There’s a lot of school spirit in Wyandanch. And not just in the usual places, like on the basketball court, the football field or the cheer squad, but in the classroom, where several alumni who went to school in the district over the past several decades have returned to help instruct, guide and inspire new generations of students.
“It’s always about saving lives,” said Paul Sibblies, principal at Wyandanch Memorial High School. “They went to school here and find it fruitful to return and guide the kids that are here now. They become a symbol of being successful in school and returning to work in the school.”
Alumni have stuck with the district and its students through good times and bad, embodying the district’s motto: “We are rising.”
James Crawford, school board trustee
Educational pursuits took James Crawford far afield from his native Wyandanch, but his heart was always there.
After graduating from Wyandanch Memorial High School in 1995, he earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in education and the social sciences at Stony Brook University, and a master’s degree in education leadership at Touro College.
Crawford, 41, a husband and father of five who was born and raised in the hamlet, coached football and wrestling at the high school and was a substitute “wherever I was needed” in the district. He also was a substitute in the Central Islip School District doing “whatever they needed.”
For three years, he taught social sciences to seventh- and eighth-graders at a middle school in Brooklyn, and for 10 years he taught social studies and coached football and wrestling at Boys and Girls High School, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
“All that time, I was longing for Wyandanch,” Crawford said. “My goal, even in high school, was to come back,” he said. “I never left.”
While at Boys and Girls High School, he ran in 2003 for a trustee position on the Wyandanch school board and won. Crawford has served since then with the aim of “having Wyandanch become one of the top school districts in the country,” and becoming superintendent.
“I am looking to find ways to improve student achievement and help bring in more personnel on the staff for professional development,” Crawford said. “It’s basically giving back to the community that gave a lot to me, the community that raised me.”
Crawford said that a lack of funding and opportunities for students who were not college-bound were problems when he was growing up, and there was “a difference of opinion about the vision for the district. The community had one vision and the administration another. There wasn’t total trust.”
He noted that funding remains a problem. “We’re hoping for government help and grants, donations, and to partner with organizations to get our students ready for life.”
The district needs more programs for Advanced Placement and career readiness, as well as for special-needs students, he added. The self-described “Wyandancher for life” will be around to make that a reality.
“A lot of people believe if you went to Wyandanch there is not much opportunity for you, but we have some of the most talented people all over the country and all over the world,” Crawford said.
In the photo: James Crawford with some of the children he mentors, from left, Jermaine Miller, 9; Jhamir Washington; 4, Jahmir Crawford, 3; Jhasir Washington, 4; Josiah Crawford, 7; Aamarri Bowser, 11; James Crawford II, 10, at Wyandanch Memorial High School.
Sharon Baker, attendance specialist and coach
Sharon Baker recalls an incident four months ago when a man approached her in a bowling alley and said, “Hello Miss Crimedanch.”
The greeting brought back memories of T-shirts emblazoned with the word that she said were once sold in a shopping mall.
“I gave him every reason we’re not to be called ‘Crimedanch,’ ” she said.
Baker, 52, a lifelong resident of Wyandanch, is a districtwide attendance specialist in the Wyandanch Union Free School District and coach of the high school’s junior varsity boys basketball team. She is an advocate for the community, seeking to change its negative image.
“People don’t get to know all of the positives that go on here because you have one or two incidents that happen in the community, and they will say that’s what we’re like,” Baker said. “Those same incidents happen in other communities. What people don’t realize is, educationally, we have awesome programs here. We have so many programs to assist you to keep you from failing. We have teachers to tutor after school in every subject.
“The cost of living in New York is crazy; people do have more than one job to keep food on the table. Unfortunately, we do have latchkey kids,” Baker said. “Currently, our middle school is under the state’s watch; our grades fell below state standards. We can make an improvement and still be at the bottom because other schools are doing better, but we’re at the bottom and rising; we’re not where we were.”
Baker graduated from Wyandanch Memorial High School in 1984. She studied political science at Norfolk State University in Virginia and at Nassau Community College, then worked as a paralegal in a private law firm in Bay Shore. She took jobs in the school district as a substitute clerical worker, a clerk typist and an administrative assistant, working in the central office, then at Milton L. Olive Middle School. Baker is now an attendance specialist for the district.
Staying “gave me an opportunity to give back to my community that I grew up in,” she said. “We aren’t going to have to look at anybody to give us accolades; we can get it right here with one another. We do have some [students] that get out of control, but I say, ‘I want you to live out the opposite of what people think we are.’ ”
Rodney Jones, teaching assistant
For the past five years, Rodney Jones has run a program for young males in Wyandanch called Positive Wyandanch Men.
“Annually, I select people from the community and honor them; some are scholars from the high school,” Jones said.
The program, which he co-founded with the late Rosemary English, a former teacher and assistant principal at LaFrancis Hardiman Elementary School, chooses adolescents “that are showing good sportsmanship, good citizenship and working on the right path who need to be celebrated or have a light shined on them.”
Jones, 44, was born and has lived in Wyandanch his entire life. He graduated from Wyandanch Memorial High School in 1992, took courses at Suffolk County Community College and in 1994 began working as a lunch monitor at the Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary School (now the LaFrancis Hardiman / Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School). He is now a teaching assistant at the school.
“I chose to stay in Wyandanch,” Jones said. “I could have gone to any school in any state, but it was my choice to stay in my hometown, because as a product of Wyandanch it was my honor to give back to my town just as those before me gave back.”
He noted the growing number of Hispanic students in the school district and said he would like to see more programs for them, as well as solutions to alleviate overcrowded classrooms.
“You hear this and that about Wyandanch, but we will rise,” Jones said. “This is my ministry. It’s not gonna always be easy, but every morning I get up and go right back there.”
