Kerri Modjeski does lots of things well. But goodbyes aren’t one of them.
Modjeski is wrapping up her final month at Brooklyn Elementary School to take over as principal of the new K-6 Forest Edge Elementary, due to open in August.
While she’s excited about her new opportunity in Fitchburg — where around a dozen BKE educators and a group of students will join her — it’s a bittersweet and strange time to be saying goodbye to a school without students or most of its staff. In fact, she’s only been back a handful of times since everyone left the building Friday, March 13, when the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing.
“It still freaks me out every time,” she told the Observer last week. “There was a firm sense of denial, ‘Oh, this is just going to be for a few weeks.’ I don’t think anyone thought for a second, we would be through (in schools) for the rest of the year.”
With the school year winding down, Modjeski said finding ways to bring some closure to her years at BKE has been “tricky in a virtual world.” She said the finality of it all hit her a few weeks ago during a virtual Kentucky Derby hangout, complete with hats, trivia and a dose of cold reality.
“That’s when it hit me … I’m going to cry now… that I’m leaving,” Modjeski said. “Usually it’s lunch and cake and some fun, but we needed to do that differently. So, I’m joking a lot about having thank you covered, because I don’t do well with goodbyes.”
Long-time BKE administrative assistant Lynne Outhouse said while Modjeski will only be up the road a bit in Fitchburg, in terms of distance, to staff “it feels like it’s Alaska.”
“I won’t say goodbye — I know I’m not going to lose her as a friend or colleague, and I’ll still get to see her and interact with her a lot,” she told the Observer on Monday. “But at times it’s a little overwhelming, and you just have to tell yourself, she’s just 20 miles away, you can always just drive up and see her.”
Since the schools shut down in March, the two have kept in contact in Google meetings and on the phone.
“It’s just a different way of doing it, but not seeing someone everyday, not quite as much fun,” Outhouse said. “I’ve been here for 28 years; I’ve known her as a teacher and a principal. It’s quite a bond and a lot of times I ask her questions and I know pretty much how she’s going to answer.”
Through the years, Modjeski’s personality hasn’t changed much, Outhouse said, even while she’s changed roles and responsibilities.
“In the classroom, she was always fun and kept kids hopping and guessing, and she’s the same as a leader,” Outhouse said. “Kerri has kids in her office almost every day for lunch — there’s always something fun going on, a lot of laughter.
One of Modeski’s greatest talents is her ability to remember students’ names and to use it to connect with them, she said, something that was apparent after a fourth-grade graduation a few years ago.
“A parent stepped in and said, ‘She knows everybody’s name? She doesn’t even have a piece of paper with their names on it,’” Outhouse said. “I said, ‘She knows every child’s name in this school, every year, and she usually knows the kindergarteners’ names when they walk in the door.”
Modjeski started at BKE in 2004 as a third- and fourth-grade teacher, returning as an administrative intern before she was hired in fall 2011 as principal. She previously worked at Rome Corners Intermediate and Oregon Middle School, where she started teaching in 1995.
Former long-time BKE teacher Dale Schulz was one of the committee members tasked with finding a principal that year, said Modjeski is the ideal principal, as she has every student in school excited to go to the principal’s office.
“Even the occasional child who would have to make that tough phone call home, sometimes in tears, would leave her office still loving Kerri,” Schulz wrote the Observer in an email. “If Kerri could not be engaged with kids in the classroom, there would be groups of kids, for all kinds of reasons, gathered in her office.”
Brooklyn has “soared” with a culture of high expectations for learning and respect of others in Modjeski’s time leading the school, Schulz said.
“Visitors consistently remark that there is a special welcoming feeling, along with a sense of joy and love of learning as you travel throughout the school,” he said. “That is a reflection of the leadership of Kerri Modjeski.”
District superintendent Brian Busler, who lives in the BKE attendance area, said Modjeski specializes in building strong relationships with students, parents and staff, taking the time to interact with everyone. He called her an “educational leader” within the district.
“Kerri has a magical way of treating students and adults with a genuine and caring approach,” he wrote the Observer in an email. “She involves students in their learning and always has time to spend individually with anyone who needs it. Kerri truly helps students become great learners.”
Modjeski has seen multiple generations of those learners, including sons and daughters of her first group of students at OHS in the late 1990s.
“To have that historical contact and relationship with families over time has been such a blessing,” Modjeski said. “I know their dog’s name; I know their grandma’s name. That’s a source of pride for me that I’ve been here long enough to have seen families coming through.”