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Rocky Point Middle School

Rocky Point Middle School students present the school musical, ‘The Wizard of Oz: Youth Edition.’ Photo courtesy RPSD

Rocky Point Middle School followed the yellow brick road and presented its successful school musical, “The Wizard of Oz: Youth Edition,” on Nov. 17 and 18.

The annual production brought together 112 students, 13 teachers and countless family and community members for a successful and joyful collaboration of theater and joyful music making.

“The students and staff involved in this production worked incredibly hard this year,” said Amy Schecher, Rocky Point’s secondary music department chairperson. “We are fortunate to have such talented students and dedicated faculty here in Rocky Point. A production of this magnitude also could not be possible without the continual encouragement of the parents of the cast and crew.”

Photo from RPSD

Rocky Point Middle School students continue to advocate and raise awareness for various causes, and, most recently, school social workers Jean Biagiotti and Tesia Brooks organized a Fun Day to recognize World Down Syndrome Day.

Students created colorful posters and decorated paper socks for their Lots of Socks campaign outside the cafeteria to promote public awareness of the genetic disorder. According to Brooks, the event was well-received by all and gave voice to and showed appreciation of those with Down syndrome.

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Rocky Point Middle School Principal James Moeller addresses an outside class at RPMS. Photo from RPSD

Rocky Point Middle School students returned to school with an enhanced educational locale — an outdoor classroom. 

An idea that came about several years ago, it was finally completed and gifted by the Rocky Point PTA to the Middle School.

“Outdoor classrooms just became a thing quite a few years ago,” said Kristine Susmin, former president of the PTA. “Realizing how much the kids actually learn outside, how much they enjoy being outside is really what started the whole thing.”

The space is a new addition that highlights the advantages of outdoor learning and access to nature, both known to increase student enthusiasm and as being beneficial to social, emotional and physical health. It just so happened the COVID-19 pandemic began in the midst of planning it. 

Assistant principal Dawn Meyers said the new classroom is located in the perfect spot. Located outside the school, the district added a cement slab for the 15 new desks to be placed upon. An outdoor whiteboard hangs on the side of the building.

The tabletops are versatile and turns into benches that can seat up to 30 students in a socially distanced manner. 

Meyers said that the final touches were finished the Thursday before school started, and that was all new landscaping, while a container will eventually be moved for a secure barrier, so people won’t be able to travel from the parking lot to the space.

To reserve the room, teachers must fill out a Google Calendar request. While it’s located outside the middle school, Meyers said it’s open to classes at the high school, too.

“The feedback has been great,” she said. “Right now, they’re fighting over it. Teachers are constantly calling me up saying, ‘Can I use the classroom?’ So, it’s been really great.”

Photo from RPSD

Meyer and Susmin both agreed that it took a community to get the classroom together and ready for the first day of school. 

“If it wasn’t for the parents and the teachers and everybody that donated to the PTA, this project would never have been able to be funded by us,” she said. “We’re all so grateful.”

A ribbon-cutting took place the first week of classes to celebrate the new, unique learning environment.

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The Rocky Point Middle School’s Robo Eagles, from left, coach Mark Moorman, Kristian Hald, Alex Grundmann, Matteo Gravinese, Neyo Alabi and Cooper Peterson, practice for the March 1 LEGO tournament. Photo by Kyle Barr

Alex Grundmann presses the button on the LEGO robotics piece, and he and his five teammates stare with held breath at the small four-wheeled device as it rolls down the table. The little machine, programmed and built by them from LEGOs, moves and pushes a tower to the correct position a few feet from its start. It’s just one task the students programmed it to do. 

The Rocky Point Robo Eagles, a middle school LEGO robotics team, placed in last month’s qualifiers, and will be competing March 1. Photo by Kyle Barr

Alex, 14, is just below eye height with his fellows on the Rocky Point Middle School Robotics team, but normally, that’s not the case. As he’s bound to a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy, he’s often a good foot lower to the ground and unable to reach the table at competitions that are about 3 feet up. 

But despite their ages, the students on the team had an engineering mind-set, and their first thought when Alex wanted to join the team in the eighth grade was, simply, why not a ramp?

Alex had participated in the club in sixth grade, which is a beginners course where students do not compete, unlike the other teams for later grades at both the middle and high schools. When it came time for seventh grade, Alex did not compete, saying he was originally daunted, knowing he couldn’t reach up to the tables.

His longtime friend at school, Cooper Peterson, asked him to come join the team.

