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July 28, 2009
As Dr. Max Ruhl, dean of Northwest's College of Education and Human Services, delivered the University's summer commencement address Thursday evening, July 30, in Bearcat Arena, he was standing in a gymnasium, but his thoughts, and the words expressing them, sprang from his affection for the classroom.
Ruhl, who started his career 34 years ago as a high school history and social studies instructor in Neosho, remains a teacher at heart, and his years before the blackboard and subsequent career as an administrator were on his mind as he addressed about 260 graduates, scores of whom are planning to follow in his footsteps.
Speaking especially to the education majors among the capped-and-gowned graduates seated before him, Ruhl challenged the class of summer '09 to set high expectations both for themselves and for those they teach and lead.
"Expectations are everything," he said, quoting the late retail pioneer Sam Walton. " Remind your students regularly that what you are doing in the classroom is important, and remember that, in fact, students truly, 'don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.'"
Asked prior to his commencement address about the many challenges facing public education, Ruhl acknowledged that there are serious problems. But he believes the answers to those problems lie in emphasizing basic principles that have created successful schools in the past.
"Schools are like a lot of other things. We get just about the quality of schools that we deserve, and our schools reflect a whole lot of what is going on in the society," Ruhl said.
"I think all of us have recognized that there are some things broken in our economic system right now, for example, and I don't think those things came about because of the math. I think they came about because of a failure to really stick with some of those tried and true elements of American free enterprise that have made our country strong.
"And so, when it comes to our schools, we know that while 90 percent of high school freshmen say they're going to go to college, only 70 percent of them do, and 41 percent of the people in this country who get ten hours of college credit never graduate.
"We also know that about half the people who go to college end up in one or more remedial courses. One other statistic that is really important to me is that only 34 percent of the people who take a remedial reading course in college will ever finish a two- or four-year degree."
What those numbers mean, Ruhl said, is that preparing more people to be successful in college requires a new focus on "fundamentals," such as encouraging parents to talk to their children about the importance of post-secondary education. Families, he said, also need to support school leaders as they seek to raise academic standards.
For the past two years, Ruhl has been working to put these ideas about improving public education into practice through the Building Bridges program, a cooperative effort between Northwest and area public schools designed to give educators the programs, curriculum, support and training they need to better prepare students for success at the college level.
"We're trying to work in a tight partnership with P-12 schools -- with faculty and principals and counselors -- to make great things happen in terms of ramping up expectations," Ruhl said.
The first Building Bridges conference took place last fall at the Heartland Foundation's emPower Plant in St. Joseph. This year's gathering of teachers, university faculty, and university and public school administrators is planned for Oct. 19 at the same location.
It will be a time, Ruhl said, when "all of us can sit around the table and work on understanding exactly what students have got to do so that they don't end up being among those that have to take the remedial courses and maybe don't ever succeed" in obtaining a college degree.
Reflecting on his career as a teacher, principal, college professor and dean, Ruhl said that the task confronting the American educational system has grown more complex over the years. Still, he remains optimistic that educators and the communities they serve can get the job done.
"I thought the challenges facing P-12 schools and families probably couldn't get any more difficult than they were 22 years ago when I left that setting and came to Northwest," Ruhl said. "But clearly they have gotten more complex and more challenging. So if we needed to make some adjustments then, including adjustments to the fabric of our society, we need to do that even more now.
"There are lots of wonderful teachers in our schools, and as a society we have really got to rally around our children and around those educators and say, 'Hey, we want to lend you a hand. We don't want to make it harder for you to do this very challenging job.'
"I'm involved in the Building Bridges project is because I am optimistic. I believe we can solve a lot of problems. One of the reasons I believe this is, in working with urban schools and the challenges they face, we've been able to interest and prepare teachers, including education majors from rural areas, and get them into those settings and make them successful. People would say that's the biggest challenge in public education. So, if we can do that, there is no question in my mind that we can convince ourselves to ratchet things up and succeed."
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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