

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien, standing in front of an Eagle Pride wall with students of the month, has been at the helm of the school for seven years. File photo from Scott O’Brien

“Other people brag about where they teach, but I feel like I really mean it,” he said, laughing. “I’ve always been able to get out of bed and say I love what I do, I can’t wait to go in and I look forward to another 20 years.”

While academic rigor and programs that challenge kids are also right up there, he said he thinks that without the right environment, the rest falls by the wayside. Although his plate may already seem full, the principal also teaches an administrative program at St. John’s University and The College of St. Rose, to instill these ideas in other future leaders.

“I know I made the right choice,” he said of choosing to become a special education teacher at the Frank J. Carasiti Elementary School 20 years ago, before becoming an assistant principal and principal at the building before making the move to the middle school. “I’ve had the opportunity to impact the lives of thousands of kids for the better and there’s nothing more meaningful than to hear from a parent years later telling me all I did for their children and appreciating the impact we’ve had on them. Not many jobs get to do that.”

He said that while garnering recognition and accolades is appreciated, he feels there’s something almost wrong with the notoriety, and said despite that, the school will continue work on improving.

“We have to challenge ourselves to do more — something bigger, something better — that drive needs to continue,” he said. “I’m so appreciative of the accolades but I feel that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. To get the recognition sometimes feels weird because this is how it’s supposed to be. And I don’t feel like my work is ever done.”

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien was named Administrator of the Year. Photo from Rocky Point school district

When Scott O’Brien read his favorite childhood book, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” to an elementary school class during college, he had no idea how important that moment would be to the future of his career.

“I remember reading the book to them and leaving and saying, ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life. This is what I’m meant to do,’” he said. “I think I always knew.”

The landscape architect major switched his field of study to education. Since then, the Rocky Point Middle School principal has been named Administrator of the Year by the Council of Administrators and Supervisors.

Albert Voorneveld, President of the Council of Administrators, presents Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O'Brien with his Administrator of the Year award. Photo from Scott O'Brien
Albert Voorneveld, President of the Council of Administrators, presents Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien with his Administrator of the Year award. Photo from Scott O’Brien

“I love every minute of being a principal,” he said. “I feel so honored to get this, and privileged to get it, but I just love my job. I love coming to work. I love what I do, and I think it’s just an added bonus to get honored by the people that you work with, that they also feel that that love of my decisions comes through and they value what I’m doing here for them, the staff, the students and everyone in the building.”

The faculty told O’Brien of the nomination in a very unconventional way.

“They had tricked me, of course,” O’Brien said, laughing.

The principal’s staff was adamant about reminding him multiple times of a department meeting in the library one afternoon. When he entered the packed library, he knew something bigger was happening. They presented O’Brien with a wrapped box. Inside, were the nominations by each teacher who wrote a supporting statement, poem or a note of congratulations.

“Before they nominated me for the award, I was well aware that I have a very special staff,” he said. “I feel extremely fortunate to work with not only dedicated and kids-first teachers and staff, but to be able to work together with them to implement change and make our building continuously better for kids. I have reflected on that moment in the library and how grateful I am to be recognized in such a meaningful manner. The work continues and the acknowledgement further signifies the importance and continuation of my role as an educational leader.”

The principal is in his eighth year at the helm of the school, but has been in the district much longer, serving as a special education teacher, assistant principal and principal at the Frank J. Carasiti Elementary School — working in that building for more than a decade. The St. James resident, who attended the John F. Kennedy Middle School in Port Jefferson Station, also worked out-of-state for four years, in Fairfax County, Virginia. O’Brien’s grandparents lived in Rocky Point, so he said he was familiar with the area when he received his first teaching job there.

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O'Brien has created a warm and inviting atmosphere at his school for both his staff and students. Photo from Scott O'Brien
Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien has created a warm and inviting atmosphere at his school for both his staff and students. Photo from Scott O’Brien

Nicole Gabrinowitz, a seventh-grade math teacher who has been with the district for 20 years, said she came down from the high school the same time O’Brien arrived.

“He was very welcoming,” she said. “He’s also really open to new ideas. He knows his entire staff and works hard and uses a lot of techniques you’d use in a classroom at the staff meetings to keep us close.”

A core group of staff members came up with the idea to nominate O’Brien once they heard about the award. Melinda Brooks, the school’s instructional coordinator for six years, said she wrote in her letter of recommendation that “every single person who is employed in his building is inspired to be their very best each and every day. Each year we receive many requests from teachers who want to transfer to the middle school because they want to inspire too.”

Brooks recalled when she met O’Brien in 2010 and he was warm and welcoming.

“I immediately saw that he was one of the strongest leaders in the district,” she said. “He found his calling. He was born to do this.”

On spirit day, Brooks said the principal dressed up as Superman and his wife, Theresa, whom he met while working at the elementary school and now has three children with, had her class make him a quilt for winning the award, which was decorated with all things Superman-related.

“Everyone sees him as Superman and the kids took it quite literally,” she said. “He’s someone that has an open-door policy and is willing to listen and work with you to do what is needed and is best for the community, the teachers, the kids and everyone involved.”

Dawn Callahan, an eighth-grade social studies teacher who has worked at the school since it opened nearly 14 years ago, said O’Brien has been a refreshing change.

He also, according to many, created a strong family atmosphere, and according to Callahan, looks after the staff.

“Last year we had a student that had passed away,” she said. “Knowing that I had that student for over a year and had done home-teaching at her house before she had passed, he called me personally at home to tell me about it over the weekend, instead of me coming into school the next day and finding out about it. That to me makes you realize that the people you work for really consider this a family, as opposed to being just a job.”

She added that O’Brien gives the staff areas to grow in, and the strong vibes within the building trickle down from the top.

Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien, center, poses for a photo with some of his staff after earning the Administrator of the Year award. Photo from Scott O'Brien
Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien, center, poses for a photo with some of his staff after earning the Administrator of the Year award. Photo from Scott O’Brien

O’Brien works to instill this in other teachers looking to become administrators. He teaches an administrative program at St. John’s University and The College of St. Rose in his free time.

“I love inspiring teachers to be future leaders and to change the culture of buildings and teach how to do that effectively,” he said, “and teach how to get a building to be able to support powerful learning for kids, and create a building that can be the best that it should be.”

His school is in the running win the Inviting School Award, which is a national award presented by the International Exchange of Educational Practices, and is based on the atmosphere he has created.

Regardless of the accolades and success he’s had in the field, O’Brien is just thankful for the experiences.

“Making decisions in the best interest of students while supporting staff in that process was my goal each year,” he said. “The relationships I have created, supported and maintained over the years with all members of the Rocky Point School community have played a pivotal role in where I am today as a leader. I’ve had such wonderful experiences, especially in Rocky Point, and it’s been such a second home to me.”