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The School House nonprofit is looking to take over Masera building in West Islip

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After hearing the West Islip community shot down a senior housing project proposed for the site of the old Emil D. Masera Elementary School, Bill Haugland believed he found the “absolute perfect alignment for what the mission is here.”

And the mission here is providing more children with a unique educational experience

The School House is a not-for-profit private elementary school started by Mimosa Jones Tunney and her husband John J. Tunney, III in 2019.

Haugland, 35, of Brightwaters, and his wife, Sara, enrolled their two sons in the East Northport private school last September and decided more children should have access to the education his children were receiving. 

“They were developing at a rate much more rapidly than I had seen in the previous years of their life,” Haugland said of his sons, 6 and 4. That was just one month after they were enrolled.

“And it’s continued since,” he said. “I think it’s really working great and this is something that we’re gonna try and spread.”

Now, Haugland and his wife wish to become what Mimosa Jones Tunney calls a host family, benefactors who provide the initial capital necessary to jumpstart a new School House location.

“The model is really to repurpose either old church schools or old public schools, traditional schools that weren’t being used,” Tunney said.

She and her husband repurposed the old Long Island Lutheran Day School At St Paul’s building to establish the first School House. The Masera property, if purchased or leased by Haugland, could become the second.

The School House is one of at least two pre-kindergarten, nursery and elementary education organizations interested in leasing the Masera property from the West Islip School District.

The property is no stranger to leasing agreements, as the building was leased to Eastern Suffolk BOCES in back-to-back ten-year agreements which concluded in 2019. It has been abandoned since.

Last January, in a special referendum, over 2,600 residents quashed a proposal for Terwilliger & Bartone Properties LLC to develop a 55-and-older community at the site. Haugland, 35, of Brightwaters, and his wife, Sara, heard of the vote and began negotiations with the district shortly thereafter.

The school board said two organizations were interested in the Masera property during its April 8 meeting, but did not disclose the eyeing entities.

Greater Long Island reached out to the West Islip school district for comment on the negotiations and involved parties. The district responded through an email from a spokesperson, which stated “The West Islip School District is exploring various options for the future of the Masera property and will continue to keep the community informed.”

Negotiations

Haugland’s desire to host a new School House branch is due in part to his concern that another benefactor may not be as silent a partner as himself.

“I think when you start bringing in a lot of other people, you naturally get a lot of other opinions — and especially if they’re contributing money — they’re gonna want their opinions heard,” he said. “And I didn’t want any of the mission to get drowned out or skewed.”

To help spread the Tunney’s mission to Long Island’s South Shore, Haugland said he offered to purchase the the Masera property a few weeks after the referendum on the Terwilliger and Bartone project was voted down.

Haugland said the district declined his offer, so he proposed to enter a nine-year lease for the property.

Instead of paying rent during that period, Haugland offered to renovate the building, in which he would replace the roof, making the building more appealing for future leasees or buyers, and maintain the surrounding grounds as a community cornerstone.

But the rent would have to be reasinable, Haughland said.

“It’s a not-for-profit organization that operates at a loss,” he said of the School House. “It can’t afford to have $500,000-a-year rent.”

Currently, Haugland is negotiating a three-year lease with the district, a short term option that would encompass costs to upkeep the property as well as some “band-aiding,” he said.

“For a three-year lease, we could just deal with maintenance,” he said. “Patch it up, chase some leaks, remediate any mold or damage that’s been done that’s been done in the last year or two years since it’s been occupied, update the HVAC and just fix it up.”

As for the grounds surrounding the school building, a site plan for the project shows amenities for both students and West Islip community members.

“We’re committed to making the backyard grounds in line with what the community wants,” Haugland said. “The community wants to have beneficial use of the grounds which we’re giving them.”

Plans include soccer fields that will be shared with the community, a green house, a chicken coop and farm areas for children to operate their own farm stand and sell produce and eggs to the community as they do in the East Northport School House.

So what is The School House?

When Tunney started the School House, she envisioned an amalgamation of centuries-old pedagogy and childhood Americana. She believes American public schools have failed to help children grow into capable citizens.

“We are not teaching them civics and we’re not giving them the critical thinking and problem solving skills that we need to run a proper democracy,” she said.

Her solution was to combine socratic seminar and hands-on, project based learning with aspects of American public schools she has a soft spot for, like spirit week and sports teams. With tactile learning the primary goal, Tunney aimed to limit the amount of paper children have to work with in the classroom and at home. Learning plans are designed with hands-on project based instruction in mind, with traditional paper assignments used as a final check of a student’s comprehension. 

