Inner-city New York educator tells North End Winnipeggers how he made school a place kids, teachers want to be

Shawn Rux is a former principal from Middle School 53 in Brooklyn, in Winnipeg speaking to staff at St. John's High School.

Former Brooklyn principal Shawn Rux shares ways to boost morale, improve outcomes at St. John's High School

Local philanthropist Walter Schroeder, right, brought former New York inner-city school principal Shawn Rux to Winnipeg to speak with students and staff at St. John's High School about ways he helped improve educational outcomes at his former school. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Former principal Shawn Rux is in Winnipeg this week to spread some of the lessons he learned helping teachers realize they matter and persuading youth at a New York inner-city school to become more invested in education.

"Education saves lives. I live by that, I stand by that," said Rux, past principal of Middle School 53 in Brooklyn and now deputy superintendent of the New York Department of Education.

Rux was in town to speak to students and staff at St. John's High School in Winnipeg's North End about changes he made to Middle School 53 when he took over, and how he says those changes led to a drop in suspension rates, an increase in attendance rates, greater reductions in teacher turnover, boosted morale and better outcomes for students.

Philanthropist Walter Schroeder, who is originally from Manitoba, brought Rux to Winnipeg to speak to St. John's staff and students.

St. John's High School, left, has a drastically higher absenteeism rate than Kelvin High School, right. (Google Street View)

In May 2017, the North End school saw a 16 per cent student absenteeism rate. By way of comparison, Kelvin High School, in the more affluent Crescentwood neighbourhood, had a three per cent absenteeism rate at that point.

In March, Schroeder donated more than $10 million to St. John's and two other high schools with underprivileged students. The goal is to use that money to improve the quality of education and the ability of teachers to reach out to students who might need additional supports.

'Very daunting' challenge

When Rux first became principal at Middle School 53, students weren't doing well overall.

"It was tough. I always tell people to kind of imagine the worst possible education scenario they could create in [their] head," Rux told Marcy Markusa, host of CBC Manitoba's Information Radio.

"Very daunting and challenging situation — from teacher vacancies, no hope, no pride, tons of suspensions the previous year before, safety was an issue, no positive school culture."

He said many issues he encountered with kids in school stemmed from things happening outside the classroom. Youth in the neighbourhood tend to gravitate toward gang life and were stuck in an ongoing battle, Rux said.

There was a high turnover rate for staff at the New York school, which Rux attributes to challenging work conditions. He says that fed into students' inability to open up to teachers.

"I'm not going to let you in because you're going to leave anyway," Rux said, imaging the perspective of one of those students.

He says students in that inner-city environment often, knowingly or not, were privately asking themselves a series of questions of teachers: when are you leaving, do you know what you're doing and do you really care about me?

He wanted to give students a reason to look forward to school and connect with teachers.

It started with believing in kids and recognizing that in the toughest schools, they often don't have the opportunity to build trusting relationships with teaching staff. That meant letting teachers know they matter and can make a difference in the lives of children, Rux said.

'Rux bux'

So he decided to make some changes. He began greeting kids every day at school, and came up with a way of incentivizing and rewarding good behaviour and good grades. The kids dubbed the reward program "Rux bux."

"If you do good on Wall Street you get commission at the end of the year, so I felt like if … a kid was doing something positive, why not reward them," he said.

He brought a new emphasis on performing arts coursework and got personally involved in singing and dancing with students on occasion.

He also shifted around the classroom arrangement in the school and segregated classrooms by gender — a move some might view as controversial, but one Rux stands by.

That decision was made, in part, based on what he recalls was on his mind as a boy in middle school.

"Thinking back on my own experiences, I would go to school and I am worrying about if Tina likes me or not … and I may be a little hesitant to answer certain questions out of fear or embarrassment or things of that nature," he said.

"Middle school kids, that's what we tend to gravitate toward — they want to impress the opposite sex. We put the boys with the boys, the girls with the girls, and it really gave kids an opportunity to take more risks in their classrooms."

Attendance up, suspensions down

Rux claims in time, the suspension rate plummeted, going from about 280 suspensions to about 26 in one year.

He said some improvements happened quickly, while many others took between three to five years.

"The morale and the pride of the school increased.… Teachers didn't leave as rapidly, it was a place kids wanted to be, kids performed better in their classrooms, we had kids making the honour roll," he said.

Education was a priority for him in his youth thanks to the encouragement and effort of a single teacher — but the same wasn't true for his brother, who spent a few years in and out of jail, Rux said.

"I know for a fact that the only reason it was him in there instead of me was education," he said.

With files from Wendy Parker