Living legacy

May 14, 2013

By Dan Aznoff

End of scholarships will not diminish the impact of teacher Ruth Roy

Death came too soon for Issaquah teacher Ruth Roy. The same thing might be said for the scholarship program created in her memory.

By Greg Farrar The final Ruth Roy Scholarship recipients (from left) Gargi Panatula, of Grand Ridge Elementary, Shiven Raina, of Apollo (in tree), Eric Hong, of Grand Ridge, Anjali Goel, of Cascade Ridge, Monsi Pingili, of Beaver Lake Middle School, meet Rob Roy at the school district administration building. Alex Zhang, of Endeavour, was not available.

By Greg Farrar
The final Ruth Roy Scholarship recipients (from left) Gargi Panatula, of Grand Ridge Elementary, Shiven Raina, of Apollo (in tree), Eric Hong, of Grand Ridge, Anjali Goel, of Cascade Ridge, Monsi Pingili, of Beaver Lake Middle School, meet Rob Roy at the school district administration building. Alex Zhang, of Endeavour, was not available.

The final six grants from the Ruth Roy Scholarship program established to inspire gifted middle school students were presented in March. In all, 23 scholarships were awarded in the seven years the Ruth Roy Scholarship program was operated through the Issaquah Schools Foundation.

Retired Assistant Superintendent Margaret Moore said the initial funds for the endowment lasted until the last of Roy’s students graduated from high school.

“This has been an incredible program, both in terms of what it has meant to the students and to the legacy of a wonderful teacher,” Moore said. “The money may be gone, but Ruth’s influence on students in the district will live on.”

“Maybe this is a good time to end it,” said her husband, Rob Roy. “We gave as many as possible until the money ran out.”

 

Exploring passions

Despite the enthusiasm for the scholarship program when it was first conceived, Ruth Roy knew the $450 grants would hardly make a dent in the cost of college tuition. So, she requested that the money be used for summer enrichment programs the students could use during their middle school years.

Applications for the scholarship were judged by a committee of teachers and parents as well as Roy’s husband and her daughter, Ph.D. candidate Alyson Roy. The awards were matched each year by the Halbert and Nancy Robinson Center for Young Scholars at the University of Washington if the funds were used at the summer academic enrichment programs on the college campus in Seattle.

Former colleague Karen DeBruler said Roy’s legacy provided gifted students with an opportunity to explore their passions outside the classroom at a reasonable cost.

“The program literally changed my life,” said 15-year-old Enrico Doan, who received scholarships in both 2007 and 2008. “The summer enrichment program opened my eyes to what was possible. Without the scholarship, I’d probably still be in high school right now.”

Doan is now a junior at the University of Washington, majoring in biochemistry and English.

Jenna Bellavia is a 15-year-old freshman at Skyline High School. She used her Ruth Roy Scholarship during the summer of 2009 to attend an enrichment program at the university to study the physics of roller coasters. She hopes the program will lead to a job with Disney as an imagineer.

“The scholarship gave me the opportunity to imagine what was beyond my classroom,” Bellavia said. “The experience was inspirational. It made me think about how I can transform my passion into an actual career.”

Bellavia was sad to learn the scholarship program will end this year.

“More kids deserve an opportunity to explore their dreams,” she said.

Jenna’s brother Matthew earned his own Ruth Roy Scholarship in 2012. He used the grant to attend a civil engineering session at the Robinson Center named Next City. His mother said the summer program gave Matthew the self-confidence to share his innovative ideas for the design of communities of the future.

Endeavor Elementary School fifth-grader Alex Zhang earned one of the final six scholarships handed out this year. He plans to use his scholarship to offset the cost of intense piano instruction in Italy this summer. Zhang is scheduled to attend Pine Lake Middle School in the fall.

 

Mother of MERLIN

Ruth Roy was hired as a fifth-grade teacher at Apollo Elementary School in 1998 to help develop the district’s first all-day program for gifted students. The expanded program is now known as MERLIN, Mind Education for Right and Left (brain) Integration. A second set of MERLIN classes were added to the program at Endeavour.

“Ruth was the mother of the program. She thrived in this environment because she had the ability to think like one of the kids,” DeBruler said. “She was an incredibly nurturing teacher. She even nurtured other teachers in the gifted program.”

DeBruler will retire this spring after teaching for 33 years. She joined the district’s gifted education program the same year as Roy, teaching third grade for seven years and taking over the fifth-grade class when her friend became ill.

Roy was unable to return to her classroom after she was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in September 2005. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative condition that affects control of the body, but the incurable disease left the cognitive portions of Roy’s brain mostly intact.

