Denise James: A Passion-Fuelled, South Carolina-Based Star Academy Director

After serving in the field of education for more than a quarter of a century, you’d think one would be used to the “status quo” of serving students in K-12 education. But for Denise James, Star Academy Director at Guinyard Butler Middle School, that couldn’t be further from the truth. 

“I’m a goofball for school – I really am crazy about it,” Ms. James told us. “There’s nothing like being around students, their energy, and seeing them progress through the year: beginning, middle, and end (of the school year). Seeing them develop as both students and individuals is so energizing and powerful! My passion for education grows each year – it doesn’t dwindle or ‘get old’ to me. I love this work!”

Ms. James’ passion for education and her hometown, Barnwell, is something she comes by honestly-she is a proud Barnwell 45 grad herself. And after her time at Barnwell? Ms. James continued to another beloved South Carolina institution: South Carolina State University. There, she earned her Bachelor, Master, and Specialist of Education degrees. 

She always knew she wanted to be a teacher, but her first teaching position surprised even her: Ms. James accepted the role of a math teacher. 

“If you had told me as a student that I would one day teach math, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Ms. James said. “Math wasn’t my strongest subject. In fact, I even repeated a course in high school because I couldn’t get the hang of it. But that’s why I think no one can teach math like me – I know what it means to struggle, and I know how to get students through the thick of it because I went through it myself.”

Although Ms. James no longer teaches math, she still uses the same principle she did in the classroom as she oversees her school’s Star Academy program: it’s all about connection. 

“Regardless of the subject, a teacher has to first focus on connection,” Ms. James told us. “You have to connect with your students first on a personal level: let them know you care about them and that you believe in them and what they’re capable of. Then, you can help them connect to the subject itself. Otherwise, you can find yourself talking to the wall.”

Student connection and empowerment are just two components that make Ms. James loves Star Academy. She believes this program is uniquely powerful because it helps students realize what they can do and step into their own power as a learner. 

“Sometimes, students struggle early on with the Star Academy model because it is so different from what they’re used to in traditional classrooms,” said Ms. James. “At Star Academy, each student is in their own driver’s seat. Here, you have to take ownership of your education and your growth as an individual – work ethic, accountability, collaboration, and more. Once they understand and embrace the model and begin to empower themselves with it, they’re headed off towards success – fast!” 

Ms. James also discussed that while this program is transformational for so many students, it can also be hard to get prospective students and their families to consider at face value. 

“Students can sometimes shy away from the academy experience because it seems different, or like it’s a ‘special program’ for struggling students,” Ms. James confided. “But once we get them in the door and they can see what’s happening here, the way they’re able to through hands-on, active collaborations and experiences, they’re in!”

And sharing enthusiasm about what they see? Ms. James and the Barnwell Star Academy Teaching Team encourage it, because she believes that once the students are excited and on board, they’ll pass along that excitement and buy-in to parents and the community as a whole.   

Under Ms. James’ leadership, Guinyard Butler Middle School’s Star Academy program has done an excellent job of infusing stakeholders from the Barnwell community into their classroom. She and other local leaders and community advocates are constantly encouraging students to identify and seek out local resources and opportunities around them that they need to thrive in life. 

“Recently, we visited a career center in our area that prepares students for a variety of technical-skill-based career opportunities that are available locally,” Ms. James recalled. “That trip was really eye-opening for our students because it allowed some students to envision their futures and the training they would need to be successful with their own eyes. That was very impactful for our students.”

“We’re also preparing to take students on a college tour of Vorhees University in a few weeks,” Ms. James said. “Some of our students had never considered college an option for themselves before, but now that they’ve found empowerment in the Star Academy program, they’re seeing college as the next piece of the puzzle after graduating high school. That’s a huge – and exciting – shift!”

Investigating local resources that expand students’ understanding of local isn’t the only thing that Barnwell Star Academy students are doing either: Ms. James works diligently to infuse leaders and programs into their program that bring unique perspectives and approaches to students’ current lives and needs. 

“Our program is blessed to have so many great programs and leaders who see the potential of our students and want to help them get there by supporting them through this season of their lives,” Ms. James told us. “We have an incredible team of community advocates that visit on a regular basis to discuss topics that are relevant to students today, whether it’s vaping, underage drinking, etc. These individuals can really level with our students and have built a rapport with them that lets them know that if they are being influenced negatively outside of the program, there are other avenues they can choose to stay on the right path. One area we’ve seen a stark difference in is our students’ perceptions of law enforcement since beginning our Community Advocate program. Many students, for one reason or another, didn’t like or trust law enforcement previously. But by having regular, casual visits and chats with a community advocate (deputy from the Sheriff’s Department), they’ve totally changed their perception of local law enforcement and the value they bring to our community.”

