When it comes to education, Columbia Public Schools has always received high marks. But it takes a lot of exceptional people to keep CPS at the top of its class. As part of a special feature, Columbia Home invites you to get to know a few of them.
Dr. Peter Stiepleman
Superintendent of Columbia Public Schools
With his undergraduate degree in Spanish and international affairs, Dr. Peter Stiepleman never intended to pursue a career in education. “I wanted to be a diplomat; I wanted to go into Foreign Service,” he says. But a series of events led him down a different path, and today Peter is superintendent of Columbia Public Schools.
Born in Long Island, New York, Peter attended Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. After graduation, he worked six months at the United States Embassy in Madrid. It was on this overseas assignment that he fell in love with his wife, Elizabeth Chang. When she moved to California, Peter “followed his heart,” he says.
While in California, Peter was hired as an insurance agent, but his heart wasn’t in the work.
“Then one day I went and read a book to a second-grade classroom in Berkeley, California, and with the number of questions that the kids were asking and just the energy in the classroom, I knew this is where I wanted to be,” he says. Enrolling in the University of California at Berkley in 1998, he also started teaching, though he wasn’t fully certified until 2000.
When his wife accepted a professorship in the English Department with the University of Missouri, the couple moved to Columbia. Peter taught within the CPS system, working at Oakland Junior High, Derby Elementary and West Boulevard until former Superintendent Chris Belcher hired him as assistant superintendent, a position Peter held for four years until he replaced Belcher in July.
“I think that I just had a number of things that the community might be looking for at this point in Columbia’s history,” says the superintendent, who has three sons enrolled in CPS. “You have a second-language community that is growing at a rapid rate… Many are kids from really fragile backgrounds. To have a superintendent with my kind of background and understanding perspective, I think, was wanted and sought.”
However, Peter is also the first to say the job of superintendent is challenging. “In this position it’s important to understand that each school has its own culture, its own characteristics and its own values in a way but that they must also embrace a set of organizational values,” he says. “What better opportunity do you have to influence the future of a community than by working with families, teachers and principals to educate their children?”
Kitchen manager at Two Mile Prairie Elementary
As kitchen manager of Two Mile Prairie Elementary School, Melissa Moore knows her position is about much more than providing food.
“Sometimes the kids are having a hard day, so I feel I get to be the one who can put a smile on their faces,” she says.
Born and raised in Miami, Oklahoma, Melissa received her degree in early childhood education from Oklahoma State University. She moved to Columbia when her husband was hired to work in MU’s Department of Development. Starting out as a playground supervisor, Melissa was hired for a kitchen helper position before being promoted to manager. To date she has worked for CPS for almost seven years.
Melissa starts every workday at 6:45 a. m. to be ready to serve breakfast for 80 to 90 children. With only one kitchen assistant, she says it’s “go, go, go” from then on as they clean up and then prepare lunch for another 250 children. “I am on the move all the time, which makes the day go fast,” Melissa says.
But even on her busiest days, Melissa has nothing but praise for CPS and TMP. “I think the CPS system itself is wonderful, and everyone on staff at TMP is so supportive,” she says. “If I fall behind on my orders, somebody will help me. I don’t have to worry the children will go without food.”
Also responsible for ordering all the food and organizing the meals, Melissa says the kitchen manager at an elementary school requires much more than being a good cook. “Most importantly, I think you have to have a positive attitude so you don’t let the little things get to you,” she says.
Melissa says she loves TMP’s close-knit community and is delighted to be living in Columbia. “We are outdoorsy people who enjoy hiking, so we really love all the parks” says Melissa, who has a freshman at Battle High School and a fifth-grader at TMP. But most of all, she says her family enjoys the college atmosphere. And now that MU is no longer in the same conference as her alma mater, she says it’s even better.
“Now we can cheer for Mizzou because they are not in our league,” she says.
Mary Hoffman Smith
Paraprofessional at Mill Creek Elementary
AAs a paraprofessional for Mill Creek Elementary, Mary Hoffman Smith knows her job title often takes a bit of explaining.
