New Suffolk School Welcomes Community Back to Share Memories

A community celebration of the New Suffolk School on June 14 was more sweet than bitter, as this three-room schoolhouse finishes up what may well be its last year as a public school.

There was a big strawberry shortcake donated by the New Suffolk Waterfront Fund, and rainbow sherbet punch for everyone, as recent alumni and current students ran through the halls one last time, while graduates from as far back as the 1940s polished the sheen on their memories of a different time while looking at photographs from throughout the building’s history.

Pictured Above: Roberta Jaklevic rings the New Suffolk School bell one last time. |. George Cork Maul photo

The school, built in 1907, educated just seven elementary school students this past school year, and voters here agreed in a referendum this March for it to become a “non-instructional school district,” sending all students out of district in the upcoming years.

The vote came after months of community meetings at which parents talked about the difficulties their children were having socializing in an environment with so few students ranging from Kindergarten through sixth grade.

Between two students graduating from sixth grade this year, and one family moving out of the district, the school would have had just two students left next fall if it had remained open, School Board President Lisa Zissel told the community at several recent meetings.

Those two students will instead be attending Southold Elementary School this fall. High school students from New Suffolk already attend Southold High School.

But the New Suffolk building is still expected to be full of life in the upcoming school year, as Just Kids, a provider of early childhood education throughout Long Island, has signed a lease with the district, with annual payments starting at $54,216 and increasing by three percent per year, with an option to renew each of the successive five years.

Just Kids plans to use all three classrooms to educate 18 students in pre-K and elementary school programs. It plans to focus as it gets State Board of Education approval on early education services for students with autism, helping them develop the skills they’ll need to transition to larger public elementary schools.

“It’s the perfect building for the children we hope will attend. When you walk in, it feels like a hug,” said Just Kids Executive Director Steven Held in an interview with The Beacon in May. Just Kids is already running a similar program in the Laurel School.

Mr. Held explained Just Kids’ program further to community members who attended the June 10 meeting of the New Suffolk School Board of Education.

“We’re getting more and more calls. So many parents would like to see their children stay in an early childhood environment,” he said, adding that the small class sizes and distraction-free environment will help Just Kids teachers work with the kids, many of whom have very high IQs, with their social skills.

“We have a strong emphasis on augmented communication,” he said.

Just Kids plans to install a ramp into the building and make improvements to one of the bathrooms to make it handicapped accessible before welcoming students this fall.

Just Kids is leasing the school building and playground, but not the ball field owned by the district a block away from the school. It is also allowing access to the building for school board meetings and budget votes, and for community events.

The school district itself will continue as a “non-instructional school district,” collecting property taxes, handling administrative tasks and paying tuition to the Southold School District. Voters could, at some date in the future, choose to return to an instructional school district model.

After Just Kids’ first year in the building, the school district will hold a community meeting to evaluate their first year there. School board members say they will consider seeking Southold Town landmark status for the building after the first year, in case further upgrades to the building are needed. The building has been on the the National Register of Historic Places since 2002.

People from New Suffolk and throughout the North Fork turned out June 14 to say goodbye to the school as they know it, gathering around a television to watch a 40-minute YouTube video of photos from throughout the school’s 117-year history, compiled by School Board members Brooke Dailey and Deborah Carroll.

Leslee Van Tuyl of Greenport, who taught in the school in the 1990s, remembered ducking out of her classroom filled with students to answer the rotary dial phone in the hallway.

Rotary phones may have gone by the wayside, but the school still has a bell rung by students each morning to mark the beginning of the school day.

Someone suggested the group find the earliest graduate in attendance to ring the bell one last time, and Roberta Jaklevic, 88, happily answered the call, heartily ringing the bell for several minutes, grinning like a young child.

Ms. Jaklevic attended the school from 1942 to 1949, and she remembers singing the Air Force anthem, “Wild Blue Yonder,” as she swung higher and higher on a playground swing before the chain holding it snapped and left her lying on the ground with a broken bone.

Principal Bess Gagen “came running out and put me in her car and drove me to Dr. Bergman in Mattituck,” she reminisced. The doctor set her broken bone, and Mrs. Gagen drove her home and knocked on her door to let her mother know what happened.

“She said, you don’t have to come to school today, but you can come tomorrow,” she said. “Would they do that today? Things were really different.”

The school’s Event Committee Member Joanne Vitiello compiled alumni memories as part of a time capsule of the day’s events.

Joe Polashock, a welder who went to the school in the 1950s and recently served on the School Board, fixed the school bell when its yoke was broken several years back. He remembers 30 to 40 students attending the school in the ’50s.

When he was in school, he told Ms. Vitiello, Fay Kirkup taught grades one to three and Mrs. Gagen taught grades four through six.

“Mrs. Gagen’s husband worked at the Traveler Watchman Newspaper in Southold. Once a year, we’d go there on a field trip to see how the newspaper was printed,” he reminisced. “As a souvenir, I received a linotype with my name on it that I still have today. Both teachers were very patient and kind.”

Ms. Jaklevic also shared her memories with Ms. Vitiello.

She told of how the students at the school learned about worker strikes, and planned a strike of their own, marching around a brick incinerator in the backyard of the school with signs reading “Bessie Unfair!” Ms. Gagen tolerated the strike, but then told the students they would all have to stay after school to write “I will not call Mrs. Gagen ‘Bessie,’ 100 times.”

To her knowledge, Ms. Jaklevic said, there was never another strike at the New Suffolk School.

When asked how it felt to ring that bell one more time, she answered “you have no idea.”

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Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at

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