Craig Ross '76 admits he has the best job in the world: building administrator for Portage Community Education, part of the Portage (Mich.) Public School system.
He also admits he often relies on what he learned from his experiences at Kalamazoo College. "I've made a lot of mistakes in my life," Ross said, "but going to 'K' was not one of them."
Ross's center, which received the Michigan Association of Community and Adult Education 2006 School District of the Year Award, is located in a large, former elementary school on Milham Road in Portage and houses a number of programs. The Portage Community High School is an alternative high school and General Educational Development (GED) program with 220 students. Serving 700 children, Curious Kids Child Care is, according to Ross, the largest single-site childcare program in Michigan, although not all 700 are there at any one time. There are also English as a second language, enrichment, and summer activity programs.
Ross's ties to Kalamazoo College stretch back to when he was the age of one of his Curious Kids. He had violin lessons with Georgiana Smith when he was in the fifth grade. "That was my first exposure to 'K'" Ross said, "and even then something clicked that maybe this was where I wanted to end up." And so he did after graduating high school in Vicksburg, Mich.
After he graduated from the College with a degree in history, Ross wanted to run the family farm, but for a variety of reasons, that didn't work out. He sold real estate and worked in the grocery business and spent some time in electrical engineering. "I knew those were not going to be areas that I was going to pursue forever, but I wanted to get a feel" for different occupations.
He did want to teach.
And to pursue that goal, Ross went to Western Michigan University where he took 42 hours of classes to earn his teaching credentials. He has also studied in Western's English Department, took math and computer science courses at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and earned an Educational Leadership M.A. from Grand Valley State University. He plans to finish course work on his doctorate in Educational Leadership this fall at Eastern Michigan University, and intends to complete his dissertation in 2009.
Ross said he once heard someone say that you should get your education first and then your training. "I've always felt that Kalamazoo College offers an education," he said. "Your training you can pick up later." He now sees the benefit of that sequence. "I don't think I knew enough about what I wanted to do then to make an intelligent decision," he said. "I had to do some other things first and then get the training."
In 1986, Ross began his own 16-year stint as a classroom English teacher at Portage Central. He followed that with two years as an assistant principal there and then moved up to run the Community Education Center in 2004.
While he was teaching, Ross received three Excellence in Education Significant Educator Awards, recognitions given to top teachers in Kalamazoo County, where Portage is located.
Ross often put into his classrooms what he had taken away from Kalamazoo College.
For example, Ross said he had a number of top-drawer professors at "K," one of whom, Dr. John Wickstrom, impressed him because "he was just so focused on the material. He was so engaged with the material that it was difficult not to become engaged yourself. I'd like to think I took that into the classroom, and I guess in retrospect I did."
There is another reason Ross was a top teacher.
"I liked the kids," he said. "Interestingly, many people go into education for the wrong reason - they're more interested in the subject matter. If you don't like kids, it's going to be a long day for you. I was fortunate because I enjoyed working with kids; I really enjoyed their development and seeing them progress through high school."
The out-of-class elements of his "K" education have also helped Ross's career. In the fall semester of his sophomore year, he went to Philadelphia in an urban studies program for his Career-Service internship. He worked in a half-way house for recovering alcoholics.
"The program was formative for me - at a young age broadening my perspective. So many kids just don't get that.
"I constantly go back to that now in my own thinking and in discussions I have with people about issues in our school district," Ross said. "I honestly think that most of the problems we have in this school district, in this building - in our country - really result from people's inability to understand the larger picture. It's true in education where everyone generally begins as a teacher. And as a teacher you become the king or queen of your own domain, so you develop this attitude about the way things work. It's myopic; your perspective is really limited, and the difficulty is that it makes it hard to solve problems and deal with issues as things come up because things change. You really develop a worldview that's pretty limited.
"That's where 'K' has always helped me," Ross added. "Whenever I was seduced by myopia, the College made it easier for me to see my way out of it."
While Ross is proud of all the center's programs, the one closest to his heart appears to be the Portage Community High School.
"We're getting more and more kids at risk. They come from poor families, or they don't have models
"Whenever I was seduced by myopia, the College made it easier for me to see my way out of it."for education, or they have learning disabilities or they don't have both parents, or are being raised by someone else. These at-risk kids need the same advantages and resources that kids at the other schools get. Yes, most of them have made mistakes, many have court involvement, and sometimes they can be a little unpleasant, but most of the time they are pretty decent kids.
"Historically there's been a tendency to find ways to hide these kids and keep them below the radar, but it's getting to be more and more difficult to do that," said Ross. "The reality is if these kids aren't in school being influenced by culture they're going to be out on the street being influenced by its culture, and the latter causes problems for society. It's encouraging that there is more recognition of that situation, and there is movement afoot now to develop programs like ours and have a place for those kids to go."
Away from the job, Ross serves on the boards of the Michigan Association of Community and Adult Education and the Portage Community Center. He is also involved with groups that promote diversity, particularly ERAC/CE (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality), a local organization whose goal is to increase racial equity.
And since he's "a farm boy at heart," Ross enjoys outdoor activities such as back packing, hunting and fishing, although he said he hasn't had much time for that over the past few years because he has been working on his doctorate.
Ross is close to his family. His daughter Megan and her husband have a daughter and live nearby. Son Casey is a college junior in Michigan, while Erin recently graduated from college and works as a Spanish translator in a Grand Rapids medical facility.
His passion for education is shared by his wife. "Deb is the probably the best teacher I've ever seen," he said. This fall she will begin her 33rd year teaching Spanish at Portage Central. He said that he feels fortunate that they are both educators. "We can go home and talk about issues, and we have the foundational knowledge to understand where the other person is coming from."
Ross's attitude toward his job is best revealed by taking a peek at his office. It looks like no one has settled in. The walls are plain. There's a desk that's bare except for a computer and a phone, and a meeting table with a few chairs near a window facing a grassy play area for children. Ross has a reason for the starkness of his office. "It's not mine," he said. "It belongs to everybody we serve. If somebody needs a room for a private consultation or to make a phone call, I'll vacate."
Just don't expect him to vacate the best job in the world any time soon.
by Mike Galbreath