For 17 years, Sylvia Russell worked in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District, and last Monday she returned, now in the top job.
Russell, the new superintendent, began her teaching career in Quesnel, was a vice-principal in Campbell River, and in 1988 came to School District No. 42. She served as the principal of Riverside elementary and Maple Ridge secondary, and went to the board office as the director of human resources in 1999, and was later promoted to assistant superintendent.
In 2005, she left to go to the Coquitlam School District, where she served as assistant superintendent for a decade.
When former superintendent Jan Unwin left the district to work with the education ministry, it created an opportunity. Returning to the district where she had spent most of her career, with such success, was appealing to Russell.
“I hit one of those places in my life where I felt I needed a change,” she said. “I loved this school district. There’s a real willingness to try new things, to look at the needs of students and try to innovate around those needs.”
The primary challenge in the job will be financial – getting the most value out of limited funds. The board has been forced to cut approximately $5 million out of the past two budgets. The Coquitlam district has been similarly underfunded, so it’s not a new issue for Russell.
The hardest part of budget cuts are that people’s livelihoods are behind each cutback, she said.
“And in smaller districts like this, you tend to know everyone who is affected by it.”
Russell is first visiting schools – she saw five in her first week on the job – and generally likes to go over the lunch hour, when she can meet with staff members, and get out onto the playground with the principal.
“There are significant changes in the district in the last 10 years,” she said.
Some of the secondary schools have smaller school populations than when she left. There is also new programming, like the Environmental School, International Baccalaureate at Garibaldi, and expansion of French Immersion.
Russell also plans to meet with the partner groups, including the board members. A good relationship between the elected trustees and the head of the district management team is essential.
Long term, new challenges will come from curriculum change – which will soon be coming at the direction of the education ministry.
“We’re facing a time of great change in education,” she said. “And it’s really about developing high-quality teaching and learning situations.”
Russell will work closely with assistant superintendent Laurie Meston, who was the acting superintendent while the board went through the hiring process. The two women were colleagues from Russell’s first stint with the board. When Russell was the principal of MRSS, director of instruction Shannon Derinzy was then an English teacher there. Director of instruction David Vandergugten has done innovative work that the Coquitlam School District borrowed, so she is familiar with him as well.
Russell said she is “very fortunate” to have the team she has inherited.
On a personal note, she comes from a great volleyball family. Her brother Greg was the captain of the Canadian Olympic team, and she played for the Vikes varsity team while attending the University of Victoria. Her love affair with the sport continued after school, and she coached her daughter on the Focus club team.