Profile

Ruth A. Kane

by Jay P. Goldman

Conventional acts never have been a part of Ruth Anne Kane’s life and they sure don’t reside in her toolbox of school management.

 

The education community in Hitchcock, Texas, where she has served as superintendent since last summer, now realizes what a singularly distinctive presence has landed in its midst.

Consider what Kane did last October on Hitchcock’s homecoming weekend. Declaring that the idea of “a fat white lady sitting in a car and waving” struck her as impossibly boring, Kane surreptiously slipped into the parade route down Highway 6 dressed as a bag lady in an oversized sweater and a woolen hat pulled low to her eyeglass frames. She pushed a borrowed grocery cart bearing a handdrawn sign that declared her the “Homecoming Queen” of Hitchcock’s rival school, eliciting a few quizzical comments and catcalls and, ultimately, a big laugh at Kane’s less-than-glamorous persona.

“Word gets around that you don’t consider yourself Queen of the May,” says Kane, whose sometimes quirky ways stem from similarly offbeat parental advice that she recalls. “My father had a Rule No. 9—I don’t think he ever had a one through eight—that we shouldn’t take ourselves so [expletive deleted] seriously.”

While her style may not resemble that of most superintendents, Kane is tenacious in her pursuit of better learning conditions and outcomes for students. During her six years as principal of 1,800-student Lanier High School in Austin, Texas, she turned a filthy, gang-ridden, bottom-of-the-barrel school into a paragon of excellence, leading the school to federal Blue Ribbon status and earning herself accolades as one of four finalists for national principal of the year in 1999.

Her role was hands-on and decisive. She convened an off-campus summit of gang representatives in order to gain agreement that the high school would be considered neutral ground. Further, she convinced gang members to serve on the student safety force and equipped them with walkie-talkies to help identify non-students who ventured on school property. She created a criminal justice career academy and removed the ever-present padlocks to rid the school of what she called its “ghetto mentality.”

Kane cemented forever her do-it-my-way style the day she brought her own chainsaw to school to trim tree limbs in the school’s courtyard that were blocking proper sightlines—after school district maintenance staff were slow to respond to her repeated requests.

Last fall, Lanier inducted her into the Viking Hall of Fame for her striking accomplishments. While the plaque mentioned her honors, Kane said what touched her most was the poignant inscription that read: “She taught students and faculty to become advocates for a renewed belief in ourselves."

A product of the civil rights protest movement, Kane is not reluctant to question authority. She admits: “My supervisors (in Austin) didn’t like to see me coming. … I would question why. I was one to always ask, ‘Is this equitable?’”

James Veitenheimer, who was Kane’s area superintendent in Austin, concedes she did “a masterful job” in changing perceptions and reality in one of the toughest school settings. “If she wants something, you don’t stand in her way because you’ll get run over,” says Veitenheimer, now superintendent in Canyon, Texas. “We disagreed many times, but she does put kids first.”

Now Kane is applying her unique skill set to a school district on Galveston Bay, about 30 miles south of Houston. Hitchcock has 1,100 students, 60 percent of them nonwhite and 70 percent of whom qualify for the federal school lunch program. Having appointed new principals and new counselors at both the middle school and high school, she plans to spend considerable time beefing up instructional practices and teacher expectations.

At the same time, Kane is the rare school leader who can genuinely empathize with aimless youth, having been a college dropout herself for 11 years during which time she toured the country. She spent time as a cast member in a ’60s rock musical and did clerical work for The Village Voice.

And how will the image of a chainsaw-toting, bag lady play to a new audience? “She’s just one of those people you just love,” says Ave Wahrmund, a veteran school board member in Austin. “She’s so enthusiastic and so warm. She’s someone who people want to work for.”

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

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Ruth Kane