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School

From left, Frank Franzese, Dr. Don Heberer and David Rebori are Comsewogue’s tech team responsible for transitioning the school into online/hybrid learning. Photo from Heberer

Sometimes it takes a village – sometimes it takes a whole district.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, workers in North Shore school districts had to buckle down and create a new game plan from early on. March saw the closure of schools and the introduction of distance learning. September brought a return to in-person, but a host of new issues.

With constantly changing guidelines, they had to reconstruct their plans. Superintendents had to lead their districts to continue learning and to keep their students safe, while teachers, librarians, custodians, librarians and so many more worked and sacrificed to do the best they could, often exceeding what was expected. 

Gerard Poole, superintendent of Shoreham-Wading River school district, said it was a collaborative effort. 

Superintendent Gerard Poole. Photo from SWR school district

“So much had to happen for all of this had to be in place for the start of the school year,” he said. “Administrators who didn’t take any time off this summer, to teachers who had to move around classrooms. There were a lot of things that had to be done.”

One of those things that were applauded by community members was the reopening of the vacant Briarcliff Elementary School in Shoreham, which helped increase social distancing and lower the class sizes.  Poole said that in June, after they learned the 6-foot requirement between students and their desks was going to be in place, by opening up the formerly closed school they could have every student in five days a week.

But the superintendent stressed they couldn’t have done it alone. The school board was instrumental in making this happen, maintenance workers helped move supplies and nurses were there early on ready to work. 

“It was an easy academic decision to make, but equally as important socially and emotionally,” he said. “This year seems now like a major win.” 

And while SWR had to implement a plan to reopen a closed school, Cheryl Pedisich, superintendent of Three Village school district, said early in the spring the district formed a committee that would look at the narrative, and implement a school opening plan with the ultimate goal to go back to school, as normal, five days a week.  

“The issue of health and safety was most important,” she said. 

Pedisich said they initially developed a hybrid model, but the more she and her colleagues discussed it, they became concerned of the lack of continuity, also the mental, emotional and social impacts being on a screen would have on students. 

Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich. Photo from Three Village Central School District

“We wanted to bring our students back to school,” she said. “What we experienced during the spring were a lot of students’ mental health [issues]. The children felt very isolated — it was hard to connect. There was a lot of frustration in terms in the remote learning.”

By creating an education plan early on that opened the school up to five days a week head on, the district was able to hire more staff, and prepare for socially distanced learning. 

“Even though they’re wearing masks, they’re happy to be there,” Pedisich said. “We’ve had cases like anyone else, but no more cases than districts that went hybrid.”

And schools that run independently also had to figure out how to cope with these unprecedented times, including Sunshine Prevention Center in Port Jefferson Station, a nonprofit that offers an alternative education program. The CEO, Carol Carter, said they had to work with staff to handle the change. 

“We provided support to the staff and a strong leadership to the staff, so the teachers felt comfortable,” she said. “Then we did training on it. They had to learn along with us as we’re learning — they’re learning how to run classes online, how to put homework online and how to communicate with the students.”

While their school has a very small staff, they continued to help kids who were struggling at home. 

 “We would try and reach out to students and their families almost daily,” Holly Colomba, an English and science teacher at Sunshine said. “We were trying to check in, whether it’s with their mental health or educationally, just trying to keep in contact with them and let them know we’re still here — and that we were there to help them.”

And technology was huge in every district as the COVID pandemic was navigated. Joe Coniglione, assistant superintendent at Comsewogue School District, said the district wouldn’t be running smoothly without the help and initiative from the technology department.

 “These guys made it possible with going remote and doing hybrid instruction,” he said. “They orchestrated training every teacher in the district and worked around the clock to make sure kids were learning. They went way above and beyond to help us operate in time.”

From left, Frank Franzese, Dr. Don Heberer and David Rebori are Comsewogue’s tech team responsible for transitioning the school into online/hybrid learning. Photo from Heberer

Don Heberer, Comsewogue district administrator for instructional technology, said he remembered the day well. It was March 13 and he was at John F. Kennedy Middle School, scrambling and making sure every student had a device to use at home. They delivered about 300 Chromebooks to families who didn’t have devices. 

