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Shoreham-Wading River school district

Legislator Sarah Anker, left with scarf, presents a proclamation to Rubin alongside his parents and older brother Dec. 18. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Long Island’s very own Carter Rubin is back home and was greeted with a parade in his honor.

The 15-year-old winner of NBC’s “The Voice” was welcomed home Friday with a caravan of people supporting and cheering on the newest local celebrity.

Carter, of Shoreham, won the national singing competition during Tuesday’s series finale, as a representative of Team Gwen, headed by singer Gwen Stefani. 

On Dec. 18, several dozen cars lined up outside Shoreham-Wading River High School with signs and balloons, ready to surprise the sophomore outside his home. 

Also greeted by media, as Carter hosted interviews alongside his family, firetrucks, the local police and community members shocked the young singer with a warm welcoming. They held signs out of their car windows, handed him balloons and flowers, and yelled their joy for achieving a huge feat.

“I’m still in shock, I don’t think it really hit me yet,” the ecstatic and overwhelmed Carter said. “My feet have not touched the ground. I’m still trying to comprehend what happened.”

Since October, the young singer was traveling back and forth from his Shoreham home to Los Angeles to participate on the show. During the initial audition, Stefani and fellow judge singer John Legend both wanted the then-14-year-old on their teams. He chose the No Doubt singer, making this her first win on the show. 

After touching the hearts of both the judges and America as a whole, Carter is now able to share what he loves with the world, his mother, Alonna Rubin said. 

“It’s pretty awesome,” she said. “We’re so happy to be able to see him do what he loves and make so many people happy.”

Throughout the competition, he often dedicated his performances to his autistic older brother, Jack, who was back home watching his little brother shine on the small screen.

“I’m just so happy for Carter that he won ‘The Voice,’” he said, smiling. “It felt so good to see him on TV.”

Their mother is an advocate for the autism community and is founder of the local nonprofit Families in Arms, which helps support families of children on the spectrum.

The father said it was hard having his son and wife across the country, but FaceTime helped, and even the distance was well worth it to watch Carter shine.

“Watching him just do the work, perform and step up was amazing,” David Rubin said. “But he really made a big impact on people which is, as his parents, really incredible.”

Along with his new title as the show’s Season 19 winner, he also was awarded $100,000, a trip to Universal Orlando and a contract with Republic Records. Carter added that his next steps are to start writing his own music and start performing when COVID is done. 

“I want to get in the studio and record music to put out there for everyone,” he said. “Once COVID is over, I want to perform.”

He’s been performing for years, though, his grandfather Ric Mango said. Mango, who was a member of 1960s group Jay & the Americans, said that Carter had opened up for him and his own band since he was 6 years old. 

“He’s a great kid,” the proud grandfather said. “He’s great inside and out, and he’s going to be an idol.”

When Carter and his mother headed home Thursday night, family friend and Shoreham Civic Organization president, Mike Goralski, knew he wanted to do something special for the teen.

“I’ve been friends with the family for a little more than 12 years, and I felt as though something should be done because he’s a wonderful kid,” he said. “The family, from the kids to the grandparents, are
great people.”

So Goralski recruited local elected officials and the rest of the community to give Carter a big hello.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) presented “The Voice” champion with a proclamation to congratulate him on his achievement. 

“This is the best holiday gift ever,” Anker said. “We really need this, and Carter is the perfect person to provide this excitement. His heart is so warm, his courage is so strong, and his belief that you can follow your dreams has made such a difference, not just for him, but for everyone.”

And while his personality shined on stage, he was still in disbelief he won this honor and received all this love from his neighbors.

“It feels amazing,” he said. “I’m just so grateful for all the outpouring support in the middle of a global pandemic.”

Carter Rubin won the season 19 finale of The Voice Dec. 15. Photo by Trae Patton/NBC

One talented Shoreham teen is going to join the list of other famous Long Island artists. 

Carter Rubin won the season 19 finale of The Voice Dec. 15. Photo by Trae Patton/NBC

Carter Rubin won over the hearts of Americans after they voted him as season 19 champion of NBC’s singing competition, “The Voice” the night of Tuesday, Dec. 15.

The 15-year-old Shoreham-Wading River High School sophomore is the youngest male winner on the show, who participated on Team Gwen, headed by No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani. 

“Gwen’s taught me so much, but the best piece of advice she’s given is for me to be myself when I perform and just in general,” Carter said the morning after his victory. “She’s helped me believe in myself more and she’s boosted my confidence.”

Carter began his “Voice” journey over the summer at just 14, when he auditioned for the show. He previously told TBR he had to keep it a secret until the show’s airing early October. And since then it’s been a whirlwind for the teen, spending months away from Long Island, his family and friends while performing and competing on the show. 

“For the blinds, battles and knockouts, I stayed in LA with my mom for almost three months,” he said. “It was hard being away from the rest of my family, but I knew I was there for a reason. Luckily, I got to go home and see my family and friends before coming back to LA for the live shows.”

But after weeks of singing and traveling, the two-part season finale aired eventually on Nov. 16 and 17. Carter, along with his competitors, performed one last time and waited for America’s votes. 

During the finale, Carter premiered his own new song, “Up from Here,” and then sang alongside Stefani on her — and fiancé/fellow judge Blake Shelton’s — hit Christmas song, “You Make It Feel Like Christmas.”

This was Stefani’s first win as a judge while Shelton’s team with singer Jim Ranger, came in second place. 

And while singing his original song was incredibly special, he said, his favorite performance came from the semifinals last week, when Stefani asked him to sing “Rainbow Connection” from “The Muppet Movie.”

Carter was ecstatic and dedicated it to his autistic older brother, Jack. 

Carter Rubin performed on Team Gwen with Gwen Stefani on the season 19 of The Voice. Photo by Trae Patton/NBC

“He could not be more happy for me,” Carter said. “He’s been so proud and understanding throughout this whole experience, and I’m so happy to call him my brother.”

