Jaime Franchi is the Executive Editor of Morey Publishing. She covers education and contributes news and entertainment pieces for the Long Island Press, along with occasional op-eds when she's in the mood for some hate mail. Her work can also be found on Salon.com, Milieu Magazine, Huffington Post and The New York Times.
The air is thick with the rich scent of sausages and peppers and the hot grease of fried zeppoles.
Local musicians serenade a crowd of neighborhood families with ’50s and ’60s rock and roll and doo-wop standards, like “Duke of Earl” and “I Believe.” On the Ferris wheel, on the stoop of the church, and manning the booths selling hot calamari or festival games offering “A Prize For Everyone” are the residents of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
It’s a warm summer night. The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and San Paolino di Nola is in full swing.
Tomorrow, a handful of locals will lift the Giglio, an 82-foot, ornate, wooden, flower-laden steeple in a sacred parade that has marked the neighborhood since 1958. For the last three years, the honorary lifting of the Giglio has gone to Federico Castelluccio, best-known for his role as Furio on HBO’s acclaimed hit, The Sopanos.
On this Saturday night in mid-July, Castelluccio is in the basement of Our Lady of Mount Carmel church, along with Garden City writer/producer Michael Ricigliano, and cast members of the feature film The Brooklyn Banker, which premieres Aug. 5. They sign promotional posters, share a bag of zeppoles, and humor the flocks of Brooklyn women who have come to see Castelluccio in person, and, if they can work up enough courage, to ask to take a picture with him. He honors every request with that same smoldering smile that seduced Carmela Soprano.
“We shot from the rooftop to get the wide shots of the feast,” Castelluccio tells the Press, lips white with powdered sugar. “But we had to change the street signs because it was set in the ’70s.”
That detail, most likely to be overlooked by the average filmgoer, is just one of the marks of his thoughtful direction, designed to give an unmatched authenticity to every scene.
The Brooklyn Banker, the feature film written by Ricigliano, was expanded from the 2010 short film Lily of the Feast, starring and directed by Castelluccio. It also featured Paul Sorvino and John Bianco. The short went on to win top prizes at major film festivals, including Best Director/Short Film at the 2011 Long Island International Film Expo. The Brooklyn Banker retained Sorvino and Bianco for the cast, Castelluccio as director, and brought on the supremely talented Troy Garity (HBO’s Ballers) and David Proval, who played Richie Aprile in The Sopranos.
The feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was something Ricigliano needed to explore in order to unlock the doors to those stories—often tall tales—of a city that became part of his soul. Set in 1973, when the mean streets were ruled by the local mob, when computers didn’t make money laundering so difficult, and the landscape on 8th Street in Brooklyn wasn’t polluted with high-rise buildings with million-dollar apartments, The Brooklyn Banker is a gritty, powerful, evocative feature film with nuanced, standout performances, masterful direction, and a twist at the end that audiences will be thinking about long after the credits roll.
Garity plays Santo Bastucci, a banker with a photographic memory who is put in the difficult position of being asked to do a “favor” by the local mob boss Manny “The Hand,” played by David Proval. Garity’s portrayal of Santo is a layered performance that showcases the depth of his enormous talent. Santo is at once belligerent, thoughtful, tortured, and full of fierce resolve. His crisis of conscience is played with subtle nuances that carry the audience throughout his journey and make viewers feel his tension, fear, and the tremendous weight he’s shouldering.
This film is not only a “mob film,” but a study in the contrasts that make life and human beings complicated.
It’s easy to paint a picture in black and white with good guys versus bad guys, but life isn’t like that, and art, when it’s done as masterfully as this film is, presents a reflection of the contradictions that reside in all of us.
Benny (Paul Sorvino) is the dopey father-in-law (Or is he?) who is at once a sweet grandfather, belting out Opera to the delight of his two grandchildren (and consternation of his son-in-law), as well as an opportunistic thug, willing to put his son-in-law, and by extension, his own daughter and grandchildren, at serious risk in order to forward his own play for power.
In a similar fashion, Proval performs a touching, understated scene that reveals the tender side of his humanity as he starts to sing in Italian to his father, an old man with Alzheimer’s, who quietly begins to remember and sing back to him. It was juxtaposed with a brutal confrontation, in which, on Manny’s orders, a defenseless Latina woman is savagely beaten not only because she’d dared give lip to the mob boss, but because she represents a threat to the demographic of the old neighborhood. (The cultural shift is apparent on this steamy July day, as you peer down 8th Avenue in Williamsburg, now a veritable hipster haven.)
Castelluccio had originally played the role of Santo in the short film, but directing his first full-length feature film took up all of his creative energy. The role of Santo was difficult to cast, but once they came across Garity, there was no other choice for the starring role.
“When I saw Troy’s reel, I said, ‘Where did this guy come from?’” Castelluccio told the Press in a phone interview. “But it turns out I had seen him before, I just didn’t know it was him. That’s how brilliant this guy is, and I’m not blowing smoke up anyone’s butt.”
Ricigliano was equally thrilled that the core cast and production team he’d assembled to execute Lily of the Feast returned with enthusiasm to film the extended project.
“It’s been such a collaborative effort with our producers, like T.J. Sansone. Federico, Greg Lauritano, Craig Cohen, Ken Kelsh and myself made the short,” Ricigliano said. “From there we added Jeff Schneider, who’s my partner. Paul Sorvino was great. For him to do a short film because he was friends with Federico was great–and the fact that he liked it enough to come back was fantastic.”
“I feel, personally, that this is probably one of his best acting performances since Goodfellas,” Castelluccio said.
Sorvino’s close friendship with Castelluccio was formed over a mutual love and respect for art, among other things. Castelluccio is a fine artist. Sorvino is also a sculptor—which was the catalyst for Sorvino to consider his role in Lily of the Feast. Similarly, Castelluccio originally came onboard the project as a favor as well.
“This script came to me from Mike Ricigliano, who was introduced to me as an attorney who has a screenplay,” Castelluccio recalls. “You have certain ideas, like, okay, ‘This guy’s not a writer.’ But he’s a friend of a friend of mine, so I’ll give him the respect of reading the script.”
“And much to my surprise,” he laughs, “I thought it was incredibly well-written. Wow, this guy really can write!”
Ricigliano, 45, is an attorney by trade. The writing bug bit him five years ago when he tried his hand at screenwriting, and it never let go. After Lily of the Feast, he wrote “Queen for a Day,” an off-Broadway play directed by John Gould Rubin, hailed by critics as “intense,” “satisfying,” and “well-written.” Then came The Brooklyn Banker. And he’s not stopping there—he’s already hard at work on his next top-secret project.
Ricigliano’s enthusiastic spirit and love for the craft is readily apparent. In a way, this very personal project serves as a love letter, not only to the father who’d regaled him with stories of growing up in Brooklyn, but to a way of life so foreign to a suburban Long Island kid that it took on almost mystical qualities.
“My father told me bedtime stories about what it was like growing up in Brooklyn and about the feast, and what it was like growing up there and what it was like not having any money, where everything was bartering,” Ricigliano recalls. “Those are the stories that always stuck with me.”
As Ricigliano’s masterful cinematic recreations of those dream-like tales are so clearly testament, we’re so lucky (and exuberant) they did.
It’s my 40th birthday. Like any monumentally important milestone, it got me thinking about who I am and what I know, who I thought I’d be by now and who I actually am. What, I wonder, do I have to show for 40 years on this green earth?
But here’s the thing. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the older I got, the less I knew. I’m less sure about things I knew for certain when I was 30. At 20, life was a no-brainer: get a degree, marry the guy, get the job, have the kids. By 30, I had the kids and had no time to think about anything – but I could still tell you that breast beat bottle, that children shouldn’t watch too much television and that being a mom is the be-all and end-all of my life’s purpose.
And now, on the big day?
I’m glad that I breastfed my kids, but no longer have a strong opinion about what others do. My children have probably watched more TV than is acceptable by my compatriots in the mommy mafia.
And is being a mom fulfilling? Absolutely. But is it everything? Where do my kids end and I begin?
