Return to Headlines

Saddle Rock Project Celebrates Individuality & Kindness

Saddle Rock students with Robin Portnoy

The renovation of a memorial garden at Saddle Rock School has evolved into a building-wide project celebrating individuality, encouraging kindness, and remembering a former student.

At the start of this school year, the Shared Decision Making Committee at Saddle Rock School discussed the renovation of a memorial garden on the school grounds. “Zach’s Garden” was established in 2008 in memory of Saddle Rock fourth-grader Zachary Portnoy, who passed away in February 2007.

Zachary had a tremendous impact on the school. He is remembered as a kind and caring student who brought so much joy to students and staff at Saddle Rock. Ten years after the dedication of the garden, the Shared Decision Making Committee, comprised of administrators, faculty, and parents, decided to involve Saddle Rock students in the renovation process.

Saddle Rock Shared Decision Making Committee

Members of the Portnoy family, including Zachary’s mother, Robin, spoke with Saddle Rock fifth graders about Zachary’s personality and shared some of his favorite things—including dolphins, bird houses, and the color pink. The Committee asked the students to incorporate these items into their designs for the renovated garden.

Around the same time, a character education program was initiated at Saddle Rock based on the book “Only One You” by author Linda Kranz. The book, which encourages readers to make the world a better place, is illustrated with vibrantly-colored rockfish. A popular activity associated with this book involves painting rocks—and since Zach’s Garden already included several large painted rocks, the Saddle Rock School community discussed incorporating these colorful rockfish into the new design.

The Shared Decision Making Committee contacted the district’s Director of Facilities and Operations, Alfredo Cavallaro, for his input on the project. While standing in the area of Zach’s Garden, Mr. Cavallaro noticed a nearby slope on the school grounds and was inspired to take the project even further. He envisioned the vacant, steep slope as a wave, with schools of colorful fish streaming down. He shared his idea with the Shared Decision Making Team at Saddle Rock, and a larger project started to take shape.

female student with fish paver Instead of painting small rocks, Saddle Rock fifth-graders would paint paver stones that are shaped like fish to adorn the slope next to Zach’s Garden. The District’s buildings and grounds crew ordered the paving stones and modified their shape so they more closely resembled fish.

Tying into the book “Only One You,” Saddle Rock art teacher Rosemary Sloggatt led all grade levels in a variety of art projects that celebrate individuality and kindness. Fifth-grade students designed unique, colorful fish on paper, and the entire grade level came together on March 13 for a special assembly to bring their designs to life. Each student drew his or her fish design onto the flat side of a paver with marker, and used bright paints to fill in the scales and fins. These fish pavers will be placed on the slope near the memorial garden, and this new outdoor area will be used as a mindfulness space for all Saddle Rock students.

Zachary’s mother, Robin, has returned to Saddle Rock on multiple occasions to meet with the Shared Decision Making Committee and speak with students about her son’s legacy. On April 24, members of the Portnoy family and their friends visited Saddle Rock to repaint the original rocks that were placed in the garden ten years ago. Robin Portnoy has also painted her own fish paver for the mindfulness area.

Portnoy Family “I feel so grateful, thankful, and blessed to be a part of something as beautiful as the Saddle Rock garden renovation. Every step in the process has been carried out with such love and care, with Zachy, and all the goodness and kindness he represented, as the driving force behind every detail,” said Robin Portnoy. “It fills my heart with so much joy knowing that my Zachy is still able to spread his love and kindness on others, and what a positive impact that love and kindness still has on everyone who hears his story. I will forever be touched by the love Zachy, and my entire family, has received back from Saddle Rock tenfold in this beautiful way.”

Saddle Rock students in Kindergarten through fourth-grade are also involved in the school-wide project: each grade level will contribute to the renovation of Zach’s Garden by planting flowers, creating bird houses, and painting benches.

Over the past eight months, what started out as a suggestion for a small renovation has blossomed into a building-wide project with contributions from parents, faculty, and students of all grade levels to create a beautiful space for student reflection and remembrance.

Members of the Shared Decision Making Committee have seen this garden renovation project touch the Great Neck community in the most beautiful ways. “As we aimed to reach our goal of creating a mindfulness area outdoors, the community engaged in acts of kindness, executed empathy, displayed compassion, and demonstrated the deepest sense of commitment,” said Teacher Co-Chairs Robin Trichon, Fernanda Bravo, and Patricia Schoelle.

outdoor mindfulness area During each step of the project, decision making occurred with emphasis on valuing the ideas generated by students, teachers, parents, and administrators. “This collaborative effort made the project even more special, inspiring, and memorable,” added Parent Co-Chairs Jordana Levine and Moji Pourmoradi.

The school held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on June 12 to unveil the renovated outdoor space, which will serve several purposes for Saddle Rock students. Part of the space will be dedicated as an outdoor mindfulness area, for students to spend quiet time and practice calming techniques they learn through the district’s mindfulness initiative. Zach’s Garden will continue to honor the memory of Zachary Portnoy, with new contributions from his family, friends, and the Saddle Rock school community, including new benches to encourage student conversations and foster friendships.


Fish Paver Project Finished