Carter’s mother, Alonna Rubin, founded the Shoreham-based nonprofit Families In Arms, which helps to support families with autism. 

“I am so grateful that Carter was given the opportunity to show the world his God-given talent on such an iconic stage,” she said. “But more importantly, the world now sees how beautiful he is on the inside as well. Proud is not a big enough word to describe how I feel. We will be forever grateful for all of the love and support out there. This is just the beginning for him.”

Carter added that as his coach said, it’s time to start writing and recording more music. 

“Gwen says that it’s time for me to start writing songs, and that’s exactly what I plan on doing,” he said, enthusiastically. “I also want to get in the studio, record some music and I want to perform for live audiences again — once COVID is over.”

Confetti poured around Carter when Carson Daly announced his name. He buried his face in his hands, while Stefani repeatedly yelled, “You won!” Carter was in disbelief. On camera, Stefani was heard asking if she could hug her winner but, due to COVID-19 guidelines, they had to celebrate while social distancing. 

Miller Avenue School second graders and teacher Courtney Von Bargen
congratulate Shoreham-Wading River’s Carter Rubin. Photo from SWRCSD

“I’m still in shock,” he said. “It hasn’t hit me yet, but I just want to say ‘thank you’ to everyone who’s voted for me and supported me throughout my entire journey on this show. I couldn’t possibly be more grateful.”

And his community couldn’t be prouder. Earlier this week, the new star met virtually with second-graders in Courtney Von Bargen’s class at Miller Avenue School. In Google Classroom, they listened to Carter talk and asked him questions. 

Claudia Smith, principal of the school, said, “Carter is bringing so much joy to the Shoreham-Wading River school community.”

The second-graders created posters and banners to continue cheering on Carter before the finale. 

“I come from a small town where everyone knows everyone, and the support that I’ve gotten from my community means everything to me,” he said. “I couldn’t possibly thank them enough.”

Stock photo

Local school districts are still maintaining low COVID-19 numbers, while the rest of Suffolk County is nearing 6% in some areas. According to district leadership, that’s because schools have been constantly evolving their plans to keep students, staff and the community safe.

Centereach High School in the Middle Country School District. The district superintendent is just one of many continuing to keep students safe. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Middle Country school district covers a large jurisdiction, Dr. Roberta Gerold, superintendent of schools, said. In non-COVID times, there are roughly 11,000 students within the district, though now approximately 7,500 are in buildings due to hybrid and remote learning options. The district has only had 102 positive COVID cases since the start of school, a 1.3% infection rate — with 52 of those cases coming from Thanksgiving break.

“We have such strong guidelines we’re containing it, not spreading it,” she said. “We know where [students and staff have] been and who they’ve been with.”

Like all the other districts, students are required to wear a mask at all times, except during mask breaks. Social distancing has been implemented with barriers on desks, and teachers are asked to keep their windows and doors open.

If a student is showing symptoms, they are immediately placed into an isolation room and brought home.

But that barely happens, according to Gerold. “The community is doing a good job because they’re not sending us positive kids,” she said. “We’re not getting a lot of cases in the schools.”

Ronald Masera, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said that over the summer, local superintendents began putting together plans to better prepare their districts.

“When the pandemic started, there was a feeling of uncertainty,” he said. “But now what we’ve found is we could place a great deal on social distancing.”

Because they have been implementing and following CDC guidelines, he said they’re not seeing spread within the schools.

“Controlled environment helps keep the community safe,” he said. “Even if we see the community numbers rise, I think the government, politicians, leadership and superintendents know how important keeping schools open is.”

A representative from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) office agreed, and said the new guidelines released last month are to keep the doors of local schools open.

“We encourage them to not be closed, but to test instead,” they said.

Guidelines now require mass testing in schools in red, orange and yellow micro-cluster zones before they reopen, followed by vigilant symptom and exposure screening conducted daily. Impacted schools can reopen as early as Monday, however students and faculty must be able to provide a negative COVID-19 test result prior to going back to the classroom. New York State will provide rapid test kits for schools wishing to participate.

After a school reopens in a red or orange micro-cluster zone, vigilant symptom and exposure screening must be conducted daily. A quarter of the in-person learning school community — both students and faculty/staff — must be tested per week, and the school should ensure that it provides opportunities to test on school grounds, or otherwise facilitates testing and accepts test results from health care providers.

If the school does not hold a testing event or provide testing on school grounds, test results provided to the school as part of the 25% testing of the population must be received within seven days.

The governor’s representative said that no regions have hit the 9% emergency number, which would close the county again. Schools, however, have flexibility regarding choosing a comfortable closing percentage.

“They can use their own metrics to close down districts or schools as long as those metrics don’t go against the state mandate of 9%,” the representative said. “A lot of things are state law governed. Schools are done by the locals, and we wanted to be within the local district rules.”

The latest number of confirmed and new COVID-19 cases in the Town of Brookhaven, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services on Dec. 7 is 17,307, while a school district like Shoreham-Wading River has seen just a total of 43 positive tests for students and teachers/staff as at Dec. 8.

“I would like to thank our parents, staff and students for implementing the required COVID-19 health protocols this year. The daily temperature checks, health screening forms and conversations about washing hands, wearing masks properly and socially distancing have been really effective in keeping or schools open, healthy and safe,” said Superintendent Gerard Poole in an email statement. “The district is fully prepared for a shift to distance learning if a closure is mandated. We have a great distance learning plan and have already shifted this year successfully for a day or two when necessary due to COVOD-19 related school closures.“

File photo of Port Jefferson Superintendent Jessica Schmettan. Photo by Kyle Barr

Port Jefferson Superintendent Jessica Schmettan said that they are hopeful to remain on their current course, but are prepared to pivot their instructional models as directed by the governor’s office.