“I relied on my staff,” he said.  “And our number one focus was how can we make learning possible.”

Heberer and his colleagues — Jan Condon, David Rebori and Frank Franzese — made sure that communication was getting out to members of the community, students and their families. Teachers were constantly being trained and students were able to access their work online.

“We were in the middle of a crisis,” he said. “We have to remember people are losing their jobs, their lives, their entire livelihood. It’s important to be empathetic to that and doing everything we can to make it a little easier — students, teachers, parents and the community.”

He said they kept people in the loop using the districts app, which has roughly 7,000 people logged in. 

School librarians, too, had to change shape to keep kids reading. 

Monica DiGiovanni, a librarian at Joseph A. Edgar Intermediate School in Rocky Point, said she and her colleagues focused this year on teaching students Sora, a reading app by OverDrive. 

She said that Sora is an electronic version of their library, so kids would still be able to access books and read them on their Chromebooks. 

Along with DiGiovanni, Rocky Point librarians Jessica Sciarrone, Catherine O’Connell and Bettina Tripp have been responsible teaching students how to use the system since the school library cannot be used due to the pandemic. 

Monica DiGiovanni, the school librarian in the Joseph A. Edgar Intermediate School, was instrumental in getting kids e-books during COVID.
Photo from DiGiovanni

“As librarians, we were like, ‘Oh gosh we can’t give them books?’ That was a huge issue,” DiGiovanni said. 

After researching platforms to get them e-books, all four librarians decided to devote most of their library budget to the electronic reads.

“There’s so much that books provide that children get out of it,” DiGiovanni said. “They enjoy going to other places — fantasy worlds — so they can get that now with e-books.”

She said they’re definitely utilizing the service. 

“Some kids prefer them,” she added. “They like to be able to finish a book and go onto something new right away.”

At Port Jefferson high school, the Varsity Club is traditionally a group that inspires a sense of community involvement in student-athletes. Teachers and advisers to the club — Jesse Rosen and Deirdre Filippi — said that what their students usually do to get involved with the community was altered or canceled because of the pandemic. 

“As a result, some new events were created by our students and we found alternate ways of giving back to the community,” Filippi said. “We were especially impressed by the fact that our students saw this phase of their life as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle.”

Along with reading programs paired with the elementary school, Edna Louise Spear,  and hanging of flags on 9/11 and Veterans Day, the club hosted a Halloween trick-or-treat drive-thru event at the elementary school. 

“Oftentimes, when we feel somewhat helpless about our own situations, the best thing we can do is help those around us,” Filippi said. “This event was a perfect representation of our club´s mentality.”

A good part of the community came to the school to experience a unique and safe trick-or-treating experience. 

Students from the Port Jefferson Varsity Club during their drive-thru trick or treat event. Photo from PJ School District

“The idea was simple, the communal impact was overwhelming,” she said. “This speaks to what we try to achieve as educators. Our students recognized an opportunity within our community and they developed and executed a plan perfectly.”

The impact the club and its students made was overwhelming for Rosen and Filippi. 

“As educators, the actions of our students often inspire us,” Filippi said. “It is rewarding to see our students take the initiative and do whatever they can to put a smile on the face of their fellow students and community members.”

METRO photo

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

It’s hard to believe that we are almost at the midpoint of the summer. The pandemic has changed our lives forever. We will never be able to go back to yesterday. However, we have a powerful opportunity to build a better and safer tomorrow.

At this point in our history, it is not a time for impulsiveness and polarization; rather it should be a time for profound reflection and for building new bridges. It is not a time for building walls, but rather a time to look for more creative ways to transcend our differences and to build a stronger foundation on our American values and ideals.

By our silence, we are complicit. More than ever before, we need people to stand up and give voice to reason and to social justice for all. Individually, we need to lead by example. Our failure to do this will cost the loss of innocent lives. Simple things matter like wearing a mask in public, social distancing and washing our hands frequently.

We have painfully learned how fragile all life is and how some simple practices can make the difference.

Unfortunately, our leadership on both sides of the aisle have failed us. The pandemic should not be a political football, but rather an opportunity to come together for the sake of the common good.

