Penny Townsend photo by Carl Kafka
When it Rains
RE endured the storm of COVID-19.
Its community got stronger.

By Penny Townsend, Head of School

We hear “When it rains” and the next two words that immediately follow are “it pours.” We were inundated with challenges that we never could have predicted during the last year, but if we were to focus solely on those challenges, we wouldn’t appreciate the resilience and strength of our community. I hope that the following stories of how my colleagues and our students adapted to a new way of learning will inspire you. The insight they share on how we maintained a remarkably engaged school in spite of social distancing, masking and distance learning will cheer you. 

Our emphasis on teaching students to think critically is a point of pride among our faculty. We want our students adept at solving problems whose answers aren’t listed in answer keys or discoverable via Google searches. We want them to have open, agile minds and to think outside the box. Over the last 12 months, it’s become clear that this mindset is more than an aspiration for our students and graduates. It’s a way of life at our school. 

It’s absolutely been in evidence this year: Cecilia Gonzalez revamped her approach to teaching musical theater. Jaerla Sajous ’25 has entertained remotely. Doreen Johnson has found new ways to shine. Mia Balestra ’21 has made the most of her senior year, and Kathryn Bufkin hasn’t missed a beat in teaching writing. Henry Stavisky ’85 has used technological tools to become a better teacher. Pete DiPace sees more empathy and compassion in our students; Victor Perez ’23 has observed more friendliness. 

Perhaps Gus Palacios said it best about our community: “If the roots are strong, the tree will survive the storm, and I think our roots are strong.”

I have seen extraordinary achievements every day for the last year. We have weathered the storm of all storms, and I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Penny Townsend photo by Carl Kafka
Portraits by Suzanne Kores
Jaerla Sajous '25
Jaerla Sajous '25
At home

"My love for drama and musical theatre has been strong as long as I can remember. I watched A Goofy Movie a bunch of times when I was three or four. I memorized the script of the whole movie. My mom was amazed. She wanted to make sure I could pursue that passion. When I got older, I remember begging her to find any art program I could do after school. I’ve done Broadway competitions. I’ve danced and sung competitively in Orlando, in New York. My dream is to be a movie star or Broadway star, anything in the arts or film. When the pandemic hit and everything shut down, I was mad. I was saying to myself: The theater has been my second home. How am I supposed to do drama? Am I supposed to just read Shakespeare and call it a day? Am I supposed to bring a theater to my house, with all of these loud people in my family? There’s no stage, there’s no audience, there’s nothing. But at the end of the day, I realized: I have to adjust to what I’ve got. It’s out of my control. [When RE went back to school on October 12], I didn’t go back. My grandparents live with us, so my mom made the decision that I was going to stay home. I was okay with that; I didn’t want to take any risks. I told myself: I’m always the person who looks at the bright side of everything.  Even though, sometimes, my subconscious is like, ‘Girl, you know this is terrible. Don’t even act like this is okay,’ I’ve been trying hard to stay focused; to stay active; to stay motivated. Academically it’s been hard, I feel like I have a better learning perspective when I’m actually in person with the teacher. I feel like there’s some sort of a connection where I can gain knowledge better. I do miss being on campus. I miss my friends and the conversations I have with teachers. I’m a vibe person. I feel people’s vibes. I match your energy. The screen is literally like a blockage. There’s a connection I can’t get. But there have been good moments. We had an assignment in my musical theatre class last spring to take a popular song and write our own lyrics, talking about ‘isolation.’ I recorded it, I sent it in, and then I found out the school shared it on Instagram. All the sudden, people were talking about it. I saw my math teacher playing it in the background as I logged into class. I was actually happy that I was making other people happy. I’ve probably submitted more than 10 remote performances for my classes. I realized, home school’s not so bad, if I can still give out my vibes, and give out my energy. If I’m able to show my passion through a video, through a screen, then I’m happy. I just want to see you smile. A smile’s a good look on you. Sometimes, people think they don’t have a reason to smile. My feeling is: Let me be your reason."
Doreen Johnson 
Middle School Dean of Studies and History & Social Sciences Faculty 
At home

