Ascension Parish Director of Secondary Schools Mia Edwards retiring after 34-year career

Staff Report
Ascension Parish Schools
Ascension Public Schools Director of Secondary Schools Mia Edwards is retiring June 30 after 34 years in education.

Ascension Public Schools Director of Secondary Schools Mia Edwards is retiring June 30 after 34 years in education.

"There is so much I could say about the talents, competencies, and professional accomplishments of Mia Edwards. She has led countless successful initiatives at each juncture of her career. I admire her genuine passion and courage to embrace the mission, calling, and purpose of our work in education. She successfully supported ongoing effective practices, created change where it was needed, and could stay the course even in difficult times while leading others to stay the course, as well. She is a great example of leadership in so many ways. But most of all, she is just a good person who genuinely cares about others. She will be missed but also warmly remembered for all that she has done to make Ascension Public Schools a great place for kids and a great place to work," said Superintendent David Alexander.

FINDING A CALLING

Born and raised as Mia Griffin in Donaldsonville, the Griffin family has a long history of service and leadership in the Donaldsonville community. Her grandfather was a former mayor and state representative and her father served as a police juror. She was a legacy student at Ascension Catholic School, where she attended from first to twelfth grades and was inducted into the school's Hall of Distinction.

Although a good student, who graduated with a 3.9 GPA, Edwards never considered herself as college material. In fact, she attended Nicholls State University with the intention of obtaining an associate's degree so she could become a secretary. Once on the Thibodaux campus, an advisor recommended she major in business education so she would have more options after college. That decision changed her career trajectory.

After obtaining an undergraduate teaching degree, Edwards taught for one year at Donaldsonville High School before taking a nine-month teaching position at Baton Rouge Community College. She married her high school sweetheart, Sammy Edwards, and they resided in their hometown of Donaldsonville.

This coincided with her return to Ascension Parish to run the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) program at Lowery Middle School, which focused on remediating kids struggling in math and reading and providing them business and job placement skills. It was during her time teaching in Donaldsonville that she found her calling for education.

"It is the cliché that it is all about the kids," said Edwards. "I inherited the DECA sponsorship at Donaldsonville High School and having the kids place in a competition filled me with so much pride and ownership. I sponsored Jr. BETA and cheerleading at Lowery and learned that I just had a knack for working with and developing kids."

Under the leadership of then Lowery Middle Principal Jessie Sanders, Edwards worked on a master's degree in curriculum and instruction from Nicholls and recertification for math and science.

MOVING TO ST. AMANT

In 1993, Edwards and her husband's dream of owning property took them to the community of St. Amant. They built a house on five acres, and she transferred to Galvez Middle School to teach sixth-grade math and science.

She took a leave from her teaching position in 1998 to become the coordinator of the Louisiana Systemic Initiative Program (LaSIP) grant, a partnership between LSU, Ascension and Iberville parishes, to further science education. After two years, she returned to Galvez Middle and in 2002, Edwards became one of the first teacher coaches in Ascension Parish. In that capacity, she supported Dutchtown Middle and Prairieville Middle schools.

"Serving as a teacher coach was interesting and similar to my experience on the LaSIP grant. It stretched me because I had to support teachers in all content areas, not just math or science. However, I learned that good teaching is good teaching, no matter the content," said Edwards.

BELIEVING IN PUBLIC EDUCATION

Edwards' diverse experience teaching in various public schools prompted her to make the difficult decision of moving her two sons, Sammy in fourth grade and Griffin in kindergarten, from the catholic school system to public schools.

"I always taught in public schools and knew we were providing a good education for students. Becoming more involved in the teacher coach concept allowed me to see teachers working to do what is best for kids, providing good academic feedback so students could grow. It wasn't just something that I believed in, it was what I thought was best for my own children," said Edwards.

She transferred to teach eighth grade at Lake Elementary for a year while her children made the transition to public school, then she returned to a teacher coach position supporting St. Amant Middle.

In 2007, Edwards became the staff development coordinator for teacher coaches and was in charge of implementing benchmark exams. Later that year, she was hired as an assistant principal at St. Amant High School under then principal Steve Westbrook. What intrigued her most about high school was the concept of freshman academies, where students can smoothly transition from middle to high school.

"I felt high school would be exciting because of the long-term career impacts it could have on a student's life. I wanted to be a part of that," said Edwards. However, having spent most of her career in middle schools, she admits there was a learning curve.

"High school is beyond classroom curriculum. There are specific credits to graduate, TOPS curriculum alignment, block schedules, and the vast number of kids and teachers. One of the most difficult transitions was working with kids and parents on discipline issues," said Edwards. "Education at school is important to parents, but the way their children are treated at school is even more important."

Fortunately, her history of working with the same kids and families in middle school established a foundation of trust at the high school level. She built upon that foundation when she became principal of St. Amant High in 2011.

"My decisions have to be what is best for kids because that is why we are here. I always ask myself 'Is this best for kids?'. If the answer is yes, then I feel confident and justified in my decisions," she said.

Edwards believes the community placed their trust in her not only because of her consistent focus on students but also because her own children attended the high school. Her oldest son, Sammy, was in tenth grade when she became assistant principal, and her youngest, Griffin, graduated in 2017. "My kids were in the same classes in the school. It added to my drive because I expect the best for all."

