Q&A: Region’s top principal discusses her life’s devotion to education

BEST OF THE CLASS: Ruafika Cobb, principal of Ira B. Jones Elementary School, was recently named Western Region Principal of the Year. Photo courtesy of Asheville City Schools

During her junior year at Tuskegee University, Ruafika Cobb‘s college adviser recommended tutoring children at a local elementary school.

“I thought, I could do this,” says Cobb, whose career in education began in 2000. “I like working with kids. It wasn’t the teaching part. It was more about the connection. I felt positive energy from being around them.”

In 2005, Cobb and her family relocated to Asheville by way of California, and she began teaching math at Asheville Middle School.  Six years later, she accepted her first administrative role as the assistant principal at Hall Fletcher Elementary. Since 2019, she’s been the principal of Ira B. Jones Elementary School.

“As a school principal, I get to make decisions that impact an entire school,” Cobb says. “I see education as my social justice platform for equitable outcomes for all kids.”

On Jan. 3, Cobb’s family and district leaders, along with the entire faculty, staff and student body of Ira B. Jones, surprised the school leader with the news that she had been chosen as Western Region Principal of the Year. This honor puts her in the running for State Principal of the Year. Interviews for that process begin this month.

Xpress sent itself to the principal’s office to learn more about Cobb’s story, as well as her thoughts on the education system.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Xpress: What was your early teaching experience like?

Cobb: I got my first teaching job in Rialto, Calif., as a middle school math and science teacher. I started on March 1, and I was the 20th teacher that the students had had that year. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, what have I got myself into?”

The kids weren’t listening to me. Some of the kids were bigger than me. I was fresh out of college and didn’t have skills to command the respect of the students. And that made it difficult for me to manage the class.

A few weeks into the job, I remember asking a student to go get the counselor to come to the class. I was leaving. And I was like, “I’m done with teaching.” I went home and cried and cried. I remember asking myself, “What did I get myself into? What am I doing?” Then my husband said, “Now that you’ve gotten those tears out, you need to go back to work tomorrow.”

And I did. I went back. The year ended. I took the whole summer to figure out the best way to manage the class. I really did enjoy teaching, but I needed help. I had a good mentor in the beginning. But I also sought out professional trainings. And after year four or five, I realized the more reflective I was about my teaching and my practices, the better I was in the classroom.

Talk to me about your role with Algebra Academy, and its efforts to make sure students of color connect with math.

When I was first hired as an eighth grade math teacher at Asheville Middle, all the eighth grade teachers taught Algebra 1 in their first period, and then the rest of the day we taught prealgebra. I was the only Black math teacher at the school. I had several Black kids in my class, so in my mind I thought there were a lot of Black kids taking Algebra 1 throughout the school. But what I quickly realized was that that wasn’t the case. The other classes had maybe two Black students in each class, which meant that only a handful of Black students were taking Algebra 1.

Algebra 1 is what I call a gatekeeper class for college entry. If students don’t take — or are not successful in — Algebra 1, then the gate doesn’t open up for them to be on the college track for other courses that they need to satisfy for college entry. Algebra 1 allows them to take chemistry, physics, foreign languages. All of those college requirements are determined if a kid takes and passes Algebra 1.

We needed to have more of our Black and brown students who were taking Algebra 1 to be successful. It just really became an equity issue. So I started what was called Algebra Academy with seventh and eighth grade students. It became this way of making sure that I could help to provide more opportunities for students to one day go to college if they choose.

What was the key to your decision to move into administration from teaching?

Pam Cocke was my principal at the time and saw some of the things I was doing. She pulled me into her office and asked if I was interested in being a school administrator. And I said, “No, why would I do that?” Because in my mind, I have my children in my classroom. I can make a difference for these kids. I can give them my time, my energy. I can make sure that they’re getting a solid education, because I know that helps to propel other opportunities for them in life.

She said, “Just go think about it.”

I concluded that going into school administration meant not only would I have a positive impact on the 20 or so kids in my classroom, but I would have an impact on a school of kids, on a school of families. So my reach would be wider than just in my classroom. And once I thought about it in that way, I decided I’ll go into school administration.

What was your reaction to finding out that you were the Western Region Principal of the Year?

I couldn’t believe it. I was very shocked. I was happy that there wasn’t any emergency, because in my mind, I was like, “Oh my God, something is happening right now!” It took me a minute to catch my breath and for me to process what was happening. It was definitely a surprise. And then I remember thinking, “Oh wow. How do I now get to carry forward more of my social justice platform?”

My message will continue to be that we need to do things to ensure that all of our students are having more equitable outcomes, whatever that may mean.

Do you feel as if receiving the award changed the way that you approach your work here?

Not at all. I still do the exact same thing that I was doing before, because I do feel the work that I’ve done before is what is best for children. Because in my heart, that’s who I am as a leader, that’s who I will always be as a leader.

I love my job. I love what I do there. There are not times that I don’t want to come to work. There are some challenging days, but then the next day, I want to come back because I love the community. We have great students, great families, great staff members. I can’t do this by myself. Everyone works together to make sure our students are educated, that their emotional needs are taken care of. People here just do it.


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