“When I didn’t come back, you said you should come back and see what we can do,” Alex said of his friend. The coach initially told the student that, if he couldn’t reach the table, he could help in designing and programming, but that easily wasn’t enough for either Alex or anyone else on his team. 

The crew first made a ramp prototype out of pallet wood, and then later, Alex’s father, Richard, who works at Riverhead Building Supply, constructed the modern ramp out of varnished plywood. The ramp is made to fold up and roll around on caster wheels. 

“Honestly, I’m just happy,” Alex said and looked around at his teammates and coach. “I was a bit discouraged at first, but now I’m happy to meet fantastic people like you guys, to be able to compete and have fun doing it.” 

The robotics team also designed a lip for the top portion of the ramp to stop Alex or any other wheelchair-bound participant from accidentally rolling off.

Alex Grundmann has taken part in designing a ramp that allows him to participate in robotics competitions. Photo by Kyle Barr

For this year’s FIRST LEGO League qualifiers, the theme of the event was City Shaper, and students were asked to identify a problem in their community and resolve it. Interestingly for team coach Mark Moorman, the parameters of the contest were vague on just what community it was talking about.

“It could be your neighborhood, could be New York,” he said. “In this case, it was the robotics community — the problem with the robotics community is that it wasn’t accessible to kids in wheelchairs.”

The Rocky Point Robo Eagles placed fifth in the “table” section of the competition, which is the technical part of the robotics portion, but came in first for the project research award at the FLL qualifiers at Huntington High School Jan. 25. The team did their research project presentation on Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, and their display board included information about the ADA, details about their ramp and also an interview with FLL co-director Janet Anderson, with a quote saying, “We will try to implement this in our administration and possibly put online instructions to building a ramp on the FLL website,” with an additional promise to perhaps make such a ramp standard throughout the competition in the U.S.

The team got most of its points when Alex was up on the ramp, and with their efforts, the team has qualified for the Long Island championship March 1 at Longwood High School. Teams that place well in that punch tickets to either the nationals or the world tournament. 

Anderson declined to comment for the article on the project, saying it would not be fair to the other teams competing in early March.

Alex’s family was amazed at how their young family member and his team pulled this off. 

“I’m happy he’s allowed to be included and has something that he likes to do,” his younger sister Ava said. “Because he likes a lot of things, but he really likes robotics.”

Christine Vay, his grandmother, was even amazed at the innovation the students had pulled off.

“It’s such a simple idea, I’m surprised nobody had thought of it before,” she said.

Alex Grundmann uses the ramp for the first time at the Jan. 25 LEGO qualifiers.

Alex’s mother, Aisha Grundmann, said she has long tried to advocate for her son to never balk at any activity, whether it’s traveling internationally or even driving a boat or BMX riding. Not only is Alex making strides for himself in doing what he wants to do, but he’s also paving the way for others with disabilities to participate.

Moorman echoed the mother’s thoughts, saying this project goes beyond a simple middle school class presentation.

“STEM is absolutely super important, but how many students like Alex are out there and aren’t participating because they physically can’t?” he said. “My guess is the league was just never faced with this.”

Though this may be the first time a young person in a wheelchair showed he could compete in the LEGO competition, Alex’s mother said she doubted it was the first time anyone with such a disability has been discouraged from participating. Parents, she said, should never feel like their child can’t participate.

“It’s about making lives better for everyone else too,” she said.

Rocky Point eighth-grader Quentin Palifka shaves his head to raise money for childhood cancer during his school’s St. Baldrick’s event, at which he’s raised $10,437 in the last two years. Photo from Alicia Palifka

By Kevin Redding

Less than 3 years old, Quentin Palifka stopped in his tracks, looked up at his grandma and asked a question that “floored” her.

“I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up,” the young boy said, according to family members.

Quentin Palifka with middle school Principal Scott O’Brien as he’s handed his 2018 Prudential Spirit of Community Certificate of Excellence award. Photo from Alicia Palifka

But it didn’t take Quentin long before he figured it out. Less than two years later, at 4, he approached his mother and told her that he was going to become president of the United States.

“It was a bit shocking at the time,” his mother Alicia Palifka said, laughing. “But that’s just who he is. He’s always been an extremely compassionate, thoughtful, responsible child with integrity.”

And nine years later, the Rocky Point middle schooler has held onto those traits, and that dream. In fact, Quentin has his future clearly mapped out.

