Retiring Oak Grove principal will miss excitement, laughter
BRATTLEBORO — It's the children Jeri Curry will miss most as she retires as principal of Oak Grove School this year.
"Just the noise, the excitement, laughter in the hallway, the busy-ness — even though sometimes the busy-ness keeps me from that level of balance I worry about," the elementary school principal said.
During tough days, Curry would stop by and visit the pre-k students. She would crawl on the ground and play games with the children before returning to other work. The most difficult part of retiring, she said, is "not having that level of enthusiastic laughter and excitement around all the time."
Curry announced her retirement in a letter submitted to the Brattleboro Town School Board on April 3. She has been teaching in Vermont for 30 years and principal of Oak Grove for four years.
Her first job was teaching for the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union in Whitingham, when it was still a K-12 structure before the district consolidated schools with Wilmington.
In 1997, Curry went to teach for the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union at Brattleboro Area Middle School. Her last four years there were spent as assistant principal.
Ingrid Chrisco, BAMS principal at the time, encouraged her to take on the leadership role and became her mentor.
"I owe her a ton of gratitude for the work, and just her vision and sharing a lot of the aspects of the job that helped me to be successful in my career," said Curry.
Curry applied to work at Oak Grove when former Oak Grove principal Jen McKusick left the position to become director of curriculum and instruction for Windham Central Supervisory Union in Townshend.
"So when the job became available, I said, 'You know what? This is kind of full circle,'" Curry said, meaning she would end where she started, in elementary education. "I can't think of a better place to finish my career than Oak Grove. It's my family. It's very sad."
Curry had been planning to stay for another year. Her decision to leave early, she said, mostly has to do with trying to balance her personal life.
Brattleboro Town School Board Chairman David Schoales said Curry focused on families.
"Parents were deeply involved in the school," Schoales said. "Activities were arranged to accommodate whole families. She treated her staff and students as family members, and the results were a coherent, loving community."
Curry "will be missed both as principal at Oak Grove and as trusted colleague of the other WSESU administrators," Superintendent Lyle Holiday said. "Jeri cares about the students and families of Oak Grove, and all will miss her thoughtful, kind manner."
Curry has enjoyed seeing the different generations of students come through the schools. She said she has four "amazing teachers" at Oak Grove and many parents who once were her students.
"We're really good at helping kids identify their passions and helping them to see the good in each other and in themselves," she said. "It is a real gift to watch kids grow and become professionals, become parents, moving back to the community in which they were raised and went to school. They're coming back to continue to make Brattleboro a great place. So that's pretty special."
Curry said her work could not be done "without amazing people behind you, not just behind you but that surround you."
"Oak Grove's not successful without the teachers who are here," she said. "I've been blessed over the last four years to have the same classroom teachers. Our retention is amazing. Our teachers stay because they like Oak Grove. They like the feel of it. They love our community. And so that says a lot about who we are and the strength that we have as a school team and, of course, as a kid team."
Holiday said the principal position at Oak Grove has been advertised on School Spring, a website traditionally used for school-based openings, and the National Alliance of Black School Educators' site.
"The process of finding [Curry's] successor is consistent with her leadership style — parents, teachers, administrators, board members, and community members will be involved," Schoales said. "We have also engaged the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity to help us attract a broad range of highly qualified applicants."
A search committee of Oak Grove teachers and parents is forming. It will review resumes and conduct two rounds of interviews.
Finalists will be invited to participate in focus groups made up of parents and community members, Oak Grove teachers and staff, and School Board members and other Brattleboro administrators.
Asked what advice she'd give to those interested in entering the education field, Curry said, "You have to know it's not an 8 to 5 job or 8-3 job at all."
Teachers have to answer phone calls and emails, she said, and curriculum gets updated a lot. They're also meeting with representatives from human services groups.
"It's changed — I mean, we have more on our plates than when I first started," Curry said, noting that teachers need to know their content area and make it engaging for all levels of learners. "We have to take on the role of caregivers."
That sometimes means understanding how trauma affects students.
"There's just so much about the job that makes it challenging yet makes it very rewarding," Curry said, starting to get visibly emotional. "You have to have a big heart. You have to have a lot of courage and you have to be in it because you see hope for our young kids."
For now, Curry has no retirement plans.
"That's the hardest thing," she said. "I'm not ready for people to say, 'Congratulations, I heard you're retiring.' I'm not ready for that."
Curry is currently contemplating whether to keep a small farm her family owns in Swanzey, N.H.
"It's too much," she said. "We've been talking about selling it but then what do we do? Where do we go?"
At the supervisory union's central office, Curry has been asked whether she will start working in education across the border in New Hampshire or Massachusetts. But she is firm in her answer.
"If I was going to do that, I'd stay here," she said. "I'm young, I have my health right now, and so there's a lot of things I can do."
Curry pulled out a children's book titled "Be Where Your Feet Are" and said "it's really about mindfulness."
"I will be focused on that kind of work, some level of mindfulness and levelness, so I have a sense where I know where my feet are," she said. "Maybe if I were better at it, I'd be staying another year. I'm not really good at balancing my life and the job. And I love what I do. It's going to be really hard."
Curry considers staff, students and parents Oak Grove family — "a very tight-knit community."
"And they're going to be all right; you know, they believe in each other, they're very strong," she said. "They're going to continue to grow and shine as one of the best schools in southern Vermont, just under a new, grander Oak tree."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at email@example.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.
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