"I’ve been teaching from home since March 2020, and that continued last fall. My approach from the beginning was to make sure I had the rapport I would have if I were on campus. This year, I decided I would order stationery and send a personal letter in the mail to each of my students once a month. I address the letters to Miss or Mr. and their family. It’s something to let them know that I’m thinking about them, that I am trying to extend through the virtual world. I think it’s more important now than ever that they feel like they’re part of class. Back in 1998, I helped co-host three episodes of The Homework Show, a short-lived show on public television in Chicago, teaching reading skills. I took my cues from a fellow teacher on the show; he was just so genuine and smooth. He was able to relate through the camera. That experience has helped me throughout the pandemic, especially in the beginning. I put on a dress, pearls and a smile, and that was how I approached every day. The situation has been grave. I did not want the children to be afraid. I wanted them to know that in this class they were going to be safe, they were going to be okay, and they were going to continue to learn. And we did. As the Middle School Dean of Studies, I also had concerns about children across the middle school campus. Our incoming sixth graders came from roughly 45 different schools. We did not know what they did or didn’t receive in the spring of 2020, when many schools were struggling to provide a remote education. Our middle school leadership team wanted to make sure that all of our students were placed in the right classes, and ready and able once they arrived on campus. I have definitely seen an uptick in the number of “scholarly sessions” – special help sessions – I hold with students. Last year I didn’t see any sixth graders; this year because of the pandemic, I’ve held a number of them. Many of the students are able to cycle off after several sessions. My goal is to get them to understand: This how we schedule our time; this is how we use our time; and this is how we execute our work. Once we see the students’ academic performance improve, they are able to move on. If they still need more help, we work with them until they feel comfortable. I’m pleased to have made this work virtually, but I can’t wait to get back. It’s so important to be in person. I love to come to school; I am a self-proclaimed school nerd. I didn’t miss a day of school from third grade to 12th grade. I have had to take this as an opportunity to shine in a different way, and I encourage my students and colleagues to do the same. I’m home for a reason; and I’m fortunate to work at a place that honored that, and still allowed me the opportunity to educate children, which is what I love to do.”
Pete DiPace, Assistant Head of the Middle School for Student Life
Pete DiPace
Assistant Head of the Middle School for Student Life
In person

"My wife is a physician at Baptist. She’s been on the front lines of this since late spring. We have a four-year-old and an 18-month-old. In the beginning, we focused on keeping her isolated, with me taking on the role of taking care of the kids while working. It was tremendously difficult. We are so used to boundaries. Physical separation with our jobs. I come here and my kids are still causing trouble somewhere in the world, but I’m removed from it. Last spring, there were no boundaries. I would go from a meeting to making lunch, putting down a kid for a nap, to having a meeting, to grading a project. Despite the challenges at home, I was a very conservative voice in coming back. My vision – incorrect, thankfully – when we were coming back to school was that this was going to be ‘remote school from campus’: everyone was going to be six feet apart and look straight ahead and stare at their computer and not breathe on anybody, and that’s the only way we’re going to survive this. Fortunately, I was wrong. I should have been conservative, because there was so little we knew about the disease at the time, but now that we are back, we haven’t seen this huge outbreak of COVID-19; in fact, we don’t have any evidence there’s been community spread within our gates. We were smart to be ultra-cautious, but I think now that we’re here: We can do this. I’ve taken deep breaths working through really frustrating situations. You’re frustrated because you’re in a situation where it doesn’t seem like anyone can win. You’re frustrated by all of the ambiguities and complexities of the circumstances we were placed in. And now, I feel like we’ve been able to exhale finally. What I’m always doing as dean of students, dean of student life, is making sure that the students are safe, and keep the kids feeling like they’re safe. Now it’s not necessarily discipline and social-development issues, or struggles in a classroom with a teacher and a student; the bogeyman is COVID-19. The behavioral stuff has been way down. We haven’t had issues that we normally have in a school year. The physical distancing takes away from some of the issues. Our kids have been really good about buying into how to act in a classroom. That physical distancing and that apprehension that is surrounding all of us, it’s muted the normal exuberance these kids have that can get them into trouble. I do feel our kids are developing a sense of compassion and being more empathetic to what everyone is going through, which has probably helped them take it easy on each other. The most meaningful part of the day for these kids is that time in between classes when they can be around other kids and talk, laugh and joke and have that physical connection of being in each other’s presence. They feel that human aspect and connection to school, which is what makes the school great in the first place.”
Cecilia Gonzalez, Middle School Performing Arts Faculty
Cecilia Gonzalez
Middle School Performing Arts Faculty
In person