“Moving forward, our schools will continue to follow the guidance provided at the local, regional and state levels, including any prescribed steps needed should our area become designed a yellow, orange or red zone,” she said. “We are grateful to our students, staff and community for their unwavering support of and adherence to our initiatives. Their collective efforts have helped to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within our schools and allowed us to keep our buildings open for in-person instruction.”

Marianne Cartisano, superintendent of Miller Place school district, said schools, to date, are the safest places for children to succeed academically, socially and emotionally.

“We are also fortunate to have the acknowledgement of social responsibility in our community, coupled with everyone’s common goal to keep schools open,” she said.

The latest number of confirmed and new COVID-19 cases in the Town of Brookhaven, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services on Dec. 7 is 17,307, while a school district like Three Village has seen just a total of 72 positive tests for students and teachers/staff as at Dec. 8.

“Our district continues to follow the guidance of the Department of Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Cheryl Pedisich, Three Village superintendent of schools, said. “We are fully prepared to implement any prescribed measures to keep our schools open, safe and operating in the best interest of all of our students and staff.”

Elwood school district Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Bossert said he agrees with statements made by Cuomo and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in a recent joint press conference.

“Governor Cuomo used the words ‘amazing and astonishing’ to describe how low the infection rates are in schools as compared to many of the communities surrounding them,” Bossert said. “We agree that our schools are safe places for students, faculty and staff. The guidelines that have been put in place in collaboration with the Suffolk County Department of Health are designed to keep students and staff safe and school open.”

Bossert said in addition to mask wearing, distancing and appropriate hygiene, it’s important for those who are symptomatic or think they have been exposed to someone positive for COVID-19 to stay home.

“We are so very thankful to our parents and community members for demonstrating an understanding of the role we each play and acting out of an abundance of caution when making decisions about their children,” he said. “We are confident that we can keep students safe in our school buildings — where we know they will enjoy the greatest benefit of our instruction program, socialization with one another, and have positive interactions with their teachers.”

Smithtown school district superintendent, Mark Secaur, said he is planning for several different scenarios, including the potential of COVID testing in schools, or going back to completely remote.

“Based on the relative safety of our students and staff, providing education for those two things has been at odd at times,” he said. “But it’s the balance we have to navigate because of the pandemic.”

“We have proven that schools are safer than the outside community,” Secaur added. “Kids have been amazing. They’re excited to be with their friends again, and the kids have been more resilient than some adults.”

 

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Other Nearby Districts Revise Protocols/Quarantine Students

Rocky Point High School. File photo by Giselle Barkley

Rocky Point schools have moved to keep students for in-person learning four days a week.

Starting Nov. 30, Rocky Point middle and high school students are to go to school Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with Wednesday remaining as a dedicated virtual day.

The decision to push this part of the reopening plan to after Thanksgiving was made earlier this month, Nov. 4, according to a letter to parents signed by Superintendent Scott O’Brien.

“What is most important is that any change we make is done carefully, and with health and safety at the forefront,” O’Brien wrote in his letter.

The live-streaming component of what the district called “Phase II” began Nov. 9 to log into a period-by-period class schedule.

Those students who are switching to virtual from in-person learning, or vice versa, also have a start date of Nov. 30.

“With a recent increase in the number of positive COVID-19 cases in our district and the surrounding area, it was necessary to reallocate our transitional resources to address cleaning and disinfecting due to recent positive cases,” O’Brien wrote in his letter.

Since September, Rocky Point has seen 25 students test positive for the coronavirus while nine staff/teachers also tested positive as of Nov. 30, according to the state’s COVID Report Card.

Other neighboring districts have similar rates of infection, with school districts overall having much lower infection rates than the general populace. Shoreham-Wading River, with its plan of having students in school five days a week resulting in an infection rate of 1%, that currently being 22 students and six staff members.

The SWR district did have to close the high school and quarantine over 100 students and several staff members a month ago after two students who allegedly attended some kind of social gathering tested positive.

Still, Superintendent Gerard Poole said in a letter posted to the district website that they have revised protocols so that schools will not be closed the day a positive case is reported if contact tracing can be performed in time, along with the needed cleaning and disinfecting.

“The intent of this revision is to reduce the number of school closures,” Poole wrote. “Please know that the decision to keep a school open, as opposed to closing for a day, will always be made carefully with the health and safety of our students and staff as the priority.”

Meanwhile in Miller Place, the district said Monday the district contact traced three Miller Place High School students, one North Country Road Middle School student and one staff member from there who have all tested positive for COVID-19. None were symptomatic when last in school, and all have since been quarantined.

Miller Place Superintendent Marianne Cartisano said in a letter posted to the district website that the positive cases were relayed to the district through the Safe School Helpline.

“We have also been working with multiple staff members and community families who have been identified as close contacts of persons testing positive for COVID-19,” she wrote. “If required, staff have been quarantined as close contacts.”

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A video of two Shoreham-Wading River students using racial slurs and making racially derogatory comments on social media has led to significant backlash online and from district leaders.

A post Jovan Bradley put on Twitter about his interaction with two SWR students. Both student’s faces were intentionally blurred. Image taken from Twitter post

The video in question was on a platform called Omegle, which pairs random people for video chat. That interaction was then published to other social media apps TikTok and Twitter Nov. 10.

The video shows two unidentified young men, who have been named students in the Shoreham-Wading River school district, paired on the social media platform with a man named Jovan Bradley, who according to his Twitter profile lives in Poughkeepsie. Bradley started off the conversation with a greeting, then the young men started with “My N*****” and “What’s up, N****.” The video continues with one of the two young men calling Bradley “slave” and saying, “I’m going to whip you” and mimicking cracking a whip.

Bradley, who is mixed race, later posted a video of the interaction to Twitter and TikTok. In it, he repeatedly asked the young men, “Why?” The Twitter video has been viewed over 38,000 times. The TikTok video has been seen over 417,000 times as of Nov.16.

