January 18, 2021

Mississippi teacher creates ‘other school’ to give students skills they wouldn’t get at home

One day last school year, Alison Alexander got a text that reminded her of why she loves teaching.

Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, where Alexander is math teacher and distance learning coordinator, had hosted students from Choctaw Tribal Schools on that particular day. For the last two years, Alexander had been putting together online Algebra and Geometry classes so the Choctaw students, starting in eighth grade, could take upper level math classes virtually and hopefully get a step up in their learning.

While Alexander had visited the students’ home schools in the past, this was the first time they had visited MSMS.
“After they left, … (the Choctaw Tribal Schools curriculum coordinator) sent me a text message and said that one of the students had said that he was so excited to see his ‘other school,'” Alexander said. “So that’s what I want them to know. We’re here for them. We are their other school.”

The program — which has also virtually taught students from Noxubee County School District in the past and this year included AP classes for students from Columbus Municipal School District — is one MSMS has set up as part of its outreach to school districts throughout the state that either can’t financially support high-level math and science classes or can’t find qualified teachers to teach them.

It’s a program Alexander has helmed since 2017, when she was only teaching part-time at MSMS due to her full-time teaching job at East Mississippi Community College.

A Columbus native, Alexander has always been drawn to math — and to teaching. She attended Mississippi State where she got both a bachelors and masters in math.

“I was a business major in college, and I hated accounting,” she said. “… I knew I liked math and I was good at it and I was able to teach myself through textbooks.”

She also got involved with math study groups, which was when she got the idea that she wanted to teach.
She says she loves seeing students get excited about learning.

“That’s what I’ve really love about being at MSMS,” she said. “The students want to be here. They want to ask questions and they want to learn more and they want to gain all the knowledge that they can, and that’s what I love to see, when it actually clicks.”

She especially likes when the students can explain the concepts to each other — a common occurrence at MSMS where teachers encourage students to get involved in outreach, tutoring younger students at math camps and other events or, in the case of Alexander’s students, helping teach the younger students from Choctaw Tribal Schools.

“That’s just what I love about teaching, that they can explain it to their peers better than I can,” Alexander said. “I feel like I’ve been a good teacher when that happens.”

After teaching several years at EMCC, Alexander was hired full-time by MSMS in the 2019-2020 school year. By that time, she had been teaching distance math for a couple of years already.

It began with teaching Algebra I to eighth graders from Noxubee and Choctaw counties, though only Choctaw continued the program. The idea was that successful students would graduate on to higher-level math courses as they moved through high school.

“We know that students can do better things if they start with Algebra I in eighth grade,” Alexander said. “They can get through higher-level math classes. … I think that’s where the conversation began, that we could offer math classes for these students, these higher-achieving students, in different districts that may not be able to find a teacher or have the resources.”

Students who make an A or a B in Algebra I have the opportunity to move on to Geometry in ninth grade, followed by Algebra II in 10th grade, Algebra III in 11th grade and finally Calculus in their senior year.

Since it’s all virtual, Alexander creates video lectures for each topic, which coordinators at the students’ school show during classrooms. Students then are able to email with Alexander any questions, and Alexander grades their homework and quizzes.

It’s a lot of extra work, since Alexander also teaches full-time math at MSMS, but it’s also an interesting way to make a connection with students. While she does one or two live lectures every year — or at least prior to the COVID-19 pandemic — the bulk of her relationships with the students happens online.

“They send me emails if they have questions, and that’s kind of how I have developed relationships with them, just through email basically,” she said. “Sometimes if they have a question, I’ve jumped on and I said, ‘Do you have time to Zoom’ and would Zoom. Last semester I remember Zooming at like 8 o’ clock at night with some of the students getting ready for a test. … They feel comfortable enough to send me an email and tell me that they don’t understand and that we can work through problems together.”

It seems to be working. Last year, a 10th grader from Choctaw Tribal Schools who Alexander had been teaching since she was in eighth grade asked Alexander to write her a letter of recommendation so she could apply for MSMS. This year, the student is the first from Alexander’s outreach program to attend MSMS.

“She was actually … in my first Algebra I class,” Alexander said. “… Now she is in my (Foundations of Math, similar to pre-calculus) class right now. It’s great that she is actually here on campus and she is an MSMS student. She will graduate in 2022.”

When she’s not teaching math, Alexander is volunteering with Junior Auxiliary, playing golf or working on construction projects around her Southside home with her husband.

“I like to teach,” she said. “I like what I do, and I just hope that my students see that every day. I had some great math teachers growing up, and I want to be like them basically. … I’m here to help them.”