The History of Martin De Porres Schools
This is a really good story! But, before I tell it, I want to talk about the subject of history. To many, history is exciting. However, many disagree believe it to be dull. “What’s the big deal?” they would say. Personally, I disagree with the latter, particularly when it comes to a favorite subject of mine; the Martin De Porres School for Exceptional Children (MDP).
I remind nay-sayers that “History Is Alive”. The past influences us every day. It helps to define the present. It informs our choices and decisions. With that being said, please take a few minutes to read our history. At the very least, I hope it is informative and at the very best I hope it is inspiring. As I mentioned earlier, it is a really good story and well worth a few minutes of your time spent. I promise!
As you read our history, several themes run through it. They are hope, faith, resilience, grit, courage and joy. At its essence, our story is about two things. The first being about a group of committed people who believe that together they can impact the lives of marginalized kids. These folks share a vision that through education, each child can reach his or her fullest potential. The second is about a group of children and families who choose to journey with us.
At MDP, children with emotional/behavioral concerns are central, however, in the educational system, they are marginalized. We at MDP understand this reality. This awareness led us to commit over forty years of service to them. At MDP, every child has a home; no one is left behind.
The Martin De Porres School – What’s it all about?
If one asked the question “What is MDP?” he or she would be told:
MDP is a dynamic and innovative educational community where educators everyday adapt to meet to the changing needs of our students.
If the second question asked is “How do you do it”? we would say:
First, we form relationships of trust and support.
Second, we maintain a safe and structured environment in which all kids are accepted and loved.
Third, we ensure that our students develop competence in academic, social, emotional and vocational areas. Most importantly, we help all children who pass through our doors develop resilience.
The last question asked would probably be “Why do you do it”. That answer is simple.
From humble beginnings over forty years ago, we dedicated ourselves to marginalized children with emotional/behavioral concerns who were seen as “lost children”. From our inception, we vowed never to let another child be lost. We are grounded in the belief that education is the way to achieve this goal.
Martin De Porres -The Early Days
The 1960’s and 1970’s were a time of tremendous social, political and cultural turbulence. Every segment of society was shaken by the events of the times. Education was no different. Many questioned its efficacy and, in particular, the fair and equal distribution of resources and services. Children with emotional/behavioral concerns were historically underserved. Those who were chronically aggressive, impulsive, tolerated frustration poorly, oppositional, verbally and physical aggressive, suffered mental health issues had few options. As a result of the management difficulties that they presented, many were removed from school. One could speculate that these children’s civil rights were being violated by apparent systematic exclusion from school. In America, access to education is a fundamental right upon which our society is built. It was a travesty that this situation existed.
Around this time (1970), the founder of Martin De Porres School, Bill Jesinkey was serving as a guidance counselor in PS 4 which was a “600” school run by the New York City Board of Education. A “600 school” was one that served students with emotional/behavioral concerns. Bill spent his days with these kids and knew their struggle. He also knew that many of these students had been or were being excluded from school. He was angry. He was frustrated. He was also motivated. Together with child advocate, Jane Stern, they published “Lost Children” a groundbreaking descriptive study of students with emotional and behavioral disorders.
Bill’s efforts did not simply stop with this publication. His next step was to take action. In 1972, with a grant from the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, he secured space in a Dutch Reformed Church in Astoria where the first school program for these “Lost Children” was housed.
Who would teach these students?
Coincidentally, one of Bill’s graduates had advocated for himself and got accepted into Mater Christi Diocesan High School with the support of Br. Paul Goodwin, the Principal. Bill was shocked to hear that one of his kids could get into such a prestigious private high school and made inquiries about how this had happened. Discussions began among Br. Paul Goodwin, Br. David Detje and Br. Ray Blixt which lead to the creation of a pilot program at Mater Christi High School for a small number of special needs students, some referred by Bill, who would be taught by a volunteer group of the school’s best teachers in a way that would integrate these students into the mainstream of the high school.
This serendipitous connection of Bill’s, other local special needs students and the De LaSalle Christian Brothers (a.k.a – Brothers) at Mater Christi High School lead to several of the Brothers upon leaving Mater Christi to join Bill in his new venture. David Detje, Paul Fantetti, Tom Darnowski, Phil Rofrano and Ray Blixt accepted an invitation from Bill to join him in a new and untried educational venture called A.S.F.E.C. (Alternative Solutions for Exceptional Children). Bill envisioned an elementary school, a residence, and a child advocacy component integrated under one umbrella. This way, the diverse needs of these kids that were often met in a fragmented manner between the complex educational and social service network of programs in New York City would be met.