It should not matter what political party is leading us when it comes to protecting all Americans. They should be courageous enough to lead us and call for unity; they should be advocating and working for healing; instead of leading the charge for divisiveness and chaos.

Every state in the union is facing the difficult decision of when and how to open our schools. The health of our children, of our teachers and of our administrators is at stake; so is the quality of American education at every level.

We need to act cautiously and deliberately and not be seduced by rhetoric that is not grounded in science and good health practices. The next generation of leadership is at stake.

Regarding our schools, let us trust our leadership, let us encourage creativity and let us think outside the box without compromising quality education. Let us be mindful if we begin with a hybrid system of learning that many of our children will not have access to tablets and the internet and not every parent can supervise at home. It takes a village to raise and educate a child.

It is time to reclaim “we the people” and build a better tomorrow for all Americans no matter their color, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or social status.

Hope does not abandon us. We abandon hope. More than ever before hope needs to become the anthem of our souls!

Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

The Smithtown School District received nearly four times as many votes for this year's school budget compared to last years. File photo

By Odeya Rosenband

School districts across Suffolk County have seen a sizable increase in voter turnout for their 2020-21 budget elections, in comparison with previous years.

2019 Budget Vote Tallies

SWR: 1,458

Rocky Point: 916

Miller Place: 783

Mount Sinai:1,381

Port Jeff: 719

Comsewogue: 812

Middle Country: 2,058

Three Village: 2,087

Smithtown: 2,776

2020 Budget Vote Tallies SWR: 2,947 (+1,458)

Rocky Point: 2,913 (+1,997)

Miller Place: 3,016 (+2,233)

Mount Sinai:2,965 (+1,584)

Port Jeff: 1,387 (+668)

Comsewogue: 3,349 (+2,537)

Middle Country: 7,639 (+5,581)

Three Village: 9231 (+7,244)

Smithtown: 11,071 (+8,293)

Notably, as opposed to in-person, all voting was conducted through a mail-in ballot this year due to the threat of COVID-19. This process made voting more readily accessible to all community members, who have largely been under stay-at-home orders as the county remained in Phase 2 at the time of the elections.

Among North Shore school districts covered by TBR News Media, the Hauppauge school district witnessed the most significant change, receiving nearly five times more voters than they did last year. Like every district, Hauppauge’s budget passed but is expecting possible cuts in state aid later in the year. This anticipation is another factor that helps to explain the increased voter turnout, as this upcoming school year’s budget is highly sensitive. 

Kenneth Bossert, superintendent of Elwood school district, noted that despite the increase in voters, the ratio of people who supported the budget to those who didn’t remained similar between the two years. “Most budgets that stay under the tax cap pass,” he said. Voter turnout in Elwood increased by 253 percent from last year, with 3,985 total voters. 

Not only has voting been made more accessible this year due to the mail-in format, but the fact that more people are at home suggests that people have more time to think about their local districts. With districts trying to formulate accommodations for the next year, keeping in mind the ever-changing nature of health protocols, district heads have routinely called this year’s school budgets more crucial than normal. 

In terms of the number of new voters, Smithtown Central School District displayed the greatest difference with 8,295 more people voting than just last year. Interim Superintendent Russell Stewart said that, “The support [voters] have given us during this budget season [will] allow us to continue to offer the best education possible to our students.”

The collective increase in voter turnout for the North Shore school districts’ 2020-21 budgets — by more than threefold overall — indicates that mail-in ballots have been more successful than the previous in-person voting. 

It is a unique comparison this year to other political votes nationwide, which have also had to contend with limitations from the pandemic. While votes were still being tallied Wednesday, June 24 for the 2020 state and local primaries, turnout is expected to be lower than in similar primaries in 2018. The number of polling places on Long Island have been consolidated, and instead of absentee ballots sent directly to homes, voting forms had to be requested and sent in before deadline the night of June 23.

In 2018, the most contentious primary for the area was for the Democratic Party contender for the U.S. Congressional District 1 seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1). Two years ago the total number of votes equaled 20,331. While votes were still being tallied by press time, the number of total votes for people who voted in person is  nearly 5,000 less than last election, according to data from the Suffolk County Board of Elections. Full results will not be known until after July 1 when all mailed-in votes are counted.