The answer is I don’t know. And the truth is that there are a lot of things I still don’t know. I have learned a thing or two here and there. I’ve learned not to have any heroes. Heroes often let you down. But that it’s okay because I’ve disappointed myself and I’m learning to forgive all of us.
I’ve learned that I don’t want to be a brand. I don’t want to be defined by the things I buy or the candidates I vote for. I don’t want to be locked into a belief system that is so rigid I can’t be open to learning new things.
Now the things I don’t know far outweigh what I’m sure of. Here are 39 of them. Maybe I’ll find the answers by my 50th.
What I Don’t Know by Age 40:
What I want to be when I grow up
How to keep it that way after I clean the house
How to meditate
How to save money
How to make meatloaf
The lyrics to “Yellow Ledbetter”
How not to cry when I’m angry
How to thicken my skin
How to achieve great eyebrows
How to be a wife, mother, employee and human being simultaneously
How to not order a second (or third) glass of wine
The difference between an alligator and a crocodile
Whether Pluto is considered a planet or not
How to do a cartwheel
How to not care what others think of me
Why women vote Republican
What happens when you die
How to fold a fitted sheet
How to wear a scarf
How to organize anything
How to achieve balance
Why I can’t just use the fancy towels
Why I need a pocketbook when I have pockets
The difference between foundation and concealer, and how to apply either
How to be in the moment
If ghosts are real
How to disagree amicably
How to be satisfied with what I have
How some people don’t drink coffee
Or don’t like chocolate
How to code (or what that really means)
How to do a headstand
If God is real
How Trump got this far
What happened at the end of the Sopranos
How to get through Joyce’s Ulysses
How to pronounce “quinoa,” “acai” and “manicotti.” I only want to eat the last one.
The vicious presidential primary season has led to an even harsher and uglier race for the White House. The natives have gotten restless and have turned on each other—Bernie supporter against Hillary supporter against Trump supporter.
National elections in this country are always malicious. They are always personal. It’s easy to forget how very nasty the 2008 primary season was when then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was running against then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and supporters of each candidate vowed to never support the other. Spoiler alert: They did. Hillary became part of President Obama’s cabinet as Secretary of State, and primary season was promptly forgotten, as the nation’s ADD was distracted by another news cycle’s feeding frenzy.
This is why I couldn’t get personally invested in this year’s presidential primary. As a Democrat, I support the party and the platform. Both U.S. Sen Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Hillary spoke to different issues that appealed to me. I back Bernie’s stance on income inequality. I stand behind Hillary’s role as a voice for women across the globe. Bernie’s populism represents the little guy who needs a voice. But Hillary refuses to speak out against Common Core, the failing nationalized public education system. Bernie lacks foreign policy expertise. Hillary voted for the Iraq war.
Nah, forget about it. I figured it was best I step back, let the chips fall where they may, and vote for whomever earns the Democratic nomination. It’s not worth fighting with my friends and neighbors over it. Besides, we have Trump supporters to condemn.
And then on Sunday, more than 100 people were shot, and 49 killed, in Orlando, Fla. And my priorities came into focus.
I am a one-issue voter. My issue is guns. My candidate is Hillary.
After 20 first graders were killed in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. four years ago, the attempt to keep firearms—particularly assault weapons—out of the hands of violent citizens became an issue that spoke to the core of who I am: a mother. Twenty mothers’ laps were empty that night, lacking the weight of a 6-year-old that I am intimately familiar with. It hurt. And it matters.
As Hillary stands to accept the nomination as the first woman ever to become the presidential candidate of a major political party in the United States, it occurs to me that in this context, Hillary is not just the best candidate despite being a woman, but because she is.
As a U.S. senator representing New York, Hillary co-sponsored the reauthorization of the assault weapons ban. She has been a consistent and unwavering supporter of gun violence prevention.
According to Donna Dees-Thomases, founder of the Million Mom March, which held its first pro-gun control rally on Mother’s Day in 2000, Hillary was a “major force behind the original Brady Bill,” which mandated federal background checks on those who purchased firearms in the United States and imposed a five-day waiting period on gun purchases.
Dees-Thomases is an unabashed Hillary backer today. Having spent time with Hillary during the lead up to the march, which ultimately drew 750,000 supporters in Washington, D.C., she had a close-up view of Hillary’s stance.
“She marched with the hundreds of thousands of mothers for the Million Mom March,” she said in an email. “We met with her when she was a U.S. senator. She listened and voted against giving immunity to the gun industry.”
Dees-Thomases believes that being a woman gives Hillary an advantage over the other candidates.
“Hillary is fearless, and has the fortitude to push through the reasonable regulations to keep dangerous weapons out of dangerous hands,” Dees-Thomases said. “And like most women, she is a multi-tasker. I am certain she can focus on improving the Brady background check and an assault weapons ban. At the same time.”
In response to the Orlando shooting, Hillary gave a speech in Cleveland on Monday that was heartfelt and direct. She presented clear ideas not only for how to address the scourge that gun violence has wrought on this country, but also how to “defeat ISIS and the other radical jihadist groups in the region and beyond.”
She didn’t mince words. She didn’t hedge. She stood up.
“The Orlando terrorist may be dead, but the virus that poisoned his mind remains very much alive,” Clinton said. “And we must attack it with clear eyes, steady hands, unwavering determination and pride in our country and our values.”
Her plan to defeat ISIS and other extremist groups included gaining ground against them in Syria and Iraq, and using coalition forces to prevent them from establishing more strongholds in Afghanistan, Libya and Europe, where terrorist attacks have become more prevalent, as the tragedies in Paris and Brussels have shown.
Yet, it will take more than that, she said.
“I believe weapons of war have no place on our streets,” Hillary said. “And we may have our disagreements about gun safety regulations, but we should all be able to agree on a few essential things. If the FBI is watching you for a suspected terrorist link, you shouldn’t be able to just go buy a gun with no questions asked.”
“And you shouldn’t be able to exploit loopholes and evade criminal background checks by buying online or at a gun show,” she continued. “And, yes, if you’re too dangerous to get on a plane, you are too dangerous to buy a gun in America.”
Common sense gun reform shouldn’t be the near-impossible achievement of a Congress that has a conscience. It should not be a third-rail topic of a presidential candidate. And it should never be an off-hand dismissive comment made by someone running for our highest office, such as when Donald Trump quipped in January that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, okay, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?”
Ladd Everitt, a Merrick native and director of communications at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a national organization based in Washington, shared his personal views on Hillary’s candidacy recently with the Press, especially her stance toward the National Rifle Association.
“One really encouraging sign for people who care about gun violence prevention is how Hillary Clinton has made this issue such a priority in her presidential campaign,” he said. “Her heart is in this fight, but it’s also clear that calling for tougher gun laws is good politics in a rapidly changing America. Her calls to build a national movement to take down the NRA are exactly what we need in this moment. Bold, fearless, determined.”
Across the country, gun violence prevention advocates are pinning their hopes on Hillary.
“As a mother and a grandmother she has our backs,” said Dees-Thomases. “And when she takes on the gun lobby, we will have hers.”
She’ll have this mother’s vote.
Featured Photo: Hillary Clinton surrounded by family members of victim’s of gun violence during an event in Port Washington. Photo credit: Michael Davidson for Hillary for America/Flickr
The skies were blue Saturday, June 11, despite warnings of thunderstorms all week long. The sun was strong over the parking lot of Nikon at Jones Beach Theater, where we tailgated with cupcakes and juice boxes to celebrate my daughter Anna’s ninth birthday.
Between her gaggle of girlfriends from her cheer team and their moms, we were a group of 13, ready to witness the spectacle that is 106.1 WBLI Summer Jam.
The audience was rife with pre-teens, excited for the lineup that included Daya, Alessia Cara, ShawnHook, Nick Tangorra, Melanie Martinez, Rachel Platten, Troye Sivan, The Chainsmokers, Shaggy, Fifth Harmony, Iggy Azalea, Hailee Steinfeld, Charlie Puth and Megan Trainor. Because my kids have taken over the radio dial, I was familiar with more of these songs than I realized. When Rachel Platten belted out her popular “Fight Song,” an entire stadium of (mostly) girls and I sang right along with her. I knew all the lyrics to the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” too.