The dedicated teacher used the last months of her life to establish a scholarship she hoped would benefit the students she loved. Many of Roy’s colleagues worked together with parents and students to raise more than $8,400 to fund the endowment.

“Ruth knew she wouldn’t be with us to support and cheer her students, so she wanted to continue to encourage students to go beyond the ordinary,” Moore said.

The administrator recalled how Roy struggled to stay alert while she contributed to the effort to establish the scholarship that would be named in her honor.

”Her incredible mind was still working,” Moore said. “She used her left hand to type responses. All in complete sentences and spelled correctly!”

Mary Lou Jones, who taught the fourth-graders in the MERLIN program at Apollo to prepare them for the fifth grade with Mrs. Roy, remembered visiting her colleague at her home after both had stopped teaching.

“The disease made it difficult for Ruth to communicate, but she was able to express herself beautifully through the music she was able to play on the piano,” Jones said.

Moore shared her own treasured memory from her visit to the Roy home two months after Ruth had been diagnosed.

“I remember coming to her front door and hearing marvelous piano music from inside,” Moore recalled. “I tiptoed in and sat beside her on the piano bench, turning the pages while she filled the room with Chopin.”

 

Dueling valedictorians

Jones described the gifted program in the Issaquah School District as more than revised curriculum. She said MERLIN develops future leaders, emphasizing that students from the gifted program have been valedictorians at Skyline and Issaquah high schools in the past few years.

“There are federal programs to help students at the lower end of the curve, but very little to encourage the gifted children,” Jones said. “The teachers and students (in MERLIN) deserve all the credit in the world for their accomplishments.”

According to her husband, Ruth Roy was “obsessed” with her students.

“Ruth was under strict orders not to talk shop in front of her own children,” he explained. “She couldn’t help referring to her students as ‘my kids’ or as ‘one of my boys.’

“The terms she used were probably not good for the egos of our own children, but they were proof of how much Ruth loved those kids until the day she died.”

According to her husband, Ruth Roy took a hiatus from teaching to raise their three children and deal with her own health problems before returning to the classroom in her 40s. He added that his wife had already survived breast cancer by the time she began teaching in the Issaquah district.

 

Greatest strength

Roy said his wife developed her own “nontraditional” style of teaching from the liberal arts education she received while they both attended Pomona College in Southern California. She began a gifted program at her first classroom assignment in Lincolnwood, Ill.

Roy said Ruth’s greatest strength was being aware of her own weakness.

Ruth Roy won the state Spelling Bee when she was an eighth-grader in Alaska and was a gifted musician who learned to play the piano without any formal lessons. But, the educator of gifted students never got past geometry in high school. She relied on the parents of her students to teach the units on advanced mathematics and on other members of the faculty at Apollo to supervise the after-school team that competed in the Math Olympiad.

“People who did not know her — or her style of teaching — thought Ruth was nuts,” her husband said. “Some parents actually tried to keep their kids out of her class because she was totally unorganized.”

Roy smiled when he remembered how his wife was always late, because she had trouble finding her keys or remembering where she had left her glasses.

“But, the truth was she was multitasking. Ruth would be thinking of one thing and coordinating something completely different at the same time,” Roy said. “In those situations, simple tasks like cleanup and filing just did not get done.”

Moore said Roy‘s classroom was living proof of the term “creative chaos.”

“It did not take long to see that wonderful things were happening there,” Moore told mourners at a service for Roy in May 2007. “Activity whirled and conversation circled in layers around the room. And, out of this came an exceptional, challenging, unforgettable experience for her students.”

The production staged by the three fifth-grade MERLIN classes every spring was another example of excellence in the midst of pandemonium for Roy. The teacher with an infectious laugh arranged the annual musical based on an original script written by her students. Roy would play the piano for each performance while her students directed the action on stage.

“Ruth loved teaching, and loved each and every one of her students,” Rob Roy noted. “But, there was no doubt that writing and staging the play was one of her favorite units of the year. She was right at home in the middle of the whirlwind.”

DeBruler agreed, explaining that it was impossible for Ruth Roy to listen to the radio or have songs playing while grading papers because, having perfect pitch, she would “see” the music in her head.

“She was not the most organized individual,” DeBruler said with a kind smile. “But, if you provided her a structure, she would take that lesson plan and turn it into something special and incredibly personal.

“Other teachers tried to emulate her methods, but nobody has ever been able to impact the children like Mrs. Roy.”

 

Dan Aznoff was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the toxic waste crisis in California. He is now a freelance writer who makes his home in Bellevue. He can be contacted at da@dajournalist.com.

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