Fifty-two years after receiving an average mark in writing on his grade-school report card, former East Meadow School District student Joel Ross requested a grade change.

"I'm going to complain -- I'm a published author," joked Ross, 63, who retired from the CIA and now lives in Herndon, Virginia.

He and about two dozen former grade-school classmates came together Sunday to pay tribute to "Mr. Rotella," the teacher many said left a lasting impact on their lives in the then-new Experimental Accelerated Program that was a precursor to gifted and talented instruction.

The former students, who gathered at Ristorante Venere in Westbury, were picked from several schools to be taught in the early 1960s by Ronald Rotella, now 86, in the program. They had to score high on intelligence tests and meet with psychologists.

"In order to get into my class, they were considered geniuses, that's how bright they were," Rotella said, adding his students had IQ scores of 140 or above.

Students were taught fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade courses in two years, and the first graduating class in 1963 included many who became doctors, lawyers, professors -- and Ross, who waved around his mint-condition report card in mock protest Sunday.

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The classmates, most of whom hadn't seen each other since their school days, traveled from Nevada, Maine, Virginia and New Jersey as well as around Long Island to honor Rotella. Many hailed him as the best instructor they'd ever had.

"The greatest teachers inspire," Estelle Brickner, 60, a vice president of Catholic Health Home & Community in Buffalo, said during the ceremony to honor Rotella.

Many also credited him with their careers.

"There was no such thing as gifted and talented. There wasn't a term. This is why it was called an experiment. Everybody had a theory about how to enhance success," said Ross, who helped organize the luncheon.

Locust Valley-based private attorney Don Rave, 62, said the program guided his long-term study habits. "It's where we learned to read and study and got the basics of science," said Rave, who lives in Huntington Bay. "We all agree it set a basis for our success."

Peter Sturm, 60, a spine doctor practicing in Cincinnati, said he was thrilled to meet up with old classmates despite not remembering everyone by face.

Rotella was unwilling to take credit for his students' success, offering one more instruction for his former pupils -- "Be humble," he said.