There’s incredibly meaningful work happening across the country to transform American public schools for all students. Just ask Christopher Ruszkowski.
“It’s happening in big cities like the Bay Area, D.C., New Orleans, Denver and Houston,” he said. “It is and can also be happening in smaller cities and rural area like Wilmington, Albuquerque, Nashville and the Rio Grande Valley. To bring educational equity to scale, we need to do a better job of telling the story of the great work we’re all doing together across the country.”
The son of Polish emigrants and a first generation American, Christopher learned the importance of education and hard work at an early age.
“In my family, the American public education system was the silver bullet to a better life,” Christopher said. “My family relied on and believed in American public schools.”
But Christopher saw achievement gaps within his own extended family and in the public schools he attended in Minneapolis. He realized that the U.S. public education system was not the panacea for all students that his family may have thought it was. Still, he believed in education, worked hard as a student, and achieved success that would make any family proud, including being named one of 800 Evans Scholars nationally and thus awarded a full scholarship to attend the University of Minnesota, where he graduated magna cum laude.
During his time as an Evans Scholar, he studied abroad in South Africa, where Christopher witnessed stark inequities but also an enduring belief in education.
“South Africa was coming out of apartheid,” he said, “and there was hope and promise in the township schools. All those schools had was great teachers. There weren’t gyms, or pianos, or computers. Their only resource was teachers, and I saw their power.”
When an American classmate at the University of Cape Town told Christopher that he should consider becoming a teacher in an urban area, something clicked.
Christopher joined Teach For America, and taught for two years in the Haitian-American community in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, a district serving over 300,000 students, of whom 74% come from low-income families. The majority of Christopher’s students were first generation Americans, and he recognized himself in them. He was committed to their success, and his students achieved at high levels, demonstrating 80% content mastery on rigorous social studies course content. TFA named him a Sue Lehmann regional finalist for excellence in teaching.
Committed to effecting system-wide change for more students, Christopher pursued a master’s degree in educational policy, organization, and leadership studies from Stanford University, where he first heard about Education Pioneers.
“I was specifically looking to connect with people who weren’t educators but were interested in making the system better, because it’s going to take a collaborative effort, and I knew Education Pioneers was drawing in talented people from different backgrounds,” Christopher said.
During his 2010 Fellowship, Christopher was placed with San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), where he helped develop, facilitate, and plan the district’s annual summer administrator’s conference.
“My experience at SFUSD was invaluable because I worked cross-functionally across the district,” he said. “I interacted with every single facet of the district office departments and got a global view that I’d never had before.”
The Fellowship’s professional development sessions with a diverse cohort of leaders broadened Christopher’s perspective even further.
“It was invaluable to hear from people in the legal system, in finance, and in philanthropy all fighting for educational equity,” he said. “I would not have seen those different perspectives in-depth without Education Pioneers.”
Eager to get involved in Race to the Top, President Obama’s signature education initiative, Christopher headed to the Delaware Department of Education (DDOE) after his Education Pioneers Fellowship.
In Delaware, he hit the ground running. In his first year, Christopher and his team implemented 15 critical human capital initiatives, including launching the state’s first alternative principal certification training program. His team also established “professional learning communities” to ensure that every teacher in the state has 90 minutes a week of collaborative planning time with other teachers and administrators.
“Every teacher, every principal, and every superintendent cites effective professional learning communities as a core reason they have seen gains over the past three years,” Christopher said.
Quickly promoted to Chief Officer of the Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Unit, Christopher grew his team from two people to 25, and now oversees the unit’s $30 million Race to the Top budget and measures how districts’ individual plans are improving student achievement.
“We’ve brought in amazing talent and we’ve built an incredible team,” Christopher said. “Last year, in partnership with the Strategic Data Project, we released the first statewide educator effectiveness diagnostic to collect and present effectiveness data in a way that had never been done before.”
For Christopher, this work is personal. He continues to believe, as his family taught him, that public schools can be the key to a better life.
“I’m still a believer in the traditional public school district,” he said. “I haven’t lost faith.”
And he believes especially in the work happening in Delaware public schools.
“To come to Delaware and become part of something that the President himself had outlined – that’s been an incredible opportunity.”