By STEVEN JUPITER
BRANDON—In Marsha Bruce’s office at Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, (RNESU) there is a painted vinyl album hanging on the wall. Made for Ms. Bruce by Ethan Nelson, a speech language pathologist at Neshobe Elementary School, the album bears a phrase that could be said to sum up Ms. Bruce’s approach to her work: “Everyone deserves that respect…that dignity of risk.” In other words, every student, no matter what challenges they may face, deserves the opportunity to take risks and, more importantly, to learn from their failures. To protect special-needs students from failure, in this view, is to keep them from reaching their full potential.
A Connecticut native and UVM alum, Bruce has worked in the field since the late 70s, having begun her career at what was then called the Vermont Association for the Crippled (now the Vermont Achievement Center) in Rutland. While working toward a graduate degree in education in the early 80s, she found her “passion” helping autistic children in a residential program in Waterbury integrate into the community in Barre.
“They were called ‘childhood schizophrenics’ at the time,” recalled Bruce, noting that the language used to describe the challenges some kids live with has changed markedly over the years.
After Waterbury, Bruce moved to Rutland Mental Health (RMH), where she remained for 21 years and rose to Managing Director. One of her most meaningful projects at RMH was the integration of roughly 85 residents of the Brandon Training School into the surrounding community when the residential facility was closed by the state in the 1990s.
“How humble I had to be,” said Bruce. “Parents who had been told that they had to give up their kids and had to carry that guilt for years were now being told that their kids were going to be living with other families, that another family was going to be given the opportunity they never had.”
That project at the Training School ended up resonating throughout her career in some poetic ways. In 2001, Bruce left RMH and became Coordinator of Alternative Education at RNESU, which now occupies one of the buildings on the campus of the Training School. Her current office is a former boy’s dormitory room.
Over the years, Bruce was promoted to Co-Director of Special Services with Michele LaRouche and then, in 2012, to Director when Ms. LaRouche departed. Now Bruce oversees all the staff that provide support services to students with special needs throughout the Rutland Northeast District, which encompasses Otter Valley Union Middle and High Schools, Neshobe Elementary School, Lothrop Elementary School, Barstow Memorial School, and Otter Creek Academy. The staff that Bruce supervises includes occupational therapists, speech pathologists, school psychologists, special-education teachers and paraeducators…anyone who may be called upon to help students with special needs to receive a “free appropriate public education” (known in the field as FAPE).
“Without my teams,” said Bruce, “I accomplish nothing.” But with them, she has accomplished a lot. In 2021, Bruce was named the Gail Lynk Special Education Administrator of the Year by the Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators.
To succeed at her role, Bruce must be a skilled communicator, she said.
“Everyone knows the three ‘Rs’ in education: reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic, but there’s a fourth one: relationships. It’s all about relationships, and open and honest communication between the school and students’ families.”
A big part of her relationships with parents is guiding them through the sometimes-onerous process of determining which support services, if any, would be helpful to their children. The current approach in special education is individualization, with the goal to minimize the disruption to the child and maximize their continued integration into their community school.
“Kids should be able to get an education in their community,” said Bruce.
But sometimes the best response to a student’s needs might actually be a residential program elsewhere. Bruce recalled with pride a student who was struggling terribly at OV but who thrived at a residential program Bruce was able to get him into, with help from colleagues at RMH and the Department of Children and Families. Years later, Bruce ran into that student in a local store. He recognized her and thanked her for going the extra mile for him.
“It was music to my ears,” she said.
Part of Ms. Bruce’s sensitivity toward those with special needs stems from her own challenges: she was born with physical disabilities in her feet, which required several surgeries when she was a child and for which she was bullied.
Now, as Ms. Bruce nears the end of her tenure at RNESU, she looks back with extreme fondness at the students she assisted and the staff she worked with.
“How wonderful it feels to end my career being appreciated by my leader [Superintendent Kristin Hubert],” Bruce said. “To begin with [former RNESU Superintendent] Bill Mathis and end with Kristin means a lot to me. Bill hired me at RNESU. He believed in me.”
“Marsha is a fiercely dedicated educator,” Bill Mathis wrote in an email to The Reporter. “Her commitment to all children was a beacon of light. She earned her promotions. Marsha never saw barriers; she only saw opportunities. I particularly valued her friendship, her counsel, and her impeccable instinct of what was needed at any particular time.”
Current RNESU Superintendent Hubert echoed many of those sentiments in her own email:
“Marsha Bruce is one of those rare individuals who are known not only for their commitment and drive, but also for their kindness and generosity. She is quick to help others, but even quicker to offer a smile, a hug, or a colorful anecdote to brighten someone’s day. I have worked in Vermont schools for over 20 years, and I can honestly say that she is a bright light who will be missed by many and remembered by all.
“Marsha has more than earned her right to relax in retirement, knowing that the students, staff, school boards, and families of RNESU are all better off for having known and worked with her.”
As for retirement, Bruce said, “there’s a time when older people leave” and make way for a new generation. She plans to remain in the area.
“My parents are buried in Pine Hill [Cemetery in Brandon] and I will be, too,” she said.
In retirement, she will have more time to focus on her efforts rescuing animals. She currently lives with three rescued cats.
“I can’t say no to animals that need help,” she said. “My vessel is filled by filling others’ vessels.”
But for the rest of the year, Bruce will continue to do what she’s always done: provide the same educational opportunities to all students, regardless of their challenges.
“I just do my work,” she said. But then she allowed, “I can look back and feel proud.”