As of press time, Perry Gershon is currently leading for the Congressional District 1 seat. Laura Ahearn is also currently leading for the New York State Senate District 1 seat by a few hundred votes over Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station).

Mount Sinai Superintendent Gordon Brosdal. File Photo by Kyle Barr

Mount Sinai residents finally have the full view of their school district budget, coming up on the annual vote in May.

The Mount Sinai School District continued its presentation of its proposed 2019-20 school budget at a district board meeting March 20. The March presentation gave residents the remaining 78 percent of the total budget. 

The total proposed budget figure for the 2019-20 school year will be $60,926,615, which is a slight increase of 1.2 percent from last year’s amount. This year will also see a tax cap increase of 2.17 percent and the district’s tax levy amount would increase close to $900,000. 

At the meeting, Superintendent Gordon Brosdal said the fund balance would decrease this year. For the 2017-18 school year, $5 million was transferred to capital projects to which the public approved to cover a new turf field, bleachers, press box, field events fencing and one-third of a new roof for the high school. 

“The board wants to set a capital reserve of $850,000,” Brosdal said. 

Including the $750,000 in funds put last year in capital reserve, the district will have $1.6 million for future capital projects. Brosdal proposed to use $1.5 million for two projects: the cost of another partial repair of the high school’s roof and to replace the middle school’s HVAC system. 

“This room here, if you recall, last spring we had to move out of this room to the high school because the HVAC system died last year,” the superintendent said. It caused a lot of hot surrounding classrooms, and [it’s something] you can’t fix, it has to be replaced.” 

The district’s $25 million bond failed to pass in December, 2018 with a vote of 664-428. The district said it had intended to use the bond to fix the high school roof, along with providing new classrooms to some aging parts of the school buildings.

Residents will be able to vote on the potential capital projects in May. 

Another issue discussed was student enrollment. According to Brosdal, the district will see a steady decrease in the number of students it has in its schools.  

The current student population is 2,240, and by 2022-23 the district enrollment could drop to 1,909.

“The numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate,” Brosdal said. 

The superintendent said the problem can already be seen in the kindergarten level. The current kindergarten class has a total of 142 students and next school year they are only projecting 89 students. 

“Should these numbers bear fruit, it will have ramifications all over the schools,” he said. “We have to look at everything and be fiscally sound. It’s going to affect a lot of decisions that have to be made.” 

Other highlights of the meeting were that the Teacher Retirement System rate decreased to 8.86 percent, and district officials said they will likely save over $376,000. 

“We are lucky that the teachers retirement system didn’t hammer us this year,” Brosdal said. “It went down significantly from last year.”

The district will look to improve outside lights at schools and parking lots, citing visibility issues and will be bidding again for a security company for the high school. The district is looking for four armed and two armed guards. 

Brosdal said they are not certain on the exact amount they will receive in state aid. In Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) initial executive budget the district would receive $18,251,235. But with Cuomo considering proposing a new budget, the district won’t have an exact number until April. 

The next budget meeting will be on April 17, and the district must adopt a budget in time for a community vote on May 14. 

Seventh-grade science teacher John Braun donned a green mohawk and bellowed on bagpipes as he led a group of students into a packed Northport-East Northport Middle School auditorium. At the district’s St. Baldrick’s Day event, March 8, around 39 students and staff volunteered their time and lined up to shave their heads in support of childhood cancer research. 

Since 2007, the middle school has raised nearly $215,000 and its team, The Bald Tigers, has raised more than $14,000 this year. 

“I thought it was going to run its course, maybe be a year or two, but it has gotten bigger and bigger every year,” Braun said. “The kids get really excited to get involved and be a part of it.”

When Braun was in middle school, his best friend’s older brother died of cancer. He said that story is why he became involved with St. Baldrick’s. 

Over the years, the district has been impacted by childhood cancer, and for this year’s shave they honored a number of individuals including Caleb Paquet, who died in August 2017 after a battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and Danielle DeSimone, a former student who at 19 was diagnosed with leukemia. 

DeSimone couldn’t be at the event but sent a video thanking the crowd for participating in the event and for continuing to raise awareness for childhood cancer research. 

