By JIM HOLTZ – Grand Forks Gazette
Maxine Ruzicka, director of instruction for School District 51 (SD51), is retiring after a lifetime working on behalf of students and families. Ruzicka has always felt that society needed to include and celebrate all of its members, and her work both in and outside the school system is testimony to that. Her involvement with special needs students began when she was only nine.
“When I was growing up in elementary school, I had four sisters and one who really needed help with her learning, and I was the designated sibling that did her tutoring after school.” Not that she always wanted to be a teacher, however. After high school, she started university, but then quit to do two years of world travelling. “You know the era back then, we were certain that with the atomic bombs the world was going to end and so let’s just see what the world is about.”
After returning home and discovering that jobs were scarce and pay was low and unequal for women, she headed back to university, discovering a program that would alter the course of her life.
“A new program really appealed to me at UVIC (the University of Victoria), the Child and Youth Program. There were a lot of masters level university courses on things like learning disabilities, non-verbal assessment, and neuro-psychology and a 16-month practicum in four different areas,” she said.
Her decision to work within the public school system was, she said, the result of an assignment she had with a learning disabled boy.
“One of my jobs was to work with this young boy who would have been in Grade 2 or 3 and try to integrate him back into the classroom. He had been living in a residential kind of centre, and you know in those days schools were so unforgiving and so unwelcoming of anyone who was different, and they were so disdainful of anybody who wasn’t part of the system. And so it was that experience that made me want to be a teacher and work on the system from the inside. Really, that has shaped all of the work that I have done in terms of helping our system be a place where all kids belong, regardless of what their challenges are,” she reminisced.
Ruzicka has worked outside of the school system as well to develop programs and community groups to help children and families. In the late-70s she helped revitalize Boundary Family and Individual Services Society (BFISS) and expand it to include a wider range of services. Bureaucratic changes in government often made acquiring funding for needed programs difficult, she said, but that didn’t eliminate community efforts. When funding was cut off for the Infant Development Program, BFISS began a fundraising program with concerned parents on their own. “It really embarrassed the government,” Ruzicka said, and suddenly funding was provided. “That’s when we realized the power that we had as a community.”
Helping communities utilize their inherent power has been a constant part of Ruzicka’s work. “We only got government to fund programs when we could activate the community. The challenge is initially in bringing people together. The more programs we had, the more money we could apply for because we had more success and credibility.”
After a total of 14 years at Perley Elementary, a stint as an exchange teacher in Scotland, and 13 years at Grand Forks Secondary School working with special needs students and as vice-principal, Ruzicka became the principal in West Boundary serving Big White, Beaverdell and West Boundary Elementary Schools.
“This,” she said, “was one of my most rewarding times. I wanted to open up all the schools. As a result, each school set aside a space for family services so that there was a place that any service group could book to meet with community members. About five years after that, the government came up with Strong Start learning so we immediately got a number of programs because we had a place already set aside even in the farthest outreaches in the district.”
Ruzicka also found rewarding her work helping to establish the Phoenix Foundation. There were gaps in community programs that could not be filled without a community foundation that provided funding on its own.
“We really worked hard at establishing an endowment that would generate dollars that could support additional programming that you can’t get a grant for because nobody’s mandate covers it,” she said.
In 2005, Ruzicka became director of instruction for SD51, a position that allowed her to oversee all the programs that affect children in the school district. “To me the community work and what we do in schools are so interrelated in terms of how our kids are healthy and how our families are healthy. And my real intent (as director of instruction) was: How do I work within the system to bring the skills and the knowledge to help our kids to be as literate but also as included as possible,” she said.
Ruzicka’s future will be less hectic, but not necessarily less active. “I’ll always be a community advocate. But I truly want to take some time off. I don’t want to just fall into doing what I have been doing. Gardening is my No. 1 love and of course growing myself as an individual. I’m always interested in knowledge and today, it’s so readily available.”