“I have a list of things,” Quentin, 13, said of his future aspirations. “So, after high school, I want to join either the Marines or the Army. Then after that, I want to go to law school to become a lawyer. After I’m a lawyer, I want to run for Congress in New York’s 1st Congressional District. And after that, I would love to run
for president.”

The eighth-grader is certainly on track for public office by upholding a reputation as a go-getter in and out of the classroom — in the third grade, he joined the student council, where he got his first real taste of student government and community service, continuing his involvement in the club throughout elementary and middle school. For the past two years, he has served as president of the Community Service Club; he goes out of his way to greet and thank every veteran he meets; is a fifth-level junior black belt in Kempo jiu-jitsu and currently training to become a sensei at United Studios Progressive Martial Arts; has once a month volunteered his time with those at Bellhaven Center for Rehabilitation & Nursing Care in Brookhaven; and, in the last two years, has raised a total $10,437 for his school’s St. Baldrick’s event that raises money for childhood cancer research — $4,270 last year and $6,167 this year.

“There are a lot of other kids like me that do wonderful and exceptional things.”

— Quentin Palifka

He received a special medal for donating the most money during the fundraiser events, and just last month, earned the 2018 Prudential Spirit of Community Certificate of Excellence honor. The national program honors youth volunteers for outstanding volunteer service, and the certificate is recommendation-based, being presented to the top 10 percent of all applicants from the state.

“It was just a huge honor to be chosen,” Quentin said. “I’m truly humbled and, you know, there are a lot of other kids like me that do wonderful and exceptional things — I’m happy to say that I’m one of them.”

Despite their pride, those who know him well said they aren’t the least bit surprised by the recent recognition.

“Quentin is just such a genuine, sweet and very well-mannered kid with a really good set of morals,” said Michelle Anzaldi, whose son Frankie, a special needs student at Rocky Point, has looked up to Quentin since he initiated a friendship with Frankie in fifth grade. “My son was put into an inclusion class then, and he didn’t have any friends in that class, but on the first day of school, Quentin went over to him, introduced himself, and [since then has] really watched out for him,” Anzaldi said. “He accepted Frankie for who he is, and their friendship is amazing.”

Quentin’s elderly neighbor John Taranto said that, for the past two years, Quentin has taken it upon himself to shovel out his driveway when it snows and helps to mow his lawn in the summer.

Quentin Pilafka with his grandfather Todd Freund. Photo from Alicia Palifka

“He’ll do anything for neighbors,” Taranto said. “He loves to do it, and he will not take anything in return. He tells me, ‘That’s what neighbors are for.’ You don’t find many kids like that. I always say that he was born in the wrong time.”

Perhaps nobody has been as impacted by Quentin’s generosity as much as his own grandfather, Todd Freund, a Korean War veteran and former self-employed salesman. Freund said he spent more than 35 years on the road — traveling across the country — and believes he missed a large chunk of his children’s upbringing.

“Now I have Quentin, and it’s been a blessing to me,” Freund said. “We’re extremely close and definite kindred spirits. I consider myself so fortunate because he taught me patience — something I’ve never really had. He and I will talk for two hours when I come over to visit, about everything. I know I sound like I’m talking about somebody who’s 60 years old, but Quentin has always lived a self-directed life and has always had
integrity and honesty. I believe it’s nurtured by his mother. She’s quite some girl.”

As much as Alicia Palifka said she’d love to take the credit, her son’s altruism is all him, she said.

“The reason he wanted to be so involved with St. Baldrick’s is because our neighbor had a child before Quentin was born who passed away from cancer,” she said. “He’s been raising money in honor of this boy he never met. This is just who he is — he always wants to do the right thing by people.”

Longtime Rocky Point resident Betty Loughran, opened a store inside the Rocky Point Middle School cafeteria, to help raise money for students and local families in need. Photo by Desirée Keegan

By Desirée Keegan

What was intended to be a one-time act of kindness by a Rocky Point PTA member has blossomed into a venture that relentlessly helps community members in need.

Rocky Point resident Betty Loughran, who graduated from the district, had been a member of the PTA for over five years before the day Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien mentioned to her a family that uprooted from Florida had moved into the area with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs. It was wintertime, and the family couldn’t afford clothes. So as O’Brien was telling Loughran teachers were scrambling to figure out a way to help, she decided to take matters into her own handsHer family was used to giving clothes away, so she gave her needy new neighbors clothes, and then came up with the idea to start something like a closet at the middle school. That’s how Betty’s Closet was formed.