"Last spring, when we were entirely remote, it was hard for me personally. Last fall was harder professionally. In the spring, we were all home – I had my children, Ines, 5, Belen, 6, Joaquin, 9, around 24/7. There were four different grade levels happening at the same time, all day long. We had their classes going, and the one I was teaching. We were all quarantined, so I couldn’t have my parents over. My kids needed help with technology because they’re little. It was nuts. Now, they’re back in school, in physical school, and I’m back at Ransom Everglades. (For the first month last fall while we were all still remote, they attended RE’s ‘Wee-mote’ School.) I’m in my 11th year. I have never worked as hard as I have this year. It takes so much planning, and so much creativity, because you have some students right in front of you, and others on a screen. At least in the beginning everyone was the same. Everyone was home. I can do a virtual theatre curriculum. The hybrid is incredibly challenging. I had to reimagine a theatre curriculum: how do you handle the essential performance element when we are having classes in a tent, and some students at home? So I decided to flip the classroom, flip my usual approach. Typically, students do analysis at home, and perform at school. We did the opposite. During class time, I would show great performances, or performers that really excelled, and I would say, ‘Ok, use the rest of your class period to memorize and tonight you’re going to record it.’ Then they would drop their performance videos into my Google Classroom and the following day we would watch them, and talk about them. Because they were at home without an audience, they didn’t get the laughs, they didn’t get the reactions. But we had to make do with the situation we had – and it did work! It just took a lot of rethinking in the moment. The other hard part was this new element of video production: Video editing. I didn’t study that; I do live theatre. A musical theatre performance during COVID-19 is now a video production. So I’ve had to learn entirely new skills. The kids have made it work. They’re just so happy to be there and share time and space with each other. They really need that. Every student that is in my class wanted to be there, and they just wanted to have a good time. They are very grateful. I feel very thanked. They are just like, ‘Tell us what to do and we will do it.’ I missed being on campus. I’m such a social person. I need to have interaction with people. I need to see people. For me being on campus was monumental; I wouldn’t change it for anything, and it’s only going to get better now. I think we’ll be wearing masks for a little while, but I’m hopeful that next school year will be close to how things used to be. I can’t wait to do a live show again!”
Mia Balestra ’21
Volleyball, soccer, track & field
In person

"As a senior class, we have definitely banded together and taken this on together. At some point you just have to stop talking about the negatives and switch to the positive. I think that’s what has been good: everyone’s coming together, everyone is super-positive and we are making the most of it. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic; there are a lot of things we can’t do. No one’s been harping on that; instead, it’s like: What can we do? We obviously hope things get better with the vaccine. Second semester senior year, we’re excited. I hope we have commencement. That’s something everyone looks forward to: having an in-person graduation, walking across the stage to get your diploma. I hope I get to have a graduation dress! But – if that can’t happen – I will understand. When this is all over; we’re going to realize what we took for granted before. I love coming to campus. I’m really grateful that I can actually go to school and see my friends. Staring at a computer screen all day for virtual school was very taxing on my brain. I want to be on campus with my friends, and to try to have the most normal school year possible. I’m grateful that we have the technology and resources to deal with all of this. We are not as affected as other schools. Obviously playing sports, especially volleyball, we had to start out slowly. We usually have preseason training in the summer, and obviously there was none of that this year. We were kind of nervous: is there even going to be a season? We started late, and then we started without being able to actually play. We each had to bring our own ball to practice. We could not share balls. We could just pass in the air, pass against the wall, set to ourselves, toss the ball up, go up and hit it, and then go shag our ball. The first month of the season, we couldn’t play with each other. And, since we were playing inside, we wore masks the entire time. It was hard when we first started playing games: You feel suffocated, especially after long rallies, and all you wanted to do was take it off and just take a big deep breath. We ended up having a great season, we won districts, and we came close to advancing to the state semifinals. We’re all super-close on the team. We just love playing together. So we made the most of every minute. We talk about how different this year has been to all other years. Our parents didn’t get to go to games until the postseason. But there was a livestream, and I think my entire family would sit in front of a computer and watch. We played Gulliver; it’s this huge rivalry, and there was hardly anybody in the stands. It was so weird, but we understood: Fans were the first thing to go. We’re obviously not going to have fans. We just had to build our own momentum. We’ve been doing that all year. Honestly no complaints. I’m still having a good time!”
Henry Stavisky ’85, Upper School Math & Computer Science Faculty
Henry Stavisky ’85
Upper School Math & Computer Science Faculty
At home