As a result of its initial success, the school soon needed larger quarters. It moved to the Martin de Porres Community Center located in the Astoria Houses. From this, the school took the name of the community center because it had a great reputation and was recognized in the community for its good works.
From the start, the program faced many challenges. The first teachers had to adjust to the student’s demanding behavior. Prior to their work at the newly opened MDP School, they were employed as educators in a local catholic high school. Coming from a mainstream educational environment to one of behaviorally challenging students was quite an adjustment. These teachers were determined. They knew that they would have to be innovative and patient. They knew that they would have to cultivate within themselves a new sensitivity and levels of awareness. Most significantly, they knew that they had been given a weighty responsibility despite their limited experience. Because they were people of character, they were thrilled with this opportunity.
Despite the teachers’ zeal, Bill was more than a little worried. How would these young men so used to teaching in a large, catholic high school cope with their new charges? His fears were short-lived. All jumped right in and relished their work.
Ray Blixt became principal. Tom Darnowski would handle the complicated process of intake and child advocacy. Phil Rofrano and Paul Fantetti became the heart of the teaching staff with help from some of their former students, Harry Jackson and Chet Tolbert and Sister Marguerite Critchlet, OP from Mater Christi High School.
As they became immersed in the day to day and the program grew, it became apparent that extra help was needed. Around this time, teachers Gail Quinn and Ron John joined the staff. Gloria Aloise, a secretary from Mater Christi High School was enticed to join them, as were community residents Louise Parks, Delma Crump and Walter Key. Ellen Dorsey joined first as a paraprofessional later becoming a Language Arts teacher. In a short period of time, the school had a well-rounded and caring staff as they moved forward with an innovative school model.
By 1975 having endured robberies, floods and other natural and man-made disasters, Martin de Porres School was ready to expand its services further. Br. Phil Rofrano, following Bill Jesinkey’s vision of providing residential services for children, opened the Martin de Porres Group Home in December 1974. As the program grew in numbers of kids served, it was apparent that some were traveling a long way to get to school. To solve the problem, two sites were opened. One being in Northern Queens (MDP North) the other located in Southeastern Queens (MDP South). Carol Scarano (Caseworker) and Betty Williams (teacher) joined us around this time as more staff were needed particularly for MDP South that opened in the former convent at Christ the King parish, Springfield Gardens.
Fortune smiled on us and the two schools continued to grow. In 1977, they were consolidated at the former St. Mary Magdalene Elementary School in Springfield Gardens. Angela Vulich, who served MDP since 1973 was hired to be the school’s executive secretary. Peggy Tarzian, a parishioner, was hired full time in 1979 as our receptionist. From 1978 to the mid-eighties Arty Williams, Karel Lancaster, John Galassi, Vivian Howell, Mary Degen, Mary Klein and Priscilla O’Connell joined. Ed Dana joined our social work staff and Br. Kevin Finn left St. Gabriel’s Elementary School to join us in our work here in 1986.
As the 1980’s drew to a close, MDP had established itself a premier nonpublic school for those children with emotional/behavioral concerns. However, simply viewing our students only as those with emotional and behavioral problems does not capture the fullness of their being and life experience.
What do I mean by this statement? In most cases our kids are exposed to complex social, cultural, emotional, familial and racial and gender-based challenges. Many of MDP’s children have to face overwhelming obstacles daily. I marvel at their resilience. And, I marvel at their families who are determined to acquire the best services for their children.
We are honored to work with these children. However, our work goes far beyond the basic teaching of academic subjects. We joyfully embrace the opportunity to help children grow. We respectfully partner with our children’s families to help them cope with any challenge and we do our best to connect our families with effective services for their children.
MDP has been fortunate to be led by strong, committed directors over the years. Bill Jesinkey, our founder was the first executive director. Bill established MDP and set a tone for educational excellence. One of his greatest gifts was instilling in his educators the significance of advocacy. Bill would tell us “if we don’t stand for our kids, the chances are that no one will”.
Ray Blixt became director building upon Bill’s vision. Ray left in 1978 to be succeeded by Paul Fantetti. Paul contributed to MDP in immeasurable ways. He instilled the concept of “best practices” in academics. His efforts propelled us forward and he set the high standards to which MDP still holds. In particular, Paul’s sensitivity to the psychological and emotional needs of our students solidified a commitment to continually refine and enhance the quality of clinical services.