“Every time a student is in need of something, like pants, sweatpants, a sweatshirt or jacket, they go up to my closet and take whatever they need,” she said. “And then I just replenish it the best I can.”

Some of the items sold inside the Rocky Point Middle School Store. Photo by Desirée Keegan

She found that there were so many families and students in need coming to the closet she went a step further in 2014 and created the Rocky Point Middle School store, where she sells discounted products like toys and clothes to kids during lunch. A portion of the proceeds goes toward replenishing the items sold at the store, while the rest goes toward helping families in need.

Loughran has made a huge impact in the community around the holidays, but she’s helping all year long. She once purchased dress pants and shoes so a Rocky Point freshman of a single father could get a job at McDonald’s. She has given sneakers to a student whose only pair had holes in them, and a pair of tennis shoes to another who would’ve failed gym class without them. She purchased socks for a student who came to school crying because his were wet every day. Last year, another family moved into the neighborhood with very little furniture. The mother was sleeping on the floor, so Loughran decided to go out and buy her a bed.

“I told myself, ‘I’m doing this to help people,’” she said. “It’s the little things that go a long way.”

Before she gets to work as a kindergarten teacher at St. Anthony’s Small Friars preschool in Rocky Point, Loughran stops at the shop to stock the shelves, then leaves it in the hands of parent volunteers like Samantha Netburn.

“I feel good that we’re helping so many people in the community,” Netburn said. “You just don’t even realize. A family next door could be suffering. You give to receive, and I have the time. It’s nice to know we stick together as a community.”

Loughran researches the newest things for kids, and tries to buy items every kid can afford. Local business owners help Loughran in her efforts, like Port Jeff Sports owner Bob LoNigro, who gives whatever he can, including shirts and sweatshirts to stock the store. Loughran’s friend of more than 15 years said no one does more than she does for the community.

“She supplies for so many kids. Betty Loughran has a heart of gold and loves the community that she grew up in. She is a wonderful person that we could not live without.”

— Denice Shaughnessy

“She’s an absolute machine,” LoNigro said. “She takes it to another level. She blows me away. She is someone who does so much for so many, and whatever I can do to help her, I’m more than happy to do it.”

Ed Darcey, owner of Personal Fitness Club Inc. in Rocky Point, said Loughran works tirelessly so that families can have some sense of normalcy.

“She goes all day,” he said. “It’s incredible what she does. First we did toy drives, then food drives, and she works all year round. So many families need assistance, and she always puts herself out there if anyone needs it. We need more people like her. She’s someone you’d want in every school. She’s an angel on Earth. She’s selfless. Her goal is just to help others.”

An employee at the district said she wished more people were so dedicated to helping others like Loughran.

“Without her work, this community would have nothing, because nobody else does it,” Rocky Point Middle School secretary Denice Shaughnessy said. “She supplies for so many kids. Betty Loughran has a heart of gold and loves the community that she grew up in. She is a wonderful person that we could not live without. Whether it’s giving something big or small, she’s always giving of herself and her time to see that others are taken care of.”

Loughran isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

“I think it’s important to understand that giving to your neighbors is a good thing,” she said. “It’s amazing how big this has grown in such a short time, and it’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it. That one family that you meet that you make really happy — you put a smile on their face — that’s why I do it. In the end, you’re giving to someone that really, really needs it. That’s what it’s all about.”

To donate to Loughran’s cause, visit her public group on Facebook Betty’s Closet/Middle School Store, or contact Rocky Point Middle School at 631-744-1603.

As music blasted and hair clippers buzzed in the packed  Rocky Point Middle School gymnasium March 16, teachers, students and community members lined up to get their heads shaved in the name of childhood cancer research.

Upwards of 25 people, a majority of them students, registered to shed their locks and raise money for the school’s second annual St. Baldrick’s event. Organized by 8th grade social studies teacher Erica Alemaghides, the event encourages students to “stand in solidarity” with those struggling with childhood cancer, one of the most underfunded cancers in the world, and be involved in community fundraising.

“Everybody has someone in their family or community that has been touched personally by cancer, so this really is an event that hits home for so many people.”

—Scott O’Brien

This year, Alemaghides said, the middle school began raising money in February through online crowdfunding accounts, and raised more than $13,000 for the non-profit St. Baldrick’s Foundation, surpassing its set goal of $10,000.

After last year’s success, raising $8,000 with an originally-set goal of $5,000, Rocky Point Middle School Principal Scott O’Brien didn’t hesitate to give Alemaghides the go ahead to double the amount.