The crowd listened to her story of how one week she was surfing with her friends, and the next week she was in a hospital bed where she stayed for five months receiving treatment. After seven rounds of chemotherapy she was informed that she was a candidate for a bone marrow transplant. She received a transplant from a person in Germany and went on to say one day she hopes to meet them.   

“I’m still in recovery — it’s tough and a really slow process but one thing that has been consistent throughout everything has been the support of the Northport-East Northport community,” DeSimone said. “Every well-wish just reminds me every single day to keep going and that I have a full community of people behind just rooting for me and pushing me to get to my goal of getting better.” 

Nicole Paquet, the mother of Caleb, also spoke at the event about her personal experiences.

She said her son, up until he received news of his diagnosis, was very much like Danielle, a robust, healthy person who was an avid outdoorsman and enjoyed long distance walks. 

“You are not just shaving your head, wearing a T-shirt and getting a green hair extension, you are a part of a much bigger mission today,” she said. 

Caleb’s mother added many research hospitals are able to receive grants to help them come up with better treatments for cancer thanks to the money raised from St. Baldrick’s events. 

“Many children’s lives will be saved because of this research and treatment — I have hope that more types of treatment will be developed in the years to come,” Paquet said. “I also have a grand hope that there will be a cure for cancer in my lifetime.”

This year’s St. Baldrick’s event also honored Charlotte Stewart, a current middle school student who is battling cancer. When she was called up on stage to participate in the head-shave she received a loud ovation from the packed crowd.   

Braun couldn’t have been happier with this year’s turnout. 

“The community is great — I grew up here, I went to school here, I still live here — they’ve always been super supportive of any event we do, and I couldn’t imagine doing this
anywhere else.”

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Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. and his deputies spoke on what students should do about school shootings. Photo by Kyle Barr

When Suffolk County Deputy Sheriff Brian Butler asked Port Jefferson High School students whether they felt safe in school, approximately  half of the assembled ninth- to 12th-graders languidly raised their hands.

The county sheriff’s office has been conducting violence prevention classes with districts called Say Something as part of the national nonprofit Sandy Hook Promise campaign to mitigate school shootings. The presentation that was made to Port Jefferson middle and high schoolers Feb. 26 asked students to learn the warning signs of a person who may commit a violent act in or out of school, and then tell a teacher, school official or another adult about it.

“We’re not going to completely prevent a school shooting, but we can do a much better job,” Butler said.

“We’re not going to completely prevent a school shooting, but we can do a much better job.”

— Brian Butler

The deputy sheriff said one of the issues he has seen with kids being unwilling to come to adults with these comments is the aura of being called out as a “snitch.”

“We live in this, ‘I don’t want to be a snitch’ culture,” he said. “That’s a prison term.”

Butler said there were a number of warning signs students should look out for among their peers, including withdrawing from others, bullying, excessive anger, thoughts or plans of harming one’s self or others or other significant personality changes. Though the most obvious sign is a social media post, which in past shootings, shooters have used to explicitly announce their intentions days before the tragedies. 

The department pointed to a recent event in Brentwood where  Suffolk County police arrested a 16-year-old student Feb. 24 who allegedly posted a message on Snapchat saying he would be “shooting up the Brentwood Freshman Center” the following day. A student took a screen capture of the Snapchat message and sent it to officials, who arrested the young man on charges of making a terroristic threat.

While some could look at those warning signs and see a young person going through the normal emotional swings of becoming an adult, the deputies said the point of the presentation was to increase student’s awareness and to lighten the stigma of speaking up.

“This is not a paranoia thing,” Deputy Sheriff Keith Hoffman said. 

Sandy Hook Promise was formed in part by parents of children involved in the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting in 2012, where a 20-year-old man fatally shot six adults and 20 elementary school children, all of whom were 7 years old or younger. The nonprofit announced a partnership with the county sheriff’s office in August 2018. Since then, Butler said the department has been to more than 10 school districts and spoken in front of hundreds of children.

“It may not happen here, but it might happen somewhere else you might be.”

— Errol Toulon Jr.

While the sheriff deputies said the likelihood of a school shooting happening in Port Jefferson is slim, Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. (D) said the specter of the possibility hangs over students as they continue in school and even into higher education.

