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Congressman Tim Bishop Talks Candidly About the Future

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By Claire Walla

New York Congressman Tim Bishop doesn’t seem the type to lounge around. He commutes between offices in Southampton, Patchogue and Washington D.C., and attends events across the state and across the East End, where he represents nearly 700,000 people.

But last Tuesday, October 18, Bishop sank comfortably into the cushions of a big white couch in a house off the Bridgehampton Turnpike and, surrounded by a dozen of his constituents, he began to chat.

The purpose of his visit was as part of the Bridgehampton Children’s Center’s series: “The Politics of it All.” (Past guests have included State Assemblyman Fred Thiele and County Legislator Jay Schneiderman.) And although the conversation hinged on politics, Bishop spoke candidly about his positions on all topics raised that night, from early childhood education to what he called the “repulsive” tactics of the Tea Party Movement.

While casual, the tone of the evening was relatively dour as those who attended the discussion looked to the congressman for answers to what they see as glaring inefficiencies within the U.S. political system.

Perhaps the most outspoken attendee that evening was Randall Dobler, who before he spoke distributed a five-page document titled “Randall Dobler Economic Recovery Plan.”

He asked Bishop why — especially if the United States is looking to create more jobs and lessen its dependence on foreign oil — the U.S. government is not moving faster to promote the use of natural gas as a clean energy alternative.

Bishop’s answer turned out to be the relative mantra for the evening: “political opposition.” In the case of natural gas, he said many members of Congress who have thus far been opposed to passing legislation that would give American families the economic incentive to switch from heating their homes with oil to natural gas object to the part of the proposed bill that would put a tax on carbon-based fuels. According to Bishop, they maintain that the free market economy should reign supreme.

While political opposition is nothing new in Bishop’s line of work, the assemblyman’s critique of the current political climate went far deeper than typical party spats. For example, he said there’s “no political will” among many conservative members of Congress to move away from carbon-based fuels. And then, raising the pitch of his voice in frustration, he added: “Many members [of Congress] don’t even believe in climate change!”

Bishop reaffirmed what many in the room seemed to already believe, that such fundamental differences between members of Congress have created a vast schism within government, which has steered the country to where it is now: at a relative stalemate.

After the group lamented the woes of the American work force — which event organizer Bonnie Cannon said is worrisome because it’s been flooded with many college graduates who can’t find employment — attendee Lucius Ware, head of the East End chapter of the NAACP, drew comparisons between today’s problems and the American workforce in the 1950s and 60s. The so-called “space race,” he said, “kicked the workforce into high gear.”

“This is our Sputnik moment,” Bishop agreed. “But the environment could not possibly be more adverse to get that done.”

Bishop said he is baffled by the notion that certain measures he feels would bolster the American economy — like bills to boost spending for infrastructure that would create jobs — have been shot down by Congress in large part because Republicans are unwilling to budge on the issue of raising taxes in any way, shape or form. Referencing a Republican debate back in August during which the eight candidates stated they wouldn’t even consider raising taxes $1 for every $10 of spending cuts, Bishop said, “That’s lunacy!”

“I hate to say it,” he continued, “But [the conservative right] is not about to give [President Barack Obama] a win. That sounds hopelessly partisan, but I believe it’s right.”

Bishop explained that there are currently 25 million Americans under or unemployed in the United States, and he feels there is “no chance” the conservative right will accept the president’s spending plans, which currently propose $50 million for infrastructure and $35 million for schools.

“I see intransigence on the part of Republicans,” he added. “And a total unwillingness to move [on these points].”

The group went on to discuss government cuts to early childhood education programs, including Head Start. Bishop complained that the budget passed by Congress last April included 25 percent cuts to the program. To which Bridgehampton Head Start Manager Daphne Gil, who shared the couch with Bishop that night, noted that such cuts actually have an adverse affect on the work force as a whole.

“You have to allow people to let their children go to daycare and go to school so that they can go to work,” she said.

Bishop sympathized with her complaints and said, of the cuts, “there’s not logic to it.” Bishop added that he believes these programs should be restored, and said the country needs to put more effort into bolstering math and science programs, because this, he noted, is where the future of the job market will be.

In the midst of such a seemingly bleak forecast, Cannon made an attempt to shift the discussion.

“I’m feeling a bit down,” she said with an ironic laugh. “Can you tell me there’s some light at the end of the tunnel?”

Without being specific, Bishop offered an analysis of the current political climate.