“Everybody has someone in their family or community that has been touched personally by cancer, so this really is an event that hits home for so many people,” O’Brien said. “I’m just so proud of what our school and community continues to do … The money will help give kids a second chance at life and the students, teachers and community members are making a difference.”

Each student who got their heads shaved received a certificate, T-shirt and a bracelet. Student step dancers and Selden’s Siol Na h’Eireann bagpipe band performed Irish dances and songs for those in attendance.

Feeling more like a rock concert than a school assembly, students from all grades filled the gym’s bleachers, cheering and stomping their feet for those who sat down centerstage and got their heads shaved by members of the high school’s cosmetology program.

Seventh-grader Quentin Palifka received a special medal after he and his family donated the most money — $4,120. He said he was eager to get involved.

“Middle school can be rough for some people, but when we all focus on a single cause for at least one day, it pulls us together.”

—Liam Abernethy

“I really liked the cause — it’s a great cause, and one of my family’s friends we’ve known for so long died of cancer and I just wanted to help out,” Palifka said. “I wanted to do it last year but didn’t, and then this year, I was like, ‘I have to do it.’”

Eighth-grader Liam Abernethy and his father, a teacher in the Sachem school district, decided to get bald together.

“I have a lot of family members that died from cancer — my grandfather, my uncle, even some aunts — and I think suffering through it at such a young age would be absolutely devastating,” Abernethy said about his drive to donate. “Middle school can be rough for some people, but when we all focus on a single cause for at least one day, it pulls us together.”

When asked how it felt to be hairless, he said, “I feel lighter, a few pounds lighter.”

It was seventh-grader Kathryn Bush, however, who got everyone’s attention for being the first girl in the event’s two-year history to shave her head.

“I felt like it was something good to do and I also wanted to start over again with my hair,” she said. “I was nervous at first because I have a couple beauty marks on my head and people would maybe see things that I don’t want them to see, but now I’m fine with it and it’s not really that big a deal.”

Bush, who raised more than $1,000, said she hopes more girls will volunteer in the future.

Diedre Johnson, the high school cosmetology student who shaved Bush’s head, said she was impressed by her courage.

“Can you imagine shaving their head at their age? It takes a lot of courage. As adults, it’s easy to see that it’s just hair and will grow back in a few months, but to kids, it seems like forever.”

—Bruce Wolper

“That was so sweet; I always say I want to shave my head [for charity] but she actually did it, that was so nice,” she said, adding that the process of shaving heads was at first nerve-wracking, but became easier and more fun as the event went along. “It’s all one size and pretty easy to do … it was really eye-opening that so many people wanted to volunteer.”

Silvina Vega, a Wading River resident, heard about the St. Baldrick’s event on Facebook and decided to stop by and participate. She plans on donating her hair to Locks of Love, a not-for-profit that provides hairpieces for kids struggling with cancer.

Many teachers at the school look forward to the event and seeing their students excited about doing something good.

“It’s electric and very heartwarming,” said 7th grade Spanish teacher Bruce Wolper. “They’re taking a risk at this age, can you imagine shaving their head at their age? It takes a lot of courage. As adults, it’s easy to see that it’s just hair and will grow back in a few months, but to kids, it seems like forever.”

John Mauceri, a 7th grade special education social studies teacher, echoed Wolper’s sentiment.

“Having the kids realize how important it is to give back,” Mauceri said, “especially in this world we live in, and feel good about positive things, is amazing.”

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.”

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Rocky Point Middle School staff members celebrate earning a 2016 Inviting Award given out to inviting schools. Photo from Rocky Point school district

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.”

Students welcome their international guests. Photo from Mark Moorland
Students welcome their international guests. Photo from Mark Moorland

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.”

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

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.”

A Rocky Point Middle School student draws symbols associated with 9/11 during class. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

By Alex Petroski & Victoria Espinoza

The world changed Sept. 11, 2001. For those who were alive and old enough to grasp the enormity of the event, what happened that day is very complicated and difficult to comprehend, even 15 years later. For those who weren’t born yet or were too young to remember the events, it’s even more challenging to comprehend. That is the task facing North Shore global and American history teachers welcoming eighth- and ninth-graders into their classrooms for the 2016 school year.

Student artwork done after a 9/11 lesson. Photo by Victoria Espinoza
Student artwork done after a 9/11 lesson. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Wendy Blair-Braxton, an eighth-grade history teacher at Elwood Middle School, planned several days worth of lessons to help her students get an in-depth understanding of the events that transpired on 9/11.

