An Oxford resident who’s taught in the wilds of Alaska is preparing to lead a brand new charter public school in Waterford Township this fall.
“I think all kids deserve to have a quality education,” said Elizabeth Ruff, principal of Jefferson International Academy, located at 60 S. Lynn Ave.
Jefferson International Academy will open as a K-5 school. A new grade will be added each year after until it serves students in grades K-8.
“It is open to all students,” said Ruff, who’s lived in Oxford for more than 20 years. “We only have about 20 kids (enrolled), but we’re actively recruiting. We really just started advertising in July.”
The school is looking to have about 125 students in its first year and eventually grow to between 250 and 300 when it becomes a K-8 institution. Class sizes will be capped at 25 students.
The building is being leased from the Catholic Church. It used to house St. Benedict Catholic School and most recently, Notre Dame Marist Academy’s Lower Division (JK-5).
A charter school is an independent public school that operates as its own school district governed by its own board of directors.
Central Michigan University (CMU) is Jefferson International Academy’s charter authorizer. The university has entered into a charter contract with the school that outlines its guiding principles, governance structure and how it will be held accountable. Charter schools typically receive increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability.
“Charter schools were started to offer parents a choice, but it’s a choice with a promise,” said Ruff, who’s married to Barry Ruff, a 1969 Oxford High School graduate and pastor of Marimont Community Church in Pontiac. “That promise is they’re going to be a better option regardless of where they’re located.”
The creation of Jefferson International Academy was initiated by the Harper Woods-based Hanley-Harper Group, which will serve as the school’s educational service provider.
“This will be their third school,” Ruff said.
The Hanley-Harper Group started two other K-8 charter schools in Southfield and Hamtramck. Ruff said the company has a vision of several schools feeding into a centrally-located high school.
“Next year, they will open the high school,” she said.
Ruff got involved in all this because she worked at CMU’s Gov. John Engler Center for Charter Schools for the past seven years. Her job was evaluating academic performance in charter schools.
“I knew (the Hanley-Harper Group’s) educational model was sound and it was the right thing to do for kids, so I actually approached them (about the principal position),” said Ruff, who graduates from CMU next month with her Doctorate of Education.
Prior to CMU, Ruff spent two years working at a charter school in Pontiac designed for at-risk high school students. She was a master teacher and interim administrator there.
Before that, Ruff spent six years as the principal and a teacher at a K-12 public school in Crooked Creek, Alaska.
“It’s about 350 miles past the end of the highway,” she said.
The student population consisted of Yupik Eskimos.
“Fifty-four was our highest enrollment,” Ruff said. “It averaged around 35 to 40 students.”
But Ruff, whose children Bridget and Joseph are both OHS graduates, wasn’t always an educator.
She spent about 15 years as a medical assistant, but she was unfulfilled by that career.
“I did what I did and there was no place to grow or advance,” she said.
So, she went back to school and pursued a degree in education.
“I’d always wanted to be a teacher and work with kids,” Ruff said. “That’s still my passion. My passion is to see students engaged in meaningful learning and excelling.”
As an educator, Ruff just wants students to have opportunities to pursue “whatever their passion is.”
“I think unfortunately, in some of our schools, kids don’t get that opportunity,” she said. “There are large classrooms. There’s not that individual attention. We like to say everything is individualized, but you still have to work with constraints. All schools face that. You’ve got one teacher and 30 kids. Our school is committed to not having those large class sizes.”
Jefferson International Academy’s focus will be providing students with a global-based education and fostering a love for technology and the arts.
“We do have a proven, rigorous educational program that we’ll be following,” said Ruff, noting the curriculum will be based on Common Core standards.
Character education will be a central part of the Jefferson International experience. It will focus on six “core values” – trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring, justice and good citizenship.
Each student’s academic growth will be a top priority, according to Ruff.
“We’ll take the time and the dedication to make sure that students are growing,” she said.
All students will be tested three times a year to get an “accurate read” of where they are academically, what their strengths and weaknesses are.
“We’re going to use that data to help the kids,” Ruff said. “Most kids are at least a year or two years behind their grade levels.”
“Our goal is to figure out where they are,” she continued. “If they’re behind, (we’ll) get them caught up. If they’re on track, (we’ll) push them further.”
As part of its charter contract with CMU, Jefferson International Academy’s goal is to prepare all students “to succeed in college, work and life.”
If this goal is not met, there are actual consequences.
“One of the unique things about a charter school (is) if you’re not fulfilling your contract, they don’t have to renew your contract,” Ruff said.
Charter schools can and do get shut down.
“They close because they’re not doing what they said they were going to do,” Ruff said. “They’re not doing what’s best for kids.”
Jefferson International Academy is one of four charter schools set to open this fall in the Waterford-Pontiac area, according to Ruff.
“I think people see a need in this area,” she said. “In the Pontiac-Waterford area, there were not a lot of options beyond the traditional public districts.”
Jefferson International Academy plans to offer students a “safe environment” filled with “solid academic programs.”
But the school isn’t for Waterford-Pontiac students exclusively.
“It doesn’t just have to be people that live right next door to our school,” Ruff said. “Anybody that wants to bring their child is eligible.”
No busing will be available. Parents will be responsible for their children’s transportation.