“At the root of everything is fear,” he explained. “Fear of not having a job, of not being able to send your kids to college… and that leads to resentment, resentment leads to distrust, and distrust leads to anger. And that is one of the forces at play that I think is very debilitating.”

As an antidote, Bishop said he is advocating passion; people in politics “who think we can do better.” As for how the U.S. gets to a place where passion overcomes anger, “It’s hard,” he added. “But it’s important for people to say: this isn’t the country we had in mind.”

Student Teachers: Pierson Grads Come Home to Teach

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Pierson alumni, and current teacher, Sean Kelly was just 14-years-old when his family moved to Sag Harbor from a rural, landlocked town in Ireland. Although, his new home and old stomping grounds were separated by thousands of miles, Kelly says both shared a tight-knit community. This close sensibility allowed Kelly to flourish at Pierson High School and he was soon playing on sports teams and garnering a stellar academic record. Kelly graduated in 1999 and went on to earn a Bachelors degree at Harvard University, but soon returned to Pierson to teach social studies.

Above: Government and Economics Teacher Dr. Jon Baer. 

 When Kelly became a member of the high school faculty, he joined dozens of former alumni who currently work for the district as educators, administrators, custodians, kitchen help and school board members. Of the nearly 40 alumni who work for the district in some capacity, many of them say they were drawn to Sag Harbor because of the close-knit school community.

Above: Social Studies Teacher Sean Kelly, then and now. 

 “I feel very blessed to work for the school. I always knew that I wanted to invest my life in Sag Harbor because of the location and the community,” said Kate Berkoski, a fellow 1999 Pierson graduate and current fifth grade teacher. “Every teacher I had from kindergarten through sixth grade is still working at the school.”

 “The teachers really try to do something more than educate. They try to give students an experience,” continued Berkoski, referencing programs such as the annual fifth grade Wax Museum and the recent Ellis Island project where children mimicked the journey of turn of the century immigrants.

 Dr. Jon Baer, Pierson’s government and economics teacher and a member of the class of 1963, fondly recalls how his English teacher, Helen Muller, inspired him to pursue a degree in education. Dr. Baer, however, pursued this career later in life after spending years in the army, earning masters degrees in education and political science, a doctorate in political science and working for the local radio station WLNG until 2000.

 “It was kind of my dream to teach English because of my teachers from Pierson,” contended Dr. Baer. “The school is very cozy and friendly.”

 Although Dr. Baer fostered close relationships with a few select teachers, he says on the whole, teacher and student dynamics were more formal in the past, which is noticeably different today.

 “[Now] teachers can joke around with their students. There isn’t that barrier and I think it is that sense of community [between teacher and student] that leads to less drugs and violence in our schools,” opined Dr. Baer.

 Closer ties between the faculty and students is one change of many, adds Dr.  Baer, compared to his experiences at Pierson. Academically, Dr. Baer says the school focused on business and career training electives in the 1960s. During this time, Pierson offered classes in accounting, bookkeeping and typing. Current Sag Harbor Elementary School teacher Bethany Deyermond, who graduated in 1971, remembers learning to balance her checkbook in one class.

 According to Dr. Baer, vocational oriented courses, such as electrical shop classes, were mainly dominated by male students, while woman traditionally attended the home economics and typing classes.  

 

 When Terri Federico graduated from Pierson in 1983, the school was just beginning to offer special education courses and the school provided students with little help when applying to colleges.

 “They now make it easier to apply,” said Federico, who added that when she was in school Advanced Placement programs weren’t offered.

 “Many more kids go to college now than before,” said Dr. Baer.

 In addition to better preparedness for college, Kelly added that the school now offers a more diverse curriculum and elective course offerings.

 “I look at what the kids have available to them now with a certain amount of envy. They have all of these amazing extra curriculars, facilities, science labs and the library. There is such a variety of classes. There is an outlet for any individual skill — like sports, art, drama. Each individual can find a way to show their talent. I wish I had had that diverse experience, though my experience was amazing,” opined Kelly.

 Kelly says the small class size also gives the school the feel of a private institution, with which Frank Atkinson-Barnes, a social studies teacher who taught at several boarding and private schools before starting at Pierson, agreed. Several of the teachers reported that the number of Pierson students has remained relatively stable throughout the years.

 Although each alumni turned teacher fondly recalls their Pierson experiences, few expected to end up teaching in the district where they grew up. Atkinson-Barnes says he applied to schools very far from Pierson and attended college in Virginia.