Blair-Braxton started her lesson Sept. 9 by showing her students photos of 9/11, without telling students what the photos depicted.

“They had different reactions, some students said terrorism, some didn’t even realize we were talking about 9/11,” she said in a phone interview.

Blair-Braxton said after the students realized what the subject was, she showed videos about 9/11, to help put the students in the shoes of those at Ground Zero.

“I tried to teach the emotional aspects of 9/11,” she said. “It really did hit home for a lot of the students. I also explained to the kids, once you live through this type of history, all the emotions come back every time you revisit it. You get the chills, and the goosebumps down your spine.”

She said many of her students became emotional after seeing the video and photos of the Twin Towers falling, and the classroom became “dead silent.”

The eighth-grade teacher said many students didn’t realize just how many aspects of their lives were affected by the attacks.

“They didn’t realize added security now at airports was because of this,” she said.

The Elwood students’ lessons eventually went into further detail about the Patriot Act, terrorism and the Department of Homeland Security, as Blair-Braxton said she tried to show the students how 9/11 was a turning point in the United States.

Students were asked to write reflections on index cards, as Blair-Braxton played songs like “My City of Ruins” by Bruce Springsteen, a popular ballad that took on new meaning after 9/11 and helped raised funds for first responders.

After the lesson, students wrote down their thoughts on reflection cards.

“We had a child who was actually questioning if there were people in the building when it went down. So a lot of them really don’t have any clue.”

— Erica Alemaghides

“I feel like I shouldn’t be that affected by what happened on 9/11, since I had no personal connection to anything that happened,” one student wrote. “Then why do I feel like it does affect me? It’s probably because of a mixture of shock and sadness realizing that it affected our country and everyone inside of the country is the country.”

Grasping the subject wasn’t any easier for a classmate.

“I feel that I can’t describe 9/11 in detail,” the student wrote. “I know all the videos, and people’s stories of how they reacted, but I wasn’t there. I don’t have any personal experience with the incident. I think 9/11 had the largest negative impact in the history of the U.S. New York City is known as the city that never sleeps, but for long after the incident the city slept. The whole city was silent. I feel horrible for all the people who lost their lives, and the people who lived on, carrying the crestfallen emotions of the deceased. 9/11 will never be lost in history.”

Erica Alemaghides, a social studies teacher at Rocky Point Middle School, said she tried to approach the lesson from a different perspective this year compared to years past.

“I feel it’s important to teach them about everything, all the facts having to do with it, because they really don’t know anything,” she said. “We had a child who was actually questioning if there were people in the building when it went down. So a lot of them really don’t have any clue. They’ve heard of it, but a lot of them didn’t even really know what terrorism is, or they just don’t understand it.”

She said some students didn’t realize how many planes were hijacked that day, and weren’t aware of the attack on the Pentagon and the plane crash in Pennsylvania.

Alemaghides’ new lesson plan required students to choose an artifact that might have been found in the rubble, which they then replicated and explained in a personal reflection.

She said she wanted students to understand how the nation changed after the deadly attacks, and what was done to make America safe.

“You don’t want everyone thinking every time you go into a building you have to worry about that happening,” she said.

A Rocky Point Middle School student draws symbols associated with 9/11 during class. Photo by Victoria Espinoza
A Rocky Point Middle School student draws symbols associated with 9/11 during class. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Port Jefferson high school global history teacher Jesse Rosen, who teaches ninth grade, said in a phone interview that his goal in teaching about 9/11 hasn’t changed much over the years. He prefers to approach the subject from a humanistic point of view, with minimal discussion of the global implications.

“I feel like it’s still so close and people still know someone who was affected that the humanistic aspect of it is where I want to stick,” he said in a phone interview.

Rosen teaches the lesson around a story originally revealed in an ESPN piece for the show “Outside the Lines” about “the man in the red bandana.” The piece tells the story of Welles Crowther, a former lacrosse player at Boston College, who carried a red bandana with him everywhere he went. Crowther died in the attacks, and his family later learned of his heroism on that day when they heard stories about a man with a red bandana helping to save people trapped in the building.

“I feel strongly that positive can come out of negative,” he said.

Rosen shared student responses following the lesson.

“Everything we have learned about Welles shares a common theme: he was a hero,” ninth-grader Katelynn Righi wrote. “For someone to risk their life to help other people shows a lot about that person. It shows their courage, bravery and that they will do anything to make sure others are alright. He decided to be a hero because that’s who he was.”