“It may not happen here, but it might happen somewhere else you might be,” Toulon said.

Still, many schools across Long Island have increased security measures. Port Jeff Superintendent Paul Casciano said the 2018-19 school budget included increases for the number of security staff, as well as funds for new security vestibules in both the elementary school and the combined high school and middle school building. These projects are currently awaiting review by New York State’s Department of Education and won’t likely be completed until this summer or later.

Other districts have taken the step of hiring armed guards for their schools, such as Mount Sinai and Miller Place, but Casciano said the point when security becomes overwhelming for students is when “kids feel like they’re going into a prison.”

“It’s a community decision,” he added.

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A  Nesconset school that provides  educational opportunities for deaf children is pleading for the public’s help in funding a new playground for its students.

The yard outside Cleary School for the Deaf in Nesconset lies barren, as old split railroad ties square off desolate sections of rock devoid of any slides or swings. Jacqueline Simms, the school’s executive director, said the school was forced to remove its 30-year-old wooden playgrounds in May after an engineer determined they were “inappropriate” and did not meet New York State Department of Education’s safety requirements.

Since then, parents of its deaf students have launched a GoFundMe campaign seeking to raise $100,000 toward a playground.

These are school-aged children with disabilities who don’t have a playground.”

— Nicole Abbene

“These are school-aged children with disabilities who don’t have a playground,” Nicole Abbene, of Smithtown, said. “They already feel different in regard to their disability, so for them to have a playground would allow them to have the same opportunity as every other child.”

Abbene said her son, Liam, has attended Cleary since he was 3 months old in their Parent Infant Program, designed for children with profound hearing loss from birth through age 3, with their families. Now, at age 4, he’s in a full-day preschool program for children ages 3 to 7 that has approximately 50 enrolled students from 36 school districts across Suffolk County.

“We have a growing enrollment — a huge growing enrollment — that we are meeting with our [state] legislators to see if we can do something about,” Simms said.

The executive director said the state’s funding for the school has not increased proportionally to the influx of students, leaving it tight on funds for capital improvements and the latest technology needed to assist its hearing-impaired children. Simms said she has applied to several grant programs but has yet to be awarded any money.

I took them outside, and we started to play hide-and-seek. There was no place to hide.”

— Katie Kerzner

“We’ve been trying to do everything to accommodate our population and help with the struggle of not having a playground,” she said.

The school’s staff has set up a small portable jungle gym, a few sand tables and set out tricycles and foot-powered minicars for the children to play on the blacktop. It has created a small play loft in its library, but Principal Katie Kerzner said these don’t fully fill the gap with the opportunities the children would have with an outdoor playground.

“I took them outside, and we started to play hide-and-seek,” she said. “There was no place to hide.”

Kerzner said teaching her preschool children games has been difficult without a playground. In addition, the principal said students’ interaction on playground equipment can provide vital life lessons.

“For children with hearing loss, they need opportunities to practice having those language experiences,” she said. “For our kids it’s all about language. They need more typical, realistic situations to practice their skills.”

We are all aching to have something for the spring.”

— Katie Kerzner

The GoFundMe campaign launched by Abbene has raised more than $6,000, as of press time, for an age-appropriate playground for children ages 3 to 7. Cleary’s executive director said the school once had three playgrounds divided by age group: birth to age 3, ages 3 to 7, and a third for older school-aged children in its full-time summer programs. The school has received an estimate of $150,000 to replace one playground, according to Simms, and would require significantly more funds to purchase new age-appropriate, handicapped-accessible equipment for all its students.

“We are all aching to have something for the spring,” the principal said. “Our goal is when the kids open that door, after the snow melts, there’s something out there that will facilitate their play.”

In recent weeks, the GoFundMe campaign has captured the attention of some local businesses, who have stepped forward offering aid, and community residents. Simms said one generous individual stepped into the school to donate $150 in person, not sure how to give via the website. While she is “extremely grateful,” Cleary still needs to raise significant funds.

“The playground presents itself as a must,” Kerzner said. “It’s not something on a wish list. It’s a have-to-have.”

