Heidi Alexander is a National Blue Ribbon Schools-recognized educational leader with 25 years of experience on both coasts as a teacher and administrator.
She’s managed interventions for kids who are gang-affiliated, traumatized and vulnerable. She’s shared her talent and care as a classroom teacher, a principal and in school district leadership roles.
And she’s ready for her next challenge: building a school from the ground up, specifically aimed at addressing the barriers or trauma that students of color have encountered in school.
The campus will serve pre-K through sixth-grade students in and beyond the Eastlake neighborhood; the campus is on the grounds of the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church.
Pilgrim Rest is a 100-year-old ministry that reaches thousands of congregants each week from the Eastlake neighborhood and all over the Valley. Elder Richard Yarbough, administrator of the Pilgrim Rest Foundation, said the church’s mission is to be a beacon of hope for all by providing programs, access to world-class speakers and direct aid through utility and rental assistance, food boxes and more.
Eastlake and Pilgrim Rest have been important gathering places for African Americans for decades for celebrations, connection and education, Yarbough said. He said the church is honored to have worked with ASU to bring speakers and this new collaboration to the campus because of the community's deep belief in the power of higher education to give people a better quality of life for themselves and their families.
“The Prep school on our campus will give access to many students of color, in particular the opportunity to expand their goals and dreams at an early age,” Yarbough said.
Enrollment is now available for the school, which will open in fall 2022 and will feature personalized learning with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics in addition to a unique jazz program for students as young as kindergarten age. Alexander is working with the Pilgrim Rest church community as well as Black community leaders to “co-construct” the school to be a trusted and intentional educational space inspired by and in response to the experiences that Black students and families have had in traditional educational settings.
A new challenge
Alexander embarked on this challenge after spending her early career in education in the San Francisco Bay Area, as the director of state and federal programs for a K–8 district, and in Long Island, New York, where she taught high school English and later became an elementary school administrator. As a first-generation college graduate and educator, Alexander said she has always gravitated toward helping the students who needed it the most.
Her first step beyond the classroom was facilitating an alternative GED program for her school.
“We were reaching those that the system had pushed out or that the system didn’t welcome. I had a lot of opposing gang members, students who unfortunately communicated with violence toward others. So it kind of felt like a last-chance stop, that program,” she said.
Alexander eventually decided to shift to elementary education in hopes that she could make a difference earlier in students’ lives.
“There’s a lot less to unlearn and more space for us to build that learning when you’re working with younger kids,” Alexander said.
Of course, students don’t all experience school the same way. Discrimination in behavior enforcement, gifted placement and more has affected how many families experience school. That is why it’s been an important part of the ASU Prep Pilgrim Rest school’s mission to work with community partners to create an environment that centers Black experiences in education.
Parent A. Kassi has two children enrolled at ASU Prep Pilgrim Rest starting this fall, one in pre-K and one in third grade. An ASU alum herself who has a history with Pilgrim Rest church, Kassi was inspired to join the school community because of ASU’s reputation, the educational opportunities for her children and Alexander’s leadership.
“Having ASU Prep opens the door for better education and accessibility to low-, middle- and upper-class families alike. The school will be able to offer a vast look into cultural aspects that are not learned in some schools, such as some or more parts of the African American culture. The smaller class sizes allow more one-on-one and dedicated time to each individual student to enhance their growth and knowledge,” Kassi said.
Parent Jocelyn Andrews, who is a member of Pilgrim Rest church, has wanted to send her child to an ASU Prep school for years but hadn’t been selected in the lottery system. So she is excited that her daughter, who will be in fifth grade, will join ASU Prep Pilgrim Rest in the fall.
An Arizona native, Andrews said though she didn’t attend college herself, she greatly values education and looks forward to her daughter receiving invaluable preparation for college and the future at ASU Prep.
