Runkle faculty persevere through administrative changes

All at once, things changed.

Former Runkle school principal Genteen Jean-Michael took a sudden leave of absence for medical reasons on March 5. With Jean-Michael gone, Donna Finnegan, the former Runkle school vice-principal, stepped in to become the interim principal. Shortly after, on March 13, all Brookline Public Schools closed due to COVID-19.

For the 2020-21 school year, Finnegan will continue as the interim principal. Dr. Eileen Woods, a retired principal and assistant superintendent with decades of experience, has joined Finnegan as the interim vice-principal for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. Woods has experience mentoring educators in Brookline and was also formerly interim principal of the Driscoll School. There is currently an ongoing vice-principal search to fill the position for the 2020-21 school year.

Throughout an unexpected school closure and Jean-Micheal’s sudden departure, Runkle school administrators and teachers have worked to provide students with structure and community.

Stephanie Ethier, a 4th grade teacher at the Runkle School, said that in her ten-year career, she never expected she would have to switch to remote teaching. Ethier said she was able to find success teaching remotely by collaborating constantly with her 4th grade team and establishing new digital routines.

“We do morning meetings twice a week. We’ll start with just a greeting, and everyone can go around and share on the Zoom something they did over the weekend, something that they’re enjoying, sharing any tips they have at home of ways to stay productive or ways to stay positive,” Ethier said. “And some teachers have found ways to make it creative. For me, I do riddles, we do some would-you-rather-questions and then sometimes we have specialists join too to share something.”

Although Ethier said she is grateful to have had wonderful reception from students and parents, she also said that nothing will replace hands-on learning and the community of being in the classroom. According to Woods, learning is fundamentally based on engagement, which is much more challenging remotely.

“One of the students mentioned she really missed the engagement with her classmates. When she was responding to a piece of literature, she always loved to hear what the other kids in her class thought about that piece, and that made such sense to me,” Woods said.

In these uncharted times, Woods and Finnegan said that they have been working hard to communicate clearly and frequently. Woods said she joined Runkle the day before school was shut down, but she made sure to meet all the teachers digitally and went into Zoom classes to introduce herself to all the students. According to Finnegan, visibility and developing relationships with the kids is one of the most important parts of her job.

“Of course, [the kids] are going to go to their teachers as their first line, but when they have to move up to the next level, it’s hard for kids to talk when they don’t have a relationship with you and they don’t see you every day and know who are,” Finnegan said. “And there’s 609 kids at Runkle, and it’s really hard to make sure you connect with every kid, but that’s my goal.”

According to Finnegan, equity is paramount to her, and she said she has still been delivering Chromebooks to students seven weeks into distance learning.

Finnegan has a background as a speech pathologist and said it is important for a school administrator to have that lens and understanding, especially with Runkle’s strong Reaching for Independence through Structured Education (RISE) program for students on the autism spectrum.

Finnegan said she always puts kids first and wants to be able to account for all needs if or when they would return to school for the 2020-21 school year.

“My goal is to make sure that all students’ needs are met when they re-enter Runkle and their social-emotional needs are met because I would imagine that we will have a lot of really anxious students and staff on our hands,” Finnegan said. “And that’s first and foremost: social and emotional mental health, that people feel like they are doing their jobs well and that students’ needs are being met.”

According to Ethier, Finnegan is also extremely caring towards the faculty, which creates a strong sense of community amongst Runkle school staff.

“Since day one of this [Finnegan] has been saying ‘your wellbeing is what matters the most, your health, including mental health.’ She’s been a cheerleader, but she’s also really honest too. She doesn’t sugarcoat things for us, and I appreciate the authenticity,” Ethier said. “And when there’s an update, we hear from her, and she’ll even send some funny videos sometimes. I feel like we’re in really good hands with her.”