Tunney pointed to how the School House teaches measurement, a third grade standard, as an example.

“You can learn measurement one of two ways,” she said. “You can learn measurement by doing a series of dittos. But you’re not really using the hand to the mind or the academic connections children are making because you’re only using paper to explain that to them, and from zero to twelve, they’re very tactile.”

Tunny said the children put their measurement skills to use by measuring out the farmstand that was built at the East Northport School House. During this lesson, she said the children also faced questions regarding how these measurements would be done with the metric system and a discussion about why Americans use a different system of measurement.

“You can do all those questions and all that work while building a farmstand and having a great time and learning something they’re never going to forget,” Tunney said. “And then of course you transfer it to paper cause you want to make sure they have those concepts solidified. But to just start with paper and end with paper?”

Since she feels traditional schools are overcrowded, and that smaller group settings are better for children academically and socially, Tunney designed the School House with a 140 learner cap.

The learners fall into one of three mixed age classrooms: pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, grades one through three, and grades four through six. Tunney says this model allows for greater social interaction and more importantly, peer education. “What happens is the older kids in that group who are sixth graders are peer mentoring a fourth grader. And that fourth grader is looking up to that sixth grader,” she said.

Tunney said there are already 90 children on a waitlist to enroll in the School House. She said they will be given the first chance to enroll in the West Islip location, which if opened, will also have a limit of 140 learners.

After running for two academic years, Tunney is proud of what she and her husband created. “It’s been, I think for us, one of the most fulfilling experiences we’ve ever had,” she said.

“It was just three months for us”

When the COVID-19 pandemic altered everyday life last year, the School House was not immune to change. From Mar 16 through the end of the school year in June, it was forced to close its doors. During this time, however, educators were sure to not change a key principle the School House abides.

“One of the things we ask parents, whether you’re bringing your four-year-old here or you’re bringing your 12-year-old here is to understand that if we have limited screen time here, quite limited, then we need to have that limited at home,” Meg Leonard, the principle of the School House, said. “So we ask for children not to have their own phones, not to have instagram accounts, we ask for them not to be playing video games during the week. So because we did that ask, when this all hit us hard last March, we didn’t all just jump and go to screen learning because that’s going against everything that we believe in and that we promote.”

Instead of holding class virtually last spring, Leonard, who was an assistant principal at that time, said educators procured individual weekly work plans for each student under their instruction, and emailed it out to that child’s parent every Sunday for those three months.

Those weekly emails contained lesson plans and “manipulative materials” that attempted to give the children a hands-on experience while they were away from the classroom. They instructed parents how to procure household items like multicolored beads to teach counting, printable stencils to practice handwriting letters and numbers and printable rulers to measure things around the house.

Occasionally, small groups were assembled over FaceTime for larger hands-on activities. In one such instance, Leonard said the children were taught measurements through a cooking lesson, in which a chef differentiated how children could eye different kitchen measurements.

Leonard also said educators would communicate with learners and their parents on a weekly basis in a fashion that worked best for them, whether it be a phone call or over a video communication program like Zoom or FaceTime. “They were really bending over backwards and doing everything they could to make sure those learners were getting whatever they could from them, and always making themselves accessible,” Leonard said.

With a safety plan released over the summer, the School House reopened its classrooms last Sept. Among the precautions was the decision that all adults had to wear masks while indoors, but masks were optional for learners, and everyone’s temperature needed to be checked when they arrived at the building each day.

Leonard believes the learners were happy to be among peers again after the three month hiatus, and that she, as well as the School House educators, were thrilled to be back in person.

“I’m so blessed and I’m so grateful that even though it was challenging in those three months not being here, and yes it was a loss and a miss, it was just three months for us,” Leonard said. “We’re not talking about having a year and three months.” 

Future plans

While Haugland continues negotiations with the West Islip School District, Tunney is focused on other expansions. She said the School House will pilot a seventh grade classroom this Sept. She hopes to expand the School House curriculum to cover her students’ Middle School years. 

“Middle school is probably the toughest two years,” Tunney said. “If we could send them off to high school we’d feel better than sending them off to seventh grade, so we do want to see if that’s a possibility.”

She said she is also in contact with potential host families interested in funding School House facilities in Rochester, New York, as well as in Florida and Virginia. Should the Masera negotiations not go their way, she and Gallagher will look for other options to bring the School House program to Long Island’s south shore. 

“Our intention is always just to do what is best for the kids in the community,” Tunney said. “If things get in our way, then we’ll just move on. Our vision is too important to be stuck in the muck and mire of things.”

Photo Credit: The School House on Facebook