I might have been the grown-up, but I was cool.
About two hours into the show, menacing clouds soon moved in over the open-air amphitheater, and with almost no time to run for cover, lightning struck, thunder rumbled, and torrential rain poured down over the audience in the theater and those on the much-too-long lines for food.
The crowd screamed and streamed under awnings to wait out the storm, whose violent, ripping winds and torrential rains died down after approximately 20 minutes. People stormed the t-shirt vendors to buy dry clothes, even purchasing the shirts hanging on poles for display. My kid never got her BLI Summer Jam t-shirt. There were tears. Nine-year-old problems.
Then, after an hour delay, the show went on.
Hailee Steinfeld wowed the audience with her cover of Justin Bieber’s smash hit “Love Yourself.” Bringing Jamaican flair, Shaggy whipped the crowd into a screaming frenzy as the self-proclaimed Mr. Lover Lover sang snippets of songs “Boombastic” and ”It Wasn’t Me.” Charlie Puth slowed it down at the piano, and, choking back tears, dedicated his song “See You Again” to Christina Grimmie, the 22-year-old singer from The Voice who had been brutally shot and killed in Orlando as she was signing autographs the night before this concert.
“I never got to say what I wanted to say to her,” he announced, before launching into the ballad he had written for his best friend.
Iggy Azalea delivered the day’s stand-out performance. With boundless energy and flawless execution, her fast-moving lyrical and dance skills were on full display, singing her hits “Fancy” and “Black Widow.”
Fifth Harmony and Meghan Trainor also paid tribute to Grimmie. Neither performance disappointed, with Fifth Harmony’s super-girl group prancing and dancing about the stage in coordinated black leather outfits, singing their hits such as “Work from Home.” Meghan Trainor ended the lineup, serenading the audience with crowd-pleasers “All About the Bass” and “Lips Are Movin,’” along with her new song, “No,” from her new album Thank You.
As we made our way back to the parking lot well after midnight and got to our minivan covered in cupcake icing, my girl’s hand slipped into mine.
“Thank you,” she said, and it suddenly felt like it was my birthday present instead.
It’s early Monday morning. A driver is on his way to the East End where he’ll be stopping at several different farms for a variety of different products. One farm might have asparagus. One stop is the North Fork Chocolate Company. He’ll get North Fork potato chips. He’ll stop at Wickhams Fruit Farm and pick up beefsteak tomatoes.
Those tomatoes, harvested at peak ripeness just before he arrives, will be sliced into a salad that night, with fresh gourmet goat cheese along with Long Island littleneck clams hand-dug that very morning. This is a farmer’s market meal, bought and paid for online. It’s a new model, a modern way to eat the way we did hundreds of years ago.
The idea for OurHarvest, a 2-year-old online farmer’s market that procures reasonably priced fresh items from farms across Long Island, upstate New York and parts of New Jersey, and sells them at pop-up pick-up locations across the island, is the brainchild of Scott Reich, 32, and Michael Winik, 33. The two friends, who met at Wheatley High School in East Hills and were college roommates at the University of Pennsylvania, left the legal and financial world, respectively, to follow their childhood dream of opening business together. The roads that led them to OurHarvest were made of love, curiosity, an expanding understanding of the food cycle and a desire to contribute to the greater community.
“We never knew exactly what that might look like but we wanted to do something that we felt had a strong social mission that we felt could give back to society and improve the way we do something in a big way,” says Reich.
A self-described foodie, Winik sought to create a business that fed his passion for fresh, delicious, and interesting fare. Reich took a longer route. He grew up “eating Big Macs after soccer games,” but experienced an increasing awareness as he reached adulthood about the effects poor nutrition could have not only on his body, but on society. After the release of books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Fast Food Nation and documentaries like Food, Inc., the food cycle has come under scrutiny in a way that hadn’t interested the public since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle sparked reforms in the meatpacking industry a century ago.
In this age of increasing food awareness, Community Supported Agriculture and food co-ops have become popular with customers supporting individual farms by paying a subscription for their crops and picking up a box at prescribed times of harvested goods. These prepaid orders help the local farms run, and people have access to assortments of food items that are fresher than what’s sold at supermarkets. However, there are some unavoidable downsides, such as not knowing what the farm will produce from week to week, what can be an expensive commitment, and the limitations of having access to only what that farm can produce. They are also seasonal.
OurHarvest sought to answer for these downsides, while still supporting the local farm economy and providing access to fresh, healthy goods.
“What we tried to do was to harken back to the old days and the idea that the community can come together to create an experience where we all relate to one another,” Reich told the Press. “We’re all a part of a local, sustainable food system that is natural, doesn’t have any of the weird stuff that’s been concocted over the last hundred years to make food last longer or taste better or look different and so this is a very, we think, authentic and creative way to bring us back to a time that had existed for a very long time.”
Let’s go back to Monday morning. OurHarvest employs a few team members who take to the road running routes to different suppliers to pick up the product. Craig Hecht, a team member, for example, will make his way to the East End. Customers have placed their orders for specific items from a variety of different farms and paid for them in advance online. Customers choose their pick-up location—14 in Nassau and one in Suffolk—and a set time window. OurHarvest, having relationships directly with the suppliers, picks up the product and brings it back to their warehouse in Roslyn, their only footprint. They dispense the orders at the pick-up locations on Long Island and through delivery in the city via Uber.
“So the idea is that you shop when it’s convenient for you on your computer, your phone, your iPad, whatever it may be, and you pay for it and then you show up and show your receipt and pick it up,” says Reich. “You want to spend 10 minutes going over recipes, we’d be thrilled to do that with you. But if you’re like, ‘My kids are in the car, I gotta go,’ we’ll be happy to put the groceries in your trunk and send you on your way.
“We keep it refrigerated for you,” he continues. “We try to make it a more convenient experience. A customer is able to get fresher, more high-quality products, still at an affordable price, in a more convenient way.”
Because OurHarvest doesn’t have the traditional infrastructure that a store does and can negotiate prices directly with local farms, they can keep prices lower than what customers would find in stores like Whole Foods, but still have access to produce that is local and incredibly fresh. In some cases, same-day fresh.
“One of our team members is driving back from the city right now meeting some of our suppliers at Union Square,” Reich told the Press. “And the customers who ordered that food, no matter when they ordered it, it’s coming in fresh for them. So it’s not sitting here stocking it and hoping someone buys some chicken, for example.
“Someone bought chicken and tomatoes and lettuce and tuna, whatever these products are, we literally are getting them within hours of getting it to them,” he continues. “So if we’re going to Wickham’s Fruit Farm and we’re picking up beefsteak tomatoes, they are literally harvesting them right before we get there.”
This is in direct opposition to the supermarket model, where foods are mostly imported from across the country or internationally. That produce are shipped to warehouses, then put on trucks to be distributed days later. By the time the food reaches customers at supermarkets, the fruits and veggies are close to perishability, their quality compromised. Only the most discerning customers know exactly where they came from. And the local farmer is out of luck.
“The challenge with that is that the local small family farm doesn’t necessarily benefit from that because the large distributor may not go to a small farm because it’s only 50 acres and they say they can’t produce enough to make it worth our while,” says Reich. “But those small family farmers are the bedrock of how we get our food and how our agricultural system has developed through the course of our nation’s history.”
Through OurHarvest, that small farm is back in the game. But it has to be the right farm. OurHarvest has a series of criteria that suppliers must meet before they agree to sell their products, including price points, farming practices that include no antibiotics, chemicals, or hormones, no, or limited use, of pesticides (on a case-by-case basis, with oversight by a third party to make sure use is conservative), and quality.
“It has to be, like, the best strawberry you’ve ever tasted,” Reich says.
The third pillar of OurHarvest is their social mission. Compelled by the plight of the hungry here on Long Island, Reich and Winik wanted to create a company that helped people around them. Reich, a self-described “recovering” attorney with a strong background and interest in public service, authored the book The Power of Citizenship: Why JFK Matters to a New Generation. He is inspired by the idea that all citizens are connected and are a part of something bigger than themselves. And so they built a way to give back to the community into their very business model.