In 1986, Br. Stephen Tuohy was named director. Stephen’s tenure is marked by calm and measured stewardship. Steve set MDP on solid footing in terms of operations and structure. His leadership continually demonstrated the virtues of prudence, wisdom, vigilance and zeal. He emphasized the importance of technology and the performing arts as a major part of an effective educational program for our students. He set an example that all directors should follow.
In 2000, Br. Ray Blixt returned to lead MDP after his tenure as Headmaster of LaSalle Military Academy in Long Island. Ray was the last in a long line of De LaSalle Christian Brothers who had served as directors of the distinguished school. Ray’s tenure at MDP was marked by expansion. Upon assuming leadership, MDP consisted of one campus serving about 150 students in Springfield Gardens. In 2002, the Martin De Porres High School opened as an annex in the Bishop Ford High School. Jo’Anne Brancato was named principal. She is to be acknowledged for her tireless work in starting the program. In 2008, the MDP High School unexpectedly moved out of Bishop Ford High School and moved to the former St Pius X Elementary School in Rosedale under the leadership of Karel Lancaster. In 2005, the Martin De Porres Academy for Career Development opened at the former St. Boniface Elementary School in Elmont, New York with David Robinson as principal. In a matter of five years, MDP expanded to serve close to 450 students ranging in ages from 7-21. MDP was now able to offer students education in vocational skills as well as a Regents diploma.
In 2008, answering the request by the Governor and New York State Education Department (NYSED) to establish more in-state educational residences, the MDP Casa De LaSalle opened in Ozone Park. Casa de LaSalle serves twenty-four young men aged 13-21 needing residential services to be able to insure the attainment of educational goals within a community setting. Alan Karpf, a retired New York City Department of Education special educator and principal was the first program director. Through Alan’s stewardship, the “Casa” program was developed. Assisting him were Eon Parks, Director of Education, Ty Hopkins, Residential Director and Joe Trainor, Clinical Director.
As the student population grew, so did the number of employees. In 2000 about 60 people were employed. By 2011, two hundred sixty people comprised the MDP staff in positions ranging from teachers, teaching assistants/aides to related service personnel (social workers, guidance counselors, occupational therapist, physical therapists, speech teachers) to maintenance and kitchen staff to a full compliment of business professionals. The expansion of the Martin De Porres School was remarkable and somewhat unprecedented in the non-public school sector.
In 2011, Ed Dana was appointed Executive Director. From 2011-2013, MDP again underwent dramatic change. Opportunity arose in 2012 allowing for the consolidation of the MDP Academy for Career Development and the MDP High School. This consolidation was the realization of a long held vision. As a result of the availability of the former Stella Maris High School in Rockaway Park, we were able to place all of our high school programs under one roof. The building offered a facility designed to meet the needs of high school students. Students were now able to experience all opportunities from vocational to academic in one location. It was a golden opportunity. At the same time that the high schools were consolidated, the MDP Elementary /Junior High School was moved to the St. Boniface Elementary School that had formerly housed the MDP Academy for Career Development. Abandoning the school building on the grounds of the St. Mary Magdalene parish was bittersweet considering the long history of MDP at that location. The Martin De Porres School left with nothing but gratitude to our former landlords for the shared history of service that we lovingly shared.
Shortly after the high school’s consolidation in the Rockaway Park, MDP faced one of its greatest challenges. Superstorm Sandy struck New York City with historically devastating force. The high school in which we had only been residing for two months faced unprecedented destruction. At least two million dollars in damage occurred from flooding rendering the building unusable for six months. We were able to locate the students to the former site at St. Pius X in Rosedale. It is an understatement to say that this was a traumatic period. Only with commitment, patience and zeal was the MDP school community able to persevere. Gratitude goes to Ms. Jo’Anne Brancato, principal at the time for her leadership and to the staff that never quit. Needless to say, we were able to return to the restored high school by April 2013, where the high school program thrives today.
The Martin De Porres School has been blessed to have the support of numerous organizations. As mentioned earlier, De Lasalle Christian Brothers have been a part of MDP since our beginnings. MDP though remaining a governmentally funded non-public school has had the long-standing support of the “Brothers”. Initially recognized by the De LaSalle Christian Brothers Long Island – New England Province that in 2010 combined with the New York, and Baltimore and Quebec Provinces to form the District of Eastern North America (DENA), we continue to be a part of the Lasallian tradition of Education. This tradition stretches back over three hundred years. Its emphasis continues to be the central role of education in helping each child develop his or her fullest potential, especially those children facing poverty.
