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As “Star of the Sea” Fades, Stella Marris Remembered

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By Claire Walla

While people in the Sag Harbor community are sad to see the oldest Catholic school on Long Island close its doors for good next week, for some the loss of Stella Maris has impacts beyond sentimental attachment.

Come Wednesday, June 22, 34 teachers and administrators will officially be unemployed.

“It’s really not a great time for teachers,” said second-grade teacher Liz Kirwan. Since news of the school closing was made public last month, Kirwan said she has spent her free time scouring websites and posting her resume on a site for teachers called Olaf. While she has applied for a few jobs, Kirwan said many of the positions listed now require English as a Second Language certification, which she does not have.

Plus, there’s the issue of geography.

“I would consider going to the North Fork or Hampton Bays to teach,” she added. But many of the job listings she’s found have been located closer to metropolitan areas like Manhattan and Boston and at this point she’s not inclined to move her family because, she said, “I love this area.”

Kirwan said many teachers, including herself, are now hoping to increase tutoring opportunities and are perhaps also looking for ways to substitute teach. Kirwan added that though she had never considered assistant teaching in the past, she would willingly do it now.

Silver Lining for Some

While the idea of securing a full-time teaching position in Sag Harbor is relatively grim for most, there are a few for whom the future seems somewhat stable. Middle school teacher Liz Guida will be transferring over to Our Lady of the Hamptons (the K-8 Catholic School in Southampton) next year, where many of the students are also headed. Other teachers will be transitioning into retirement and kindergarten co-teachers Kate Montaldo and Toni Rozzi will be embarking on a pursuit of their own.

“The second we heard there was a possibility Stella Maris would be closing, we thought… ‘What if?’” Montaldo said of her joint venture with Rozzi.

The two have created an organization called Children’s Logical Learning Service (CLLS), through which they will offer a whole slew of educational services from tutoring, mini-lessons for kids, facilitated playgroups, early literacy awareness, social skills groups and behavior management assistance.

“We knew it was difficult to get into schools out here and we really enjoyed working with each other,” she said. So, completely on a whim, Rozzi built a website and CLLS was born.

Though the organization has only been in existence for a few weeks and has yet to actually administer its services, Montaldo said a lot of parents have already approached the two teachers and expressed their excitement over what they’re doing.

The two teachers, both natives of Sag Harbor, earned their masters in early childhood education at the same time from Long Island University. Combined, they have experience with pre-K, English language arts (ELA) through middle school, day care (Rozzi worked for a Head Start program), kindergarten and special needs students.

The idea is to offer parents a variety of services throughout the week that would give them an opportunity to have their kids taken care of for an hour or two in a learning environment.

“It’s not just babysitting,” Rozzi continued, explaining that even the playgroups they organize will be facilitated and structured to promote learning in a fun environment.

As the organization develops and as parents express interest in the various services provided, Montaldo and Rozzi said they will be posting bi-monthly calendars on the organization’s website with class offerings. Though the two said their expertise lies with younger ages (including two-year-olds), their list of ideas for the summer months includes a book club for middle schoolers.

“If a parent feels their kid does not get that summer reading done, they can come in once a week and we’ll have a discussion,” Montaldo said. (Rozzi noted that she received her bachelor’s degree in English Literature.)

Montaldo and Rozzi also expressed interest in facilitating workshops for parents, on topics such as emergent writing and reading, so that parents can be more informed about the ways and rates in which their children are developing these skills.

“At this point, we’re remaining very flexible,” Rozzi said.

While details are still being worked out, the two plan to hold classes in the parish center at St. Andrews Church in Sag Harbor or Queen of Most Holy Rosary in Bridgehampton.

Uncertainty Ahead

Montaldo and Rozzi are optimistic about their new venture. But they’re in the unique position of having been life-long friends with the same professional interests and the chance, now, to take a risk on a new opportunity.

Kirwan said she has substitute teaching jobs lined up for the summer and she hopes they will continue into the school year — but she can’t be sure. Though she previously worked in corporate America, Kirwan said at this point she’s not considering another career shift. With two small kids, “teaching fits with my lifestyle.”

“Mrs. [Jane] Peters has been generous to forward us the open positions in the district,” she continued, referring to Stella Maris’ principal. “But the emails have about 100 names attached to them. The competition is quite fierce.”

Hilary Helfant, who has been working as a part-time art teacher at the school for four years, has said she plans to substitute for the time being, too, until another teaching job crops up.