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Jack Schaedel with students through the years at Norwood Elementary School. Photo from Joanne Grzymala

Comsewogue School District is widely regarded as a haven for quality education and its community feel by those on the inside and outside. One of the people who played a role in fostering that reputation died Oct. 10, but his spirit won’t be vacating the schools’ walls, or broader community, any time soon.

Jack Schaedel, 78, was a teacher at Norwood Elementary School from 1969 to 1999, though his influence was not confined to his classroom. Schaedel ran the school’s store for years, conditioning the students to raise money to fund class trips or donate to worthy causes. Years of holiday gift sales and other fundraisers paid for trips to Washington, D.C., foreign countries and donations to UNICEF drives, thanks to Schaedel’s leadership.

Schaedel is honored during a chamber of commerce celebration. Photo from Joanne Grzymala

He also spent three decades as an active participant and board member on Port Jefferson Station’s chamber of commerce, on Theatre Three’s board of directors, served as the teachers union’s representative, and as a trustee on Comsewogue Public Library’s board from 1974 to 2000 — a time period that saw the public pillar grow exponentially in size.

Through all of his community involvement and duties as a teacher, the 1999 Port Times Record Man of the Year raised a family with his wife Anne of 58 years, and his family members speak as glowingly of him as his colleagues and students do.

“He was the most positive, happiest person you could meet,” said his daughter Joanne Grzymala, who went on to become a teacher herself. “Within minutes of meeting him he would already be cheering you on, inspiring something inside of you to feel good about yourself. His presence was felt the second he walked into a room. His enthusiasm for life was contagious.”

Comsewogue’s Joe Rella took over the role of Superintendent shortly after Schaedel retired, though the two maintained a relationship. The district’s head said Schaedel’s influence was felt long after he left.

Rella has led the way instituting a problem-based learning curriculum in the district, a method that closer resembles a college thesis format than the standardized teach-to-the-test model characterizing education in recent years. The curriculum is offered to all Comsewogue students this year following a small rollout last school year, which saw PBL students score higher in most cases on state tests than their peers learning in traditional classrooms.

“Long before problem-based learning was on the radar — I’m talking 25 years ago — Jack was doing [the same thing] with his fifth-grade class,” Rella said. “He was a master, he was like the Pied Piper. He got children excited about learning. While they were excited he snuck in the learning.”

In the 1999 Man of the Year feature written about him, then Norwood principal Andrew Cassidy praised Schaedel as a completely dedicated teacher, and board of education member Peter Cario called him singularly focused on the betterment of education.

During his years as a Comsewogue library trustee he worked closely with trustee Ed Wendol, who said as a pair their goal was to craft programs for residents of all age groups aimed at enjoyment and educating.

Jack Schaedel with students through the years at Norwood Elementary School. Photo from Joanne Grzymala

“I found him to be a true professional, really interested in educating, and making sure Comsewogue Public Library become the educational cultural and social center of our community. We felt that to be very important,” Wendol said.

Richard Lusak, the library’s first director who shepherded the facility through major expansion to the community hub it is today, called Schaedel a unifier on the board of trustees relentlessly dedicated to the Port Jeff Station area. “Jack worked very hard with us on all of our programs,” Lusak said. “He was a good man and a good trustee.”

Schaedel is survived by his wife Anne; sisters Cindy Davis and Dixie Schaedel; daughter Joanne Grzymala (Chris) and son Jack (Jackie); five grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

A December tribute is being planned in his honor, and those interested can email Joanne at [email protected] for more information.

The family is also asking to consider donating to help in Theatre Three’s recovery from a devastating September flood at P.O. Box 512 Port Jefferson, New York 11777, attention Vivian Koutrakos.

Members of the SCSSA Executive Board met with Suffolk County law enforcement officials and lawmakers to discuss its five-point Blueprint for Action to Enhance School Safety Aug. 27. Photo from SCSSA

Superintendents in Suffolk County are trying to get their schools all on the same page when it comes to safety.

Following the particularly deadly school shooting — though just the latest in a long line of similar occurrences — that took place in Parkland, Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, which resulted in 17 casualties, discussions about concrete steps to enhance safety for students and staff in buildings from coast to coast have been seemingly unending. In Suffolk County, school officials have teamed up to release a five-point blueprint of actionable steps, officially recommended by the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association Aug. 27 to local, state and federal lawmakers.