The Lasallian influence has helped craft our supportive educational community. Many staff members have voluntarily participated in such Lasallian experiences as the annual Heuther conferences, the Charles Buttimer Institute of Lasallian Studies, the former Lasallian Leadership Institute currently named the John Johnston Institute, the Social Justice Institute and participated in the Young Lasallians. MDP is a proud member of the Lasallian Association of Family and Youth Services (LAFYS) and the Lasallian Association of Secondary School Chief Administrators (LASSCA). Every year, MDP is grateful for the opportunity to sponsor Lasallian Volunteers. These are recent college graduates who spend a year or more working in schools or agencies sponsored by the De Lasalle Christian Brothers. It is quite clear that the “Brothers” are part of MDP’s fabric. In fact, three “Brothers” continue as part of our staff: James Loxham, Joe Garito and Kevin Finn serve as educators and administrators. Brothers Edward Shields, James Martino, Louis De Thomas and Mike Reis have served on the Board and provided staff development and training over the years.
Among Martin De Porres other friends are the Sisters of Saint Joseph (CSJ) who are headquartered in Brentwood, Long Island and whose support is invaluable. Sr. Mary Walsh, CSJ served both as Board member and as Chairperson of the Board of Directors for many years. She skillfully oversaw the transfer of leadership in 2011. Sr. Eileen Kelly has also been a long serving Board member. Sr. Maryann Crimmins managed the MDP Human Resources Department from July 2011 to her untimely death in October 2012. Sr. Maryann was a beloved staff member who made a great impact in a brief period of time.
The Sisters of Saint Joseph are our current landlords at the high school in Rockaway Park. When Superstorm Sandy struck, they were committed to getting the school up and running in a brief period of time. This was no small task. MDP is honored to continue the long-standing tradition of educational service to children that was begun by the Sisters of Saint Joseph on the peninsula years ago. That spirit continues today at the Martin De Porres High School.
Throughout the years, we have also had the privilege of working with members of the Congregation of Dominican Sisters of Amityville, Long Island. Sr. Marguerite Critchlet, mentioned above, Sr. Barbara Sussman, Sr. Barbara Kritchnak and Sr. Mary Sullivan all made great contributions. Social Worker Sr. Joanne Walters, worked side by side with us for many years and was essential in establishing the clinical component of our program.
The Daughters of Wisdom (DW) as well are great friends of MDP. Sr. Evelyn Lamoureux, our present Chairperson of the Board of Directors and long time board member has provided exceptional leadership to the school. Presently, Sr. Fabiola St. Jean (DW) and Sr. Marie Josee Seide (DW) work in our administration offering commitment and service. Sr. Evelyn Eckhardt DW is a recent addition to our Board of Directors. Sr. Marylyn Soeder (DW) joined our staff in 2013 and has made a great contribution as a Social Work Supervisor.
Not to be forgotten are the Montfort Fathers and in particular Fr. Gerald Fitzsimmons, our landlords at the Casa De LaSalle in Ozone Park. They are always helpful in every way. Finally, special thanks are given to the Diocese of Rockville Center and the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens. For many years, we have worked with such fine pastors as Fr. Willie Gomes, Fr. Raymond Dundon and Msgr. Jack Maloney who all displayed a commitment to MDP.
MDP is proud to hold an accreditation with the Middle States Association of School and Colleges (expired). We are also members of the Interagency Council of Developmental Disabilities Agencies (IAC), the 853 coalition of COFFCA and we enjoy a covenant relationship with the District of Eastern North America of the Brothers of the Christian Schools.
A pause to remember those who have gone before us
What has made MDP such a special place are the students and staff who have been a of a part of us. Sadly, we have lost some of these friends over the years. Below is a list of their names that we carry in our hearts.
Sr. Maryann Crimmins
Charles “Chet” Tolbert
Alonso “Lonnie” Denson
Br. Leo Kane
Br. John Lindhardt
If you are still reading, I want to thank you for following my advice earlier. I hope that our history has been informative and gives you a sense of our work. As MDP moves to the future, we will continue to educate our students with the same gentleness, generosity, humility and zeal: virtues that have been our hallmark for over forty years.
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