The names of the two young men have not been released or could not be independently confirmed by press time. People on social media went on trying to find the names of the two students, but some supposed names of the two young men involved have been mistaken for other social media profiles.

Superintendent of Schools Gerard Poole released a statement Nov. 12 saying the video was “reprehensible” and that it was “in clear violation of the core values of our school district.” Poole said the matter will be addressed with both students for further disciplinary action.

The superintendent added that the district is rooted in teachings of “tolerance, acceptance and the importance of embracing diversity,” and they have tried to “cultivate a sense of unity and inclusion in our school community.”

Like many North Shore school districts, Shoreham-Wading River is predominantly white. The district is 87% white, 1% Black, 8% Hispanic or Latino and 2% Asian, according to New York State Education Department data. Long Island has a long history of de facto segregation, and advocates most commonly express this discrepancy by comparing districts like those on the North Shore with places like Brentwood, which is predominately Black and Latino.

Bradley posted to Twitter that at least one parent had contacted him with an apology by one of the students. The other student has yet to send an apology, according to the Poughkeepsie man’s latest TikTok post. Bradley has posted that he has gone on Omegle to debate people and also publicly shared his response to the apology Nov. 13, saying he hopes the young man takes “positive things from this experience” and that he hopes the young man sees fault with his actions “at a human level.”

“Take this experience to continue to educate yourself on what has and is happening in our country,” Bradley said in his post. “I do wish you a bright future if you can make those changes. Everyone deserves a second chance.”

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Shoreham teen Carter Rubin went team Gwen as he moves on with NBC’s “The Voice.” The show will follow his journey and viewers will get to see how far he goes. Photo by Chris Haston/NBC

He had two judges to choose from when he wowed viewers on “The Voice.”

Carter Rubin, 15, from Shoreham, auditioned for the NBC show back in July and had to keep it a secret until it aired last week.

“Early on in 2020, I went to an audition in Boston,” Rubin said. “And I was lucky enough to keep progressing after that.”

Things halted for a bit because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but eventually he was flown out to California to do a live, blind audition in front of some big names: Gwen Stefani, Blake Shelton, John Legend and Kelly Clarkson. 

After taking the stage, he wowed both Stefani and Legend with his cover of Lewis Capaldi’s “Before You Go.”

“You do not look like your voice,” Stefani told Rubin. Legend said he’s the youngest contestant he has ever turned his chair for. 

This led the two judges to battle over the Shoreham-Wading River High School sophomore. He ultimately chose Stefani. 

“She is the sweetest person ever,” he said. “She gives great advice and that’s why I went with her.

Rubin has been performing publicly at venues across Long Island since he was young. 

“I’ve been singing ever since I could talk,” he said jokingly. 

He chose Capaldi’s powerful ballad because it meant something to him. His older brother, Jack, was diagnosed with Autism. Rubin said the song, to him, is about being there for someone in need. 

“My brother and I have a strong connection,” he said. “And I always want to be there to help him.”

He said his brother, along with his family and schoolmates, are beyond proud of him now that the cat’s out of the bag. 

“They were so surprised because I had to keep it a secret for so long,” he said. “So, I was excited to be able to share what I’ve been doing this past summer.”

A singer in the school choir, and always involved with theatre, he decided to take a chance on “The Voice” to inspire others.

“I wanted to inspire others to follow their dreams,” he said. “It’s brought me so much joy and I want to heal other people with my voice, especially with times like these … People need music now more than ever.”

His mother, Alonna Rubin, founded the local nonprofit Families In Arms, which helps to support families with Autism. Rubin often performs at events for the organization, and she said she couldn’t be prouder of both her kids. 

“The biggest compliment that I’ve gotten since his audition is that he has the most beautiful, genuine soul,” she said. “To me there’s nothing more that I can be proud of …. Once again, he amazes me.”

Centereach High School in the Middle Country School District. The district superintendent is just one of many continuing to keep students safe. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Schools are staring down the barrel of funding cuts because of the COVID-19 crisis.

While students have been returning to their new normal of hybrid classes, remote learning and plastic barriers between desks, school districts across New York state are concerned about the news surrounding a potential 20% state funding cut.

Elwood Super Ken Bossert, pictured above before the pandemic, said every single school will need to make painful cuts if things don’t go their way. Photo from Heather Mammolito

According to New York State Education Department, the State Division of the Budget has begun withholding 20% of most local aid payments, forcing reductions in some payments to school districts across the state. The reductions in aid, combined with increased costs during pandemic times, could affect not only students, but community members too.  

“All public schools throughout New York state will have to make deep and painful cuts if federal assistance in the form of school aid is not secured,” said Ken Bossert, superintendent of Elwood school district. “The governor’s proposal of reducing aid by 20% will impact districts that rely heavily on aid in a devastating way. Not only will programs and staffing be redacted, the gap between the ‘haves and the have-nots’ will widen.”

Mark Secaur, superintendent of Smithtown school district, noted that during the height of the pandemic in New York last spring, the state adopted a budget that contained three review periods, in which local aid distributions might be reduced on a rolling basis, based on the revenues the state received. 

“On August 18, districts throughout New York state received a state aid payment for the 2019-2020 school year that withheld 20% of the expected payment,” he said. “Also included was a note that all future payments would be reduced by 20% in the absence of federal relief.”

Secaur added that for Smithtown, this equates to a potential loss of upward of $9 million in state aid. 

“When developing our 2020-2021 school budget, the district took into consideration the potential loss of state aid and made adjustments,” he said. “However, these losses, coupled with the unfunded expenditures required for the safe return of students, will likely force the district to significantly utilize the fund balance and reserves to balance the budget.”

In addition, the budget doesn’t cover the costs that are protecting children returning to their classrooms. 

“Cleaning supplies, dividers for rooms … the cost is close to $4 million,” said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of Middle Country school district.

