By Za Barrett and Cyrus Holt
From traveling the world with the Peace Corps to building her own charter school, new Head of School Rebecca Ruland has a storied past and an impressive resume. Most importantly, however, she possesses a powerful desire to make the world—and our school —a better place, and the capability to make change happen.
Rebecca first became an educator through work with the Peace Corps. Always a learner, she set out to look at the world from many different perspectives. "I knew that I wanted to engage with different cultures," she recalled. "Cultures didn’t even have to be geographical, they could be different age groups…just anything that's different from me, because it helps me learn.”
Ultimately, Rebecca remembers, it was "ignorance" that drove her to her odyssey. "I did all the things you're supposed to do. Check. Finished high school, didn't care about it, got a B average because somebody said I had to, check, check, check. Went to college, didn't know what I wanted to do in college, check, check, check. But then, I remember around the age of 22, I was like, 'Okay, so who am I? I've done all the stuff I'm supposed to do, what do I really want?...What I realized is how little I knew. I grew up in a relatively small community in Colorado without a lot of exposure to anything but that culture. And so I thought, well, I just wanna throw myself in situations that I don't know and swim. That's how I learn. My learning style is basically: jump in and swim."
Time after time, Rebecca has done just that; whenever a new challenge comes her way, she fearlessly takes the plunge. "It doesn't always or even ever look like what you think it's going to look like," she mused. "You go wherever they send you." Before she went there for the Peace Corps, she remembered, "I'd never even heard of Namibia." Many times, she found herself in vulnerable situations abroad- "not knowing a language, hitchhiking, not having a car…" and yet, she remarks, "I have never been treated with such graciousness…I learned how to trust people in different situations." These experiences deeply impacted her outlook on life. "It's really a deep sense of knowing and learning, when you put yourself in situations where you don't know anything and then you're given the generosity of humanity."
When Rebecca noticed that her child wasn't gaining anything valuable from her education, she took another leap of faith and decided to give the students in her community a better option. "My kid was coming home really disengaged with school and just talking about tests, and anytime you'd say, what did you learn, what are you excited about, there was nothing…I always feel there's a better way to do things, and I'm always interested in how to do that." So she asked herself, "'How do we do this better or differently, for my kid and for all kids?'"
Two Rivers Community School was Rebecca's answer to that question. She founded the small charter school alongside a group of dedicated parents and educators, in much the same way that Animas was born. "The mission is similar to Animas('s) in terms of project based learning, but it also has a really strong emphasis on second language acquisition," Rebecca described. "It's like all the best of all the worlds in education in a public school. Not to say it's perfect, but we tried our best." The school still thrives today in Glenwood Springs. Its mission, according to the website, "is to be an exemplary K-8 school founded upon the belief in academic rigor, curricular relevance, and authentic relationships."
Even after she left Two Rivers, Rebecca knew her "journey wasn't done with project based learning." She ended up at Animas High after a Bonanza that interviewer Jessica McCallum describes as stunningly clarifying. "By the end of Rebecca's Bonanza day," she remembered, "I was already conceiving of her as my new leader. I knew in my heart that she was the one we needed at this point in our history. When I saw her interacting with students at her Bonanza, I knew that she understood the importance we put on student voice and student leadership. That ethic has become abundantly clear in her time with us as well...That's what I'm looking for in an Animas High School leader. A person who puts the students at the center and really elevates their ideas."
Like an Osprey does, Rebecca once again dove right into her new situation, determined to be the strong, empathic leader our school needed. Ospreys, of course, are never short of great ideas. In listening and responding to them, Rebecca is constantly impressed with Osprey determination and ingenuity. "When you talk to staff and students here, people will tell you what they want, and it's the same," Rebecca described. "We want to have really great relationships with people here, and feel trust, we want to do great things with project-based learning, we want to use this educational opportunity for something more than just the average."
She has been an invaluable force towards unity and growth. "We have a bunch of talented individuals, both as staff and as students, and so my role is to really look at all the parts and pieces and blend those talents, and try to facilitate the direction. So I always listen for the pockets of energy among groups of people, like what are their motivations, what are their wishes, and then how does that fit with what we're ultimately trying to do as an institution here?" She likens her role to guiding a raft down a river. "I don't feel like I need to be standing in front with a torch saying, 'this way!' but I need to kinda stand in the back and try to get everybody flowing in the direction that they really do want to flow."
Rebecca believes our new space is only the beginning of what we can achieve, fertile ground where seeds can grow. "When you're in a place for proper inspiration," she said, "it changes the mood a lot." She looks forward to helping Ospreys reach new heights.
“In the end,” she stated, “it’s all about teaching and learning, and when you have access to the right players, there’s no end to what’s possible.”