“According to Feeding America [the leading hunger relief organization in the country], the numbers of people going hungry are staggering,” Reich says. “They estimate that approximately 1 in 6 Americans are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal is coming from or they’re simply undernourished. And here on Long Island…there are 110,000 kids who go to bed hungry each night. What a lot of people don’t appreciate is that in our midst, even in relatively affluent communities, there are people who are struggling.”
For every order of $25, OurHarvest donates a meal to a food bank or food pantry through Long Island Cares, Island Harvest, The Interfaith Nutrition Network, and a host of individual pantries as part of their effort to create this sustainable system that not only brings access to this kind of food, but also helps our neighbors in need. They donate the same high-quality products they sell, not “the stuff that’s been frozen for three years or in a pantry for six years after someone’s trying to clean out their kitchen.” They have donated thousands of meals, according to Reich.
So what’s next?
Expansion. OurHarvest plans to keep adding pick-up locations to serve more of the public while keeping to the same model of local suppliers. They plan to branch out across Suffolk County, into all five boroughs and into Westchester. Their model is replicable in other regions as well.
But food-savvy Long Islanders need not wait any longer. There are beefsteak tomatoes at peak ripeness, just a click away.
Alice Through the Looking Glass is a profoundly sophisticated children’s film, because, of course, it was created in the spirit of Lewis Carroll’s book that was intended for adults. The filmmaker stayed true to the spirit of the story while creating a fantastical world that children adventured through.
Alice is played with soft determination by Mia Wasikowska. Her character is introduced as a tough female ship captain, escaping what seems to be an impossible, inescapable attack. She refuses to accept “impossible” as a legitimate concept and steers her crew to safety. That limitless determination and creative spark is exactly what defines Alice, as she traverses physical reality and “wonderland.”
Wonderland features a cast of whimsical characters like the Queen of Hearts, played by Helena Bonham Carter, The Queen Mirana by a stiff Anne Hathaway, and the Mad Hatter, played by Johnny Depp as an effeminate, child-like weirdo who calls upon Alice to prove her friendship by bringing his lost family back to him.
The special effects are awesome–from the ocean-like waves of the past to the enormous turning gears inside the giant clock of eternal time. Alice’s world is colorful, full of whimsy and wonder, joyful and vibrant characters, but grounded in serious emotion and hard truth. The emotions run the gamut from fear and betrayal to loss and grief. The hard truth is that there is no way around them.
Alice plots a course through Time, the personification of which is played brilliantly by Sasha Baron Cohen, as only he can. Time is a thief, and life, as we know, is a race against time itself. James Bobin, the director who’s worked with Cohen on “Borat” and “Ali G”, displays these themes by creating a time machine that Alice steals in order to reverse events and change the outcomes in the present.
It seems that the Queen of Hearts’ evil nature stems from a head wound that swelled her brain causing mania. To reverse the fall that caused her injury would solve everything, but mostly prevent the Mad Hatter’s family from being forever lost. That the Queen and Mad Hatter embody mental illness might be lost on the children watching the film, but not on the parents who might recognize some of the symptoms—and stigmas—attached to depression and bipolarity. A particularly touching scene happens when we see Mad Hatter as a boy feeling summarily rejected by his father for his flamboyant hat making. He carries this sting with him into a stunted adulthood, only to be reconciled at the end when he finds that his father had kept his first hat-making attempt in his breast pocket close to his heart and has always accepted his son as a “hatter.”
Anyone who has seen a movie knows that Alice’s time travel will never work out–as does Time, who warns her that she can’t change the past, but can simply learn from it.
And learn she does–the nature of forgiveness, the true meaning of what is possible, the strength of familial ties, and the transformative power of friendship. Grown-up lessons, dressed up as children’s play.
(Photo credit: Alice Through The Looking Glass/Facebook)
Early this month, Betty Rosa, New York State’s new education chancellor, was on Long Island to visit Medford Elementary School, where she met with students, teachers and staff. Children in the dual language kindergarten program easily conversed with her in both English and Spanish.
As the highest ranking member of the state’s Board of Regents and the state’s education czar, the teachers and the superintendent regarded Rosa with respect. After all, she is the boss, with a capital B. But the kids took to her with the natural curiosity and comfort of childhood that essentially said, “She’s one of us.” She spoke their language. Literally.
The friendly scene was in stark contrast to the heated battle pitting the governor, the teachers unions and grassroots public school advocacy groups against one another. The struggle came to a head during this spring’s testing season, culminating in a giant win for Long Island Opt-Out, a parent-led group that organized an historic number of test-refusals this year with almost 100,000 students—more than half of the student population in Nassau and Suffolk counties—opting out of state tests. Their message has been effective: No more Common Core. Despite incremental fixes promised by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his so-called “Common Core Task Force,” they are still demanding concrete changes.
Yet, it remains to be seen how this evolving protest movement will improve or replace the current education agenda.
According to local public education advocates, the answer is multi-tiered. It includes elections: first at the state level and then at the local school board in an effort to tackle education policy from all sides. The goal is a shift away from schools’ increasing test-prep focus almost exclusively on math and reading skills—eschewing the arts and play-based learning—to a comprehensive curriculum that addresses what some advocates call the “whole child.”
“I think we need to emphasize the issue of high-stakes testing,” Rosa told the Press at a lunch in the school’s conference room with staff and other attendees. “I think we have to get back to what really matters, which is teaching and learning—deep learning—and our kids’ excitement to really become those deep learners. We have to change the narrative back to focus on teaching and learning, and less on one Kodak moment to capture all of that work. Believe me, parents know that those children are assessed constantly. The issue is having multiple ways to measure achievement.”
Rosa had spoken out against high-stakes testing at a press conference in March after the Board of Regents had selected her to the leadership post. She said that if she were not a board member herself and her children were elementary-school aged, she would opt them out of taking New York’s Common Core tests. On May 3, at the elementary school in Patchogue, she told the Press that she doesn’t believe the state should have the right to withhold funds from school districts with significant numbers of students who had refused to take state tests in April.
“Parents legally have a choice,” she said. “Given that choice, you cannot then legally punish school districts and schools for decisions that parents have made. So my goal is to make sure that we get to a better place where we don’t even have to have these discussions because it gets back to teaching and learning.”
But no sweeping changes can be made to a school’s education policy without the support of the local district’s board of education. Perhaps no one understands this better than Jeanette Deutermann, founder of Long Island Opt-Out Info, the popular Facebook page with more than 24,000 members that transformed into a robust-and powerful advocacy group. Deutermann told the Press that the election of nearly 100 Opt-Out members to local school boards, coupled with a new Regents chancellor, means that the tide is turning.
“The bottom line is that some of these big wins could mean huge, sweeping changes for some districts,” she told the Press. “Education is shifting in New York. It’s up to parents to elect the right board of education that’s moving with this philosophical shift of how we want to educate our children. It all goes back to something that Dr. Joe Rella [superintendent of Comsewogue schools] said: ‘You get the Board of Ed you deserve.’
“Parents are taking that seriously,” Deutermann continued. “This shift in philosophy is happening fast. We can’t wait 10 years if we want our children to experience this change.”
A key part of Long Island Opt Out’s strategy for the last two years has been to promote local supporters to their individual district’s school boards. So far, Long Island Opt Out has helped elect 94 candidates; 34 out of 57 this year, including local advocates Anthony Griffin and Sara Wottawa, who were elected on May 17 to their respective school boards.
“We have to change the narrative back to focus on teaching and learning, and less on one Kodak moment to capture all of that work.”
Griffin, an English teacher in Central Islip and co-founder of Lace to the Top, an advocacy group that promoted bright green laces to signify that “children are more than test scores,” was an LIOO-backed candidate who won a seat on the South Country school board. He’s hoping to influence his children’s public education experience from the local level.
“Changes in public education happen because of people,” Griffin told the Press in an email. “Some people want change to increase profits. Some want change to impose a belief. I want change to help students. As a board member in a student-centered district, I have an amazing opportunity to manifest those changes.”