That sum didn’t include the cost to keeping the schools operational — even when students weren’t in them when the pandemic hit. 

“There was still a cost to keep the schools running,” Gerold added. “It was a rough couple of months.”

Gerard Poole, superintendent of Shoreham-Wading River school district, agreed.

“In a time when students need more, we won’t be able to provide that,” he said. 

While Poole and his peers are trying to stay optimistic, and are pleased to have students back, he wonders if it will be sustainable. “It’s an uncertain time — it won’t be the easiest thing for districts to put a budget together this year,” he said. “We just have to take it day by day.”

“We’re trying to plan for a budget without knowing what’s going to happen.”

— Roberta Gerold

While each district is different on the Island, they can all agree that continuing to plan during an uncertain time is very difficult. 

“We’re trying to plan for a budget without knowing what’s going to happen,” Gerold said. “If we have the info, we can figure that out. … It’s a scary time for sure.”

Miller Place school district declined to comment but did release a letter Sept. 3 penned to elected officials, asking for their support.

“As our elected officials we implore you act quickly to stop any and all federal and state reductions regarding payments to New York state school districts,” the letter said. “As district leaders we remain focused on the mission of returning students to our classrooms, and providing them with the social, emotional and academic supports they need in order to achieve their 2020-21 instructional goals.”

The letter continued, “Please recognize any reductions in federal or state aid payments would dramatically reduce our ability to sustain our district’s fiscal health, as well as maintain the support needed to ensure our students and staff physical health.”

SWR 2020 Valedictorian Jacqueline Holden and Salutatorian Stephanie Searing. Photos from SWRCSD

Shoreham-Wading River High School announced the top scoring seniors of the Class of 2020 with Jacqueline Holden and Stephanie Searing having been named valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively.

These two well-rounded students both have impressive achievements and interests and have taken advantage of many of the district’s courses and extracurricular activities.

Valedictorian Holden’s achievements include involvement with the Drama Club and Tri-M Music Honor Society, where she serves each club as treasurer; leadership roles as secretary for both Women in Science and Engineering and Students Against Destructive Decisions and varsity captain of Brainstormers. Outside of a busy high school career, she is a leader in St. Mark’s Teen Choir and a Girl Scout.

Holden will study molecular biology at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall. She, along with other valedictorians, were saluted by the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association this year in what would have been their 26th annual valedictorians luncheon, which was canceled due to the pandemic. Instead Superintendent Gerard Poole presented Holden with a commemorative program, congratulatory video, a certificate of achievement and a cherished childhood storybook, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss.

Salutatorian Searing served as vice president of the National Honor Society’s Peer Tutoring, is treasurer of Tri-Music Honor Society, represented her peers as the ex-officio student member of the Shoreham-Wading River board of education, is a member of Mathletes, the varsity track team and the varsity tennis team. Searing is principal violist of the Children’s Orchestral Society and participated in the Plum Island Animal Disease Center High School STEM Forum, a unique opportunity where she presented her findings on the organ shortage in America to scientists from Plum Island, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, University of Connecticut, Suffolk County Community College and Mystic Aquarium among others.

Searing will attend Stevens Institute of Technology where she will major in biomedical engineering.   

“These two students represent the exceptional programming offered at our high school,” Principal Frank Pugliese said. “Their leadership skills and well-rounded academic, athletic, extracurricular and community involvement exemplify the goals of the Shoreham-Wading River School District – providing all students the skills required to become lifelong learners in a self-sufficient manner. We look forward to hearing more about their accomplishments in the future.”

Voting booths at Rocky Point High School. File photo by Kyle Barr

It very well could be a challenging next few years for school districts all across Long Island, let alone the North Shore. Districts await with bated breath any announcement from New York State regarding any new mandates, let alone the announcement for when schools could potentially let students back into buildings. Not to mention, the potential drastic cuts in state aid due to major state budget shortfalls. Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has set up committees headed by billionaire Bill Gates and others to look at “reimagining” education, though what that will mean down the line could have major impacts on school district operations.

With that, only two of four local school districts have contested elections, but all still face similar issues. Given these challenges, The Village Beacon Record has given all board candidates the chance to say what challenges they see ahead for their districts.

For more information about districts’ 2020-21 budgets, visit www.tbrnewsmedia.com/tag/school-budgets.

Shoreham-Wading River

Three incumbents are looking to return to their seats at the SWR school board, and no challengers have presented themselves to contest those positions this year. Each seat is for a three-year term. 

Michael Lewis

Current board president Michael Lewis has been on the board for four years, and with two children in the district, he said that while the position is stressful, “It is very rewarding to see the board’s impact when students attend our meetings and display their accolades, achievements and success.”

Lewis, a senior project manager for an architectural firm on Long Island, said the biggest concerns for the future are the potential for state aid cuts and for what he called “unfunded mandates” caused by new physical distancing regulations.

What may help the district into the future is what Lewis called their “very healthy” capital reserves, which may allow for more flexibility in uncertain and potentially lean times. 

“Having a very supportive community which has consistently approved our annual budget, a four-year average growth of only 1.52%, is a huge advantage as well.” he said.

Lewis said he is hopeful for full student attendance of buildings come the start of fall, but still the district has purchased Chromebooks for all elementary students, with secondary school students already having them. 

“Our administrators have offered multiple professional development opportunities which a majority of our teaching staff has taken advantage of,” he said. ”There is always room for improvement in everything we do as a district.”

Katie Andersen

Katie Andersen, who is finishing her first term as trustee on the SWR BOE, said difficulties the district will face in the coming years will be issues of mental health and gaps in student knowledge from distance learning.

Andersen, who is vice president of the board, said she has several children in the district, including a seventh-grader, fourth-grader, first-grader, and a brother who is a junior in high school. She is a member of several committees and is involved with the PTA and SEPTA. Outside of work on the board, she is a marketing consultant.

