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Nogales International, Manuel Coppola, Associated Press
This undated photo shows Sister Rosa Maria Ruiz flanked by Gloria Demerutis, left, and Ana Karin Chong, two Lourdes Catholic middle-school students in Nogales, Ariz. On Jan. 25, 2012 Ruiz was among eight others honored at the White House for her innovative approaches to education as part of the president's program, Champions of Change: Winning the Future Across America.

NOGALES, Ariz. — An interview with Sister Rosa Maria Ruiz at Lourdes Catholic School means regular interruptions by admiring students and parents who can't pass up an opportunity to greet her. She's made the local Catholic community proud.

Ruiz has been in Catholic education for half a century. She was a teacher at Sacred Heart School when it was run by her order, the Minim Daughters of Immaculate Mary, who have a particular focus on education. With her organizational abilities and attention to detail, she eventually became the school's principal.

The responsibilities have continued to multiply and so have the details. Now she is superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson.

On Wednesday, Jan. 25, she was among eight others honored at the White House for her innovative approaches to education as part of the president's program, Champions of Change: Winning the Future Across America.

Despite multiple challenges in a district that now comprises 8,000 students at 26 schools spread out over a huge socio-economic landscape from Nogales to Tucson's foothills, northeast to the Superstition Mountains, and west to Yuma, she has served 14 years in her position. That's double the national average tenure for superintendents.

Her colleagues will tell you she is anything but average.

"She has always had this passion to help children have the best education possible," said Sister Esther Hugues, who worked side-by-side with Ruiz at Sacred Heart and who is now the principal at Lourdes Elementary.

One of the first things on Ruiz's to-do list as superintendent was bringing salary schedules to within 85 percent of the state average, which she accomplished gradually. She has worked with local businesses to create an endowment program to help ensure future financial stability; created protocols so that all Catholic schools within the diocese are properly accredited; went knocking door-to-door to form partnerships with the congregation and area firms on much-needed school-renovation projects; oversaw the opening of three new high schools and an elementary school; and revised the entire Catholic schools policies four times.

Referring to the most recent laborious and intensive revision, she said, "That's the last one I work on. I don't think I'll be around for the next revision." But with sister, it's hard to say. She works at God's whim, she says, to accomplish things that initially may seem too lofty.

How does she do it? "I let the children be my guide," Ruiz said. "If I see there is a need, then I go about filling it. If it's curriculum that needs modifying, then we modify curriculum. It is not what we as teachers and administrators want, it is what children need."

Encouraging and developing curriculum so that Spanish-speaking and Native American children retain their language and culture may be out of vogue in the public school system, but Ruiz maintains, "It is absolutely critical that children do not abandon the essence of who they are and where they come from."

But where some of these children come from also presents challenges to her school district, particularly, but not limited to the poorer neighborhoods on the Pasqua-Yaqui, San Carlos Apache and Tohono O'odham reservations.

Some of her schools are located in crime-prone areas with high incidence of drug and alcohol abuse. Ruiz tells gut-wrenching anecdotes, such as having to share in the sorrow when a child's parent is imprisoned but also the joy when they are released.

"I hold them and I reassure them that God is always by our side. Amidst the chaos of their lives I tell them, 'This is the one thing you can rely on — He loves you.'"

"Of course, we expect excellence in academics for our students as well," she said. "Teachers in our diocese need to be state certified and continue staff development courses to be prepared to help the diversity of students in our schools."

Another tenet instilled is service to community. All students from pre-kinder to seniors are expected to be involved in service activities.

"Successful education is not about high-standardized test scores," Ruiz said. "It is about educating students by giving them skills they can apply to their work every day, combined with values and a sense of commitment to the communities they serve."

To this end, she tells of San Miguel High School, in the heavily Latino community of Tucson's south side. The school operates under the Cristo Rey programs, sponsored by the Lasallian Christian Brothers. It offers Catholic college-preparatory education to young people with limited educational options. The work-study program gives students real-world experiences. Every student works five days a month to fund the majority of his or her education, gain job experience, grow in self-confidence, and realize the relevance of education.

But this idea is not new to Ruiz. "I remember our days at Sacred Heart in the 1970s and '80s when we had an army of kids doing all kinds of work study to help their parents with tuition" said Sister Esther. "That has changed a little at Lourdes, but we still have a number of high school students in work study."

To launch the Tucson program Ruiz once again hit the streets. She recruited law firms, banks, hospitals, universities and other corporate partners who would take on the students, many of whom first arrived at the school in unbefitting street attire with behavioral issues, "some of the boys with their pants half way down and the girls with heavy make-up and nail polish. Oh, the nails," she said, stopping herself from further comment.

But those boys who are accepted to the school must wear ties, and plenty of spare ones are kept on hand, and the girls must dress appropriately for a school and business setting.

One of the partnerships Ruiz is most proud of is with the University of Notre Dame and its Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) Service through Teaching Program.

Students working on their master's in education come to Tucson to study and to teach in the more under-resourced schools. They are mentored by Notre Dame throughout the school year and attend classes in the summer for two years. They exit the program having comprehensive experience in curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Several have chosen to stay.

Notre Dame is also working with Ruiz's district on a five-year program to improve instruction at three Tucson elementary schools with about a 90 percent Hispanic enrollment — St. John, Santa Cruz and St. Ambrose, known as "Notre Dame ACE Academies."

All diocese schools participate in the ACE Collaborative for Academic Excellence on curriculum, instruction and assessment.

In her bio, Sister says, "It was hard for me to leave the classroom to become a principal and later a superintendent, but soon I realized that I could do more for children in these positions. I can oversee each of our Catholic schools and feel confident that teachers are teaching and students are learning."

And no detail is too small. During the interview, she noticed one of the rooftop coolers was leaking. She made a mental note: "I must tell the sisters."

Information from: Nogales International, http://www.nogalesinternational.com/