GREAT FALLS — When the final bell rings on the school year, the Great Falls Public School district will bid farewell to a husband-and-wife team, who between them have nearly 70 years of experience in education. Equally amazing is the profound impact they’ve had on the lives of thousands of students.
GFPS Assistant Superintendent for Kindergarten through 6th grade Ruth Uecker has been getting her share of hugs lately. Not just for passing out extra responsibility stipend checks, but people wishing her well on her retirement after 34 years in the district.
It was a first-year teacher’s meeting at the start of the 1988-89 school year where she met her future husband, Drew.
“He supervised all special ed teachers but two, I was one of the two that he didn’t supervise and we both got hired,” said Ruth.
“We wouldn’t be married if I had,” said Drew, the principal at Paris Gibson Education Center.
Drew’s career in education spans 39 years, including 21 in administration and the last 13 and a half as principal at Paris.
“You have misconceptions about what alternative school is and it’s not that,” said Drew. “We have the nicest kids in the district the most respectful kids in the district. They’ve had to earn their way in. We’ve made some changes in the last 13 and a half years that made it better.”
Drew says he had great mentors to learn from in Sheryl Allen, Maryann Cosgrove, Dick Kuntz, and Denise Conrad.
Drew says he made the decision to retire in December when he woke up and felt he wasn’t as effective or creative as he had once been. Ruth had planned on continuing to work, but Drew’s decision helped her re-evaluate priorities, including family.
Reflecting on their career, both agree COVID presented a major obstacle. Drew says the pandemic gave the district opportunities to learn things to become better.
Drew says one of the continuing challenges for the district is poverty. “They (kids) don’t have access to a lot of the things other kids do,” said Drew. “Mom’s working three jobs to put meat on the table. A lot of people don’t understand that. I’ve never met a parent that didn’t love their kid. But they struggle with trying to get everything done.”
Ruth adds another challenge facing the district is hiring, especially teachers.
“It takes a whole community to operate a district of our size,” said Rut. “From the crossing guard to food service to the bus driver to engineers to aides, paras. And now we’re really struggling with hiring classroom teachers.”
When the pair started, they say there were up to 150 applicants per job. Ruth says of the 13 teaching openings she currently has, there are just three applicants.
The Ueckers have accomplished much in their careers. Ruth helped design new schools in Great Falls, including Giant Springs Elementary School.
She says the students have impacted her more than she has them. “One of my first students from my very first year of teaching at Valley View Elementary, he was a first grader, sent me a certificate with my name on it, prior to us being married, saying thank you,” said Ruth. “Thank you for being there in my life.”
Drew makes it a point to speak at every bell ringing, celebrating the achievements of graduating Paris Gibson students. He also cherishes the thanks he gets from kids, even if it comes years later.
“Somebody asked me what my favorite memory was and I said, ‘the next one,’” said Drew. “We’ve got graduation coming up where we’ll have 125 graduates approximately. Every one of those kids has a story, every one of those kids is a success.”
Both Drew and Ruth leave big shoes to fill, but are confident in their successors.
Yenta Jaques has been tapped to take over as principal at Paris, and Jackie Mainwaring will replace Ruth in the assistant superintendent role.
For the Ueckers, who have two grown sons, their future will most likely include a lot of time spent outdoors. Wherever their journey takes them, it will be together.
“When he announced, I started picturing what it would be like for me to go to work, for him to be home. We have so much fun together, we enjoy our time together,” said Ruth.
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