“I’m deeply committed to serving our community in this role,” she said. “In spite of the challenges and extensive donation of time, I do enjoy it.”

Though she said the most significant issue is students’ emotional well-being, she added the district will also be facing issues from complying with new unfunded state mandates, such as having to provide distance learning on the fly, that will be a challenge “while becoming increasingly creative at stretching every dollar so that we can continue to enhance our programming and move forward with the maintenance projects for our buildings,” she added.

While Andersen said the district will continue to improve upon lessons taught by rolling out distance learning, she felt the district did everything it could with what it had.

“The resources provided to students and parents, the ongoing professional development provided to teachers, and the tireless efforts of our administration and staff has been nothing less than remarkable,” she said. “Our district will continue to provide for the needs of our students, staff and families as creatively as possible under these less than ideal circumstances … A growth mindset isn’t just something we teach our children — it’s at the heart of everything we do here in SWR.”

Henry Perez

With his third year on the board under his belt, Henry Perez, a mechanical engineer for a national architectural/engineering firm and near 20-year Shoreham resident, said the district is trying to be fiscally responsible despite the current hardships.

“The current pandemic will impact New York State’s financial ability to support local education,” Perez said. “I expect reduced funding from Albany in the next few years.”

He added the pandemic will likely change how students are taught in the future, and with the fear of additional unfunded mandates, it will mean a greater challenge to the district as it attempts to continue its current levels of education. 

“Shoreham-Wading River is already positioned to continue providing this level of education,” he said. “However, going forward requires careful planning to navigate these changing times. Listening to the community and receiving timely feedback in this time of social distancing is extremely important.”

Perez, who has two children in the district, said distance learning remains a complicated topic. The biggest issue is despite current efforts that he and others in the district are proud of, “it requires months of planning and feedback to develop and fine-tune a distance learning platform.”

However, the district has made major strides with its virtual classroom through its Chromebook initiative. Rolling out the distance learning structure in “a matter of days” showed the district’s quick response time, and feedback helped fine-tune the services. 

“I am confident we will only see improvements,” he said. “It seems in this day and age many expect things to be perfect from day one, myself included. However, it’s this expectation that results in change. It is change that brings opportunity.”

Rocky Point

The Rocky Point Union Free School District has three candidates running for two at-large seats for the 2020-21 school year. Each seat is for a three-year term. This year two incumbents and one newcomer are looking for the public’s nod.

Sean Callahan

Sean Callahan, the current board vice president, has sat on the BOE for six years. Himself a labor lawyer specializing in education and school issues, he said he and the board have spent the past years “transforming” the district by hiring people in central office and in principal positions, adding the board has worked to maintain balanced budgets and improve communication between the board, administration, staff and community.

“I am running once again to continue the transformation into the next generation,” he said.

Callahan, a Rocky Point resident since 1975 and father of three sons, two graduates and one in middle school, said he has experience in school auditing districts. He added he is also a certified school business official. On the local side, he has been a member of the Rocky Point civic, PTA and was a 10-year member of the North Shore Little League board of trustees.

As for upcoming issues due to the pandemic, the longtime resident said the board has already worked, even prior to schools closing, to tighten the belt. This year with a tax levy cap set at 0.08 percent and having prepaid part of their bonds of over a million dollars, which meant little had to be changed due to the pandemic with no loss of educational programming. While there is a chance state aid can be cut down the line, he said his day job offers him insight others may not have. 

“During this pandemic through my employment I am privy to many internal discussions from the governor’s office as well as having access to many other school districts,” he said. “This enables our district to learn from others’ mistakes and borrow their ideas.”

Jessica Ward

Trustee Jessica Ward has been on the board for one year, having run last year to finish the term of another trustee who had resigned.

She works at the William Floyd School District as an office assistant at William Floyd High School, which she said gives her insight into the ground-level view of what districts are having to do during this unfortunate time. She has four children who attend Rocky Point schools at every level from elementary to high school.

She sees the issues that districts all across the island will face in the near future as maintaining programming despite potential drastic cuts in state aid, following the guidelines for and ensuring the health and safety of staff and students in the aid of social distancing and trying to create a balanced budget to facilitate all that. Districts also face the challenge of ensuring equal access to technology for all students in the event that distance learning becomes more cemented in the future.

“We need to make sure that we are using our resources wisely, examining existing contracts to ensure fiscal responsibility, thinking outside the box in terms of schedules and extra-curricular activities, researching grant opportunities for technology needs, and partnering with other districts and Eastern Suffolk BOCES for staff training and curriculum needs,” Ward said.

With that, she added she feels Rocky Point has done an “excellent job” in rolling out distance learning. The district identified students in need of electronic devices in their homes, and the English as a Second Language department “ensured non-English-speaking students received the help and support they needed.

Some teachers in the district have been presenting audio and video lessons, and the guidance department, she said, has been reaching out to students who need additional assistance.

“There is always room for improvement though, and in the future, I would like to see every student at Rocky Point receive a Chromebook or device to assist in distance learning should we need to continue this in the 2020-21 school year,” she said. “I would also like to see all of our teachers doing some form of live interaction with our students via Google Meet or another platform in the future.”

Kellyann Imeidopf

A 10 and a quarter-year resident in the Rocky Point school district, Kellyann Imeidopf said her two main jobs are as a real estate salesperson and as a mother. She has four students in the district, with one in kindergarten, with the others in first, eighth and 10th grade. She said she decided to run because, “I ultimately have the children’s interest at heart. I want to be part of the team that shapes how our children get ready to become productive and active community members themselves. I want to create a shared vision for the future of education.”

She said the main challenges the district will face in the coming years will be regarding the mental health of both children and staff, and how they will “maintain social distance, but not emotional distance.” 

She said there will be setbacks from online learning, adding there needs to be a look at how to adapt the physical classroom to a virtual environment that can both engage children without leaning on parents. She said she has other ideas for how to prepare seniors heading off for college, even though seniors don’t have the same access to guidance departments they had when students were in school buildings.