Griffin is “thrilled to have the opportunity to bring what I have learned to my district’s board. Local control doesn’t exist without locally involved people.”
Wottawa is an outspoken parent in the Sachem School District. She joins two other LI Opt Out-endorsed board of education members who were elected last year to serve on the nine-member board.
“I’m hoping the three of us can work together to enforce change in the district,” Wottawa told the Press. “I would like to see Sachem take a more holistic approach in educating our children. I would like to see us move towards educating the whole child in Sachem. Most importantly, I would like to propel a unity in the Sachem community. Without the support of the majority of the community, positive change is nearly impossible.”
Though she’s in the minority on the school board, Wottawa is upbeat.
“Once we have more vocal public education supporters on our local school boards across the state,” she said, “I think we will see more positive changes.”
The special April 19 election of Assemb. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) to the State Senate to replace disgraced former GOP Senate majority leader Dean Skelos is seen as a key step in a populist-driven shift in the state’s education agenda, according to Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University and a former assistant Secretary of Education in Washington, D.C. under President George H.W. Bush. During the Clinton administration she was appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the federal testing program.
“Kaminsky’s victory is a victory for the leaders of the Long Island opt-out movement, who strongly supported his candidacy and the legislation he proposed as a member of the Assembly,” wrote Ravitch on her popular blog. “Kaminsky wants to decouple test scores from teacher evaluation, which would reduce the absurd pressure to raise test scores and the time lost by the arts and other subjects. Parents want their children to have a well-rounded education, not a test-prep curriculum.”
Kaminsky drew wide support from New York public school advocates after he sponsored three bills in the Assembly in February that would repeal several components of Cuomo’s Education Transformation Act. The bill would decouple teacher evaluations from test results, create an alternative pathway for graduation for students who do not wish to take or are unable to pass Regents examinations and repeal a provision that allows the state to place struggling or failing schools into receivership. Kaminsky’s recent election—although he’ll have to run again in November—allowed him to introduce his Assembly bills in the State Senate, where they have been referred to the education committee, which has until the middle of June, when the current legislative session ends, to determine their fate.
Kaminsky’s win at the polls came after public education advocates were buoyed by the Board of Regents’ 15-0 election of Rosa as Chancellor to replace Meryl Tisch, who was seen as a proponent of the high stakes testing.
Putting the emphasis back on teaching and learning may seem like a broad idea for education reform, yet Rosa cites her long history that includes her role as superintendent of a New York City community school as a key to her goals moving forward. It is that particular background that motivates her to embrace the vision of Michael Hynes, superintendent of Patchogue-Medford schools.
In direct opposition to Common Core, Hynes, has spearheaded a five-year “Whole Child” program, which he said can “save education” and be the “answer to Albany.” He presented it to the board of education on May 16.
Rosa said she agrees with the approach.
“I think it’s fabulous,” she told the Press. “Looking at the whole child, you’re looking at all of the needs of the child. I just compliment him and support him.”
She also supported Cuomo’s recent emphasis on community schools.
“I think many community schools have served as models that show that services are needed, that certain children come to school with certain needs and particularly children who come from disadvantaged homes where they cannot afford so many services,” Rosa said, adding that Hynes understands what’s needed. “I think that he realizes that we have to serve the whole child, not just the academic part. I think that’s extremely important. You have to have healthy children—children who enjoy being in school in terms of attendance. It’s just important for kids to have exposure to the arts and have other ways to develop their talents.”
The genesis of Hynes’ plan came from his opinion that the U.S. Department of Education and the New York State Department of Education have “for far too long been about two things: 1. test scores. 2. higher test scores,” he told the Press in an email. “Public education has been forced to move away from educating the ‘whole child’ due to the Regents Reform Agenda, NCLB [No Child Left Behind], and this crazy notion that our 15 year olds must score higher than other 15 year olds around the world or America is doomed. The funny thing is nobody talks about the test the 15 year old takes…yet many place great importance on the results.”
Hynes’ focus on the whole child comes as a result of his background in psychology and as a former elementary teacher in Bellport. He bases it on the simple concept that kids can have fun and learn in school simultaneously.
“They can play and utilize highly developed divergent thinking skills at the same time,” Hynes said. “We need to teach our children how to socially and emotionally excel. On the flip side, we also need to teach them how to recalibrate when they are having difficulty with something.
“This is where more play in schools comes into play (no pun intended), more recess, yoga, mindfulness, meditation, etc…” he continued. “I believe by focusing on social, emotional and academics for our children…we will be able to harvest the talents they never knew existed.”
This idea is in stark opposition to the EngageNY curriculum that the State Department of Education has been pushing to coincide with the Common Core standards. New York’s curriculum is taught from firmly established modules that give teachers little room to waver from. Because the high-stakes tests are based upon this strict curriculum—and because teacher evaluation had been directly tied to the test results—the idea of learning through play had been replaced with a high-pressure classroom atmosphere that Hynes said benefits neither the educator nor the student.
On a cold rainy Tuesday in early May, kindergarten children at Medford Elementary joyfully showed off their Spanish skills in a counting song to Rosa’s obvious delight. The dual language program facilitates fluency in Spanish at a young age.
“My goal is make sure our children have the resources and the opportunities to have access to quality education,” she said. “By that, I mean we need the resources, which means the money, obviously. Opportunities, like in this dual language program, these kids get an opportunity to learn two languages. And access is making sure that children who sometimes don’t have the finances get to places where those opportunities are.”
Rosa surveyed the room filled with enthusiastic five- and six-year-olds and said, “We have to fight for these children within the public schools.”
They tawk just like us! People know we’re from Long Island as soon as we open our (big) mouths. Without the edginess of Brooklynese, the Long Island accent is as distinctive as it is irritating. I say it’s time we own it. No, we don’t all sound like Amy Fisher. But some of us do. And some of us sound much, much worse. Whatevah.
So do these rock, TV and movie stars. And it never held them back from making it big in Hollywood. In fact, it probably helped.
Even though The Sopranos has been off the air for almost a decade (how can that be??), Edie Falco’s Lawn Guyland dialect is still audible in our collective unconscious. Close your eyes. You can still hear her “Tony!” can’t you?
Although she was born in Brooklyn, Falco grew up in Long Island’s very own Hicksville, before moving to North Babylon and West Islip (home to many Tonys) and eventually Northport, from where she graduated high school. Of course she starred in her high school play—and naturally she played Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady”—the precursor to the rest of her career, as the perpetual Long Island-sounding actress.
Falco has taken her Lawn Guyland accent to both the stage and screen, where she is an Emmy-, Golden Globe- and Screen Actors Guild-award winning actress. She has starred on Broadway in “Side Man,” “Frankie and Johnny in the Clare de Lune,” and “‘night, Mother.” On the big screen, she acted in such films as Trust, Reversal of Fortune, Random Hearts and Freedomland. But it was on the small screen where she made the splash that embedded her in the pop culture annals forever. From her small role as prison officer Diane Whittlesey in HBO’s Oz to the infamous Carmela Soprano to the title role in the Showtime series Nurse Jackie, Edie Falco and her accent have earned their place as pop culture icons.
Her voice is synonymous with her face, her hair and her persona. But without the voice, Fran Drescher is virtually unrecognizable.
So maybe she grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens. We can waste time arguing over whether or not Queens is considered Long Island, but I’ll just tell you to peruse a map and then carry on with this article. We have a ways to go and no time for petty disagreements. (And also, I’m right and you’re wrong.)
Although she had her share of small film roles in such big screen movies as Saturday Night Fever and This is Spinal Tap, the performance that brought her accent into our homes was her starring role in CBS’s The Nanny, created and produced by her then-husband and business partner Peter Jacobson. In the show, she played that accent for all it was worth, and audiences couldn’t get enough of it. The hair, the nails and that voice were all pitted against the staunchly uptight British widower Maxwell Sheffield, played by Charles Shaughnessy.
She was then able to parlay that inimitable persona into voice work, like in the animated film Shark Bait as well as into big screen projects like Beautician and the Beast. Most recently, she played the wicked stepmother in Broadway’s “Cinderella.”