“Paraprofessionals collaborate with teachers, specialists and principals to help support children with special needs succeed in the classroom,” she says. For Mary, being a paraprofessional is not only a job she loves but also one that allows her to make a difference in the lives of the students and families she serves.
Born in Florissant, Missouri, Mary and her family moved to Georgia when she was 12. She attended West Georgia College in Carrollton, Georgia, and then Kennesaw State College in Kennesaw, Georgia, where she received her degree in social science. Afterward, she taught preschool for many years.
In 1999, when her oldest child entered Mill Creek Elementary, Mary discovered there was an opening for a paraprofessional. After an extended period of shadowing the person who was leaving the position, she was hired. “I have a lot of compassion and patience,” she says. “I also believe in interacting with children in their own language, finding a connection with them and discovering what motivates them.”
As a paraprofessional, Mary works a full day, but her schedule varies according to the needs of the children. Overall, she knows what she provides is part of a collaborative effort with the teachers and parents to create the best learning experience for every child. “I believe every person, no matter how he or she comes into the world, has many gifts to offer,” she says. “Being a small part of opening up that package is very inspiring to me.”
Mary also understands the importance of making every child feel welcome. “Another part of my job is teaching all the children how to include everybody because everybody has something to offer, so encouraging peer interaction is essential,” she says.
Mary feels her parents were instrumental in getting her to where she is today by encouraging their children to do what they love and to help others. “I feel like this job has allowed me to fill that ambition,” she says.
“The challenge of opening up possibilities for children is so thrilling and motivating to me, and this journey of being a paraprofessional has taught me that small steps can turn into great possibilities for these children.”
Fifth-grade teacher at Paxton Keeley Elementary
Employed with CPS for 21 years, Cheryl Rackers teaches fifth grade at Paxton Keeley Elementary School, but her connection to the school district goes back much further. “I am a native Columbian and a product of CPS, which I am proud to say,” Cheryl says.
Cheryl’s desire to teach began while she was in elementary school. “I had a special teacher in elementary school in both third grade and sixth grade named Becky Cox, who helped me bloom as a reader,” she says.
The Cadet Program at Hickman High School, which allowed her to attend classes in the morning and teach in the afternoon at Russell Elementary, solidified her decision to make teaching a career. Although she originally enrolled at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, Cheryl returned to Columbia after a year and a half and received her Bachelor of Science in elementary education from MU and her Master of Arts in teaching from Columbia College. She’s taught fifth grade for the past three years but was a third-grade teacher for years prior and in 2002 won Teacher of the Year: Outstanding Educator for Grades 3-5.
Married with two children — a daughter, who is a sophomore at MU, and a son, who is a senior at Hickman — Cheryl says today’s parents and students face more challenges than ever before. “I think parents today have a hard time just parenting because there are so many other influences they have to worry about,” she says. “I also think kids have more pressure these days than in the past,” But one thing that hasn’t changed in all the years she’s been teaching is the gratification she feels when someone tells her she’s made a difference.
“We’re not doing it for the money,” Cheryl says. “We’re not doing it for the hours. It’s the pride you feel when you hear a parent say, ‘My child blossomed with you,’ or, ‘You really made a difference in my child’s life.’”
Overall, Cheryl says she’s thankful she can still call Columbia home. “I just have so many fond memories, and I have the perspective to see how Columbia has grown and changed,” she says. “I think Columbia is a fantastic community. My family is here, I know the community, and I have always thoroughly believed in the school system.”
Media specialist at West Boulevard Elementary
When Columbia native Sarah Easley graduated with a degree in English from Miami University in Ohio, she felt she was at a crossroads. “I didn’t really know what to do,” she says. She knew whatever career choice she decided would have to involve helping others, which led her to think seriously about becoming a librarian. She enrolled in MU’s Master of Library Science program and graduated in 2009.