"My wife and I have been sheltering in place together. We’ve lost two family members to COVID-19. September was really harsh. I will never forget sitting in the living room when my wife walked in and said, ‘My brother just died of COVID.’ Two weeks later, her sister died. We had to deal with the funerals from home. There was no viewing, nothing. That was emotionally hard on both of us. Our prayer life has helped a lot. My wife and I have devotionals every day. We read the Bible and we pray. We’re very grateful to God that we’ve been able to pretty much keep on. Teaching remotely at RE has been unusual, innovative and challenging. We should be behind and the material should be compromised because, supposedly, the remote teaching is not the same thing. But I actually feel that I’ve taught better. I think RE has to do with that. Ransom Everglades tends to be at the top, and the teachers try to be at the top, and the students are at the top, so it just makes for magical moments where everything works together. I’m so grateful for how supportive RE has been with technology. At the beginning, I wanted to preserve the personal touch of me actually being there. I feel more connected with the students when I’m actually writing and talking, and looking at them at the same time. I learned to use Microsoft OneNote to write notes that students could see during class, but I couldn’t look at OneNote and the students at the same time. So I got an additional camera. It’s much more like a real classroom experience. And then I started recording lectures. One day I just did it out of the blue. The recordings are great for my students – they are very grateful. They say it helps them understand. They can review, pause and rewind if they don’t get something. And I’ve learned by watching the recordings. Now when I teach, I teach slower. I pause more. I have more wait time; I give students time to answer. You have to give them time to think. The virtual environment has also opened up doors for extra help because now there’s no barrier to when you can meet. Once you left school before, office hours were over. Now I find myself answering emails at 9:30 at night. A student will email, ‘Hey I’m having trouble with No. 8.’ Yes, I could let it go, but the teacher in me wants to answer. They are night owls like me; what can I do? I also appreciate the access to their work that the technology offers. I’ve been able to capture why some students don’t do well on the quizzes. You can go into the drive and see everything: you can see people doing everything at the last minute, and the people who are early. I can keep an eye on them, reach out to students who seem to be falling behind. In a lot of ways, I’ve become a better teacher. In many ways, this difficult time has been a blessing in disguise.”
Kathryn Bufkin
Upper School English Faculty
In person

"Last spring was the ‘oh my, this is all new’ phase; and fall built on what we had developed and learned in the spring. It just went more easily. I didn’t know how it was going to be with the students coming back. I worried that if it rained all the students would rush into a building and crowd in the halls. I worried about where we would put everyone for lunch. I just thought, there are too many unknowns and loose variables, and how are we going to do this? But the mechanics of it have flowed. The masks, the socially distanced spaces. It’s gone smoothly. From the beginning, I just wanted to be here. I missed the energy. Teaching is being with the students as much as possible. I’m so grateful to be teaching at a school with students I care about. That hasn’t changed. We are fortunate that Ransom Everglades has quality students who respond to intellectual inquiry. They’re still with me. They’re still enthusiastic. But I’m going to be honest: Harkness (roundtable) discussions have worked, but not as well as if we were all in a small classroom. It’s like the Harkness is a kind of a dulled instrument. It’s not the sharp weapon that it can be. I can’t read expressions. You can’t roam around. Over the decades, you learn the nuances of facial expression, who seems to be teetering into lack of attention; there are ways of yanking them back. It’s always instantaneous and personal, and it’s carried by the energy in a small room. However, it has gone better than I thought, and well enough due to the quality of students. Ransom Everglades students are so smart and willing to be intellectually stimulated. And I expect their interest will continue to pick up because we’re reading literature – such as The Great Gatsby – in the second semester that I know the students love. Even so, I won’t be satisfied with my teaching until it all goes back to normal. This past year has definitely upped my technical arsenal, and I know that’s going to stay with me. Another positive: Teaching writing has not changed. It takes more time, but reading and reacting to students’ essays is the same as it was. Their writing has gotten better, the way it always did. That has not been intruded upon by the pandemic. It’s also been great for the environment; there’s no paper. And I can still meet with students; in fact, it’s almost easier to do so now. The bottom line: I have many reasons to be glad to be here. I’ve been impressed by the school’s response, and the students’ efforts. I was worried in the surges that we would shut down, and we haven’t. I trust the school leadership to do the medically and psychologically sound thing. The students are delighted to see each other. I’m grateful that even though it’s raging outside, in these walls, the school has done its best to control it. We’ve created an oasis for learning.”
Victor Perez ’23
Victor Perez ’23
Robotics, swimming, water polo
At home / In person

