The "Cool Principal"
Rick Kruska, principal of Pope John Paul II Catholic School in downtown Southern Pines, has been an instrumental force behind expansion of the school's campus and activities. Kruska says every day is unpredictable--one minute he's helping prepare children for bright futures, the next, he's plunging a toilet--but Kruska just chalks it all up to another day's work. For him, it's all about the kids.
"Our kids here play the silliest game," says Rick Kruska, principal of Pope John Paul II Catholic School (PJP) of Southern Pines. "It's called sharks and minnows."
Kruska, who moved to North Carolina and became principal in the summer of 2008, describes the recess rompings that begin with all of the youngsters, side by side, at one end of the playground. The objective is for them to sprint across to the other end, as little minnows swim, without being caught by the designated "shark."
He then reflects on his visit to PJP's sister school in Uganda, Africa, last summer. While watching the Ugandan kids play at recess, most of them running around barefoot and malnourished, Kruska realized that they were entertaining themselves in the exact manner as the students at his own school; they just happened to call the game "fisherman and fish."
"These kids are on the other side of the world - literally, culturally and physically - and they're playing the same game," says Kruska, a firm believer in the value of diversity in education.
"When it comes down to it, we are so much more alike than different."
A School of Excellence
Born and raised in Southern California, Rick Kruska, 54, moved to Whispering Pines with his wife, Cathy, to be closer to their daughter as she was starting a family of her own in North Carolina. With a bachelor's degree in psychology, a master's degree in business administration and a doctorate in educational leadership for social justice, Kruska believes that no other combination of education could have better prepared him for his current role as principal. In addition to his schooling, the former superintendent of 47 schools for the Catholic Diocese in Oakland brings with him several years of teaching and coaching experience, a progressive mind, a passion for children and solid faith in the Catholic Church.
Kelly Curran, PTO member and mother of a third-grader, Ryan, raves about the transformation that Pope John Paul II has experienced since welcoming Kruska.
"[Rick] is definitely responsible for putting Pope John Paul on the map of the Sandhills," she says. "It's poised to be a school of excellence in the area."
When he became principal less than two years ago, there were 78 students enrolled at PJP, and education was only provided from pre-K through fifth grade. Since, the school has become SACS accredited, has expanded its education through the seventh grade and is expecting an enrollment of more than 150 students this fall. It is Kruska's hope that PJP will continue to attract students of different socioeconomic, racial and religious backgrounds, becoming a school of choice for Moore County. Currently, 30 percent of its students are not Catholic.
"There is huge value in diversity of faith traditions," says Kruska. "When the kids start talking about things, it's all the same stuff. It's about love and caring, having a spiritual life and treating your friends right. There are differences, but it's not so different."
Curran also elaborates on the benefits of the students' access to advanced technology within the classroom, such as the interactive Smart Board. As of last year, each classroom was equipped with a Smart Board, a whiteboard that connects to the teacher's laptop, featuring a touch-screen for kids to walk up and use rather than the outdated chalkboard.
"Our kids already know more than we do," says Curran, "and by the time they're our age, they're going to need to know even more."
Teacher Barbara Lamblin claims that the students are not the only ones benefitting from the access to new technology.
"It provides opportunities for the teachers themselves," Lamblin says. "You can build your curriculum right there in the classroom."
Although every classroom is currently equipped with a computer, Kruska shares his goal to provide each middle school student with a computer on his or her desk by next year. This, he feels, will enable them to integrate the technology into their curriculum.
"They should be learning how to [research] and create a Word document while they're writing a paper on a social studies topic," he says.
Man With a Plan
"Rick is our visionary," says Susie Buchanan, member of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church (the school's parish) and director of community relations for St. Joseph of the Pines. She explains his strategy for the construction of PJP's new building, to be located of off Camp Easter Road beside St. Joseph's Assisted Living community.
"[Principal Kruska] knew we didn't have the money to build everything right away, so he said we should start with the ball fields. It's sort of the 'if you build it, they will come' [notion]," she says.
The new gymnasium is currently under construction beside the completed fields, and it is projected that classes will be held in temporary buildings on the new premises this coming fall.
"We need to raise a bit more money in order to finish the academic wing," says Kruska, who has high hopes of completing the wing by fall of 2011.
Once the school neighbors St. Joseph's, a major contributor to PJP's scholarship program, Buchanan speaks of future plans to create a collaborative community between students and retirees.
"We'd like to adopt the school and build a grandparental type of relationship with [it]," she says.
Among the programs that Buchanan and Kruska have discussed establishing between the two institutions, including tutoring and recreational amenities, they both mention a desire for intergenerational learning.
"There are things [St. Joseph residents] have lived through that are part of our history books," Kruska says, mentioning civil rights, voyages to outer space and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. "What better way to teach the kids than bringing in a person that was part of it?"
"It's something both younger and older generations will really enjoy," Buchanan says.
Our Children, Our Future
In addition to the physical changes that Kruska has helped make possible for PJP, he has also nudged the students to have a more global perception of the world.
Before Rick's "eye-opening" trip to Katakamu, Uganda, last summer to visit PJP's sister school, Father Joe of Uganda came to speak with the students about life in Africa.
"[The kids] were asking him questions like, 'Do you have any pets?' and [Father Joe] would just start laughing," Kruska says. "They don't have animals [as pets] because they have to eat everything."
After their discussion with Father Joe, PJP students established pen pals among the Ugandan kids.
"To see their letters is remarkable," says Clare Reinhardt, mother of four students. "They are talking back and forth and realizing how many similarities they have."
The students also began selling items at their student store, such as pencils, erasers and ice cream, to raise money to aid their new friends. Local Pinehurst parish Sacred Heart has been constructing wells to provide clean drinking water to the Ugandans.
PJP students are presently collecting slightly worn shoes to send to poor nations through a program called "Soles for Souls." Sixth- and seventh-graders are also busy raising money for a service project they initiated titled "Pennies for Peace," and are interested in aiding the children in Haiti.
"The kids just love Rick," says Curran. "To them, he's the cool principal."
But Kruska could do without all the praise and acknowledgement. "To me, it's all about the kids," he says.
Ashley Wahl is a local freelance writer.
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