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Sewanhaka parents, students bid farewell to principal


***This story was updated on July 8 to correct an error about Salinas' position in New Rochelle. ***

Nearly a dozen cars circled the Sewanhaka High School parking lot on June 30 to thank Dr. Christopher Salinas for his four years as principal on his last day of work in the district.

In February, the Sewanhaka Central High School District Board of Education denied Salinas’s request for tenure, which led nearly 900 parents and students to sign a Change.org petition asking the board to reverse its decision. Several others submitted letters to the board, Parent Teacher Student Association President Judy Staiano noted, but when no one received confirmation that the board had received those letters, they prepared to speak to the board about Salinas’s influence on the school.

When those parents tried to read their remarks at the February Board of Education meeting, however, they were told that it was against board policy to speak about personnel issues at a public meeting.

Then, at the June 2 virtual school board meeting, the board named Assistant Principal Nicole Allen the interim principal. Superintendent James Grossane said he would try to find a tenured principal for the junior-senior high school “as soon as possible,” and added, “I’ve always felt good about appointing from within.”

Allen, Sewanhaka’s assistant principal since 2007, was previously the chair of the Social Studies Department in the Westbury Union Free School District and an assistant principal in Uniondale.

District officials declined to comment, and Salinas said only that he has always faced challenges as a school principal. “Life’s not a perfect affair,” he said.

Salinas became principal in 2016, after PTSA members met with three candidates for the position and provided district officials with their feedback. “We all knew that Dr. Salinas had the leadership qualities of a great principal, and was the only person for the job,” Lee-Ann Cruz previously told the Herald. “He was someone we knew could bring the change to Sewanhaka High School that it needed.”

When Salinas took over, parents said, he implemented a weekly Sprit Day contest for students, and recognized student accomplishments with his weekly Principal Awards. He kept parents informed with weekly updates, Staiano said, and directed traffic at drop-off and dismissal times. “From Day One, he was always respectful,” one mother, Rachel Sirjue, said.

And since he started working in the district, Staiano added, more students have taken Advanced Placement courses and scored higher on Regents exams. Once, she said, Salinas even shadowed a student who was having difficulty with science, to see for himself where he needed help.

Salinas was also always involved in extracurricular programs, Jennifer Brodman said. He created the Men of Elmont mentorship program, and attended the meetings every Tuesday.

On a more personal level, students and parents said, he welcomed each of the more than 1,600 pupils into the building each day. He knew that Senior Wynter Dunnom wanted to be a teacher, and put her in contact with district officials. “What kind of principal gives students opportunities like that?” she asked as Salinas signed her yearbook last week. “He’s the best principal ever.”

“We all love him,” added parent Lucia Protopapas, “and we still don’t understand why we lost him.”

Salinas will be remembered for “the love and respect” he gave students, Staiano said, suggesting that the drive-by parade last week was “probably just right,” because Salinas “didn’t want a big farewell.”

At the ceremony, students and parents hugged him and thanked him for his work, and handed him presents and posters as they passed. Salinas gave personal goodbyes to each one.

Then, when they all parked in front of the building, Salinas thanked them for welcoming him to the school four years ago, and working with him to improve it. “Everything I’ve done it’s because of families like you,” he said, calling them “authentic and loving and real.”

“You just bring out the best in me,” Salinas, who will be an interim assistant principal at  Albert Leonard Middle School in New  Rochelle in the fall, told the crowd, adding that he was confident that Sewanhaka High would continue to thrive thanks to these caring families.