The Greatest Gift
May 01, 2017 10:00AM
by Elyse Wild | Photography by Dave Burgess
Ruth Jones-Hairston is a nationally celebrated educator, community icon and former principal of Henry Paideia Academy, known as Henry School, in Grand Rapids. A statuesque woman with a smooth, warm voice that invites you to listen and draws your heart toward her own, Jones-Hairston will happily tell you the vast impact of her life’s work in education is not just her own doing, but that of a higher power.
“It is not so much my life goal to change the culture of education; it is why I was created,” Jones-Hairston said. “It is what I am here for.”
Jones-Hairston recently completed writing the manuscript for her upcoming book, The Least of These, which serves as a teaching tool for educators with the story of her life woven into the background. In the book, Jones-Hairston shares her experiences as a teacher at South East High School and later as a principal at Henry School, the latter a position for which she is most well-known.
Jones-Hairston entered Henry School in 1993 during a dire period in the school’s history. She recalls the bewilderment she felt upon learning that, in over a decade, 75 percent of children from Henry School went on to drop out of high school and not a single student had passed the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test in two years.
“It stunned me,” Jones-Hairston reflected. “I thought, ‘How do you go back to your regular life after knowing that?’”
Although she was hesitant to take the position, she strongly felt that God had primed her to lead the school out of despair.
“I talked to my son about it at the time, and I told him I wasn’t sure if I wanted the position,” she shared. “He said, ‘Mom, you are the one. You are the one to do this.’”
Jones-Hairston immediately recognized the problems the children and their families faced were much deeper than academics; they lacked in love, and she decided she was the one to provide it.
“They were so steeped in poverty, and poverty of that level can destroy a person,” Jones-Hairston said. “I opened up a whole new concept of stewardship over children. It wasn’t because it just came to me. God said, ‘I am sending you to do some non-traditional things.’”
She went to work and installed washers and dryers at the school and enlisted teachers to wash the students’ clothes, solicited donations for bras and underwear for students, garnered funds to help families in times of need and each year delivered Christmas presents to her pupils and their families when she knew they would otherwise have none. She also partnered with philanthropists to sponsor an end-of-the-year trip for her eighth grade students during which they would tour Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) along the East Coast, with a finale at Walt Disney World.
“I wanted them to see where they could be, the life they could have if they stayed focused,” Jones-Hairston said.
She emphasizes that no matter what, she always referred to her students as leaders, focused on their positive qualities and let them know as often as possible how honored she was to be their principal.
The harrowing experiences she details in her book include discovering most of her students didn’t know how to read and what she did to take action, fighting to mandate uniforms in order to give the children a sense of pride, and frequently visiting the homes of her pupils to reach out to their parents and empower them to turn their lives around.
Jones-Hairston shares stories that reflect her conviction that the events of her life were divinely orchestrated to bring her into the lives of those she would teach and mentor—children and families who still feel the impact of her love and generosity years later.
“Everything in my life happened to make me passionate about this,” Jones-Hairston said.
When she was just 12-years-old, Jones-Hairston and her siblings suffered the death of their mother. She describes how the experience devastated her, leaving her hollow and lifeless, until a teacher came along and woke her up.
“She was the first one who helped me after my mother died,” Jones-Hairston said. “For two years I felt dead, and this teacher brought me back to life. That is why I tell people, ‘You can change your students’ lives.’”
Her path to college was non-traditional; as a young, working, single mother with a sick child, she didn’t think that finishing school was an option for her. It wasn’t until she received encouragement from those around her that college started to materialize on the horizon, and before she knew it, she found herself graduating from GVSU with a degree in group social studies with an emphasis in psychology and a minor in education.
From her years as a single mother to struggling with her husband’s drug addiction in her first marriage, Jones-Hairston shared her whole self with the community she served.
“I needed people to trust me, to see that I was for real, to get them on board to help their children be successful,” she explained.
After 12 years, Jones-Hairston said she knew in her heart it was time for her to step down. Her retirement fell at a serendipitous time; in 2005 when she left her post as principal, Henry School was demolished. The school was replaced with Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy, which she helped design.
“It was very symbolic,” Jones-Hairston said. “It kind of helped, in a way.”
Now, educators are her pupils; she continues working to change the culture of education through her seminar called, “The Greatest Gift.” For Jones-Hairston, her methods are common sense and the transcendent effect on the lives of her former students is a natural outcome of simply choosing to nurture.
“Nothing I say in my seminars is profound,” she insisted. “It is very simple: Whatever you sow into the lives of these children is what you are going to get… We all know what urban kids need to be successful because we give it to our own kids. The question is, are we going to give it to them?”
Although she has slowed down and is enjoying being a grandmother, Jones-Hairston intends to continue imparting lessons gleaned from a life of changing others to those in a position to do the same.
“I have lived long enough to see the richness in life, to see that it is all entwined,” Jones-Hairston smiled. “I have been given such a rich purpose — a sweet purpose, but I don’t feel I am through yet. Something in me says, ‘There’s more.’ It’s all icing on the cake now.”
"Everything in my life happened to make me passionate about this."
When she is not editing for WLM, Elyse enjoys traveling to far off lands, enjoying live music, and practicing kung fu. She is also the owner of Your Story, a personal biography writing service for senior citizens.