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Anniversary For Berner Middle School

Boom years for Massapequa schools

This year marks the Golden Anniversary of a major institution in the Massapequa School District. Berner Middle School, formerly Berner High School, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Its history mirrors the rise of suburbia and Massapequa’s transformation into having the largest public school district in Nassau County.

The school’s construction was a response to overcrowding at both grade schools and middle schools in the district. By the early ’60s, Nassau County’s own transformation from a rural area to suburbia was in full swing and a new high school was badly needed for Massapequa. At first, it wasn’t easy. In the 1950s, there had been three voter rejections of a proposition to buy the 52-acre John J. Burns Park for elementary and secondary school sites. In fact, Massapequa was growing so fast that by 1958 there were only three available large land sites that could hold a new high school. Of the three, neither the Massapequa Zoo nor the Amityville Laundry land sites were available. Fortunately, the Carman Road land site fit the bill and construction was soon under way.

At first, Berner had both middle school and high school students under its roof. By the mid-1960s, the school began serving its original purpose, educating students in grades 9-12. Its peak school year was 1969-1970, when district K-12 enrollment soared to 17,000 students. Both Berner High School and Massapequa High School had over 3,000 students, making it more populous than many high schools in New York City.

“In all school districts on Long Island and especially in the Massapequa School District, education is big business today,” noted Dr. Raymond J. Lockhart, superintendent of the Massapequa schools in a 1960 newsletter.

Berner High School hit the ground running with experienced teachers from other schools in the district appointed to chairman positions at each of the new departments: English and reading, mathematics and business education, social studies and foreign language, science, homemaking and industrial arts. The school’s first principal was Don Woodworth. Both Don Sabolinski and Ziggy Washsmuth served as vice principals.

Then, as now, the district not only offered a top-notch education, but also winning athletic squads. Mirroring the great teams of that era, the Green Bay Packers and the University of Notre Dame, the Berner Bisons went 8-0 in both 1967 and 1968. The team had many stars, including Mike Capone, who following his idol Joe Namath, wore white shoes on the gridiron. Bill Brown was head coach for those great teams and Bob Reifsnyder was the lineman coach. A Baldwin High School standout in football and an All-American at the US Naval Academy, Reifsnyder was also a member of the legendary New York Titans, the precursor to the Jets and a team, which like the New York Mets, played their home games at the long vanquished Polo Grounds. In 1997, Reifsnyder was named to the College Hall of Fame.

After the peak school year of 1969-1970, Berner High School’s enrollment began to decline. In 1987, this proud institution became a middle school where it continues to serve the young people of the Massapequa area. There will certainly be more celebrations of the school’s anniversary throughout the year.