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Hundreds gather as W. Islip school closes

Danny Mallimo, right, 8, enjoys a little picnic

Danny Mallimo, right, 8, enjoys a little picnic with his family, Sarah Mallimo, 5, Matthew Mallimo, 11, and Bobby Mallimo, 14, all of West Islip, as they say farewell to Westbrook Elementary School, a fixture in the community for 50 years and one of two district schools being closed because of declining enrollment and financial pressures. (June 14, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Jessica Rotkiewicz

Standing on the grassy field in back of Westbrook Elementary School amid a festive crowd Thursday night, the memories came flooding back to Dana Basile.

As a student at the West Islip school in the 1970s, Basile, 43, played on the field daily: football, kickball and, he said with a laugh, "My first fights were out here."

Basile, whose son John is a Westbrook second-grader, was one of more than 900 people who gathered to celebrate and say goodbye to the school, which closes later this month.

"It's sad," said Basile, an insurance investigator who attended with his family. "I don't really agree with it. I think they could have come up with an alternative. . . . I'm not an accountant, but it's not always about money, it's about the kids."

Westbrook's closure isn't an anomaly. Elsewhere on Long Island in recent years, some cash-strapped districts faced with plummeting enrollments have shuttered schools or plan to do so.

In addition to Westbrook and Paul E. Kirdahy Elementary School at Captree in West Islip, elementary schools in the Baldwin, Lindenhurst, Mineola, North Bellmore and Smithtown districts, and six parochial schools operated by the Diocese of Rockville Centre, have closed or are slated to close at the end of this school year.

Westbrook, with a capacity of more than 500 students, had about 390 enrolled in the 2011-12 school year, according to principal Jack Maniscalco. Facing a $6 million deficit, the school board in January voted to close both Westbrook and Captree. Westbrook students will shift to three schools: Paul J. Ballou, Oquenock and Manetuck. Captree students will move to Bayview. Teachers, likewise, are being dispersed.

"It's heartbreaking," Maniscalco said. "We're a real tight school and community. . . . We wanted to end with a bang, a big family party."

And that they did. More than 900 tickets were sold to the event, dubbed the "Fond Farewell 50th Family & Alumni Fun Night," which included food, music and a movie.

The school district allowed a Newsday reporter and photographer to attend with the caveat that a school administrator accompany them.

Judith Schwartz, a kindergarten teacher at the school for six years who has been with the district for 27 years, planned the event with first-grade teacher Joanna Grimm.

"We were pretty much devastated," she said.

Not everyone quarreled with the district's decision. Chris Rummo, whose daughter Samantha graduated from the school and whose son Joseph would have been a fifth-grader at the school next year, called the move financially prudent.

"I'm not happy about it, but it had to be done," said Rummo, 41, a printer.

Don't tell that to Pat Rich, a 28-year member of the Parent Teacher Association who sent six of her kids and four grandchildren -- including two currently enrolled -- to Westbrook. She moved to her house, which abuts the school, in 1967 and watched as Westbrook was built.

"I remember watching the first field day from my backyard," said Rich, 76, who is retired and was a homemaker. "And the other day, we had the last one."

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