By Desirée Keegan
Even if you didn’t attend Rocky Point Middle School, chances are you’d be treated like a family member upon entering, and now they have the hardware to prove it.
It was the most fulfilling day in Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien’s 25 plus year career in education. Nearly 60 educational leaders from around the world visited the grounds of his school and talked to personnel and pupils to determine whether or not he’s helped create an environment where students and staff could reach their full potential.
Rocky Point Middle School was one of just five middle schools and high schools in New York to be selected to receive the 2016 Inviting Award from the International Alliance for Invitational Education.
“It was so rewarding to see all of these educators from around the world intently walking round and visiting different areas of our building, talking to our teachers and especially our kids and really excitedly taking away ideas that we have in place, so they can bring it back to their respective countries,” the principal said. “It was absolutely the highlight of our last school year, and I would say, my entire career. It was a proud moment for all of us.”
The application process took a year and a half and included extensive training for the staff; self-evaluations of the school’s practices, policies, procedures and programs; and the large visits from international administrators and teachers.
Nicole Gabrinowitz, a seventh-grade math teacher at Rocky Point Middle School, said she knew how inviting the school was from the moment she walked through the doors seven years ago.
“I’ve taught over the last 21 years at many different schools, and when I finally started teaching at Rocky Point Middle School, right away I knew that this was the best building I had ever been in,” she said. “Dr. O’Brien and [James] Moeller, the assistant principal, are such good leaders. Teachers are free to have their own opinions, [O’Brien and Moeller’s] doors are always opened, they’re opened to ideas and the staff is very friendly.”
Gabrinowitz played an active role in the application process. She was on the committee dedicated to applying for the recognition, was at nearly every meeting, helped coordinate meetings with every visitor, wrote up proposals and essays and attended conferences on what it takes to be an inviting school.
Once she saw what the program was all about, she said she knew the school was a perfect match.
“When you walk into our school, it is not intimidating, it is friendly,” she said. “We greet you, the kids have great programs, it’s well-lit, the teachers are nice, and there’s really no negative atmosphere anywhere in the entire building.”
The visitors were impressed with a lot of what the school had to offer. There were dogs in the classrooms for children to read to if they felt intimidated or nervous reading to adults; inclusion, honors and standard classes; a variety of teaching styles; a speech therapist and a counseling center.
“I know that they were impressed,” Gabrinowitz said. “I spoke to probably every visitor that came, getting to know them and telling them about our school. They responded well, we accepted all of the guests with opened arms, and we had students also talk to the visitors, telling them how wonderful the school is and described what was going on inside the classrooms.”
Patrick Panella, a guidance counselor at the school for the past 15 years, also said the programs the school has to offer generate a lot of excitement.
“Some of the clubs we run that get student involvement lends support to other students and community members,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with the community as a whole. Our clubs have volunteer and outreach programs doing volunteer work at nursing homes, for example. Friends of Rachel does a lot of things to involve the students in helping and being kind to others, and having the positive culture that the staff has embeds that in the student body as well.”
Being a part of the program was also a great opportunity for the administration and staff to self-reflect.
“Part of our mind-set now is that we want to reevaluate the programs that we’re currently offering — thinking of other things we could offer that would benefit the students, staff and community,” Panella said. “And always looking to better what we do here, so that was a big part of being involved in the invitational education process.”
Gabrinowitz said the school has already begun that process.
Part of the application process also included a student survey. The children were happy, but one thing they asked for was a recreation room. The school’s leadership team listened. Students can now sign up to enter a brand new rec room during lunch, to play games like knock hockey and table tennis. The math teacher said the school also has a courtyard that was pretty, but wasn’t being maintained as nicely as they would like. A garden club emerged after that renovation effort, which got more students involved to beautify the space.
The hallways are also going to see some more changes.
“They’ve been very decorative all the time, but now we encourage our teachers to display more of our students’ work, even in math and science, so our hallways are full of their work all the time,” Gabrinowitz said. “And we’re rotating the work and I think that helps when the students are walking down the hallway and see their own work hanging up and can be proud of it.”
An announcement letter from the Inviting School Award Committee commended the school’s outstanding learning climate and its impact not only on students but staff, parents and the community as well.
Gabrinowitz said she hopes Rocky Point Middle School can set an example for others.
“Everything that Rocky Point has, we’re so much more inviting than so many of the other schools I’ve seen around us,” she said. “They may not even realize they’re not that inviting, and I think that part of our job is to educate other schools on being an inviting school. It was such a long process and we did so much — Rocky Point Middle School is already a great place, and it’s even better now, and will only continue to grow, because this process never ends.”