There is no place Joshua Furnell would rather be than teaching English in a Wyandanch public school.
The Copiague native with a doctorate in education from St. John’s University says he is pumped every day he shows up at Milton L. Olive Middle School.
“I’m having the best time of my life,” said Furnell, 40. “I can’t ever see myself retiring.”
Wyandanch may struggle on state tests, but the teachers who work in the system, especially at Milton L. Olive, see children with great potential and schools that are making progress.
"I think that everybody should come and see what we do for a day, and I think it will change your perspective on the district and the kids in the district,” said Kelly Kornahrens, a physical education teacher in her fifth year at Milton L. Olive.
Newsday did just that recently, spending some time inside the middle school. The visit included watching a special education class learn life skills, Furnell teaching seventh graders difficult vocabulary words, and school administrators organizing a surprise assembly to honor a teacher who had survived breast cancer.
“Great things are happening in" the classrooms, said Gina Talbert, acting superintendent of the Wyandanch district. “We're moving in the right direction. We have people who believe in where we are going. Those who don’t, we welcome their voice to be a part of the team.”
The breast cancer survivor, Karen Salamone, broke down in tears as students and fellow teachers saluted her and welcomed her back to the school last month. As the event ended, students surrounded Salamone, a computer technology teacher, with hugs and best wishes.
Just before the assembly, Furnell was pacing around his classroom, getting students to use words such as “superfluous” and “assiduous” in sentences they made up and read aloud. The students were quiet, attentive and raised their hands to participate.
At one point, Furnell had to tell them to talk to one another as part of the assignment. They were up to 112 vocabulary words, and aiming for 600 by June.
Furnell has taught and worked as an assistant principal in public schools in Harlem and the Bronx, and jumped at the chance to work in Wyandanch when he returned to Long Island. He thinks his students can go far.
“They have just as much potential as anybody else,” said Furnell, a graduate of Stony Brook University now in his third year in Wyandanch. “There is no reason why these kids can’t be every single thing and more than other school districts on this island."
Dana Valentino, a special education teacher, spent her morning helping students organize a “Brighter Day Café” in which they delivered coffee and hot chocolate to teachers, who contributed $1 each that went into a fund to help the class go on trips.
Valentino, a mother of five with a master’s degree from St. Joseph’s College, said she regularly brings some of her own children to bingo and movie nights at the middle school.
“My experience with the schools has been wonderful,” she said. “The parents that I have had have been great.”
Kornahrens said she has taught in more affluent districts, such as Herricks and Great Neck, but finds Wyandanch special.
“Working in Wyandanch, you get opportunities to help kids in different ways than you would in other districts,” she said. “I think a lot of the kids see me as like a role model and look up to me and come to me for advice about personal things, as well as educational things.
“I’ve been here for five years,” she added, “and I don’t think I’m going anywhere.”