Thursday, September 20, 2018

Superintendent candidate Stilley talks post-grad options for students

Posted: Thursday, March 1, 2018 | Views: 7748

Superintendent candidate Stilley talks post-grad options for students
PONCHATOULA---Too often students are ill-informed and their parents are overwhelmed just "trying to get by" to think about what will happen after high school, but there are three initiatives that are now being offered for free to every student to help families begin to look beyond high school and consider their post-secondary education options.

The first-confirmed candidate for Tangipahoa Parish School Superintendent Melissa Martin Stilley, a first-generation college graduate, told the Ponchatoula Kiwanis this week that state law now affords every high school student the opportunity to take the national college entrance exam for free during their junior year of school. She said the state also mandates every graduating senior must complete a federal financial aid application which will offer a glimpse at what grant, scholarship and loan packages are available specifically for that student to pursue additional schooling or career training, and every 12th grader will now graduate with at least one industry-based certification that will afford them potentially high wage, high demand job credentials to enter the workforce.

Stilley said each of these state requirements afford opportunities to students for whom the "c" word, meaning "college" is not immediately on their radar. She said she can identify with these students because college was not something she thought possible when she was growing up.

A lifelong resident of Tangipahoa, Stilley was born in Hammond and grew up in Pumpkin Center where her parents came from a long-line of farmers. She said she and her four siblings picked strawberries, peppers, and cucumbers and grew up in a home their Dad built himself. When he wasn't farming, her father, who was self-taught, worked as a foreman with road and bridge crews and worked for Stanley Anderson.

"We probably fit the federal definition of poverty, but we never felt like we were poor," she recounted.

Her parents offered a simple goal to their five children--graduate high school. Stilley said her three older brothers did just that and two entered the military after graduation. She, too, pushed through school and graduated from Ponchatoula High before marrying her childhood sweetheart and beginning their family. She said it wasn't all blue skies and picket fences, and soon she discovered she would need to get a job, too, to help her young family make ends meet. But the cost of finding someone to watch her children left her barely breaking even working office jobs.

"I really worried how I could take care of my children," she told the club, adding that although she had taken typing in high school and was generally a "people person," she knew she needed to make more money to support her family.

A chance meeting with a former classmate proved the turning point in her life. She said they were reminiscing and catching up when she learned her friend had enrolled in college.

"A lightbulb went off," Stilley said, noting that if her friend could find a way to go to college, she knew she could, too.

"My parents didn't say the 'c' word. They probably didn't know anyone who went to college, and they thought it was cost-prohibitive," Stilley said, adding, "I think my story is very similar to the majority of kids in Tangipahoa Parish and across the state. Parents are just trying to make it. They either don't know anybody or they aren't familiar with the options that are out there, and so our students don't know they can go on to college or a two-year program, or vocational 'technical' school."

She peppered her classmate with questions and learned about financial aid.

"I told myself, 'That's how I can do it,'" Stilley said.

At 20, Stilley returned to school as a "non-traditional" student. She earned a degree in education and built a career in teaching and school administration. She served as principal of Loranger Middle School and was promoted soon-thereafter to the School System Central Office, where she served as a supervisor for several years before being named the parish's Chief Academic Officer. Looking to build on her knowledge base, Stilley moved up to the Louisiana Department of Education, where six years later, she continues to serve as one of three "Network Leaders," educators who travel the state and offer resources and support to school districts.

She said these state initiatives for high school students "remove the obstacles" to a post-secondary education. She said last year alone there were 3,600 high school juniors who "didn't think they could go to college" but scored high enough on the free ACT to meet or even exceed college entrance requirements.

"When you are equipped, you can give back to the community," Stilley said, noting that so many times students are ill-equipped for what comes after high school. "Without those skills, we become a community of consumers, people who take, but are not able to give back."

She said even if a young person is not ready for college or post-secondary job training, every student who graduates from a Louisiana high school will now have basic career skills, and "most will graduate with high wage, high demand job credentials," through the JumpStart Pathways program.

"These initiatives are very dear to my heart, because they give all of our students good options on which to build their future," Stilley said.

Although she did not discuss it in her presentation, Stilley did confirm after the meeting that she will be a candidate for the Tangipahoa Parish School Superintendent post. She said she feels called to apply and that her heart, her family, and her grandchildren are here in the public school system. If chosen, Stilley will be the first woman to ever serve as School Superintendent in Tangipahoa Parish.