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Ocean Beach school starts year with more mainlanders

Shannon Picinich helps her 3rd and 4th grad

Shannon Picinich helps her 3rd and 4th grad class (L-R Francisco Bejarano of Central Islip and Julianna Elton of Babylon) at the k-6 Woodhull School, which has been successful in its battle against declining enrollment. (Sept. 18, 2012) Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Jason Philie's favorite thing about his new school is the trip there. Every weekday, the second-grader rides the bus from Islip Town Hall across the Robert Moses Causeway to Fire Island, bouncing along the sand to the Woodhull School in Ocean Beach.

"He springs out of bed and can't wait to get on the bus," said Jason's mom, Jennifer Philie.

Jason is one of 12 students from mainland Long Island who attend the Woodhull School, a public K-6 school on Fire Island. As the year-round population of the summer-oriented island has dropped, so has enrollment at Woodhull. Last year, the school hit a low of 19 students, with as few as four to a classroom.

To boost their numbers, school officials decided last spring to recruit from off-island, following an example set by other small districts such as Bridgehampton, Quogue and Sagaponack. For about $3,000 in tuition, mainland kids have access to small class sizes and the unique opportunity to go to school on the beach; and year-round Fire Island students get to expand their social groups, Superintendent Loretta Ferraro said.

Initially, she predicted recruitment would be much slower, but interest in the program was "better than I had hoped for," Ferraro said. "It was a great start to the new year," she said. "It's a nice rounding to our community. Everybody is really happy, the parents are happy, the community is extremely supportive . . . it's really been nothing but positive."

Enrollment is now at 35, with three coming from the Coast Guard base on Fire Island. The numbers aren't back to earlier levels of 60-plus, but the growth is healthy, Ferraro said.

And there are perks: Students have access to personal MacBook laptops, transportation to and from school, and daily after-school activities on- and off-island, including karate, Lego building and swimming.

"They have very limited time in public schools with the computers," Philie said, adding that last year, Jason's East Islip classroom had 24 children. Now, he's one of seven. "Here, they have their own."

In teacher Shannon Picinich's third- and fourth-grade classroom, three of the 11 students are mainlanders -- twins Elizabeth and Julianna Elton from Babylon and Francisco Bejarno of Central Islip.

"My first day here, I was unable to tell who the new students were," Picinich said. "Right away, they were communicating with each other like they were old friends . . . I even had a little girl turn around last Wednesday and say, 'Remember when there were only four students in the class?' and another said, 'But I like it better with our new friends.' "

Ferraro likes the program's success but said the district will not accept more nonresident students than residents. "It's a great sign for the district," she said. "We're really optimistic that we came up with a viable option."

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