Caring Mentors and Teachers Pave the Way to Opportunity and Success

Eleanor Mann School of Nursing student A'Kecia James, left, and Makayla Fitzhugh, a student in the Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation.
Cha Chi Vang

Eleanor Mann School of Nursing student A'Kecia James, left, and Makayla Fitzhugh, a student in the Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation.

When K-12 students learn from prepared teachers and leaders in their schools, it's powerful and empowering. The benefits multiply as those students move through graduation and into college and careers.

The College of Education and Health Professions is helping ensure that more schools across Arkansas can provide those advantages to students. The college has two outreach programs offering training and support for teachers and future leaders in schools across the state — particularly those with fewer resources and teacher shortages.

The IMPACT Arkansas Principal Fellows Program identifies aspiring leaders in rural, underserved Arkansas schools. It provides them with high-quality learning experiences and mentoring, which sets them up to take on leadership roles in their districts. Since 2014, IMPACT has recruited 146 fellows, serving 124 high-poverty schools in 88 Arkansas public school districts and eight charter schools.

The Arkansas Teacher Corps partners with schools and communities to recruit, train and support school staff and community leaders to earn a teaching license. ATC fellows receive professional development and individualized coaching during their three-year fellowship. Over the past decade, ATC has placed and supported 11 cohorts of 267 teachers in 98 schools and 40 school districts throughout central, eastern and southern Arkansas.

Both programs — which primarily operate through funding from the Walton Family Foundation — maintain a connection with fellows even after they graduate.

This year, program leaders discovered a connection among the programs, students, teachers and school leaders. Two College of Education and Health Professions students who learned from a teacher and a leader from those programs, respectively, received scholarship support from another Walton Family Foundation-funded program at the U of A, ASAP. ASAP stands for Accelerate Student Achievement Program, and it supports the academic achievement of first-generation and Pell Grant-eligible students from eastern Arkansas communities. ASAP participants complete a summer bridge program, earn additional scholarship funding and engage in peer and professional mentorship activities.

"It's a full-circle moment," said Dean Kate Mamiseishvili. "It's remarkable that two students in our college were taught by fellows from two of our signature programs. These stories are yet another example of the power of a teacher, a principal, and a coach in shaping lives."

A FOUNDATIONAL EXPERIENCE

When Eleanor Mann School of Nursing student A'Kecia James was in elementary school in Dumas, Arkansas, IMPACT fellow Destiny Baxter was her favorite teacher. "Her classroom was a safe space," James said. "Growing up in a rural area where teachers are often overworked and underpaid, I experienced a lot of cruelty or indifference from my educators. They are likely burned out and have no more kindness left for their students, but I never felt that way about Mrs. Baxter. Even though we were such young children, she was always willing to not only hear us but also listen to us."

James is grateful for the foundational experience of learning from someone as impactful as Baxter and for being accepted into the ASAP program at the U of A. "In my last semester of nursing school, I have begun to learn about community nursing and evaluating not only health disparities but education disparities in rural communities. The more I learn, the more grateful I am to the ASAP program that reached out to my small world in southeast Arkansas," she said. "When I graduate nursing school, my plan is to remain in Arkansas as I pursue my dream of working in a pediatric intensive care unit."

LEADERSHIP AND TEACHING EXCELLENCE

Makayla Fitzhugh is a student in the college's Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation. One of her middle school teachers at KIPP Delta Public Schools in Helena was Arkansas Teacher Corps Fellow Jordan Humphreys. Humphreys was part of the Arkansas Teacher Corps' original cohort that launched in June 2013.

"ATC means a lot to me as a professional and individual," Humphreys said. "It was the catalyst that made my dream of becoming a teacher a reality, but it also presented me with opportunities that I would have never chosen on my own. Because of ATC's vision to send trained and empowered teachers to every part of the state, I was able to not only teach in the Delta but also have my worldview, posture and perspective shaped dramatically by my incredible coworkers and students."

Humphreys said the Arkansas Teacher Corps helped her realize that being a teacher is more than presenting content. "It's about loving your students well, fighting the injustices they face, meeting them where they're at, building and valuing relationships, walking through the highs and the lows, and walking with compassion," she said. "Those things are not easy, but ATC helped me know that it was worth it. Our students are worth it."

That first year of teaching as an ATC fellow was memorable. Humphreys recalled that middle-schooler Makayla Fitzhugh was serious about her education. "She did not play around when it came to school," Humphreys said. "She was sweet, a joy to be around, a friend to all and an incredibly hard-working student. Makayla is a student I will always remember and be grateful that I got to be a part of her journey to being an accomplished young woman."

Fitzhugh, a sophomore and College of Education and Health Professions public health major, said her entire graduating class benefited from Humphreys' leadership and teaching excellence.

"As someone who experienced her teaching first-hand, I can say that she's an amazing teacher," Fitzhugh said. "And I truly believe that everyone in the class of 2021 would approve of that statement."

Fitzhugh described Humphreys as ambitious, confident, diligent, resourceful, sincere, comforting and beloved by students. "To most, she wasn't just a teacher. She was more like a second mom. Inside the classroom, she made sure that all of her students felt welcomed and comfortable," she said. "This is extremely important because no student ever wants to feel like the classroom isn't a safe place to learn. The classroom environment was indeed a space where you could get an answer wrong and not be judged. It was a space where you could learn from mistakes and feel confident. She didn't just teach material, she made it interesting in ways that make learning not only easy but fun."

Fitzhugh carried these lessons with her to the U of A and helped her on the road to becoming an ASAP scholar. It's a life-changing program, she said. "If I had to describe this program in two words, I would say opportunity and success," she added. "The transition to college can be overwhelming. Don [Nix] and my mentors set me up for success by welcoming me and just being available to connect regarding school and much more."

"It is an honor to welcome, advise and support first-generation Arkansan students at the U of A," said ASAP program director Don Nix. "A'Kecia James and Makayla Fitzhugh are two among many such students who are accomplishing with intention, leading by example and enriching the university learning community to the benefit of all."

Fitzhugh looks forward to inspiring future first-generation students and caring for people in her role as a public health professional.

"I want to be successful and in a position to give back to my community in many ways," she said.

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