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Phoenix Forward magazine

One-time dropout becomes an award-winning teacher

Apryl Shackelford, Master of Arts in Education, 2008

Last year, Apryl Shackelford found herself in front of a cheering crowd, still in disbelief that she’d been named 2013 Teacher of the Year in Duval County, Florida. The reading teacher known as “Ms. Shack” had once been a high school dropout, but had returned to school and earned a master’s in education/curriculum and instruction in 2008 from University of Phoenix.

“Being named Teacher of the Year gave my students, parents and the community hope,” Shackelford says. She shares her own story with her students to encourage and show them that they, too, can overcome setbacks and transform their lives. Many of her students contend with poverty or difficult family situations. “They need to know hope still prevails,” Shackelford says.

“I began acting out after the death of my father when I was 9,” she explains. “I was behind academically and was retained three times. It had gotten so embarrassing, I dropped out. I became a teenage mother with two sons before I turned 18.”

After years of raising her family and working various jobs, from retail to advising the Children’s Home Society, Shackelford was spurred to return to school after an unsolicited remark from a woman in her church congregation. “She said I would never get my diploma, that I’d be on welfare all my life,” Shackelford recalls. “It blazed in my brain right away. I had to prove her wrong.”

Shackelford says she now considers those painful words a reality check: “What would my children think of me? I wanted my family to be proud of me.” At age 31, she plunged into studying for her GED® certificate, even recruiting her younger son’s math teacher as a tutor. She earned her GED diploma in 2001 and set her sights on higher education.

Being named Teacher of the Year gave my students, parents and the community hope.

Once back in a classroom, Shackelford realized she wanted to work with challenged or troubled students, helping young people who reminded her of herself as a teen. Her love of books led her to specialize in intensive reading instruction, focusing on students with low literacy skills.

In 2010, she began teaching intensive reading to sixth-graders at Northwestern Middle School in Jacksonville, Florida. “I love teaching reading to struggling readers because it’s like they’re seeing words unfold before them for the very first time. I teach them the love of reading.”

Her students’ literacy skills steadily improved, showing gains in the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading (FAIR) and other benchmarks. In the 2012–2013 school year, 45 percent of her students started below their FAIR target reading levels. By spring, 27 percent of those students had reached their FAIR targets.

Last year, Shackelford’s fellow educators nominated her for the district’s Teacher of the Year award. During the application process, she reflected on her teaching philosophy and priorities. “The picture of my work came into focus,” she says. “Early childhood literacy is my passion.”

With this fresh perspective, she decided to try a new approach to helping students succeed. Last September, she transitioned to the Duval County Public Schools Parent Academy, which offers free workshops to parents and caregivers to increase involvement in their families’ educations.

“Educate the parents, and they’ll educate their children,” Shackelford believes. “I want parents to have all the tools necessary to help their children, to be their advocates.”

Shackelford is now pursuing a doctorate in education leadership. “My dream is to meet Dr. Jill Biden [wife of Vice President Joe Biden] and talk with her about early childhood literacy,” she says. “I want to open my own literacy center some day.”

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