Fire Island’s Woodhull School Celebrates Its Centennial

By Thomas McGannHappy birthday to the Fire Island School District! Fire Island’s only school, the Woodhull School, is a public school located on the southeast corner of Midway and Surf Road on the border of Ocean Beach/ Corneille Estates on Fire Island. It is named after Richard Woodhull who served first as a teacher and then as principal from 1935 until his retirement in 1962. It currently serves 29 students from preschool through grade six.Officially chartered as Fire Island Union Free School District (FIUFSD), the District was founded in 1918 by Mina A. Woodhull. This year marks the school’s 100th anniversary. Like most things Fire Island, the school had a hardscrabble history from its earliest days when the kids were only schooled during the summer. According to a New York Daily News article dated June 13, 1982, Lillian Whitlock (nee Smith), one of 12 children, was schooled here on the beach with the rest of her siblings by William Thompson, a NYC teacher who, according to Ms. Whitlock, was “as strict a school teacher as could be found.” In anticipation of Thompson’s arrival by boat each June, her aunt, Lillian Slatterley, remarked, “I’d just as soon see the devil come ashore.”Mina Woodhull was the mother of Richard Woodhull, for whom the present school facility was eventually dedicated to in 1978. Mina taught out of a local residence in Ocean Beach until 1924, when a one-room schoolhouse was built. For a time, Fire Island had two schools in operation, one in Ocean Beach and the other in Kismet. In 1954 the current building was constructed. A gymnasium was added in 1975 and the library, dedicated to Harold Wilder, in 1986. The Alexander M. Van DeMark wing, named after longtime teacher, principal and superintendent, was added in 1991.The Woodhulls, who dedicated so much of their lives to the education of the children of Fire Island, boast a proud but little known heritage. They are descendants of Abraham Woodhull (Oct. 7, 1750- Jan. 23, 1826), a lead member of the famous Culper spy ring that provided George Washington with invaluable secrets during the Revolutionary War.Along with Benjamin Tallmadge, Robert Townsend and Caleb Brewster, they ran the spy ring from NYC to Setauket to Norwalk, Connecticut, and were responsible for highly successful operations including uncovering Benedict Arnold as a traitor. A familiar tale involves Anna Strong who aided the ring by hanging her black petticoat out to dry with a number of white kerchiefs indicating in which of six coves the courier spy would meet Woodhull.These stories, originally presented on AMC, can now be seen on Netflix in “TURN: Washington’s Spies.”While many longtime Fire Islanders had a hunch that the Woodhull family was descended from this prestigious lineage, anything resembling hard proof was largely anecdotal. However in compiling an exhibition to commemorate the FIUFSD Centennial, Teacher Integration Specialist Deborah Gerkin came across the “smoking gun” – in the school’s archival holdings is a rare book about the Woodhull family – a volume that had once been part of Richard Woodhull’s personal collection.The exhibition hung at Woodhull during the FIUFSD Budget Vote on May 15, and is expected to hang at the Ocean Beach Historical Society later this summer at a date to be announced.The Mission Statement of the Woodhull school reads as follows: “The Fire Island School District believes in a collaborative approach to instruction that is designed to meet the individual needs of the students. Our mission is to create a safe, supportive, student-centered environment. We are committed to helping all children achieve academic excellence through creative challenges within our unique island setting. Our goal is to prepare the students to be dynamic citizens of our ever-changing society.”In pursuit of these goals the school offers programs in art, music, physical education, Spanish and library skills, in addition to the usual three “Rs.” Students attend from Pre-K through grade six, with free tuition for children of all residents. The low student- to-teacher ratio has resulted in high academic achievements, as has providing each student with their own laptop computer.Up to 30 percent of the District’s student population at any given time has been comprised of children of Coast Guard families, lodged at Station Fire Island, whose headquarters are roughly a mile west of FI Lighthouse. This brings children from all corners of the United States to the District’s shores, even if their stay is not very long, as the life of military children is often a nomadic one.The 21st century brought new challenges to FIUFSD, as student populations began to decline. This circumstance was due to several factors, including the increase in the cost of living on Long Island, which resulted in fewer young families with school age children able to afford a year round living situation on the barrier beach, in combination with fewer Coast Guard families, as the federal government took steps to cut operating costs during the Great Recession.However not unlike the ebbs and flows of the ocean current itself, FIUFSD rebounded with the innovation of accepting students from the mainland in recent years. By welcoming a limited number of off-island students to Woodhull School, with the payment of a nominal tuition, the benefits are two-fold: Families residing within school districts on greater Long Island whose populations might be overwhelmed now have a cost effective option, and Fire Island School retains their autonomy – which ultimately behooves the FIUFSD taxpayer.In recognition of this achievement, Fire Island Association (FIA) recently established an annual scholarship program to cover the tuition expenses of one lucky mainland student via lottery. The first FIA Scholarship shall be awarded for the upcoming 2018- 2019 academic year. Now that’s a way to celebrate the next century of learning at Fire Island School!Our appreciation goes out to Superintendent Loretta Ferraro for her exemplary leadership in making the FIUFSD the success it has become.Thank you Superintendent Ferraro and staff.Fire Island News Editor Shoshanna McCollum also contributed to this article.