"SUCCESS THROUGH ACTIONS: THE STA WAY"

Establishing a culture of pride was one of the initiatives Edwards took on as principal at St. Amant High. She established a focus group of students to develop an intentional motto. What resulted was "Success Through Actions: The STA Way". It was more than a catchy phrase; it was a culture shift in the environment of the school.

According to Edwards, it became such an integral part of the culture that students knew and used it on a regular basis. They referenced it during discussions about discipline as well as academics, and a former student even said it helped him stay focused during a college band audition.

In addition to the motto, Edwards utilized social media to promote the many successes of the school and bring people together. She did her best to attend every school event, and those she couldn't make were usually attended by her husband.

2016 FLOOD

The Flood of 2016 devastated the community of St. Amant, and Edwards was impacted both personally and professionally. She led the largest affected school while dealing with her own flooded home.

"The flood was by far the hardest event I have dealt with because the impact it had on so many people. It was just unbelievable that it happened to this community," said Edwards. "We had to reassure everyone that we were going to be okay, and we worked tirelessly to make that true."

St. Amant High's 2,000 students and staff spent six months on Dutchtown High School's campus holding classes from 12:30 p.m. until 5:10 p.m. This meant extracurricular activities like athletics had to take place in the mornings. Edwards and her staff had to put in extra effort to secure logistics for normal activities like homecoming and holding pep rallies in the rival team's gymnasium.

"We could have said we were not going to do activities outside of the classroom because we were flooded, but we were not going to do that this year. This adversity stirred a competitive drive in everyone who instead said this is not going to beat us," she said.

Although the Dutchtown High teachers and staff were very welcoming and accommodating, St. Amant High teachers had to bring their materials to school each day and were basically teaching out of backpacks. Because of the half-day shared schedule, both schools lost 45 minutes of instruction time each day. "The situation forced our teachers to get the most out of every single minute with our students. They pulled out the most important content kids needed to have so they were prepared for the future," said Edwards.

According to Edwards, the half-day schedule was also a blessing for the flood-ravaged community because it allowed time in the mornings for families to work on repairing their homes and for students to be with their parents. The flood also taught students that good can come from bad things.

LEADING ASCENSION'S HIGH SCHOOLS

Less than one year after the flood, Edwards was named a semifinalist for Louisiana Principal of the Year and stepped into a new leadership role: Director of Secondary Schools. In this new position, she oversaw the district's four high schools, APPLe Digital Academy, the Early College Option program, and career and technical education.

Looking back at the past five years, Edwards is especially proud of the following accomplishments:

*Greater Collaboration: "Our high schools are collaborating. They share and learn from each other so there is more consistency across operations."

*Career and Technical Education: "I am excited about the expansion in this area. We are offering new programs such as drones, HVAC, Intro to Engineering, and have added a career center on APPLe's campus."

*WorkReady Community: "This was a great effort to bridge the gap between high schools and businesses to better understand how we can support kids after graduation."

*Graduation Rate: "Our graduation rate is the highest in our district's history. I believe this is because we revisited freshman academies, introduced summer bridge programs, and have a better grasp of how to track students."

*Portrait of a Graduate: "Although in its infancy, our Portrait of a Graduate is creating a link between K-8 and high school. It highlights the 21st Century skills our students need when they graduate and how that foundation can begin in primary school and is nurtured in middle school."

*Social-Emotional Learning: "We have worked hard to prioritize social-emotional learning on our high school campuses to help address mental health. Through working with teachers and clubs, we are trying to provide support to our students."

MENTORS

There were three people who had profound impacts on Edwards: Patrice Pujol, Ed.D; Steve Westbrook, Ed.D.; and David Alexander. Each guided her during pivotal moments in her career.

Pujol inspired Edwards to become a Teacher Coach. "Through her leadership and guidance, she showed me how I can influence the work of others. Her passion and drive were admirable, and I didn't feel like I could rest because she couldn't rest," said Edwards.

When Westbrook was Principal of St. Amant High, he hired Edwards to be an Assistant Principal. "He took a chance on me," said Edwards. "He ran a very effective school that allowed students and teachers to grow and keep academic focus. He was the first to open my eyes to how administrators balance so many plates and how to best utilize your people to achieve your goals."

When Edwards was Principal of St. Amant High, Alexander was Director of Secondary Schools. "As my director, he was my personal support system. His experience running Dutchtown High and sharing the good and struggles made me feel good about what I was doing," said Edwards. "I frequently catch myself talking to my principals now with the words he used to share with me. I attribute so much of what I do and who I am as a leader to him."

FAMILY-FOCUSED FUTURE

Although Edwards has no immediate plans after retirement, she and Sammy are looking forward to welcoming their first grandbaby and enjoying time with family.

Their oldest son, Sammy, Jr., is now working as a chemical engineer and married to his high school sweetheart, Katelyn. They are expecting their first child, who will make Edwards a "MiMi."

Their youngest son, Griffin, recently graduated from LSU in electrical engineering and started working for Exxon.

"Although I don't have any immediate plans, I know I am too active to stay idle at home for long," she said.

For more information about Ascension Public Schools, visit www.AscensionSchools.org.