“I hope my daughter gets to experience the opportunities of self-growth, confidence and willingness to accept change. I hope she adapts to work in a smaller school setting with a more individual, hands-on learning environment,” Andrews said. “I have always respected the name ASU in itself since it’s our very own state university. Furthermore, the preparation for my daughter’s education, skill set and mind frame for college will be so valuable to my daughter and other students in the community, as these children are our future.”
Alexander said that establishing safe spaces for families to communicate and for children to learn is the No. 1 goal.
“The things that have come up are creating safe spaces for children to learn, for families to be understood, to interact and communicate in a place that feels worthy of families’ trust and the community’s trust with their children. Restorative justice practices have been big for communities that have been harmed or experienced harm,” Alexander said.
“The Eastlake community, where Pilgrim Rest sits, that is definitely an important space for African American and Black experiences in the Valley, where people have experienced local systems and injustices. The feedback from the community is that they want our school’s practices to be culturally sensitive, restorative, as far as behavioral practices, and a place where the children can be competitively prepared for career and education.”
A different kind of curriculum
When she joined the team, Alexander was asked by ASU Prep leaders to heed input from the community, and she listened. The team crafted an instructional model committee including parents, educators, ASU experts and business owners. Alexander explained that the ASU Prep team and the Eastlake community are foregrounding a restorative and competitive academic structure to support career and educational pathways.
Preparation for college and career are foundations of the school’s curriculum. The strong musical tradition of the Pilgrim Rest church has also inspired the innovative jazz program that students will have access to at this campus. Alexander points out that student participation and access to high-level math, science, technology and music removes barriers to success in higher education.
“Music won't just be once a week; those are traditional models,” Alexander said. “We’re talking multiple touchpoints in a week that children will engage in music and jazz instruction; that’s the piece we’re hoping to innovate.”
ASU Prep Pilgrim Rest students will receive voice, musical instrument and dance instruction. As they approach the fifth grade, students will be able to choose a jazz performance concentration, including singing and dancing.
“We’re going to have a pretty sizable jazz ensemble band coming your way soon — an elementary one at that. If students aren’t playing an instrument, they all will touch one for some time,” Alexander said. “They’re either singing or dancing in the upper grades with intention and focus. They get a chance to choose, ‘Hey, where in here do I finally fit after I’ve sampled everything?’”
Music education provides a forum for expression but also elements of math and teamwork.
“The children will get the full benefit of music instruction. Research has shown that students and children engaged in music instruction show higher rates of success in upper grades and college and beyond. We want to provide that access for students,” Alexander said.
Ready to open
As enrollment has opened, innovative educators are joining the team at ASU Prep Pilgrim Rest. But the school family is still growing.
Alexander said that she joined ASU Prep because she’s open to new models of education; she is developing those with fellow educational innovators and said she has enjoyed building a rigorous school community with intention for students of color.
“A lot of times, it's like walking around in the dark. But there are glimmers of light, and you bump into an opening. It’s exciting. And it’s challenging, because you want to make sure that you’re taking in the input and needs of the community,” Alexander said. “We are making sure that we have all the foundational structures and build new structures. Not the traditional ones that haven’t worked for everyone before.
"Making sure you have all those pieces is definitely a challenge. So it's challenging, but it’s rewarding. It’s great to see all the bright spots and think about this place filled with thriving kids in a few months.”
The dedication and work of Alexander, Pilgrim Rest leaders and community leaders is showing to the parents who are enrolling their children in this new school community. For parents such as Kassi, access to education means opportunities for their children and for entire communities.
“As parents, we love how dedicated Ms. Alexander is to ensure all students have the best education and they see themselves in their teachers and learn more about their culture and roots,” Kassi said. “The opportunities that I heard of that my children can and will have in the future and the possibility of attending ASU someday is amazing. … Education means having access to a better life, a better future, access to things that our children will have that we as parents didn’t: stability, growth and having the ability to give back and pour into your community.”
Alexis Young, ASU Student Life storyteller, contributed to this article.
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