People of the Year

2023 Educators of the Year: Shoreham-Wading River Central School District’s Special Education Department

Although he is wheelchair-bound, Shoreham Wading-River High School sophomore Andrew Brennan always wanted to join the school’s basketball team and achieve his dream of scoring a basket. 

His peers and special education teachers involved in the district’s Unified Basketball Team were determined to make that happen — they just needed to get a bit creative. 

“In our craziness, we ordered a slingshot on Amazon,” said Caitlin Gould, a special education teacher at the high school. 

“Two students would hold it, [Andrew] would put the basketball in, they’d pull it back and then he’d let go,” said special ed faculty colleague Matthew Millheiser. 

With support from Ms. Gould and Mr. Millheiser, Andrew worked with a physical therapist to strengthen his arms and was included in the daily basketball games so he could get some practice. 

Ms. Gould said the able-bodied students did not hesitate to offer to push Andrew’s wheelchair around on the court during a game. 

“Even the teams we played were always so wonderful at letting the game stop to have him take shots,” she said. “Our team rallied around him every time.” 

 In May, with only three games left in the season, Andrew was getting down to the wire to score his basket. During a competition at East Hampton High School, he positioned himself on the court in front of the hoop. His peers gathered around him and two students pulled back the slingshot bands. 

On his cue, Andrew let the ball fly. 


He made the shot — and the crowd went wild. Andrew absolutely beamed as students jumped in jubilation around him. 

“The other team was crying, we were all crying, our students were crying,” Ms. Gould said. 

For Mr. Millheiser and Ms. Gould, this was their “ah-ha” moment as educators — validation as to why they are in this profession to begin with. 

These moments are not few and far between at Shoreham-Wading River, whether it’s students showing off their talents on stage, learning to cook meals for their families or celebrating when a nonverbal student uses their iPad to communicate. In the eyes of a special education teacher, these are all significant accomplishments. 

“Just to see the audience’s faces at the end — in disbelief about how much our students can do and how talented, how capable they are,” Mr. Millheiser said. “Being able to put them on that stage and give them the tools to show off what they can do — because most of their life is all about what they can’t do — is incredibly rewarding.”

For Jennifer Simicich, a third-grade special education teacher at Wading River School, helping children with intellectual disabilities and special needs is something she always “gravitated to.” 

She has a master’s degree in special education, but started out as a math teacher at Miller Avenue School in 2007. When she transitioned to third grade and a spot opened to co-teach with one of her best friends in the special education department, she jumped at the chance. 

“Aha” moments for Ms. Simicich can be a student figuring out a math problem on their own or finishing a writing assignment they are really proud of — the daily “little successes” that put a smile on their face, she said. 

She also finds gratification in split-seconds of sweetness. She recalled one little girl in her class who gave her an unexpected hug. 

“We have such a great relationship, where they can come to me with anything and I’m going to be there to help them, either tying their shoe or writing a persuasive essay, it’s not just academics,” she said. “Sometimes, I’m an emotional shoulder to lean on — my students are only 8 and 9 [years-old] , so I’m kind of like a surrogate parent for a few hours of the day. It’s just so rewarding.” 

The impact all the teachers and staff of the district’s special education department have on their students resonates far beyond the classroom. They are not only educators, but also advocates, motivators, sources of comfort and their students’ biggest cheerleaders, which is why they are the Riverhead News-Review’s 2023 Educators of the Year.

The department’s director, Tracy Von Eschen, said the program provides a variety of services and has made “incredible strides” this year in expanding its peer mentorship initiatives across all school levels. 

Ms. Von Eschen said the “crown jewel” of that program are the high school RISE classes — including Spanish, art, theater,and physical education courses in which general education students take a leadership role and assist special education peers in the curriculum. 

Some other notable accomplishments the department achieved this year include opening a new school store at the high school for the first time in 20 years.

Known as “The Den,” the retail shop is run by both typical peer partners and students with disabilities, who work together to sell spirit apparel, snacks and supplies.

“This is an actual workplace environment; it just happens to be inside of our building. It’s just amazing that we’re able to provide that for them,” said Frank Pugliese, principal of Shoreham-Wading River High School. “There is nothing [these educators] won’t do. They are here for our students; there is no other priority, there is nothing else that matters to them.” 

A transition coordinator was also hired this year to assist district students and their parents in meeting post-secondary goals. 

Ms. Von Eschen said it’s rare for her to be sitting in her office for a full day. She is often walking through the high school or visiting other district schools, popping into two or three classrooms a day to make sure the teachers and students have the resources they need to succeed.

“I make an effort to be in every one of our schools as often as possible — the forefront of what I do is supporting students and supporting the teachers so that they can support their students,” she said. “I am beyond proud to say that the Shoreham-Wading River community has raised young people ready to support one another, to lift each other up and celebrate each other’s differences through meaningful interactions and friendships.”

Gerard Poole, superintendent of the Shoreham-Wading River Central School District, said the proof of the special education department’s dedication is in the results: the June 2023 graduation rate for students with disabilities was 97%, all graduating students with all graduates receiving at least a Regents diploma and more than 20% of them earning  Regents diplomas with advanced designations. 

“Maybe that’s why it’s called special education because these are a special group of people that lead that work in our school district,” Mr. Poole said. “Our staff is really the heart and soul of our special education program — without them, we don’t have any successes.” 

Previous Winners

2022: Rose Horton
2021: Dena Tishim and Laura Nitti
2020: Kimberly Benkert and Robert Brandi
2019: Sal Loverde
2018: Ed Meier
2017: Felicia Scocozza
2016: Melissa Haupt
2015: Robert Shilling
2014: Greg Wallace
2013: Keri Stromski
2012: Jeff Doroski
2011: Jim Schaefer
2010: Stacy Tuohy
2009: Laura Grable
2008: Vincent Nasta
2007: Marion Dorman
2006: Theresa Drozd
2005: Frank Rotenberg
2004: Kevin McAllister
2003: Leif Shay
2002: Bob Jester
2001: Jean Lapinski
2000: Pat Rose
1999: Pat Snyder
1998: Carol Masin
1997: L. Custer, J. Greenberger
1996: Terri Peters
1995: Jim Roth
1994: Tim Hubbard
1993: Dot Moran
1992: Dorothy Lipsky
1991: Willie Patterson
1990: Audrey Stupke
1989: Ray McKieghan
1988: Stanley Krouse