The superintendents are calling on lawmakers to invest in the School Resource Officer program, providing additional officers in Suffolk County schools; adopt legislation that enhances campus safety, including amending the New York State Criminal Procedure Law dealing with setting bail; make the New York State SAFE Act the law of the land; support the social, emotional and mental health of children through screening programs and education initiatives; and provide institutional support to finance school safety, calling for the state to initiate School Security Aid and to exempt school safety expenditures from the tax levy limitation.

“While school safety has always been a top priority, following the horrific massacre at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, and the tragic events that followed, the importance of a strong working relationship between the police, mental health providers and public-school officials has become more important than ever,” the association said in a press release. “The SCSSA plans to continue to work together with Suffolk County law enforcement and local, state and federal legislators to turn these plans into actions that will improve school safety and the safety and wellness of all students in Suffolk County.”

In August, representatives from Sandy Hook Promise, a national nonprofit organization that was founded by parents from the Connecticut elementary school to carry out its mission of preventing all gun-related deaths, held a forum for the association and law enforcement officials. The purpose of the meeting was to share details about four programs they’ve created aimed at preventing violence in schools.

The four strategies, which fall under the nonprofit’s Know the Signs program, are taught to youth and adults free of charge in the hopes of fostering an environment that empowers everyone in the community to help identify and intervene when someone is at risk free of charge. Superintendents who were in attendance from several local districts pledged to further examine Sandy Hook Promise’s programs and to take steps toward implementing them.

During an exclusive interview with TBR News Media in July, Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. said creating countywide standards for school security is a priority for his department.

My family has become archeologists in our own home. After 12 years of collecting artwork from the kids’ classes in school, saving report cards and filing away binders from earlier grades, we are sifting through all that material, jettisoning or recycling what we don’t need.

Some of the finds are so remarkable that they stop us in our sorting tracks. My high school daughter isn’t much of a morning person. She often prefers short sounds or gestures in the car on the way to school, rather than actual conversations that might require her to form words.

As we were going through a pile of material, we found a note from her nursery school teacher. She described a charming little girl who often takes a while to get going each morning. That description is so apt today that we realized how much of people’s patterns and personalities form early in life.

Then, sorting further, we found papers from her spectacular first-grade teacher. A young woman with a soft voice and a determined style, her teacher brought out the best in our daughter, even early in the morning.

Our daughter kept a diary in that class, in which she shared stories about the family’s weekend activities. Clearly, her brother was jealous of that writing, as we also found a diary from him in which he thanks her for creating a similar book for him to record his experiences. He shared his thoughts from the weekend, and the rest of the family readily wrote back to him.

His sister also kept handwritten notes from her first-grade teacher. The letters are all clear and distinct, and offer a positive and supportive tone. Her teacher wrote to her, without talking down to her. What a wonderful role model. This teacher, through form and content, offered a ray of sunshine to our daughter even then, which was probably why we kept the papers.

These notes today take on a different meaning for us, as the teacher succumbed to cancer at a young age just a few years after our daughter had the privilege of being in her class. Our daughter was recently in a high school English class in which her first-grade teacher’s husband served as a part-time instructor. She shared some of these notes with him. He was delighted to take them home to his daughter, who was a toddler when
her mother died. His daughter has particularly appreciated seeing her mother’s handwriting and feeling an indirect connection to the encouraging words she offered.

We have also sorted through dozens — OK, hundreds — of pictures that have transported us to earlier memories. We have a photo of our 1-year old son standing on the warning track at the old Yankee Stadium, bunched up in a winter coat on a December day.

We also found numerous pictures of our son on baseball fields of his own, surrounded by younger versions of teammates who have stuck with him through the years, as well as of friends who have gone their separate ways — or have pursued other sports.

Amid all the trophies from sports teams, we discovered certificates indicating that one or both of our children had been successful lunch helpers.

We have unearthed old VHS tapes of movies we watched numerous times as a family, including a few Disney classics and a surprisingly amusing Barbie version of “The Princess and the Pauper.”

In addition to sending us down memory lane, sorting through all the accumulated clutter has made the house seem so much larger, giving us room to add modern memories and memorabilia to our collection.