Fran Drescher has also given voice to a cause dear to her heart. In her book Cancer Schmancer, she details her experience with uterine cancer in order to make women more aware of the early warning signs. She has become a voice (see what we did there?) of women’s health causes in general, fighting for research funding for diseases that disproportionately affect women.
Everybody on the Island has a Billy Joel story. Whether you ran into him down in Oyster Bay Harbor, had an autograph signed in the parking lot of a red sauce joint in Syosset, your mom went to high school with the “Virginia” in the song “Only the Good Die Young,” or he’s driven his car into your living room, Billy Joel is a part of our Long Island culture. His voice is our voice. His accent as well.
He’s a legend. His songs are a mainstay on Long Island radio. And he’s ours.
Raised in Hicksville, Billy Joel has never strayed from his Long Island roots (although he might have moved up to a snazzier zip code—or two). During Hurricane Sandy, Billy Joel could be found digging in to help restore the shoreline.
You may like him or you may not. He may not be the coolest or the most talented or prolific (especially in the last 20 years) artist, but his influence is virtually unmatched. He sells out Madison Square Garden every friggin’ month—and has for the last two years with his unprecedented MSG residency.
Let’s face it, even if you never need to hear the song “Piano Man” ever again, it will outlive us all. And if you go off the Island and happen to hear it, you will lay claim to it as part of your Long Island heritage. We all do it.
His repertoire goes way beyond the radio hits of the ’80s, your “New York State of Mind” and your “Tell Her About It.” (Full disclosure: “Tell Her About It” was the first 45 I ever bought, at TSS in West Babylon, to play on my My Little Pony record player. It’s so damn catchy.) Obscure songs on Glass Houses and The Bridge show the range and depth of his song-writing skill and piano prowess. His Broadway smash “Movin’ Out” as well as his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame (of course) further solidified his position as the one and only Piano Man.
Sigh. “The Karate Kid” came into our hearts as a young heartthrob when he played Daniel LaRusso in 1984. He cemented his place in pop culture when he played Johnny in The Outsiders, holding his own (and then some) in the company of Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise and Matt Dillon.
Born and raised in Huntington—a Half Hollow Hills High School alumnus who lived for a spell in East Islip and currently resides in Miller Place—Macchio has never lost his Long Island accent. You heard it when he was an adorable teenage kid (who was actually in his 20s when he played high school students), when he was in My Cousin Vinny (although his accent might have been drowned out by those of Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei), and when he was an adorable 50-year-old contestant on Dancing with The Stars (who still looked like a teenager).
Like Billy Joel, most of us here on LI know someone who knows someone who knows him. And they all have the same opinion: Ralph Macchio is a great guy. Down to earth. Modest. Eternally young. And so damn nice.
His sweetheart reputation has so followed Macchio that he was prompted to create the short “Wax On, F*ck Off,” for Funny or Die in 2010, which portrayed his close family and friends having a reverse intervention to plead with him: “Please do something to become relevant! Like doing drugs, soliciting a prostitute, something!” The video has millions of views and has reached “immortal status” on the site.
Ray Romano’s voice is that whiny Long Islandese that we gotta lay claim to, even if we don’t wanna. His show Everybody Loves Raymond was so thoroughly Long Island, with his Italian parents living in the house directly across the street and his job as a sports columnist for a suburban newspaper whose name shall not be mentioned. His older brother was an NYPD cop, as all of our brothers are growing up. The kids are obnoxious, but cute. As all our kids are.
Romano was actually brought up in Queens, a part of Long island. (See: Fran Drescher.) He went to Hillcrest High School with Fran Drescher and even had the character Ray Barone (we all know people with that last name too!) introduced on Drescher’s show The Nanny. Phil Rosenthal, the executive producer and creator, is a Hofstra University alum, and frequently features the school in the show.
Romano is a wildly successful comedian, who was at one point the highest-paid TV actor in CBS history. He has starred alongside fellow Long Islander Kevin James in the film Grilled. When he’s not making guest appearances on shows like Parenthood or The Office or taking his disco suit off on HBO’s Vinyl, you can find him competing in the World Series of Poker. You know, playing cards. Just like your neighbors.
Howard Stern has one of the most recognizable voices of all time. The self-proclaimed “King of All Media” has entertained us with his unique and massively influential brand of gonzo radio that has earned him fame (or infamy) and fortune, plus led to a TV show and the feature film Private Parts he starred in based on his life.
Born and raised in Roosevelt, Stern has an accent distinctively and apologetically Long Island. He tawks just like us. He says cawfee. And he curses. A lot. Like us.
Howard Stern, who reached payscale heights that no one in his industry could ever touch, whose mop of brown curls and big nose are recognizable before you ever hear that Lawn Guyland accent, is the pioneer who paved the way for the entire shock-jock genre, including Long Islanders Opie and Anthony, who often credited his influence on their own LI radio show (before Anthony’s 2014 firing for what Sirius XM characterized as “racially-charged and hate-filled” social media posts (very unfunny) and subsequent launch of his popular podcast-style talk radio network).
Howard Stern still has command of the airwaves. And so it will remain for the foreseeable future.
For the longest time, we could identify Michael Kors’ fashion line by its high-end classic appeal or by the label, but since the debut of Bravo’s Project Runway, where Michael Kors sat for several seasons as a judge, we now know without a doubt that although he is one of the jet set, he is absolutely Long Island material.
One of the most successful fashion designers of all time, Kors grew up in Merrick, attending John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore. He has dressed Hollywood’s A-list, including Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez, Kate Hudson and Taylor Swift. And he dresses your neighbors, from the teenage girls who live next door touting pocketbooks with big MK’s on them to their mothers, in his eye-catching print patterns. All bought at the Massapequa mall. Maybe Smithhaven.
The other thing we didn’t realize until Project Runway? His acerbic, hysterical, gifted sense of humor, such as these fashion critiques, laid down with a gorgeous Long Island accent:
The hair defies the laws of gravity. The nails are a species of their own. The shoes reach spectacular heights and demand magical balancing ability. Oh but the voice. That voice. It is Long Island to the core.
This Hicksville celeb has risen to fame and fortune by interpreting messages from the dearly departed and sharing them with the grieving. This practice has undoubtedly helped many deal with the loss of loved ones–and makes riveting television, to boot. Her TLC show “The Long Island Medium” is one of the most popular in the network’s history. Her live shows are often the hottest ticket in town. Private readings have a waiting list as long as the line of traffic trying to get into Jones Beach on the fourth of July.
Can she really communicate with our deceased muthahs and fathahs? Does it matter?
Who could forget the most successful television star in the history of the medium? That show about “nothing” set the standard for what television comedy could—and should—be. And it put that nasal Long Island twang on the map for eternity.
Jerry Seinfeld grew up in the Massapequa area of our fair Island. A graduate of Massapequa High School, Seinfeld is one of our biggest claims to fame.
With an unprecedented syndication deal ($100 million), Seinfeld officially has more money than God. He has parlayed his post-Seinfeld career into a terrific web series called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (pronounced “cawfee”)–in one memorable episode he takes President Obama for a spin in his 1963 Corvette Stingray–and a successful stand-up tour.
A car enthusiast, Seinfeld now has the time and money to indulge his greatest passion. He reportedly owns 46 Porshes, including the only air-cooled Porshe 911.
With all the hubbub about this weekend’s Season 6 kickoff of Game of Thrones, I thought I’d squawk a lil about why I will most definitively Not be watching.
Perhaps you’d think it’s because this show has almost singularly ushered in our “Spoiler Alert!”-maniacal culture. Or maybe because it’s known for graphic sex, graphic violence and graphic sexual violence. Maybe you think epic dramas with multiple storylines and a seemingly endless cast of characters just isn’t my thing. But you’d be wrong.
It’s the costumes.
I simply can’t get interested in a show set in a world that exists before the zipper was invented. Body armor and bustiers don’t interest me. (Not during the daytime, anyway.) The truth is that I can’t get interested in anything in fantasy period costume.
I cannot relate or connect to medieval times. Not the utensil-less theme restaurant. Not the time period. And certainly not fiction set there. The same goes for fantasy worlds where people wear this kind of thing.
