Ms. Berish is pictured on the right with Ellie Klem.
As a youngster growing up in Queens, NY, Ronnie Berish envisioned her future self as a teacher standing in front of a classroom full of children. She enjoyed going to school, and she imagined growing up to be just like the teachers she admired so deeply.
Ms. Berish pursued that dream, earning her undergraduate degree in elementary education before moving to Louisville, KY, for her first job teaching first grade. After a year, Ms. Berish moved back home to New York City. She taught for one more year before spending the next 12 years raising her family with her husband. During that time, Ms. Berish attended graduate school on a part-time basis, with a focus on learning disabilities.
One morning, she received a phone call from one of her professors, who asked Ms. Berish if she was interested in a part-time job at a special education school.
“I really hadn’t thought about re-entering the workforce, but teaching jobs were really hard to come by in those days. I thought I really shouldn’t say no to the opportunity, so I accepted and said ‘yes,’” said Ms. Berish.
The position was an assistant teaching role at The Windward School, which, in 1976, had recently evolved into a school specifically for children with learning disabilities. Ms. Berish had never heard of the school, but she arrived for her first day at Windward in November 1977 at 13 Windward Avenue.
The school building was small [before its expansion in 1994 that doubled its size], having largely maintained its original footprint since its construction in 1930. Approximately 75 students from kindergarten through twelfth grade were enrolled, but there were still many empty classrooms. The entire middle school was located on the top floor, the lower schoolers were on the ground floor, and high schoolers occupied the basement level. Ms. Berish assisted a teacher with a combined fifth- and sixth-grade class, and she instructed reading and math groups.
Apart from the physical building differences, Ms. Berish also recalled how Windward’s program was not quite as defined as it is today. Although Windward had begun to specialize in teaching children with learning disabilities, its population was not as narrowly defined yet. There wasn’t a set curriculum, there was no training for teachers, and the admissions process was not as rigorous as it is today.
Ms. Berish served as an assistant teacher for two years, before the late Dr. Margaret Stanback asked her if she would like to work together as Coordinators of Special Services, to which she agreed.
“Margaret had the biggest impact on my career. She was quite a scholar, and she had me join the Orton Society [which is now the International Dyslexia Association] with her. We listened to wonderful speakers about the latest reading research and multisensory teaching. I had my degrees and credentials, but I really learned how to teach reading at Windward,” said Ms. Berish.
The School adopted the evidence-based practices presented by the Orton Society and began investing in a formal staff development program so that Windward teachers would be trained on how to best teach their students with learning disabilities. Ms. Berish credits the development of Windward’s teacher training program as a turning point for the School and one of the main factors for its enormous growth since the 1970s.
“We were a lovely small school, but those of us at the beginning had a dream. We could see Windward being much more. We dreamed of Windward flourishing into a more structured program and growing to reach more children. Slowly, change began to happen, and our dream started to come true,” said Ms. Berish.
“Those of us at the beginning had a dream. We could see Windward being much more. We dreamed of Windward flourishing into a more structured program and growing to reach more children.”
Meanwhile, as Windward continued to refine its mission, Ms. Berish worked side by side with Dr. Stanback for 25 years in administering testing for the increasing number of prospective students, overseeing and training tutors when additional student support was needed, and later coordinating achievement testing for Windward students at the beginning and end of each school year. Following Dr. Stanback’s retirement, Ms. Berish took over full responsibilities as Coordinator of Special Services.
In more recent years, Ms. Berish has also led professional development workshops for The Windward Institute to share her expertise on interpretation of testing results for the classroom.
Ms. Berish’s scope of work has grown over the decades, but she has enjoyed the variety and the opportunity to work with many individuals within and outside Windward.
“This is why I’ve been here for all these years—I’ve always wanted to be a part of the growth and seeing our students doing well. My time at Windward has been more than satisfying, and I have felt so privileged to have been a part of this school.”
“My time at Windward has been more than satisfying, and I have felt so privileged to have been a part of this school.”
Over the decades, Ms. Berish has impacted thousands of students and their families in her tenure as the longest-serving staff member in Windward’s history. Although Ms. Berish has fond memories of Windward’s high school graduations that took place on the front lawn at 13 Windward [Ed. Note: Windward phased out grades 10-12 in 2004, to prioritize early identification and remediation.] and attending the student drama productions, the most meaningful memories will be of the relationships she’s made within the Windward community.
“It’s amazing that I've been able to work with the children of some of my former Windward students. Nicole DiNapoli-Tischler ’94 was one of my all-time favorite students, and I was able to administer the tests to her two children, Aidan ’25 and Dana ’28, who are currently at Windward.”
Ms. Berish has also cherished imparting her love of reading to her students.
“I remember a former student who came to us in eighth grade as a non-reader, and he would regularly ask me if he could have more tutoring in reading. He graduated from Windward’s high school, and several years later, he came back to tell me that he started reading for pleasure. You could not have given me a greater gift than that.”
In her retirement, Ms. Berish looks forward to spending more time with her two sons, two daughters-in-law, two grandsons, two granddogs, and other family and friends. She is an avid reader and music lover, so she plans on further indulging in those hobbies. Ms. Berish also hopes to travel to more destinations in Europe, adding to her experiences in Italy, France, Scandanavia, Spain, United Kingdom, Ireland, Greece, Croatia, Hungary, and Czech Republic.
Before long, Ms. Berish says she is sure to find her way back to Windward to take classes at The Windward Institute.
“Windward is a very special place and has felt like family, so I’ve always said, ‘I’m never leaving!’” Ms. Berish joked. “I never want to be totally removed from Windward, so I’ll always come back to keep on learning. That never stops.”