Grand Rapids — It was coming up on Christmas vacation, a time when school children should be excited. But the brother and sister in front of Ruth Jones-Hairston were crying.
When she asked them why, the boy said, “Because we don’t eat.”
That’s when she felt God tap her on the shoulder and say, “Fix that.”
Skot Welch tells this story about his late mother, who did indeed fix those children’s fear that their family would run out of food before the two-week break was over. With help from a community partner, she arranged to provide food and gifts for families over that holiday and those thereafter.
In her 12 years as principal of the former Henry Paideia Academy, Jones-Hairston fixed many problems – both academic and material – for her largely impoverished students. Now Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy, the school bears the imprint of how she turned a failing school into a model of inner-city success and mustered community support for a new, state-of-the-art facility, her admirers say.
Grand Rapids Public Schools is formally recognizing Jones-Hairston’s legacy by renaming MLK’s library the Ruth Jones Media Center. A simple ceremony is planned Tuesday in honor of a woman who garnered widespread respect in her 30 years as a GRPS teacher and principal.
For her it was less a job than a faith-fueled mission, her son and others say.
“Mom would always say, ‘What we’re doing with our kids you cannot find in a Houghton-Mifflin curriculum,’” said Welch, founder of The Mosaic Film Experience. “’This is about love.’”
A Calling, Not a Job
Jones-Hairston, who died in 2019 at age 71, showed her love for children by inspiring excellence, first as a teacher at Southeast Academic Center, then as principal at Henry Paideia. The former Henry Park Elementary was a failing school when she was hired in 1993, plagued by low achievement, high mobility and poor graduation rates from its former students.
But the school turned around after she was recruited to lead it, supported by a three-year, $1.2 million investment from GRPS as part of a bold partnership with Thornapple Elementary School in Forest Hills. The objective was to see if student performance could markedly improve with the same resources an affluent suburban school received.
In a process that then-Superintendent Jeffery Grotsky likened to opening a new school, Henry was transformed into an academy based on the Paideia model of whole-child education. New jobs were posted and more teachers hired, along with Jones-Hairston as new principal.
As someone who loved teaching, it was a job she did not aspire to but felt God calling her to take, she recalled in an unpublished memoir.
“I asked, ‘How could it be, Lord that you are sending me? I don’t know what to do, and I don’t feel qualified to do this work,’” she wrote. “Then He said to me, ‘Just go, I will send the people who will help you.’”
She found those people in community allies such as First United Methodist Church, which has for decades provided tutors and other supports; John Wheeler, cofounder of Rockford Construction, which organized the holiday food drive and helped families pay bills; and Peter and Joan Secchia, who helped start the library now being renamed for Jones.
Crucially, she engaged parents to become more active in the school, eventually gaining 100% attendance at parent-teacher conferences, said Theresa Dudley, the school’s secretary since 2000. Parents and students alike were held to high expectations, which Jones-Hairston helped them meet with supports like installing a washer and dryer for students’ uniforms, Dudley said.
“She just had a way with people. People believed in her, they trusted her,” Dudley said. “Even when she was firm she would say, ‘But you know I love you.’”
National Recognition and a New School
Student performance improved, suspensions dropped and educators took notice and tours of the school. Presidents noticed, too; Bill Clinton once called to congratulate her, Welch said, and George W. Bush visited the school in 1999 when he was Texas governor and a presidential candidate.
Jones-Hairston retired in 2005, but not before breaking ground for Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy, which opened a year later. Jones-Hairston was the prime force behind getting the new school built, campaigning for support and showing community members the sad state of the old Henry School before it was torn down, said her daughter, Zsanara Hoskins.
“Whoever she could get to listen: ‘Look at the leaks. This would not happen in Forest Hills. This would not happen in East Grand Rapids,’” said Hoskins, dean of elementary students for Kentwood Public Schools. “She was determined, like, this cannot be.”
“She wanted the same things for her kids in the inner city that they had for kids in the suburbs,” Dudley said.
Now the library in that building bears the name of a woman who led the way for a new school and new opportunities for its students. Her name will teach today’s students and future generations what Jones-Hairston did for students like them, said her son.
“It’s the story of a true educator,” Welch said. “It’s important for people to know her story, what she did and how she did it.”