I may be in the minority here, but I don’t really see how. Our clothes serve as the touchstones of cultural progress. I can get behind retro-wear that harkens back to the 1960s. Even the ’20s. But when we start going back hundreds of years, my eyes glaze over. I am simply unwilling to become emotionally invested in characters who live in a time period set before women wore pants.
Did they have the same trials and tribulations that women have faced for millennia? Philandering husbands and unruly children? Oh hells yes. Are the men sweaty and muscular and brave and fierce? It looks like it, based on the short snippets I’ve seen before I can quickly switch channels to something I am actually interested in. Yet, because of the confines of their clothing, the silly stylings of their outfits, I am out.
Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I am no slave to fashion. I clean up alright, but I am by no means a clothes-horse. So why this aversion to gilded costumes of centuries past? To intricate curls placed just so on the top of women’s heads? The hipsters have brought facial hair back to this century with a vengeance, and I am one of the few people okay with that, but the bearded faces of the warriors who populate Game of Thrones give me a wide yawn.
This prejudice extends far beyond George R. R. Martin’s fantastical epic. Case in point: I adore Gerard Butler. His face, accent, abs, et cetera. And yet, I was not one to subject myself to any of those beloved things when the film “300” came out. Not because it was touted as one of the most violent war movies since “Saving Private Ryan,” but because in the promo posters, he was wearing an old time-y period war-wear and that just turned me off. And it was great flick! Ask anybody. Anybody but me.
Will Game of Thrones come back this season to acclaim and applause and watercooler-inciting debate? Absolutely.
Will people be riveted by the action and some guy named Jon Snow (who apparently has amazing hair, from what I’ve heard, anyway) and whether he is dead or whatever? Yup.
The parking field at Stony Brook University overflowed with minivans and sedans of parents and educators who’d gotten last-minute word of a “listening tour” critical to informing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new Common Core Task Force about necessary modifications to the controversial education program—and ultimately, helping shape policy across the state—flooded the campus.
Filled to capacity, New York State troopers directed the still oncoming traffic to impromptu curbside spots, while inside, droves crammed into a room within the Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology with just a 100-person maximum. Every folding chair was taken; people lined the back and side walls. Additional police officers held off the overflow spilling into the hallway and in front of an elevator one floor downstairs.
“Militant,” is how Michael Hynes, superintendent of Patchogue-Medford School District, recalls the armed police presence at the Nov. 6 event—which was, after all, an educational session. “Shocked,” is how he describes his emotions that afternoon.
The haphazard meeting—which most parents and teachers had only learned of two days prior—was billed as a means for relaying much-needed input and recommendations to the Cuomo administration before it charted the state’s education policies going forward regarding the much-maligned standardized testing program Common Core. Hundreds of thousands had refused to sit for the exams last year—choosing to “opt-out” instead—and the anti-Common Core movement’s resolve has only intensified since then. Opponents to the testing frantically descended upon Stony Brook University that chilly day in the hopes of providing a long list of significant changes that could improve the tests, and consequently, education, to millions of students across New York. They took time off from their typical work days in the hopes that Cuomo and his Task Force would actually listen.
Now, five months later, as the latest rounds of Common Core exams roll out across New York State—with English Language Arts (ELA) exams for grades 3 to 8 administered on April 5 to April 7 and Mathematics on April 13 to April 15—the reality has firmly set in among local education advocates, many of those who attended that day: It was all just a game of smoke and mirrors. Gov. Cuomo wasn’t really listening, but simply holding the “listening tour” to give the appearance that he’d address their concerns, fix the flaws, revamp the system. The spectacle was set up to simply placate them, make it appear that he cared, get them to shut up. It was devised to slow down the ever-growing movement. The 15-member task force and its 51-page report published in December, though admittedly implementing several of the countless suggestions relayed by the collective community of parents and educators, was overall just a huge sham, they say, and all who perhaps naively believed it would result in real, meaningful changes, have been played.
“Essentially nothing has changed except the perception that Cuomo has brought about real change,” laments Middle Country School District teacher Kevin Glynn, one of many who are disillusioned by the task force’s recommendations.
Gov. Cuomo announced the Common Core Task Force last fall to delve into parent, teacher, student, and administrator concerns before executing a new plan to tackle the disaster wrought by the botched rollout of the initiative four years earlier.
More than 240,000 students statewide “opted-out” of taking the exams last April, with the movement’s power core centered on Long Island. Then-New York State (NYS) Education Commissioner John B. King, who championed the flawed system and criticized parents and teachers who voiced concerns, rightfully became a lightning rod for attacks, and remains so. After resigning from the post amid ever-mounting opposition, King was recently appointed U.S. Secretary of Education—viewed by anti-Common Core parents and teachers across the state as a blatant indication that their calls not only fell on deaf ears among the corridors of power, but that they are being willfully ignored and even disregarded.
Also indicative of this, education advocates say, is the task force’s report, supposedly crafted with input from parents and teachers it “listened” to during its trek across the state, to highlight and address the problematic issues with Common Core reform. It proposes 20 recommendations, yet Common Core opponents bash it as lacking teeth and having no real means of implementing or enforcing the few changes it does suggest, among other criticisms.
Back in November, in that packed classroom, this wasn’t so clear. Long Island education advocates had no idea they were being bamboozled until recently, they say.
The most outspoken local critics of Common Core and familiar faces of the Opt-Out Movement were all there at Stony Brook University, among them: Jeanette Deutermann, a Bellmore mother, New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE) cofounder, and “Long Island Opt-Out Info” Facebook page founder; GiGi Guiliano of East Islip, mother of three; and Tim MacDowell, a father, whose son attends Longwood School District in Middle Island.
They joined other impassioned parents and educators in voicing their long-simmering gripes to task force member Constance Evelyn and state Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset), chairman of the NYS Senate Education Committee, also a task force member.
In case things got too heated, the state made preparations to physically extinguish the flames. Troopers were stationed throughout the scene, with one telling this Press reporter, “This is a hot topic. They want everyone to feel our presence.”
Another police officer looked around at the space. “We’re already at capacity,” he said. “This is going to be a clusterfuck.”
The firebrands in attendance may say as much for Common Core, yet the colorful characterization did not match the well-organized and respectful manner in which the community addressed Evelyn and Marcellino that day.
The commissioner and senator heard stories and experiences from those in the trenches, whether they were from parents of children who’ve been subjected to the roughshod implementation of the standardized testing or from those teachers for whom 50 percent of their job security balanced on the results of its related assessments. Administrators weighed in as well.
The consensus was clear: It isn’t working. The very nature of the standards as a gauge for college and career-readiness from kindergarten was wrong. That 50 percent of teacher evaluations was based upon the flawed tests was not only improper, but a slap in the face. Children were being over-tested. The stakes were way too high for students, teachers and schools themselves.
Melissa McMullen, a sixth grade teacher in the Comsewogue School District, deemed the term “Common Core math…a euphemism for poor math instruction rooted in profit-for-publishing companies rather than powerful, strong math instruction,” and was greeted with applause from a room overflowing with supporters.
“It is not a logical path to math competency and math fluency,” she blasted.
Dan Campbell, a fifth grade teacher at South Huntington Schools, explained that “before the implementation of the Common Core, Long Islanders had a 94-percent proficiency rate in reading. Our schools were considered the best in the country. Since the implementation of the Core and the manufactured crisis known as Hurricane Bill and Melinda [Gates], I’m certain that the only thing we lead the nation in right now is the creation of anxiety.”
Michael Hynes, the superintendent of Patchogue-Medford, demanded a “cease and desist.”
“One of the goals of education is to awaken and develop the powers of creativity,” he declared. “Instead, what we have is a culture of standardization.”
“This time that we’re in, from an educational paradigm, is historical,” he continued. “The next four years will pave the way in public education for the next forty.”
Another major source of outrage among anti-Common Core activists are the very members Cuomo handpicked for the task force—proof, they say, that any true reform is impossible.
‘RIGHT THE SHIP’
“It is time to right the ship,” said Richard Parsons, senior advisor at Providence Equity Partners, Inc., former chairman of the board at Citigroup Inc., and chair of the Common Core Task Force, in the task force report. “We believe our report and recommendations reflect the thinking of a wide cross-section of citizens and education stakeholders around the State.”