Sandra Martinez, bilingual administrative assistant
When her parents brought her and her four younger sisters from their native El Salvador in 2005 to join an aunt living in Wyandanch, Sandra Martinez, then 13, quickly settled into the school system and graduated from Wyandanch Memorial High School in 2010.
She knew early on that she wanted to be an anesthesiologist, so she began taking courses at Suffolk County Community College and graduated with an associate degree in science. In May, she graduated from Stony Brook University with a bachelor’s degree in biology.
Martinez, 26, will be in medical school in the fall, but in the interim she is one of the school district’s interpreters and is based at the LaFrancis Hardiman / Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. Her siblings all attend schools in the district.
Martinez translates letters and other communication from the district for the Hispanic student population “so they know what is going on. I hope to do this until I finish medical school. I like to help the community,” she said.
She said she disagrees with “the stereotype that this is a bad district. It’s not; everywhere you go it’s quiet, peaceful.”
Martinez said there is a need for more bilingual personnel in the district. “There’s not a lot of people who speak Spanish,” she said. “Parents don’t get involved. I believe it may be the language problem.”
She said she hopes to provide scholarships for students in the district once she is established in her medical career. “You have to give back,” Martinez said. “They help you a lot.”
Ivesha Hall-Baldwin, teaching assistant
Ivesha Hall-Baldwin studied sports management at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island and at St. John’s University in Queens, and set her sights on a job with the National Basketball Association. “I wanted to be a scout for the NBA,” she said.
But it seems the universe had other plans for Hall-Baldwin, who grew up in Wyandanch and attended its schools and now lives in West Islip.
She said she noticed how “people in the community did things for the children in the community, and I wanted to be part of that. We didn’t have a lot of things in our high school, but we did have college tours, and I was able to see things that were not available in our high school. I wanted to be part of helping.”
Early on, Hall-Baldwin, 38, a 1998 graduate of the high school who is now a mother of four, was motivated to work with children. Her mother, Rhoda, and her grandmother, Christine Clark, are both involved in early childhood education, operating a day care center in the hamlet.
“I used to volunteer in my grandma’s day care doing arts and crafts with preschoolers,” Hall-Baldwin said. “When I was in high school, I did a program called Teachers of Tomorrow and I was inspired to stay in the community.”
She has been a teaching assistant at the LaFrancis Hardiman / Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School since 2003. “When I see someone that needs a little extra push, a little extra support, I jump right in to be available for them,” Hall-Baldwin said. The goal is to “leave a lasting impression for the children I work with so they’ll always remember Ms. Hall.”
Sheron Parnell, special education coordinator
It was a teacher who inspired Sheron Parnell to stay in Wyandanch and put her skills as a speech and language therapist to work.
“I ran into a former teacher about a year after I graduated from Hunter College with my master’s degree,” Parnell said. “He asked me why I was choosing to commute into the city every day when I could be making a positive influence in the district where I grew up.”
Parnell, 47, grew up in the Roosevelt-Freeport area and moved with her family to Wyandanch in the mid-1980s. She started attending Milton L. Olive Middle School in the seventh grade.
She graduated in 1990 from Wyandanch Memorial High School and studied speech and language pathology at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University in Brookville. She earned a master’s degree in speech and language pathology from Hunter College.
Parnell said that a year after running into her former teacher “a position opened up in the district for a speech therapist in the elementary school. I applied for the position and got it.” She started working in September 2001 and now is a special-education coordinator.
Parnell had worked for the New York City Board of Education “fresh out of college” in 1995 and was there for six years.
Recalling her early education in Wyandanch, she said, “Back then, Wyandanch didn’t have many resources, but the ones they did have afforded me the opportunity to go to college. My experience as a student wasn’t always good, but they did inspire me to someday be a positive role model for the students in the district.”
Parnell said the district continues to need teachers “who believe in our students, teachers who are dedicated in helping them achieve success, and teachers who are willing to instill a spark of confidence so that students believe that they can grow up to be anything they want.”
Margaret Simpson, administrative assistant
For much of her life, Margaret Rivera-Simpson has been preparing herself for a career she only recently decided would be working with children in the Wyandanch school district.
When she was 7, Rivera-Simpson moved to the hamlet with her parents from Manhattan, where she was born. She attended LaFrancis Hardiman / Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, graduated from Wyandanch Memorial High School in 1985 and studied at various educational institutions, pausing only to dedicate time to being a mother.
Rivera-Simpson began working as a secretary in the district in 1994, and after school attended classes in secretarial science. She earned an associate degree in office management from Farmingdale State College. She then began studying psychology at the SUNY Old Westbury campus.
“I switched majors several times, going from marketing and advertising to professional communications, and went back to psychology,” said Rivera-Simpson, who is working toward a bachelor’s degree.
“I hope to eventually work with children,” said Rivera-Simpson, who is bilingual. “I plan to stay in the district and do that. This is home; this is where I feel I can be effective.
“With the influx of the Hispanic population in Wyandanch, I feel like I can be a voice for the children who haven’t developed a voice yet,” she added. “We have an excellent psychology staff; they do all they can to help the children. I want to contribute in that area.”
Paul Sibblies, Wyandanch Memorial High School principal
“It’s always about saving lives,” said Paul Sibblies, principal at Wyandanch Memorial High School of the alumni who have returned to the district to teach and mentor students. “They went to school here and find it fruitful to return and guide the kids that are here now. They become a symbol of being successful in school and returning to work in the school.” The school district has an elementary, a middle and a high school that educate about 2,700 students, most of whom are Hispanic or African-American, according to Steven Berger, the district’s data coordinator.