After taking additional classes in school librarianship to become a media specialist, Sarah was placed at Lee Elementary for her first observations. “The media specialist program is very similar to a teacher preparation program,” she says. “You do observations in schools and then a practicum and then an internship.” But for Sarah, who originally thought she wanted to work with teens, the elementary school experience was also a turning point.
“From the start I loved the sense of community, and I fell in love with the elementary school,” she says.
In 2010, Sarah was hired as the media specialist at West Boulevard. “One of the things that I love about this job is that there is no typical day,” she says. “Depending upon what’s going on in the school, I may be on a field trip, helping run an assembly, doing library checkout, reading stories or working on a research project in a classroom.”
Although her role in the building has remained fairly constant over the years, Sarah says her schedule and time structure have changed. “You sometimes have to reinvent the way you are teaching and how you are collaborating with teachers,” she says. In working with elementary children, she’s also learned to not only expect the unexpected but also to appreciate the unexpected as well.
“Sometimes a kid will come up with a question that seems completely off the wall, and you will end up getting a really great discussion out of it,” she says.
There may be times when Sarah thinks it would nice to move to a bigger city, but she loves her job, the community and staff at West — and most of all the children. “I love the students,” she says. “They are just so fun and curious and eager to learn. Working with them is just so gratifying.”
Math teacher at West Middle School
Interested in math and science from an early age, Chris Hysong always assumed he’d be an engineer. But a high school AP statistics course not only increased his math abilities, but the experience also helped him grow personally.
“I knew I wanted to do something with math,” Chris says. “I just didn’t know it was teaching until then.”
Originally from Warrenton, Missouri, Chris received his bachelor’s degree in secondary math education from MU. Through the University Fellows program, he went on to earn his master’s in curriculum and instruction. Today, as math teacher at West Middle School, where he teaches pre-algebra, algebra, geometry and algebra 2, Chris’ enthusiasm for the subject makes him a favorite teacher of current and past students alike.
“I like to do little silly things, like as a class we predict the Mizzou games every Friday,” says Chris, who’s in his eighth year of teaching. He also doesn’t believe in stretching the truth when it comes to why his students need to understand math. “I don’t try to sugarcoat it,” he says. “Like when talking to them about complex numbers in algebra 2, I tell them they are probably not going to use complex numbers in life, but they are going to need that knowledge to be successful in future courses.”
Chris says his main responsibility as a math teacher is to increase math confidence in his students. “I have many kids that come into the classroom who think they are bad at math, but after about a month, they’re like, ‘It’s not that hard,’” he says. “I love seeing that growth in confidence once they know they can do it.”
Chris was named Outstanding Beginning Teacher through the Columbia Fund for Academic Excellence in 2008 and chosen as coach for the State Missouri Math Counts in 2012 and 2013. He was also chosen as the Most Inspiring Teacher by the MU Alpha Theta, Hickman Math Fraternity.
Chris and his wife, Stephanie, who also works with CPS, welcomed their first child in February. They love the university atmosphere of Columbia, and Chris says he pretty much lives for the home football games.
“I look forward to those six to seven Saturdays more than any other,” he says.
President of the Columbia Public School Board
Christine King knew it would be a big commitment when she first ran for the CPS School Board, but she was thrilled to be elected in 2009. After her re-election in 2012, she knows the responsibilities can be challenging, but as a firm believer in public education and a passion for community service, she plans to throw her hat in the ring next year as well.
Christine, who has two children, considered running for the school board prior to 2009, but it wasn’t until she left her job with State Farm after more than 20 years that she gave it serious thought. Her father, who died in 2002, was a staunch supporter of public education, so Christine wanted to continue the tradition. Although she didn’t have a background in education, she had previous school board experience. From 2002 to 2007, she served on the board at the school her children attended at the time, the last four years as president.
According to Christine, the primary function of the school board is to assist the superintendent. “So it is important that we work together to do our job, of which we have three: manage the budget, set policy and hire and manage one person [the superintendent],” she says.
