By Cindy Long
Hinds Country Sheriff Tyrone Lewis cut an imposing figure as he sat in front of a class of fourth graders at G.N. Smith Elementary in Jackson, Mississippi. The students stared up at the large man sitting on a stool at the front of the classroom with awe and a little bit of curiosity. Turns out, the head of all law enforcement for the state capital and surrounding county was once just like them, sitting in the very same classroom when he was in fourth grade.
“It’s very moving and a little emotional for me to be at the school that started me on my path,” said Lewis. “G.N. Smith Elementary got me to where I am today, and I’m here to show you that you can be anything you want to be. You can be mayor or governor or sheriff, you can be a doctor or a lawyer – whatever you want. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. I looked just like you when I was in fourth grade.”
The sheriff was one of five Educators for a Day — including WNBA player LaShondra Barrett, former Atlanta Falcon Ronnie Heard, WLBT morning news anchor Katina Rankin, and Rev. Dr. Jerry Young — visiting G.N. Smith as part of the National Education Association’s American Education Week (AEW) celebration, where mentor educators spent a day in classrooms across the country to experience and highlight the challenging, rewarding and critical work educators do every day for our children.
“It’s so important for our students to see how many people care about them and their success,” said NEA Secretary Treasurer Becky Pringle, who stopped in Jackson on the second leg of her AEW tour after a visit in Milwaukee. “When they see caring adults coming to their school, they’re going to be inspired to do their very best.”
Caring adults is what NEA’s new Raise Your Hand Campaign is all about, and Pringle along with NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen García criss-crossed the country this week to spread the word about the campaign and encourage more educators, community members, parents and elected officials to come together and raise their hands for the great public schools our students deserve.
Educators at G.N. Smith have long been raising their hands for student success, and the stop at their school highlighted what it looks like to engage students and families in the learning process. Despite major budget cuts the school has experienced and the struggles faced by its low income students and their families, G.N. Smith is the first Level 5 school in the district, according to principal Benjamin Torey.
Level 5 means “superior performing,” the highest level of performance a school can achieve. G.N. Smith earned that distinction because of the hard work of its educators, like Ashanti Barnes, whose kindergarten students arrive in her classroom “ill-prepared because of the difficult social situations” children of poverty experience at home.
“But we work very hard to fill the gaps and make sure they catch up and are ready to learn,” Barnes said. “It is tremendously helpful to have the mentor educators visit for a day so the children can see and hear and learn from someone just like them. The Educators For a Day have been through the same experiences, and it gives our students something to aspire to.”
LaShondra Barrett, a WNBA player drafted by the Washington Mystics grew up in Jackson and was educated by the Jackson Public School system. In fact, her mother was a teacher at G.N. Smith Elementary, so the opportunity to meet with the children there was even more meaningful to her.
“I was so excited to be invited to participate in American Education Week here in my hometown of Jackson,” Barrett said. “It’s amazing to come back to the place that gave me so many opportunities to be a scholar and an athlete, and I want to let the kids here know that you can make it if you work hard.”
It’s an important message for students whose families are plagued by poverty and where expectations for a better life are often cut short. The mentor educators were able to show that if the students expect that they can succeed and strive to do their best, they’ll be able to grow up to do extraordinary things.
“When I was in first grade, I made five F’s,” admitted Rev. Dr. Jerry Young to the G.N. Elementary students. “There were some who thought I’d never amount to anything. But I had one teacher who made the difference. She said, ‘Yes you can!’ and she taught me the importance of hard work.”
Young told the children that nobody is exactly the same, and that everyone arrives at school with different qualities and different abilities, but there is one thing that they all share – the ability to try their best.
“That’s what’s important,” he said. “Do the very best you can. Always be the best you can be.”
Mississippi is a poor state with a history of underfunded education, but thanks to the fierce advocacy of the Mississippi Association of Educators, tens of millions of dollars in uncollected tax revenue from out-of-state corporations are set to flow to Mississippi’s students and schools. Based on that legislative victory, there is an association and community-led initiative to ensure those funds are earmarked for education.
Mississippi is also a small state, but its known for the large role it plays in professional development and has been a leader in training its educators on Common Core State Standards (CCSS) implementation. The state is a 2013-2014 CCSS grant recipient and MAE and NEA are partnering on CCSS trainings for members.
“We’ve chosen Jackson, Mississippi, as one of our ‘lighthouse’ cities because of the enormous potential it has to forge ahead with the student-centered, association-led agenda of our Raise Your Hand campaign,” Pringle said. “As we’ve seen here on our final stop of the 2013 American Education Week tour, the educators of Mississippi are raising their hands for students this week and every week of the year.”