A parting interview with Renee Rudnick

Day school head will have her first summer vacation in years

PROVIDENCE – Renee Rudnick, outgoing head of the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island, talked with The Jewish Voice & Herald about the “highs and lows” of her four years at JCDS.

Q: Let’s talk about challenges first. What were your challenges?

A: The number one priority was to change the culture of the school … to get back on a positive track and to make it a community in as many senses as possible, both internally and in reaching out to [the] greater community and helping them appreciate what they have.

I can only tell you what I was told – because I wasn’t here – but there was not a positive feeling in the school. (Before Rudnick’s tenure, which began four years ago, JCDS had closed the middle school and many teachers had lost their jobs.) I know that has changed on many levels – we have 12 community members – most of whom are alumni parents – who volunteer regularly on a weekly or twice-a-week basis. People felt welcomed back and are spreading the word. A parent volunteer, who requested anonymity, with years of experience in the school, told me, ‘I have to tell you – it’s like a whole different place.’

Q: How did you achieve that change?

A: We have full-school assemblies four mornings a week; on Fridays, we end the week with an assembly. You have to be [there] to feel what happens – saluting flags, singing songs, acknowledging birthdays, hearing announcements, etc. We incorporated our JCDS ROCKS campaign, a values-based, character-building program. ROCKS represents the values that we most promote in school: Respect and Responsibility, Caring, Own initiatives, Kindness and Sense of pride. We reinforce them by recognizing children and staff members who exhibit these qualities and give specific examples; at our ROCK wall, kids’ pictures are displayed.

[Read http://tinyurl.com/msm93sg for The Jewish Voice & Herald’s coverage of the crash.]

A: The bankruptcy and receivership was a huge challenge and accomplishment. It was handled so well internally that we didn’t lose one family over it. That was huge. Externally, the people working behind the scenes did an extraordinary job. It was an incredibly difficult decision, but it gave the school a second chance to go forward with strength.

Last spring’s bus accident was a traumatic experience for everyone [but] it was a testament to who we are as a community. Counselors from outside the school couldn’t say enough about the way [we] handled it. The Alliance helped and sent Jewish Family Service to help. There was collateral damage in terms of kids’ fears – a lot of that has been [addressed].

Q: What about money and enrollment?

A: In every other way, finances are in great shape, but the one factor that needs to improve is our enrollment. That’s partly the result of the economy, but we have to attract more families for whom day school education isn’t necessarily where they thought they’d find their children.

We just completed a two-year self-study process [so that] we can be accredited by AISNE (Association of Independent Schools in New England); [the accreditation process] happens every 10 years.

Q: What is the current enrollment now?

A: We’re at 71 [students] and we could go to 90 very comfortably without adding staff other than resource teachers. It’s a moving target for next fall – we won’t hit 71, but probably just under that.

Q: Why did you decide to leave?

A: I struggled with the decision. I so love the school, but the commute is really hard (Rudnick lives north of Boston, Mass.) and adds to an already very long day. It impinges my quality of life. (At the time of this interview, Rudnick, who had not identified her next career move, said that this would be her first summer vacation in years.)

Q: Any parting regrets?

A: That I haven’t been able to hand over a school of 90 kids.

Q: Can you offer any advice for Adam (Tilove, the incoming head of school)?

A: Keep the flame burning brightly at this very special school and in this wonderful community. Review each day’s accomplishments and be proud of that day.

Try to narrow the focus of priorities so that the job doesn’t consume you; try to find balance in your life, where there’s very little balance to be found.