Peace teacher


“It’s a way out of poverty, a way to achieve the American dream,” said Karen Rusthoven as she talked about education as a social issue.

To make that dream possible, Rusthoven founded the St. Paul charter school Community of Peace Academy in 1995 to educate the whole person-mind, body and will. According to the school’s vision statement, the focus is on peace, justice, compassion, wholeness and fullness of life for all. Rusthoven emphasized that the “for all” in the vision statement is very important. “We hold unconditional positive regard for all.”

The award-winning school, of which Rusthoven is the principal, serves about 700 students, “a diverse, pre-K through 12 student population on the east side of St. Paul,” she said. This is no marginal experiment; Rusthoven’s school has attracted national attention and the high school recently was named one of the best high schools in the country by U.S. News & World Report.

Why “peace” and not some other focus? “Peace is a virtue, an ethical principle that transcends all of our racial, cultural, religious differences. There’s not a group of people that doesn’t value honesty, justice, loyalty, love and hope,” said Rusthoven, who has crossed cultural boundaries as both a mother and an educator.

Future teacher

Rusthoven was born and raised in St. Paul, graduating from Humboldt High School. Her career as an educator began by participating in Future Teachers of America Club. The students at the schools where she was sent as a substitute teacher were predominantly Mexican-American immigrants. Rusthoven “absolutely loved it” and she knew she wanted to be a teacher. She continued her education at Gustavus Adolphus College with a major in elementary education.

Though she was full of passion, Rusthoven’s path wasn’t easy. In the ’70s she was a single mom for almost eight years-a white, Lutheran-raised woman with two African-American adopted sons, who were 1 and 2 years old at the time of her divorce. She was laid off from a job, which added to her challenges. “This was a very humbling experience for me and I certainly gained compassion for the unemployed,” Rusthoven said.

“I had applied for a position as multi-cultural specialist for the St. Paul Public Schools, but was not hired. I was then offered a position as a home/school liaison under the Federal Title IV Desegregation Program and was assigned to two Catholic Grade Schools, St. Luke’s in the Summit University neighborhood and St. Matthew’s on the west side of St. Paul.” It was a job that she was not necessarily excited about, yet her journey as an educator was moving forward in an important way. She said she was surprised that “the way my family was embraced in Catholic schools was totally different than in public schools-I was part of a caring community. The school climate was so much more empowering for African-American and Hispanic kids.”

While she worked in the Catholic archdiocese for 16 years, eight years as a teacher and eight years as a principal, “I believed in my heart that public education could be done that way as well,” she said. “I founded Peace Academy to prove there’s a better model of public education that serves immigrant students and economically disadvantaged families better. It should be about communities and relationships.”

Academy for peace
When asked why Rusthoven thought a charter was the answer, she said that embodying these values of peace and community “in a public-school setting requires some autonomy; that’s where the charter came in. When the charter-school law passed in 1991, there was the possibility of founding a school upon a different mission and vision, a different philosophy.”

Rusthoven knew that a sole focus on academics wasn’t the answer. “Schools need to be communities. Education is about relationships. A feminine approach to education is a positive thing. Schools need to be caring communities where people feel welcomed and are able to take risks safely so they can learn and grow.” Rusthoven appreciated the non-dualistic focus that Catholic schools placed on “the education of the whole person-mind, body and will. Culturally, we have a tendency to identify the spiritual/emotional realm with feminine rather than masculine tendencies,” she said.

At Community of Peace Academy, students are taught positive actions explicitly and by role modeling. Students say this PeaceBuilder pledge every day: “Praise people, give up put downs, seek wise people, notice and speak up about hurts you cause, right wrongs, and help others.” She said the results have been “phenomenal” and she hopes other schools can adopt these changes.

“You cannot force a person to learn against their will, nor can you force a person to be good or caring against their will, … you have to create a set of circumstances,” Rusthoven said. “Then a person can create positive choices of their own free will, and not because someone is standing over them forcing them to do those things.”