It was the Friday before Labor Day, 1967. Patrick Scannell, an Astoria native and the child of Irish immigrants, had recently decided to no longer pursue becoming a priest and was wondering what was to become of a future that had become dauntingly wide open.
He had applied for a job teaching history and geography at St. Mary Gate of Heaven School in Ozone Park, but had yet to hear back. If, he decided, he did not have a job by the Tuesday after Labor Day, he would enlist in the Air Force.
Then the phone call came —he had an interview at St. Mary Gate of Heaven. Scannell landed the job,and, as thousands upon thousands of students know, the rest is history.
After countless hours of teaching, of mentoring, of pushing students to find out what they love and pursue it,after the student-faculty basketball games and the school plays and the breakfasts with Santa, Scannell is hanging up his hat as St. Mary Gate of Heaven School’s principal once classes end this month. He will, one last time, exit the same doors he held open for his very first class of seventh-grade students and bid adieu to the school to which he has devoted the last 45 years of his life.
“I’ve loved it,” Scannell said of his time at the school, which educates about 490 students, hailing from throughout Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island. “I’ve come to know the students, and their parents, who often were students, and even their grandparents. I have a second-grader now whose parents were students, and whose grandfather was a student of mine.”
The school leader will be replaced by Raffaelo Corso, currently the principal of the Notre Dame Catholic Academy in Ridgewood.
Scannell, who grew up in Astoria and now lives in Whitestone, taught history, geography, social studies, and earth sciences before becoming principal in 1984.
“It was an easy transition, because I was known and I knew the families and teachers,” Scannell said.
While the building itself has not changed much over the past half-century, life inside the school has, Scannell said.
“Children can now tune out everybody else because they’re so into their cell phones,” Scannell said. “Years ago, parents dropped their kids off and the next they hear from them was at the end of the day. Today, it’s instant communication. Cyberbullying has become an issue. It’s a different world.”
The curriculum has changed slightly over the years, but Scannell said it is the way the lessons are brought to the students that has progressed dramatically.
“Forty-five years ago you had a chalkboard, a phonograph to play records, and film strip projectors,” he said. “Now you have a Smart board and access to the Internet, where you can take a virtual tour of a museum from your classroom. When there was the tsunami in Japan, students could see the live footage and really recognize the devastation — that would’ve been impossible years ago.”
As Queens’ demographics changed, so did the school’s, and Scannell said he witnessed the population becoming increasingly diverse, going from numerous Italian Americans to, over the past decade, becoming about one-third Hispanic, one-third Asian and Indo-Caribbean and one-third from countless other places around the world. His pupils speak an untold number of languages at home, from Punjabi to Tagalog and Spanish.
“The children get along so well,” he said. “They accept one another. This is the way the world should be. It’s a really wonderful thing.”
But even in a quickly changing world, Scannell said there are some things that have not changed —including the joy of having students and teachers who always cheered him on.
“I used to be a marathon runner, and in 2004 I was in the Five-Borough Challenge,” Scannell said. “A couple days before the race, students held a pep rally for me. To have all of them cheering for me, that was very special.”
As for the future of the school, Scannell said he hopes “it will continue to provide quality Catholic education,” despite such challenges as limited funding and aging buildings.
“The bulk of our funding comes from tuition, which can be difficult,” he said. “If we raise tuition, there are some families who can no longer afford it. The Diocese thankfully has done a great deal of work getting scholarships for children, and we grant about $80,000 to $90,000 in scholarships each year.”
Most of all, Scannell hopes those who now come after him continue to teach the children what he always has.
“If you work hard, study in school and do your best, you’ll never be lost and it’ll pay off for the rest of your life,” he said. “If I were 14, and I knew what I know now, I would’ve worked much harder in school. It’s hard to get them to understand that.”
As for his own future —it seems almost as wide open as on that Friday back in 1967.
“I’m not sure what I’ll be doing, but I know a lot of work needs to be done around the house,” Scannell chuckled. “I’ll relax a little — I’m tired.”
Scannell will likely again visit Ireland, where many of his relatives still live, and where his cousin operates a farm in County Cork that has belonged to his mother’s side of the family since the 1870s.
“And I’d love to see Australia,” he said. “My grandfather’s brother emigrated to Australia, so I have family there too.”