In terms of distance learning, she said the district is working with the resources it had on hand, and both teachers and parents are “all dealing with this transition in not only professional ways, but personal, social-emotional and economic ways. I believe every staff member has our children’s best intentions at heart.”

She added the district can come together as a team to develop ways to ease the burdens on parents.

Miller Place 

The Miller Place School District has two seats up for election, and two incumbents are looking to fill them. Trustees Richard Panico and Lisa Reitan are the only candidates asked to be put on the ballot.

Both could not be reached before press time. The two candidates will be included in a follow up article if they respond before the June 4 issue of the Village Beacon Record.

Mount Sinai

This year, Mount Sinai voters will be asked to cast ballots for three at-large board seats with a total of four candidates running. Three incumbents and one newcomer are looking to fill the at-large seats for the next three years.

Edward Law

Ed Law, also a nine-year member of the Mount Sinai BOE, said he has decided to run again because with the district facing unprecedented challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, the district will need to navigate the pandemic and continue offering the same level of education. That, he said, will need experienced hands. 

“During my time on the board of education, we’ve been able to improve on the objective metrics of success for our district as well as providing for the specific needs of students who have developmental delays and disabilities,” he said. “Our track record of success of our students earning admission to competitive colleges and universities has been improving year over year while our district has expanded choices and options for those who choose career over college. We need to continue to improve on these.”

Law, who works full time as a management consultant, said the biggest challenge for the district will be in potential loss in state aid. The ongoing crisis might also result in other unfunded mandates, but he called those “nothing new.”

He added that the district has crafted its 2020-21 budget with consideration toward potential state aid cuts, while still keeping the tax levy increase minimal.

“As a district, we have evaluated every line item of our operating budget to ensure that we can provide continuity of our program,” he said. “This current scenario has been reflected in our proposed budget.”

In terms of the future of education at Mount Sinai, Law, who has one child in the middle school and two recent graduates, said that the district has tried to address concerns with how the district is doing distance learning. Though it’s hard to tell what may be in the future, the district must plan for everything.

“We have had a few issues raised by parents and we have it addressed directly by the teacher and principal,” he said. “Since we don’t know yet whether in person instruction will be able to be provided in the fall as per Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] guidelines and the governor’s directives, we need to continue to improve on how instruction is being provided, and have a plan for remote/distance learning in the new school year, whether through existing technology solutions or alternate technology platforms.”

Peter Van Middelem 

With six years already on the job, trustee Peter Van Middlem said the district must try to maintain its high standards of academics and other programming while facing potential financial challenges from the pandemic.

Van Middelem is a retired New York City Fire Department member and current financial auditor in various Suffolk school districts. Among his three children, his son, Jacob, is a junior at the high school.

“As a lifelong resident who attended Mount Sinai Schools and a 35-year volunteer of the Mount Sinai Fire Department, service to this community is my guiding force,” he said. 

He cited the district’s efforts already with hiring a teacher for the school’s robotics program, a new special education director and the new elementary school principal he described as a “literacy expert,” along with the implementation of Columbia Teacher College Reading and Writing programs for middle and elementary schools. He cited his and other members ability to deal with crises, including new security efforts such as armed guards and perimeter fencing.

However, now with the ongoing pandemic, he said the district’s efforts to generate savings through the district’s retirement incentive program and use of the capital plan to make improvements to facilities are important. 

He said the district must also be there to support community members facing financial hardships in this time.

“Our students and their families potentially will experience financial difficulties and we will be there to help any way we can to support them,” he said.  

In terms of the future of learning at Mount Sinai, he said the district has done well with limited New York State guidance, and will continue to improve on distance learning.

“With basic at best guidance from New York State, our teachers and admin have had to create a new learning environment,” he said. “The vast majority of our staff have done a great job considering the circumstances. We can always do better and will strive for that goal.”

Karen Pitka

Karen Pitka, a Mount Sinai resident since 2011, works as a fourth-grade teacher and said she can bring that experience in education matters, especially at the youngest grade levels, to help Mount Sinai in these difficult times. 

Pitka said she has taught second and fifth grade as well. While she has considered running for school board before, she said the pandemic has made the choice all the more clear.

“My extensive experience in education allows me to be well versed in what our children need,” she said. “Our youngest children will suffer greatly from the closure of schools during this unprecedented time and I feel I will be an asset to the community and will be able to offer the proper guidance being that I am an elementary school teacher and mother of young children.” 

Having the proper protocol for distance learning is one of the most important issues districts will face. Pitka said districts need a “proper plan” for distance learning should students not return to school buildings in September. Plans, she said, need to adhere to the Free Appropriate Public Education. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which needs to take into account the type of technology students have at home or have at their disposal so all can have access. 

However, she said the district has done everything it could with the time it had to create a distance learning experience. Still, now that the district has had time to collect its bearings, she said Mount Sinai should look at programs that can offer a similar experience to all users.

“Moving forward, now that we know we need to be prepared for circumstances such as these, I feel it would behoove the district to look at their plan for 1:1 student devices and ensure that a developmentally appropriate online learning platform is put into place for distance learning,” she said.

She added the district will face the challenge of an academic gap caused by school closures, and Mount Sinai should look into a specific mental health program to assist students with coping with the “new normal.”

“More pull-out remediation services may need to be offered and class sizes will need to be smaller in order to provide direct remediation from the classroom teacher,” she said.

In terms of finances, Pitka said if state aid changes the district should look at “every single line in the budget and decide which areas are absolutely critical to the development of all Mount Sinai students from the elementary level through the high school level.”

Robert Sweeney

Robert Sweeney, the current BOE president, has been on the board for nine years. Himself the managing partner of a law firm, he said he has the longtime and intimate experience of the school district, from both the administration side and from the student’s perspective.