The New York Common Core Task Force report listed 21 recommendations to “right the ship,” broken down into three broad goals: “establish new high quality New York standards,” “develop better curriculum guidance and resources,” and “significantly reduce testing time and preparation and ensure tests fit curriculum and standards.”
Parsons also led Cuomo’s 2012 New NY Education Reform Commission, which was tasked with shaping the New York State education agenda that largely ignored the disastrous rollout of Common Core and the punitive intertwining of teacher evaluations with standardized testing. Beyond positioning a corporate CEO with no education policy experience as the head of the Common Core task force—for a second time, reminds Long Island Opt Out Info Facebook page founder Jeanette Deutermann, an outspoken critic of the standardized exams—Cuomo also installed many of the same members of that old education reform committee on the new one. This includes: American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, the state Assembly’s Education Committee Chair Cathy Nolan, and nonprofit Parent Power Project founder and Rochester-area parent, Carrie Remis.
Admittedly, explains Deutermann, when the governor’s office sought to assemble the task force team, they did reach out to several key critics, soliciting recommendations. But those names—which included public school teachers and public education advocates such as Jamaal Bowman and Gary Rubenstein from Stuyvesant High School—never made it to the final cohort, she says.
“I have to give them credit,” she says of the task force. “They reached out and spoke to the people I recommended. They did extensive interviews and research. But the problem is that the people they actually pulled in were not appropriate. They chose parents who were tied to charter schools when this is a parents’ movement.”
Deutermann cites its chairman, Parsons, as one of the main problems.
“Parents were upset about corporate influence in public education,” she explains. “Then Cuomo chooses a bank CEO as the head of the task force. What kind of message does that send?
“They wanted to make sure they could control the outcome,” she theorizes about the administration’s picks for the task force’s makeup. “They didn’t want any surprises.”
Critics also assail the actual content of the report.
Specific recommendations include considering input from local districts, educators, and parents when creating the new standards, making the standards age-appropriate, and ensuring that the entire process is transparent. They also include flexibility for teachers to develop and tailor the curriculum within their classrooms, quoting Linda Darling-Hammond, faculty director for the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, saying, “It is very important that the Standards be used as a guide, not as a straitjacket.”
The most comprehensive set of recommendations concern state assessments, which lie at the base of the Common Core mechanism. The report recommends protection for students with disabilities and English language learners, transparency on the quality and content of the tests, and a shortened timeframe for exams, in terms of both fewer days and hours.
NYSUT [New York State United Teachers], the 600,000-member state teachers union, celebrated with a multimedia campaign to “highlight progress.” In a press release dated January 15, NYSUT President Karen E. Magee stated:
“Unprecedented activism by parents and teachers opened the door for much-needed change in public education. The pendulum is swinging back to what’s most important—teaching and learning. At the same time, we’re reminding New Yorkers there is still a lot of work to do. We must all work together to continue this progress for our students.”
Critics—including many local education advocates—believe those task force recommendations, without altering any actual laws, have little teeth to be effective. The most headline-grabbing modification included in the report were calls for an immediate four-year moratorium on Common Core test scores counting against teachers or students, causing some parents, teachers and the state teachers union to rejoice. Yet dissenters, such as Deutermann, say Gov. Cuomo, who enacted his Education Transformation Act, which counts 50 percent of teacher evaluations based on state test scores, retains the last word by keeping the law in place while reducing the urgency to opt-out.
“So, when you first look at the preamble leading up to the task force report, it sounds like, ‘Wow—they heard us,’ because they’re really enumerating all the complaints and concerns of parents and educators,” Bianca Tanis, an elementary special education teacher, public school parent in New York’s Hudson Valley, and co-founder of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), told the Press. “But then as you delve into the task force report, you see that there is very little substance in there in terms of change.”
That message was echoed within a blog post on New York Rank & File. Curated by a self-described “coalition of educators motivated by a desire to provide our students with an authentic, developmentally appropriate, culturally relevant, and child-centered public education,” it called upon NYSUT to clarify their million-dollar, member-funded media campaign signifying progress in public education.
“While the opt-out movement has captured the attention of policymakers, there has been no substantive change,” it reads. “The only change is that school districts must now use limited time and resources to negotiate another APPR [Annual Professional Performance Review, which determines ratings standards and assessment process for teachers’ effectiveness] plan that requires both more testing for NYS children and a continued focus on evaluating teachers through test scores.”
When the Education Transformation Act passed along with the state 2015-2016 budget, explains Tanis, the law specified that half of teacher evaluations were to be judged on the basis of state test scores. The four-year moratorium suspends the controversial Common Core test from counting toward these evaluations, causing school districts to adopt an addition test, to be approved by the state for appropriate rigor to show one-year growth per student. The Common Core tests will still be given, and results could count toward tenure decisions, and the hiring and firing of teachers.
“Teachers are still being evaluated by tests, just not the state tests,” says Tanis. “That’s the part that they’re leaving out.”
Tanis has launched a full-throttle Twitter campaign to get NYSUT to acknowledge the lack of actual progress without a change in legislation that is directed at Cark Korn, spokesperson for NYSUT. The fear is that by celebrating the Common Core Task Force’s report as significant progress, actual progress will stall, and if teachers are still being evaluated by tests, then instruction will be focused on test-prep as a result. Because of the perception that Common Core testing no longer “counts,” the fight has consequentially gone out of those teachers and students who believe significant changes are underway.
Glynn, the Middle Country School District teacher, explains:
“Message from the union is that it is fine to go back in the water.”
Hynes, the Patchogue-Medford superintendent, equates this misdirection with a metaphor of a frog and a pot of water.
“So if you place the frog in a pot of boiling water, it jumps out,” he explained to the Press. “If you placed a frog in a pot of lukewarm water and you turned it up one degree every minute, when it gets to the boiling point, the frog dies. He doesn’t know he’s being boiled to death because he can’t adapt quickly enough.
“We, in New York State and in this great nation, are being boiled to death as far as what’s happening to public education,” he continued. “And most of us don’t know it.”
“Most,” but not all, he added.
“Jeanette [Deutermann] is the kid who yelled out ‘Car!’ while we were all playing in the street,” Hynes told the Press via Facebook. “Some would like to believe the car has passed, but anyone without an agenda can see the car is still there and the engine is revving up.”
“And I think it’s more of a semi than a car!” states the Bellmore mother.
RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE
Deutermann stresses the ever-growing importance of opting out of the Common Core tests this April—with the next round of Common Core Mathematics examinations for grades 3 through 8 to be administered in classrooms across the state on April 13 to April 15.
“It took three years of advocacy and a history-making opt-out year to force the powers that be to admit there’s a problem,” she told the Press. “Another year of high opt-out numbers may actually get some proposed changes to land in our classrooms. One thing for sure: If parents opt back in now, any potential progress will come to a screeching halt.”
The implications of the Opt-Out Movement being diminished due to complacency based on the task force recommendations and the four-year moratorium could be significant.
According to Hynes: “If we have the same or less opt-outs, I feel any progress will totally be gone.”
Progress, Hynes suggests, could be fulfilled by the restoration of local control of individual districts, the relinquishment of mandates that serve to constrain public schools from serving the needs of their communities, and the elimination of the “test and punish” model. In order to fulfill it, the state would need an education commissioner and a Regents chancellor who could earn back New Yorker’s trust and rebuild the education system with what is best for students as the top priority. But with the ascension of New York’s failed former Education Commissioner John B. King to U.S. education secretary, progress may be stalled nationwide, regardless.
Stu McMullen, a father of four, is appalled at King’s newly proposed position and told Superintendent Evelyn and Sen. Marcellino as much at Stony Brook University in November:
“The implementation of the Common Core was so poorly done that if it was in the private sector, the people involved would have been fired,” he said. “One was promoted. Illogical!”
If the heavy police presence at November’s Stony Brook University “listening tour” stop were any indication, the state education department doesn’t view massive opt-outs as “progress.”
What comes next will determine who is winning the battle of public education.