Retha Rusk walks briskly down the quiet hallway at Lincoln Elementary. Walkie-talkie in hand, the petite principal is eager to showcase what her students are doing, whether discussing a story, solving a math problem or writing the script for the school’s morning news.
The classrooms are engaged, the mood is calm and secure, and the students are focused. After a few minutes at the rural elementary school, it is easy to see why Rusk was recently named Brunswick County’s Principal of the Year. Under her tranquil watch, great things are happening at Lincoln.
Each autumn, one principal is selected by fellow principals in the county for the award. This year, Rusk was honored with a surprise ceremony at Lincoln — she had no idea she had won.
Vickie Smith, principal of Union Elementary, is really pleased that Rusk was named.
“Retha Rusk has been the most wonderful mentor for me since I came to Brunswick County,” says Smith. “She really deserves this honor.”
Principal Rusk is a living advocate of a philosophy called “Habits of Mind,” developed by educational experts Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick.
“We know that if we teach children the good, strong character traits of successful people, they too will be successful,” says Rusk. “We have written our curriculum to focus on these habits, some of which are persisting, communicating clearly, listening with empathy, being creative, being flexible, taking responsible risks, finding humor, responding with wonderment and awe, and thinking about thinking — also known as metacognition.”
Evidence that the philosophy is working is in the numbers.
“One of our biggest accomplishments is that we made “High Growth” for the past two years,” Rusk says.
This is not an easy task for a school of 510 students. High Growth means that a percentage of the student body has exceeded the proficiencies that the North Carolina Department of Education has set for the school each year.
“For students to progress and move that much is tremendous,” Rusk says. “It takes buy in from teachers and families to make that happen. Additionally, Lincoln has increased the number of students who were identified as academically and intellectually gifted (AIG). Just a few years ago there were only two, today there are over 20.”
Rusk is fast approaching her fourth decade with Brunswick County Schools. A native of Wilmington, she moved to Brunswick County after graduating from University of North Carolina at Wilmington in 1975 with a degree in education and a certification for mentoring academically and intellectually gifted students.
She joined Bolivia Elementary School and taught there for 20 years. She moved to Supply Elementary School next, where she taught third grade, served as a computer support specialist, taught AIG and served as an intervention teacher.
In 2002 Rusk received her master’s degree in school administration and moved to Southport Elementary as an assistant principal. She transferred to Lincoln in 2006 as an assistant principal and then took the helm as principal in March 2009. She currently serves on the education committee at the North Brunswick Chamber of Commerce.
It is not all work for Rusk, but her free time tends to revolve around thinking, learning and creating. She loves to read, often choosing titles from the Brunswick County Battle of the Books list so she can talk about them with her students. The old Kohler and Campbell piano from her childhood sits in her living room, where she plays show tunes and Christmas carols. She also plays the flute, knits, sews and looks forward to walks on the beach, where she can really think about thinking.
But it is travelling with her husband, Paul, that she looks forward to the most. The two have been married for 37 years and have three sons. The oldest, Josh, is a history teacher and the head football coach at South Brunswick High School. Middle son Andrew is a teacher at South Brunswick Middle School in the Exceptional Child classroom. Youngest son Aaron is in sales in Wilmington and a wrestling referee for both middle schools and high schools. It is safe to say that serving others is a theme in the Rusk family.
Raising three boys meant attending lots of football and baseball games and wrestling matches, as well as taking a couple of summer camping trips across the United States. Attending Friday night football games continues to be a tradition in the family.
“We love going to the games, watching the kids play and seeing the families,” Rusk says.
Rusk enjoys seeing former students who now have children of their own on the field.
“I always tell my students, someday we’ll see each other again and you’ll be grown up,” she says. “I won’t recognize you, but you will recognize me, so come up and say, ‘Remember me?’”
Seeing her former students grown, successful and happy makes a good day for Rusk.
There are some bad days for Rusk, too, mainly when a child is not taken care of properly.
“When I see a child taken from his home, that makes a bad day for me,” she says. “Lots of times we are their safe haven and if they are taken from their homes and cannot return to Lincoln, it breaks my heart. I cannot imagine how that feels to be in a family that is split up.”
Rusk is extremely grateful to the groups in the community that are willing to step up at a moment’s notice to provide uniforms, books, grants for teachers, holiday meals and even handcrafted items.
“When it gets cold, I can call the knitting group at Magnolia Greens and they send hats and scarves and anything else we need,” she says with a smile.
Principal Rusk constantly expresses appreciation of her staff. The feeling is mutual from the veterans and newcomers alike.
Debra Knox is the media coordinator and has worked at Lincoln for 38 years.
“She treats us like family,” says Knox. “The children even recognize how supportive she is — that is really something!”
Settle Dawkins and his wife, Jill, both came to the school last year to teach third grade.
“Retha Rusk has a great reputation in the area and she’s one of the big reasons we came,” Dawkins says. “She is well known as hard working, supportive and knowledgeable about the current educational research. If you go to her with a need and it is about the children, her answer is going to be yes!”
Kindergarten teacher Barbara Brewer came to Lincoln last year after meeting Rusk at a job fair.
“She makes the school a welcoming place,” says Brewer. “It is very calm here. She has high expectations of her teachers and staff and of her students, but in a way that you feel you can accomplish anything.”
Brewer is also an advocate of the Habits of Mind philosophy. In addition to line leader, door holder and the traditional daily jobs, she assigns a student ambassador to greet visitors to her classroom with a handshake.
It brings joy to Rusk to see the children understanding and using the Habits of Mind philosophy. Once, a kindergartener was having a difficult day and was brought to the office. When Rusk asked what happened, he replied, “Well, ma’am, I’ve been told I do not know how to control my impulsivity.” Rusk laughs. “He really knew what it meant,” she says.
Rusk shares another example.
“A teacher had designed an art project in which she filled balloons with paint and taped them to a canvas, intending for the children to throw darts, pop the balloons and let the paint drip down the canvas,” Rusk says. “But the balloons would not pop, they were too thick. One third grader suggested that they dip crayons in paint and roll them down the canvas instead. This illustrates what we want them to be. We want students to be problem solvers.”
The principal is pleased report that three canvases turned out beautifully and hang in the hall beside the door to the art room.
Like any good leader, Rusk doesn’t intend to rest on her laurels. She has a solid plan for the future. She intends to remain at Lincoln for several more years. Then she will travel to Hawaii to visit friends and take a cruise to Bermuda, the Bahamas or maybe through the Panama Canal. Retirement won’t be all play for the efficient Mrs. Rusk. She plans to volunteer in the schools as a tutor, volunteer as a surrogate parent and work with the court system as a child advocate.
“Education is so important,” Rusk says. “We need to help the children of Brunswick County know that they can be anything they want to be.”
Through persistence and creativity, Rusk intends for the children of Brunswick County to look toward the future with wonderment and awe.