 “When I left to go away to college, I don’t think I ever thought I would come back to Sag Harbor,” remembered Deyermond, though life had other plans for her. After attending college in Pennsylvania and Vermont, Deyermond transferred to Southampton College to finish out her studies and to be closer to her future husband Ed Deyermond, now a village trustee and Southampton Town Assessor.

 Others, like Federico and Berkoski, always had an inkling that their paths would lead them back to the village. Federico didn’t stray far and completed the bulk of her studies at C.W. Post and Southampton College. Although, Berkoski attended college in North Carolina, she ended up returning home shortly after graduation.

 Though teaching in the Sag Harbor school district was an unexpected turn of events for several Pierson graduates, many of them say they feel lucky to work for the school.

 “Pierson educates its students to a high enough level that the school wants them to come back,” said Kelly. “For those of us who came back, Pierson treated us so well and our experiences were so amazing that we wanted to come back.”

 

Economy Sways Seniors College Pick

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“I know there will be tears shed in this office. Maybe more so this year than before,” said Pierson guidance counselor Linda Aydinian as she leafed through college financial aid materials on her desk. The shrinking economy has hurt local parents and increased demand for scholarship aid, Aydinian added, making it harder for Pierson students to finance higher education. Almost every week, Aydinian is visited by distraught students who were accepted into top private colleges, but will have to attend community and state schools in the fall instead.

“Some kids are tens of thousands of dollars short …When your heart is set on going somewhere, but you can’t and its not because you didn’t get in … It’s because of money … It’s heartbreaking,” Aydinian observed.

But it appears the economy not only determines the schools students can afford to attend, but also shapes the way they now think about the college process. According to Aydinian, Pierson kids are being more pragmatic when selecting a school, financing their education and picking a major.

“You need to make sure the investment you make is going to pay off,” said senior Nicole Keane. “You need to know that the school you attend is going to get you where you want to be for the tuition you are paying.”

A fellow classmate, who preferred to remain anonymous, applied to larger schools with deeper pools of aid money, while Keane chose schools that ran the gamut from state institutions to small and specialized private colleges. Megan Pintauro applied to Plymouth State University where she is likely to get more financial aid because her sister is currently attending the school.

This year, Pierson students are looking for more aid as opposed to financing the bulk of their education through student loans. The anonymous student is drawing upon a number of resources in order to attend the University of Puget Sound in the fall. As her mother works for a not-for-profit and her father is currently unemployed, the school awarded her around $21,000 in financial aid. Annual tuition, however, is $44,000. To shore up the difference, the student plans to enroll in a work-for-study program and is open to becoming a resident advisor in a dorm to offset her living expenses. Members of her immediate family have also offered to pitch in. After her first year, she is likely to receive more scholarship money as the school tries to retain its student body through increased financial aid.

Pintauro was originally offered the most lucrative financial aid package from Dowling College. After her mother, Laura, read the fine print though, she learned a majority of these funds would be derived from student loans. Luckily Pintauro’s school of choice, Catawba College, gave her more scholarships and grant money.

“I think a lot more kids are looking for scholarships than in the past. I think they are more reluctant to take out loans,” noted Aydinian. She added that students often look online for scholarship monies, but have a better chance of receiving local grants. Numerous community organizations, from the Lion’s Club to the American Legion, offer modest scholarships to qualifying students. The teacher’s association also raises between $4,000 to $5,000 in funds every year.

“I see students thinking about their education in the long term. Some know they are going to go on to medical school and law school … They have a lot more education ahead of them,” guidance counselor Eileen Kochanasz chimed in. “I think they are also worrying about their ability to get a job coming out of school.”

Selecting a major that will translate into a viable career is a pressing concern for these students. Keane wanted to pursue illustration or a degree in bi-lingual studies at first, but decided upon computer animation for practical reasons.

“Animation is not only the art side, but it is technical as well. I will have computer knowledge and will be able to work for an animation company,” said Keane.

Although students seem to be taking a sage look at the college process it remains stressful, especially for parents. Once Megan begins her freshman year in the fall, Laura Pintauro and her husband Robert, will have three children attending college at the same time. All of her children attend state schools, but Pintauro maintains the costs are still high.

“It’s hitting the wallet big time, especially in this economy,” said Pintauro. “I try to teach Megan about loans and all of that … How it isn’t just like picking money off of the money tree.”