WOONSOCKET – It was a day to say goodbye to another school year at Woonsocket High School Thursday but unlike his students, school psychologist Mark Kurtzman won’t be returning when school resumes in the fall.
After 33 years with the local department, Kurtzman has made that often-difficult decision to put an endpoint on a career in education. He is among a class of 24 retirees district-wide, but is the only staff member leaving the high school this year as a result of retirement.
Those who have dealt with Kurtzman at the school, both fellow staff members and students, view his departure as a significant loss to the school’s support structure. It also comes as the school grapples with a seismic shift in programs resulting from cost-saving measures. Students returning in the fall will attend a school that has dropped its longtime block schedule for a six-period day to allow the elimination of 10 teaching positions. That change is expected to give them far fewer options for taking a varied selection of courses than they have had in the past.
For his part, Kurtzman is counting on the school’s longtime tradition of overcoming adversity to carry both its staff and students through yet another period of turbulent times.
“I certainly worry about the changes that are being made purely for economic reasons,” said Kurtzman, while finishing up cleaning out his office.
“There isn’t a single person that says a six-period day is the way to go,” he said. “No one is saying `we are doing it for the kids,’ they are only saying they are doing it for economic reasons. The kids will suffer for the lack of opportunities and Woonsocket kids shouldn’t have to suffer anymore, they have already suffered enough.”
At the same time, however, Kurtzman knows from his years of working in Woonsocket that the high school will somehow make it through its latest test of character.
“These kids are extremely resilient and this faculty is extremely resilient,” he said. “The faculty will find a way to teach these kids in that environment and these kids will find a way to learn. Everyone will give 110 percent, just as they always do.”
Kurtzman, who earned his undergraduate degree from Rutgers University in New Jersey and graduate degree from City University in New York, gained an understanding of the local district’s make-up while working as an elementary-level school psychologist for the initial 16 years of his career and then at the high school for the next 17 years.
The community’s socio-economic disadvantages tend to exacerbate family problems, substance abuse, child welfare and mental health concerns, according Kurtzman.
“In any high school, kids are struggling with growing through adolescence and dealing with its stress,” he said, “but in Woonsocket, because of its economic disadvantages, those stresses are more pronounced.”
A local student may be dealing with the economic struggles facing a single-parent family, homelessness, or worries over when they will get their next meal. Worry over personal safety, teen sexuality concerns, or problems with school work can all build up as pressures on a teenager’s sense of well being, he said.
“Sometimes they need a place to go to cope with the stress they are under and get a little assistance to move forward,” he said.
Kurtzman has made his office that place for students at the high school and knows that even though he is leaving, the school will always have someone there to help.
“This is a place where kids can come to get the encouragement they need to move forward,” he said.
Over the years, Kurtzman has helped students with more serious mental health issues such as chronic depression, and made referrals for clinical treatment or even hospitalization when necessary. He has been there to offer support when a class lost a member to tragedy, such as the death of Suhely Andujar in a traffic accident several years ago.
In the fall, Melissa Lorenson, a school psychologist who once interned under Kurtzman, will be taking on the high school duties in his place.
High School Principal Lynne Bedard said she saw Kurtzman’s retirement as a loss for her school because so many of its students have built a bond of trust with him.
He leaves after another veteran counselor, Elaine Card, retired last year and that will only add to the challenges facing Lorenson, according to Bedard.
“He knew the students and their families,” she said of Kurtzman.
The walls of Kurtzman’s office, until this past week, served as a reminder of the success he found in his own role at the school. Student faces stood out from pictures tacked into places of honor, all smiling in their graduation garb.
They were students who maybe needed just a little support or a friendly word of encouragement now and then, and others who depended on having at least one person strongly in their corner.
As he readied to leave thew building for good, Kurtzman was visited by a couple of those students — Brittany Wilson, a 2010 Woonsocket High School graduate and now a student at the Community College of Rhode Island, and her friend, Shaquanna Jones, another 2010 graduate and CCRI student. The former students said they wanted to wish Kurtzman well in his retirement.
“This guy helped me graduate,” Wilson said without hesitation. “I used to come to him for all my problems, when I was having a bad day or the teachers were getting to me. I used to come here and talk about things.”
As a new student at the high school, Wilson said she had some anger management problems and that would get her into trouble. Meeting with Kurtzman gave her an understanding of the triggers for that behavior and also ways to modify it.
“He would calm me down and get me to see how I should be acting and make changes,” she said. “I sometimes felt I didn’t know how to deal with something unless I talked to him first.”
Over time, Wilson figured out what she needed to be doing in school and that in turn led to her be one of those smiling faces on graduation day.
After a year working at CCRI on her future career in nursing, Wilson still credits Kurtzman for her turnaround.
“He pushed me to my limits. I even wanted to drop out at one point and he wouldn’t let me,” she said.
Jones also remembers visiting Kurtzman while a student at the high school when she was going through some problems.
“It helped. It’s good to talk to someone about your problems,” she said. Jones is now working toward a career as a physical therapist.
While Kurtzman voiced confidence in the high school’s ability to continue meeting the needs of the students seeking counseling and help in the future, his peers said the school will face a loss from his retirement nonetheless.
“Everybody loves him,” said Debbie Moylan, a paraprofessional who works near Kurtzman’s office, after telling him goodbye. “He’s a good guy, a good listener and it will be sad to see him go.”
Pam Paige, another veteran teacher at the school, said she, too, will be sorry to see Kurtzman go.
Kurtzman’s role has often made him somewhat of a father figure to students who were lacking that type of presence at home, Paige said.
“We still don’t know how we are going to fill those shoes. He is a big asset to the school and will be missed by the kids,” she said.
While capping his local educational career at 33 years, Kurtzman is not sure what will happen next in his life. He is also retiring as a longtime officer of the Woonsocket Teachers Guild, and as a result he and his wife, Jessica, will be free to travel if they wish. His friends still talk about a trip the couple took to Italy and the photographs he brought back of the ruins of Pompeii.
“I can’t imagine not wanting to come back to say hello next year,” Kurtzman said. “I still have good friends working here and there is a whole lot of kids I promised I would come back to watch them graduate next year.”
As he walked into the school’s front foyer, he didn’t even make it to the door before a couple of girls sitting where students usually wait for a ride confronted him. They said they were shocked to hear he was leaving. They told him they wanted him to reconsider his decision. Kurtzman listened to them, laughed with them, but left no doubt that his decision was made.