When it comes to providing quality educational opportunities for all children in the district, however, Christine stresses that, like a three-legged stool, the community, the teachers and parents are equally essential. “Unless all three are working in sync, the stool cannot function correctly,” she says.
For Christine, serving on the school board is an honor, and she looks forward to next year’s election. “It’s a passion of mine, but the other reason I want to run again is because we just hired Peter [Stiepleman], and I would really like to see what we all can accomplish given his passion and drive and vision, and I really want to be a part of that,” she says.
As for Columbia, Christine says she couldn’t ask for a better community in which to serve. “What is really cool about Columbia is that people are very engaged with everything, from their trash pickup to curfew for youth to our school district,” she says.
Top of Head custodian at Fairview Elementary
Born and raised in Harrisburg, Missouri, Alvin Sweezer has worked for CPS for 25 years, including the past 20 as head custodian for Fairview
For Alvin, the workday starts early at 6:30 a.m. “I mostly come in and clean the office, the library, hallways and the teacher lounge, and I pick up the trash,” he says. But these activities only account for a fraction of his day. He stays busy taking care of all the teachers’ needs, which vary widely from day to day.
“The teachers submit emailed work orders, and I do odds and ends for them,” he says. It adds up to a busy day, but Alvin says he enjoys his
work and socializing with the children.
The flexibility of his position also allows Alvin to help out in a pinch, which is especially important as the seasons change. “One winter day, everybody was stuck in the ice and snow that was on the hill, and I went to help out,” he says. “I helped a woman move her car. I didn’t know who she was until I got out there to give her a hand and found out she was a teacher at Paxton Keeley.”
An avid cyclist, Alvin says he’s glad to be doing his job in a city like Columbia, where a bike-friendly atmosphere makes it easy to bike to work every day. “I also joined a bicycle club in Columbia, and I go to all the GetAbout sessions and bike rides that they put on,” he says.
In addition to the exercise the sport offers, Alvin likes interacting with the other cyclists. “I enjoy going to the bike rides and meeting all the different people; they come from so many backgrounds,” he says, adding that the hobby has also opened doors to new friendships. Just this summer, Alvin joined a father and daughter on a cycling tour of 40 Missouri state parks.
“I started on the Katy Trail, and we went all the way up to Marceline, Missouri, up to Flat Branch and up to Macon,” he says. “It was four days of riding.” And he loved every minute of it.
“One winter day, everybody was stuck in the ice and snow that was on the hill, and I went to help out. I helped a woman move her car. I didn’t know who she was until I got out there to give her a hand and found out she was a teacher at Paxton Keeley.”
– Alvin Sweezer
What Is Common Core?
A nationwide approach to teaching based on setting clear goals and consistent benchmarks for core subjects, the Common Core State Standards were designed to help today’s children succeed in an increasingly competitive world. Developed by teachers, parents, school administrators, experts from across the country and state leaders, Common Core State Standards aim to tie the best state standards in the United States, review educational expectations from other high-performing countries and research what students need to know to be successful.
With the Common Core process, children advance as they master certain skills, similar to climbing a series of steps or the rings of a ladder. Along the way, stopping points allow teachers and parents to work with students who need more assistance. Common Core Standards required in English language arts include classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s founding documents, foundational American literature and Shakespeare. Mathematics standards focus on the basics, such as whole numbers, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions and decimals. Middle school and high school students learn to apply mathematical thinking to real-world issues and challenges.
Opponents of Common Core question the need for federal mandates in state educational systems. Is standardized testing really necessary when states have set their own educational standards for years? The Missouri State Board of Education approved the Show-Me Standards on Jan. 18, 1996. Many teachers feel Common Core hinders creativity and collaboration in the classroom. Others liken it to standardized testing in general, which they believe contributes to ranking children, racial discrimination and widening the achievement gap.
Proponents feel the plan will provide every child, regardless of where they live or what school they attend, consistent knowledge needed for graduation and beyond. Also, it allows teachers to devise their own lesson plans and curriculum to meet the needs of the students in their classrooms. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted the Common Core State Standard for Missouri in June 2010.