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'Heart and Soul' of Mary McDowell Friends School in Cobble Hill to Retire

COBBLE HILL — The first and only director of admissions at the Mary McDowell Friends School is retiring after 27 years, marking the end of an era for students and faculty at the private special-education school.

Deborah Edel, who turns 68 next month, will step down from her longtime post at the Quaker school, which serves students with learning disabilities in kindergarten through high school.

"You have to know that Deborah is unbelievable. She’s the heart and soul of the school," said Debbie Zlotowitz, head of the school. "She offers wisdom, compassion and understanding — that’s who she is. She worked with all the classroom teachers to help them understand the kids better, and she worked with the families, too.”

Edel was hired at Mary McDowell in 1985, just a year after the school opened. She worked part time in the admissions department while also serving as a psychologist at a mental hospital in Coney Island.

Then, in 1999, she began working full time at the school, playing a dual role as director of admissions and senior psychologist, or head counselor to the school.

“I met with children and families to decide whether we would be a good fit for the children, or if they’d be a good fit for the school,” said Edel of Mary McDowell, where tuition runs more than $43,000 per year for the elementary and middle school.

 “I still get calls from parents of alumni students who are now adults. They call me with questions about life decisions or issues that may arise. I also get parents who call about good things, about moments they want to share. These are the relationships that carry on.”

A new director of admissions was chosen from within the school to follow in Edel’s footsteps. Heather Burchyns, who is currently director of the lower elementary school, will serve in her place.

“We are very sad that she is leaving,” Zlotowitz said of Edel. “But if she has to leave, we are replacing her with the best. We know [Heather] well. She is loved by students, parents and faculty. She knows what the students need, and with empathy and care.”

With Burchyns' promotion, there will be some additional shifting of leaders within the elementary school. The school, which is currently divided into three separate parts — upper, elementary and lower — will merge into one elementary school division, which will be led by a single director and an assistant director. This change will take place in September.

Hannah Finn Wiltshire, who has served as the elementary social worker at McDowell, will be filling the role of elementary school director. Wiltshire has a dual masters degree in both special education and social work, and has spent six years teaching in the elementary school before taking time off to raise a family.

Former McDowell teacher Franziska Laskaris will also be joining the school in the fall as assistant director of the elementary division. She worked as an elementary school teacher at McDowell from 2006 to 2010, when she left to spend two years in a special-needs school in South Africa.

Parents and fellow faculty members will be throwing a farewell party on May 22 to send Edel off. Edel said that after she retires, she plans to travel with her partner.

“I’ve already booked the tickets,” she said.

Her departure marks a bittersweet moment for those with children at the school.

"Deborah Edel changed our daughter's life (and our family's life, too) by her compassion and calm kindness," wrote Lisa Sinsheimer, a parent of a student attending the school, in an email.

"I can't imagine MMFS without her, but I wish her a joyous retirement — she has more than earned it."

The party will take place at the Mary McDowell upper school, located at 23 Sidney Place in Brooklyn Heights. Those who’d like to attend are asked to RSVP by May 15 to ljm@mmfsnyc.org.