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Wantagh High’s new principal faces schools’ unclear future

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Dr. Paul Guzzone’s impressive resume contains all the entries to be expected of someone who has been named to succeed longtime Principal Carolyn Breivogel at Wantagh High School. Guzzone has a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies from LIU C.W. Post, and master’s degrees in curriculum development and adolescent secondary education from the University of Albany. He served as associate principal, director of guidance counseling and coordinator of secondary special education at Oceanside High School. And he was a classroom teacher in the Great Neck and Half Hollow Hills school districts.

And somewhat unexpectedly, under “additional experience,” he lists four years as a seasonal custodian in the Half Hollow Hills Central School District.

“When I applied for the teaching job at Great Neck, the superintendent said, ‘We don’t normally hire anyone without teaching experience,’” Guzzone told the Herald last week. “‘But when I saw you’d served as a custodian while getting your degrees, you looked like a person who’d do whatever he had to to accomplish his goals.’ He advised me always to keep it on my resume, and I always have.”

A commitment to setting and attaining goals may explain how the Melville native has come so far at age 35. A 2003 graduate of Half Hollow Hills High School, Guzzone was a standout offensive and defensive tackle in football and a goalkeeper in lacrosse. He attended the University of Albany on a lacrosse scholarship, and graduating cum laude in mathematics.

Guzzone lives in Seaford with his wife, Christina, and their children — a son, Joseph, 2½, and an infant daughter, Lucia. Their father said he was glad to have found such a good fit professionally that was also close to home. “Especially as a new parent,” he said, “I’m happy that this new commitment still allows me to be as involved with my family as I want to be.”

Guzzone had nothing but praise for the school he is set to help lead, and for his predecessor. “They’ve done an incredible job,” he said. “In terms of core values, of educating the whole child, of emotional and social intelligence, I’m on the same page with everything that’s being done here. I’m really fortunate and humbled to have this opportunity.”

With fewer than 900 students, Wantagh is roughly half the size of Oceanside High School, Guzzone said. “The smaller size has some advantages,” he said, “especially in terms of getting to know the students.”

He is aware that he is taking over at a critical time, and said he believed his background in technology would be an asset. “Oceanside is pretty similar to Wantagh on the technology side. They’re all Chrome and Google,” he said, referring to the devices students are given as part of the district’s one-to-one program and the software used for its learning platforms.

The big variable, as he prepares to assume the helm, is the coronavirus. Most schools plan to open as usual in the fall, assuming they receive the go-ahead from Albany. But, Guzzone said, “We really don’t know what the fall will look like, and we don’t know for sure what the budget will look like.”

The district will present its 2020-21 spending plan to voters on June 9, but the longer the shutdown of the hamlet’s nonessential businesses continues, the less money the state will have for school programs. So, even with an approved budget, the reality, once the new school year begins on July 1, could be different.

Like Breivogel and Assistant Principal James Brown, who are both retiring, Guzzone has served as a director of guidance counseling. He spoke of the need to present a full range of possibilities for students “three, four, five years down the road.” He said he was happy to see an increase in the availability of what were traditionally called vocational programs. Besides offering opportunities through BOCES, some Wantagh students also attend classes at the Gerald R. Clapps Career and Technical Center in the Levittown School District.

“What are we doing for the non-college-bound student?” Guzzone asked rhetorically. “And even for college-bound students, what’s the retention rate among students? We need to present a range of career possibilities, including civil service,” which doesn’t always require a college degree.

With college costs skyrocketing, Guzzone said he wants to ensure that all options are on the table. “I want to give students a full picture,” he said. “The decision is theirs.”

Breivogel spent more than 30 years in the Wantagh district, capping her career with 12 years as principal. Like her, Guzzone hopes to be in it for the long haul.