Steve Freifeld said he was in “total shock” when he walked into the Lynbrook High School auditorium for the Feb. 7 Founders Day celebration, hosted by the Lynbrook Council of PTAs, and saw his friends, family members and former students applauding him. The Marion Street PTA was giving Freifeld its highest honor — awarded only three other times by the PTA.
“It was the biggest surprise of my life,” said Freifeld, a third-grade teacher at Marion Street Elementary School for more than four decades. “It really touched my heart, and brought tears to my eyes.”
That night, Freifeld was presented with the New York State Parent Teacher Association Distinguished Service Award, an honor that is reserved for PTA officers or members “who have devoted exemplary service to the maintenance and growth of the PTA,” according to the state PTA website.
“It’s one of those distinctions that very few people get and very few people deserve,” said Marianna Flannery, a Marion Street second-grade teacher who has worked with Freifeld for 35 years.
Flannery recommended that the PTA present the award to Freifeld to recognize his dedication to the school. Freifeld, 62, started working at Marion Street in 1977, and has since served as a liaison between the parents and teachers in the PTA. He has also been on several committees, run the school’s technology program for many years and encourages students to write during their lunch breaks. In 1988, he was awarded the PTA Lifetime Membership Award, which is presented to individuals who have a distinguished record of service to children.
As a third-grade teacher for 41 years, Freifeld said he has tried to instill in his students a lifelong love of learning. In 1987, he created a STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics — unit focused on bridges. For it, students research people who have bridges named after them, build and design model bridges, interview people about the Brooklyn Bridge and visit bridges in New York City. His third-grade class has gone on the bridge trip every year since the unit’s creation, except for the years immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when traffic into Manhattan was closely monitored.
Freifeld has also helped expand his students’ knowledge of the civil rights movement. In 1991, he discovered that civil rights leader Joseph McNeil lived in Hempstead. McNeil, who is African-American, is famous for having sat down with three other protesters at a “whites-only” lunch counter at the Woolworth’s in Greenboro, N.C., in 1960.
Freifeld found McNeil’s number in the phone book and asked him if his third-graders could send him letters. McNeil agreed. Freifeld also asked him if he could visit the students. McNeil again agreed, and a tradition was born. He has come to the school every year since then, and in 2017, the program expanded to a district-wide assembly.
“He’s just done everything, and he’s everywhere,” Flannery said of Freifeld, adding, “Everyone wants to be in his class.”
Lauren Pignataro, the Marion Street PTA co-president, highlighted Freifeld’s commitment to the school in her speech at the ceremony. “Mr. Freifeld is a gifted educator who has gone above and beyond for the students at Marion Street,” she said. “His reach extends outside of the classroom, and the impact he has had on students will last a lifetime.”