"About 10 years ago my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s been a long journey since then. Recently we’ve had to be extra careful with her health. We agreed as a family that my brother and I would come back to school after she received the first dose of the vaccine. What makes me feel safe returning to campus is knowing that there hasn’t been a widespread outbreak. I’m very impressed with all the cleaning stations throughout campus and the new class set-ups. It’s sad to say, but everything we are doing on campus feels really normal – the masks, the social distancing, washing your hands 10 times more than usual. I feel if we had to go on with this for a couple years to come, we could definitely do it because we’re doing it well right now. There are some things we have really missed this year: I loved attending football games. Hanging out with my friends after school, going into the Grove to get dinner, and rushing back to the stands crowded with students. One of my best friends is a starter on the football team, and all I said was ‘good luck’ before the ‘Battle for the Oar.’ Worst of all, I texted it; I didn’t even say it in person. For the most part, things are moving forward – it’s different, though. I’m on the robotics team, and we were lucky to go to an in-person robotics tournament. It was all outdoors, except for the two competition fields inside. When your team was scheduled to compete, you had to line up outside, six feet apart, get hand sanitizer outside the gym, and they would only allow a few team members to enter. Usually at robotics tournaments, everyone runs up for the big matches and they crowd the field in suspense, watching the clock tick down and counting out the score. It wasn’t the same: We were standing outside on our phones, watching on a virtual link even though the real thing was just 10 feet away. It took a lot of energy out of the event. It created that distant-but-together feeling. At the few swim meets we had, we would line up before each race, each swimmer standing by a separate cone, waiting for the heat in front to finish. When that race was done, those swimmers would get out, put on their masks, and walk off on the other side, so we didn’t have to pass anyone as we entered. We wore masks until we stepped up on the blocks. Despite the differences, I’m definitely enjoying being back. At home, school went on, but it just wasn’t the same. I’m a people person. I like to interface in real life. Virtual made that hard. Now I’m walking in the halls and I see people all the time. A lot of the people I hadn’t seen in a long time seemed more friendly than usual. I think that’s what this has done to us. This has forced everyone to really think about their relationships. It’s something we’ve all learned throughout COVID: to really value other people. I’m really proud of myself, my family and our community.”
Gus Palacios, Middle School Science Faculty & Robotics Coach
Gus Palacios
Middle School Science Faculty & Robotics Coach
In person

"I’ve always described teaching as very personal. I feel like my teaching is best when I’m myself and my students feel like they’re themselves, especially at the middle school level. Interpersonal relationships are extremely valuable. I don’t think that learning happens in an impersonal space for children. When we started in remote learning a year ago, I discovered I had to be bigger and more energetic than I usually am in the classroom because I was in this tiny little box on the screen. I had to adopt almost a theatrical presentation because I was trying to reach the cheap seats, trying to really have a visual impact for those kids who were remote. When we got in the classroom, the kids were contributing, so there was a presence in the room. Trying to make sure the kids online had an equal stake in that, it was definitely challenging. I’ve gotten more comfortable and I know my colleagues have as well, in integrating that space. One of the biggest plusses of being back on campus is access to our resources in the sciences. Being able to show something to the kids that is tangible is so important. Seeing something in real life for them – not just on a YouTube video – is exciting. It’s a big deal. Recently, I was able to take out the Van de Graaff generator, and they really went nuts with it. It’s really something cool to see your hair stand on end because of static electricity. You can see it a million times on YouTube; it just does not have the same impact as experiencing it yourself or, in the case of the kids learning remotely in our hybrid model, by watching their peers, their friends, standing up on a stool next to this machine with their hair sticking out. So we’ve had some great moments in class. Sometimes it’s as simple as relaying a question from Johnny in the back of the room, and other times it’s a matter of picking up the computer and saying, ‘Hey guys, what’s going on over here?’ and bringing the remote students into the space. Authenticity, where you’re coming from, matters so much to adolescents. As adults, we try to pull those things back. We adopt this professionalism and think that’s admirable. For adolescents, if you pull back your authenticity and put on his professional facade, they will find you absolutely boring. It’s the Charlie Brown teacher, ‘womp, womp, womp.’ They won’t even hear you. No matter how much I focus on it, there is always some anxiety that some students are feeling more left out. I have some concerns about that. But the other side of that is that difficulties and adversity bring out a shared sense of experience, a shared sense of we’re going to get through this together. I think that has been there in the Ransom Everglades community. If the roots are strong, the tree will survive the storm, and I think our roots are strong. It’s been challenging. Sometimes it’s been fun. Sometimes it’s been more than a little harrowing. It’s definitely been rewarding: We are getting through it.”
Coconut Grove, FL 33133
Middle School2045 South Bayshore DriveTel: 305-250-6850
Upper School3575 Main HighwayTel: 305-460-8800
Founded in 1903, Ransom Everglades School is a coeducational, college preparatory day school for grades 6 - 12 located on two campuses in Coconut Grove, Florida. Ransom Everglades School produces graduates who "believe that they are in the world not so much for what they can get out of it as for what they can put into it." The mission of Ransom Everglades School is to provide an educational environment in which the pursuit of honor, academic excellence and intellectual growth is complemented by concern for the physical, cultural and character development of each student. The school provides rigorous college preparation that promotes the student's sense of identity, community, personal integrity and values for a productive and satisfying life, and prepares the student to lead and to contribute to society.