“It’s very difficult to get a teaching job now,” she emphasized. Though Helfant is used to a varied schedule, having taught sporadic classes at colleges, museums and libraries, she said she prefers the relative permanence of having a regular teaching post and (like Kirwan) because she has a young son, the fact that her work at Stella Maris is part-time is even better.

“I didn’t like teaching here and there,” she said. And at Stella Maris “you get attached to the kids because it’s a community.”

While Helfant is disheartened that the school will shut its doors in just about a week, she’s trying not to focus on it too much.

?She continued, “We’re just trying to end the school year without making it too sad.”

Stella Maris Parents Await Student Count

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Stella Maris Check

By Claire Walla

It all comes down to this.

As of press time, Sister Joanne Callahan, Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, Father Don Hanson of Most Holy Trinity Parish in East Hampton, and Father Mike Rieder of the Church of Saint Therese of Lisieux in Montauk, are meeting in a closed door session in Sag Harbor to decide the fate of the only Catholic school from here to Montauk — Stella Maris.

“We’re really just waiting for the numbers to be counted,” said parent Elizabeth Linker of the school’s intended 2011-12 enrollment numbers, which were collected on Tuesday, May 3 and counted all-day May 4.

Last month, parents learned from Sr. Joanne that the Sag Harbor school faces a $480,000 deficit. At a follow-up meeting on Wednesday, April 20, Sr. Joanne said the school needs to address the issue in three ways in order to open in September: the school board must accept the austerity budget proposed by the diocese, parents must raise a total of $116,250 by August 31, and enrollment numbers for grades K-8 must reach 102 by Tuesday, May 3.

“The superintendent came out yesterday [May 3] and she’s been meeting with parents for two days now to go over all the issues,” Linker continued. “She wants to keep the school open. No one can blame the diocese for not trying.”

“If they were going to close the school, they wouldn’t be having these meetings,” Linker added. “I’m pretty confident that we’ll be able to open.”

Tensions remain high at the school as controversy over the school’s fiscal practices was made public and has been covered [vigorously] by the news media in recent weeks.
Past school board members, as well as members of the Stella Maris Parents Association, expressed disappointment over the fact that the school accumulated a growing deficit over the past three years — during which time the deficit increased by $346,000 — while the Stella Maris School Board did little to off-set the rising debt.
School officials, including principal Jane Peters and all executive members of the school board, have not spoken publicly about the issue and have instead referred all calls to Sean Dolan, director of communications for the diocese.

Dolan did not respond to repeated calls and neglected to answer questions emailed to him this week on the matter. But in an interview last week, Dolan said the diocese and the school board had knowledge of the deficit.

“We need to ensure transparency,” he explained. “Did the pastors have all the information? If so, where was the breakdown in communication? There needs to be effective communication between the pastors, the school board and the parents.”
As for the school’s enrollment, Dolan wouldn’t confirm whether or not the school would close for good if it didn’t reach 102 students exactly.

“If the school doesn’t get that number on May 3, is it then a fait accompli? I’m not prepared to say that,” he said. “May 3 was discussed as a firm date, but at the same token, if there are late-comers, there’s a little wiggle room.”

Linker expressed disappointment over the way news of the deficit broke to the school community — particularly that Stella Maris was painted in such a harsh light.

“It’s embarrassing for the school and it’s embarrassing for the diocese,” she said.
Linker explained that it’s important for Stella Maris — the oldest Catholic school on Long Island — to remain a fixture on the East End.

“I’m on the verge of tears all the time,” she said. “Every day it’s a wave of emotions. And it goes beyond the school. We want to save something that’s important for the community.”

In addition to the $36,000 Linker said parents have already raised over the past two weeks to help bring the school out of its financial hole, two anonymous donors gave the school an additional check for $50,000 this past week.

According to vice principal Patricia Sliwienski the school is in possession of the money, which would mean parents are now only faced with collecting $30,250.

“We’re very excited,” she said on Tuesday while holding a giant check on the front steps of the school. “We’re looking forward to opening the school next year.”

However, some parents have already pulled their children out of Stella Maris, while others — like Michael and Claudia Taglich — have looked into other options, but will send their children to Stella Maris, should the school open its doors in September.

“There are still a lot of people on the fence,” Linker said in reference to reports of financial discontent from several Stella Maris parents. “It’s not good business practices to threaten and cause harm [to the school]. I think we’ve lost a lot of students because of it.”