Long-term Brookline principal Laurie Wenger retiring

BROOKLINE – When the dismissal bell rang Friday, June 20, it was the start of summer vacation for students and staff alike, but for some it meant the last day of work in a lengthy career. At Captain Samuel Douglass Academy, three people who have been there since the school opened in 2000 retired: sixth grade teacher Sue Lyons, guidance counselor Maria Perkinson, and Principal Lorraine “Laurie” Wenger.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Wenger earlier in June. “I’m leaving a place that I love, people that I love and children that I love. That is the hard part. It is not an end but a new beginning, going from one positive thing to another.”

Wenger’s husband, Paul, died in December 2012, less than a year after being diagnosed with brain cancer. She is quick to point out how supportive the community was during his illness, especially those who drove him to chemotherapy appointments so she could continue working. She returned to her duties in January 2013, and one year later, decided the time was right to retire.

“He had a short time from the diagnosis to when he died,” she said, “and that obviously played a part in my decision. Life is too short. I have two grandkids in Western New York that I want to spend time with. The staff is sad for themselves but really happy for me.”

More time with family and celebrations

Perkinson, who worked at Hollis Primary School for eight years before joining CSDA, is also retiring to spend more time with family.

“I have a new grandson and another on the way,” she said. “I’m looking forward to more time with my family, and the chance to travel and explore new opportunities.”

Her youngest daughter will be a senior in high school, and Perkinson is eager to help her with researching colleges and applications.

Lyons worked in Massachusetts for 20 years before moving to Brookline, which has been her home for 18 years.

“When we first moved here,” she said, “I walked through Brookline Elementary and said, ‘My kids will be fine here.’ I’ve always felt home here, and the people are awesome.”

The three women were feted at a party at LaBelle Winery in Amherst, which by all accounts was far from your typical retirement party. People dressed up, there was delicious food, wine and fun. One teacher’s husband played piano, there was a professional photographer, and a light, upbeat, celebratory mood. Wenger’s son, a math professor at Rensselaer Institute of Technology in Troy, NY, surprised her by attending.

“It was like a wedding reception without the stress,” said Wenger.

Each retiree was presented with a glass bowl filled with scrolls, messages written by colleagues and students. Whenever they need a CSDA hug, they can unroll one and read it.

“I started reading them,” said Lyons, “and then I put them back. I know I’ll read them over and over again.”

A day in the life at CSDA

To get a feel for what an elementary school principal does, it is necessary to shadow him or her for a day. Wenger says she typically gets to her office at about 7:30 a.m. to do some paperwork and email. By 8:15 she is in the foyer greeting students as they arrive. She knows every student and greets them by name.

As students settle in, it’s time for morning announcements, which include comments on the character trait of the month (honest, respect, friendship, citizenship), and recognition of birthdays, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance.

“I tell everyone to take a moment to say good morning to their teachers and classmates and have a wonderful day,” Wenger said. “This is how we start the day. I learned that from a school I subbed in in New York. When the children hear the principal’s voice, they know that I take an active role. I don’t want them to be afraid if they have to come to the principal’s office. I have a nice relationship with the children.”

Depending on her schedule, she then holds meetings with parents, staff and administrators. She also conducts her daily rounds, stopping by classrooms, the cafeteria and playground. On this particular day, she makes it a point to check with a substitute teacher to see if things are going well, and to observe students doing a history project on the computers in the library before heading out to recess.

“Teachers know not to be surprised, because I walk in all the time,” she said. “I believe in being a visible presence, and sometimes it helps to have an extra pair of hands. The day flies by and before I know it, it is 3:00 and dismissal time.”

Wenger also carries out administrative tasks like preparing budgets, and posts the CSDA newsletter on the school’s web site each Friday.

