AUBURN GRESHAM — After surviving two combat tours with the U.S. Army and walking a beat as a Chicago police officer, Aaron Rucker said he needed another challenge.
So, he became a school teacher.
"I quickly realized that I could affect more lives as a teacher than a cop. In other words, as a police officer I was merely reacting to individual criminal acts," said Rucker, 44, who was hired in February as principal of William Ryder Math & Science Elementary School.
"As a teacher, I could help build, develop and support a student’s character and behavior in a way that would prevent them from requesting police service or being arrested," he said.
Rucker, a Chicago native, has always loved working with kids — "especially at-risk children," he added.
"My main focus [as an educator] has always been to develop the ABCs with my students," Rucker said. " 'A' stands for academics; 'B' stands for behavior and 'C' stands for character."
Rucker was already an Army Reserve officer when he joined the Chicago Police Department in December 1991. He retired from the Army Reserve in 2005 after being injured during a tour in Afghanistan. He also served in Iraq.
"The nice thing about being a police officer is the opportunities it affords you. I was able to take three furloughs [1993, 1995 and 2002] to serve in the military, and now I am on leave while pursuing a career in education," said the father and husband.
Rucker said his current police furlough ends Friday, "so now I will be working night shifts from Friday to Monday for the next 90 days, at which point I will retire."
The military is where he learned lifelong lessons, he said.
"I was taught leadership, integrity and the value of team work," recalled Rucker. "I don't even have a Facebook page because the military taught us to stay away from social media as a way to keep the 'enemy' from finding us."
His career as an educator began by accident when he volunteered in 1992 at a private school. From there "it grew on me," he said.
Prior to being hired at Ryder, he worked as director of student services at South Shore International College Preparatory High School on the South Side. He earned master degrees in education from DePaul University, Concordia University and the University of Illinois-Chicago, and a bachelor's in liberal arts from St. Norbert College in Green Bay, Wis.
Ryder is one of 129 elementary schools Chicago Public Schools is considering closing for underutilization. Rucker said current enrollment at Ryder, which is a Level 3 school and currently on academic probation, is 280, but the school has room for 700.
Some 35 percent of Ryder's enrollment is made up of special education students, which he said poses a problem if CPS closes the school.
"We have children here with autism and not all schools are equipped to handle special ed kids," Rucker said.
Rucker said he's also worried about his students' safety if the school is closed. Many Ryder teachers are alumni who grew up in the neighborhood, so gang members know not to mess with their students.
The Auburn Gresham neighborhood "has an unwritten rule that protects students," said Rucker.
Robyn Ziegler, a spokeswoman for CPS, said the school district has a safety plan in place and is currently working on ways to address such issues as special education students. A final school closure list will be announced next week, according to Ziegler.
"CPS is developing a comprehensive plan for transitioning impacted students with disabilities," Ziegler said, adding that the new schools pupils will be assigned to "receive training to address the unique needs of incoming students."
Regardless whether the school closes or not, Rucker said he has goals for Ryder.
"By the end of this school year, I want every student to improve on their standardized test score at least two levels. I want 80 percent of my students to meet or exceed in gains," Rucker said. "My long term goal is to be a premier Level 1 school."