Sweeney, who currently has two children in the district plus one who’s graduated, said this year’s budget was modified in response to the pandemic. He said he advocated for the lower tax levy increase of just over 1 percent, a full percentage point below the tax cap, especially since many residents will be hard pressed financially in the coming months. He added that the board has helped negotiate teacher retirement plans that can reduce the budget in the future without making cuts. Knowing when people will be retiring and enrollment numbers, he said, allows them to know how to staff going from year to year.

“There’s a balancing act of keeping the programs and keeping teachers in place,” he said. “We really tried to focus on a point where it makes sense for the district but some people may have jobs lost, lost a second income or have seen payroll reductions …  We can’t just keep going on as if nothing’s happened.” 

He also cited use of the capital reserves to work on projects like refinishing the high school roof as another example of the district trying to maintain its infrastructure without laying the burden on taxpayers.

With the potential for state aid cuts looming somewhere later into the year, the board president said the budget was designed for some amount of flexibility. He added the district is dedicated to long-term strategic planning to think several years ahead.

“I don’t know of any school district that could survive, as is, with a 20 percent drop in state aid — that could be huge,” he said. “We’ve drawn a bit more out of fund balance — that’s what it’s there for — and that will take us to a position next year.”

Sweeney called the term distance learning “a misnomer,” adding that programs looked different mid-March into April and then into May. Schools will have to remain flexible, he said, in case months down the road they will have students in schools, then have to reduce attendance in schools should the state require it. Most importantly, though, is to regain the social and emotional interaction between students and teachers.  

“It is providing support to the students, I do not think of it as distance learning,” he said. “The classroom teacher is important not just because of the material and the textbook, but because of the social and important interaction that the teacher has with the students. We have to make sure that we have classroom teaching in some form. Going forward every building and grade will be different.” 

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SWR student John Basile works on the Wildcat Pause 2020 senior issue. Photo from Jean Branna

It was months before the start of the crisis, and the editors of the Wildcat Pause school newspaper at Shoreham-Wading River High School were anticipating the school year’s end and the annual senior issue. Last year, printing troubles resulted in only a few copies getting published. This year was supposed to be different. 

‘I will miss the relationships I have created with teachers and peers. Some of us went to kindergarten together, so it’s not easy to recreate the same type of relationship.’

—Brianna Cohen

Quoted in SWR 2020 senior issue

Then the pandemic happened. The schools were closed. Students started learning at a distance online, and for the editors of the Pause, a new concern popped into their heads. What would happen to the senior issue, the one supposed to cap off both their and their fellow student’s final year?

“It became obvious that we needed to have it ready,” said high school journalism teacher Jean Branna. The newspaper is planned to be available online and will be printed in time to be handed out alongside the yearbook.

What became apparent to both the teacher and school newspaper editors was this senior issue, the last of their K-12 careers, would mark a defining moment for so many of their classmates. What they were experiencing was historic, a disruption to traditional schooling not seen in more than a century.

It was a marking point for a graduating class which editors said has become tight knit through adversity, such as the students who came together in the 2018 high school walkouts, protesting gun violence in schools after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“The senior class is very close, we went through a lot of stuff in the past several years,” said Heather Tepper, co-editor-in-chief of the Pause. “To see the last three years taken away from a lot of people, you really see them react with deprivation and disappointment.”

Tepper, along with co-editor-in-chief Sasha Medvedeva, SWR senior John Basile and Branna have taken to the task of producing the senior issue come hell or high water.

Of course, nothing comes easy, especially in a crisis. The school newspaper crew is unable to use Adobe InDesign from home, as Branna said the program does not meet the data privacy and security requirements by state law. Instead, thanks to the technical expertise of Basile, the editors have started laying out using Google Docs. Normally just a tool for straight text formats, using tables and cells the students have learned to format the papers, despite limitations of the program.

The fact the students and teacher have had only three weeks to put together issue meant some long hours compiling pictures and senior comments, then laying everything out. Tepper said there was one night she logged on to see Branna was still working on a page at around 11:30 p.m. She told her teacher to “go get some sleep.”

Doing this project, she said, is as much for the students as it is to show appreciation for her teacher.

‘Be yourself and don’t sweat the small stuff. The years go by way too quickly to worry about the little things, and one day you’ll look back on those things and realize how stupid they were. Also, be yourself and never change for anyone because you’re happiest when you’re you.’

— Mike Casazza 

Quoted in SWR 2020 senior issue

“Branna is so invested with journalism in general, she’s so into her work, and I felt like I wanted to go out with a bang,” Tepper said.

But the hours have been worth it, as students from the journalism class take in the massive number of quotes from seniors. In previous years, when student-journalists would get comments from seniors wandering the halls, comments had been terse or simple platitudes. Now, while students are forced online, seniors became more verbose. To read some of their quotes is to understand the mindset of those graduating seniors, hurtling themselves into the many unknowns the pandemic has produced.

“I’ve learned about how their friendships, their experiences have changed with other people,” Medvedeva said. 

The senior was planning to attend Binghamton University to study neuroscience, but she still does not know if the college will even have a fall semester, or what shape it will take. Tepper was set to go to the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and study advertising with a goal of going into public relations. Similar to her fellow editor, she also does not know what the future may bring. It is possibly the most daunting and most uncertain time for a person to graduate since the 2008 financial collapse.

Though in writing the senior issue’s editorial, co-written by both editors, what became clear was just what this issue of the Wildcat Pause meant to the graduating students. Medvedeva in hearing some of the anecdotes from seniors has “learned about their friendships with other seniors, of how some experiences throughout their high school career have changed them. It has just warmed my heart to hear those.”

Tepper, who shared in her fellow seniors’ anxieties over the future, added this Pause issue may memorialize the shared experiences of her classmates.

“I still think there’s something to celebrate, as things were taken away from us,” she said. “I think that given the unfortunate circumstances, we can appreciate what we had even more.”