More about Wenger’s background

Laurie Wenger grew up in Holliston, Mass. and was inspired by her grandmother, who was a teaching principal in a four-room schoolhouse, having both academic and administrative duties. She graduated from Emmanuel College in Boston and began her career as an art teacher in Western Massachusetts. She also taught in Auburn and Deerfield, NH prior to taking time off to raise her three children. She completed her Master of Education at State University of New York in Buffalo, where she was on the adjunct faculty and worked as a reading specialist in the local school district. She also holds a Certified Advanced Graduate Studies degree in leadership from Plymouth State University.

The Wenger family moved to Brookline in 1995, and Laurie was hired as a part-time librarian/reading specialist for Brookline Elementary School, since renamed Richard Maghakian Memorial School. As enrollment grew, her position expanded to full-time. With the construction of CSDA, she became assistant principal in charge of curriculum and instruction. After Maghakian’s death in 2002, she served as co-principal of both Brookline schools with Elizabeth Eaton until 2005, when each was appointed sole principal at the respective schools.

“I’ve been the constant since we have been here,” she said regarding her long tenure. “We have a lot of staff who are veteran, and hire new people as they retire, but there is a sense of community. People like working here. I didn’t come here with the idea that I would still be here, but it has been a great place for me.”

Future plans

She may be retiring, but Wenger has no plans to move away any time soon. She is looking forward to a few upcoming trips with friends and family, including going to Santa Fe, New Mexico in August, a trip to the Grand Canyon in September, a wedding in Chicago, and a Caribbean vacation.

“Being a teacher and having the summer off is a wonderful time to pull yourself together,” she said. “But a principal works in the summer, so it will take a couple of weeks before it will hit me. I’ll just take it one day at a time and enjoy it as it comes.”

What people at CSDA have to say about Principal Wenger

“This building has only had her as principal, so it will be a different feel. She has made this a family. She can name every single kid from the last 15 years, who their brothers and sisters are.” – Joe Vitulli, fourth grade teacher

“She has been an amazing support. She is at every one of our concerts and pops in on class. She cares about the school atmosphere and personnel.” – Christina Catino, music teacher

“I have worked with her since 2001. She is an incredible leader. I know I can go to her at any time with any situation, and she will lead me in the right direction.” – Mary-Lou Gilbert, secretary

“She is an amazing principal. She knew my grandmother, who would be really proud of her.” – A student

“I had her as a reading specialist when I was in first grade, so it is great to still see her. She is definitely an encourager. She was a great teacher and I enjoy working with her on a professional level now.” – Amanda Coffey, paraprofessional

“She is a tremendous mentor. Her famous quote is, ‘Use your professional judgment, and do what is best for the kids.’” – Andrea Martel, SPED case manager

“She greets everyone by name in the morning, asks about our weekend, and makes everyone feel welcome, like you belong here. She doesn’t just care about your report card, she takes a personal interest.” – A student

“We are so sad that she is leaving. She is such a warm, caring person and the kids love her.” – Karen Rezzardy, parent volunteer

“She’s incredible and always there for the staff and guiding us.” – James Beach, maintenance supervisor

“In the classrooms, she always takes a few minutes to see what the kids are doing and compliment them on their work. It’s nice. She will be missed.” – Sacha Doucet, fifth grade teacher

“We are glad for her but also saddened to see her leave. She will truly be missed. It will be a big change for the staff because she has been an unwavering leader.” – Barbara Sobol, librarian

“The most fabulous thing about her is she knows every student, whether they have been her one day or for years. It is one of the coolest things I have ever seen. She also reads every report card.” – Cheri Gratton, paraprofessional

“It’s like part of your family is leaving. She always thinks of what is best for the kids, whether working with students or thinking about new initiatives.” – Karin Pillion, math specialist and parent

“She likes to get involved with everybody and really is caring.” – A student

“This is my first year here as a part-time secretary. What is cool about that is I have children in school here, and I was always coming to school and didn’t want to leave. I thought if anything ever opened up, I’d love to work here, and she hired me. She welcomed me with open arms and (often) thanks me for doing my job. That is the tone she sets for the building. I wish I had more time with her, but I will treasure this one year.” – Patty Nagle, secretary