Ms. James’ devotion to her work as Star Academy Director and to the students she serves is tangible: it’s evident that her “babies” (as she calls her students) mean the world to her. And from seeing their interactions together, it is safe to say the feeling is mutual. Her dedication to her students, work, and community is tangible and inspiring. But Ms. James told us that she didn’t become the leader, teacher, advocate, and mother she is today alone – so many around her contributed to where she stands and serves today. 

“As a daughter of Barnwell School District 45, I have been blessed to be educated by the best in this field,” Ms. James told us. “From the hard lessons to the gentle yet stern reminders that caring is truly sharing. I am grateful for my village of professors, close friends, and, most importantly, my family, which has provided endless support in my journey as an educator. To the great leaders of Barnwell School District 45, I am grateful for the opportunity to lead and share in this capacity as I impact today’s leaders and students for years to come.”

Thank you, Ms. James, for all you do for your students and for being a shining example of Star Academy program leadership – your example motivates so many of us!

Introducing: Grand Marshal Sharianita Robinson!

Grand Marshals are a Mardi Gras tradition. These flamboyant leaders are appointed to lead Mardi Gras parades, engage guests, and dance their way down the parade route. In short, they’re the life of the party, which ensures everyone has a great time celebrating New Orleans’ festivities.

At NOLA Education, we select one educator to serve as the Grand Marshal of our Krewe of Astraea celebration each season. This leader is selected from a nationwide pool of educators for their demonstrated excellence within their Star Academy classroom and engagement within the Krewe of Astraea client community, which is celebrated at the Star Academy Summit.

Grand Marshal Sharianita Robinson holds the mask she was awarded during this year’s celebration in New Orleans alongside Dameon Blair, Principal of Career Success Schools of Phoenix, AZ.

This fall, the NOLA Team selected Sharianita Robinson to serve as Grand Marshal for the Krewe of Astraea festivities. And while Sharianita does an incredible job engaging and encouraging students, we don’t anticipate seeing her dance her way down a parade route anytime soon: Sharianita is a humble teacher that prefers to maintain a low profile whenever possible. It’s in the life of her students, however, that she’s making significant impacts worthy of a hearty celebration!

Her Star Academy Classroom in Phoenix, AZ

Sharianita Robinson is a Star Academy teacher at Career Success Schools in Phoenix, AZ. She’s passionate about connecting with her students and helping them grow in any way possible. Sharianita recently sat down to describe what it meant to be awarded the Grand Marshal honor in her kind, soft-spoken way.

“Initially, I was overwhelmed, but also thrilled to learn that I was selected to be this year’s Grand Marshal. The honor truly means a lot” said Sharianita. “You see, I teach to inspire and motivate young learners, not for recognition. But it is an amazing feeling to know that people are noticing what we as teachers do to educate our students and help them prosper in society.”

When describing her classroom and the “wins” her students are experiencing thanks to the Star Academy program – with which she’s been affiliated for nearly four years – Sharianita had a great deal to say.

“Students are so much more engaged when they’re a part of project-based learning opportunities like the ones Star Academy provides,” said Sharianita. “They’re so actively involved in their learning: they have so much more to say when they’re working on a project or experiment. It opens them up for conversation and to ask questions.”

And all of that conversation and activity? It creates a level of excitement that’s contagious.

“Students in our classrooms can immerse themselves in the lessons and experiments that excite themselves and their classmates,” Sharianita told us. “ I often have students ask if they can skip ahead to certain modules just so they can do the experiments at that particular station. That’s because they saw or heard how cool that lesson was and want to experience it for themselves.”

Career Success School is a charter school that helps reach at-risk students struggling with academic or behavioral performance. Sharianita encourages students not to get bogged down in their past but to focus on the present and future.

“A lot of these kids have had tough experiences, and they struggle to visualize a positive future,” Sharianita told us. “That’s why I constantly encourage them to remember that completing their education is their first major milestone in adult life. I tell them they didn’t come this far to quit – they’ve put in the time, effort, stress, and tears to get this far. There’s no way I’m going to allow you to fail (not graduate).”

Leaders & Loved Ones Who Shaped Her Life

Sharianita even recalled to us a time when she struggled as a student, but a teacher made a lasting impact in her life.

“I remember struggling to comprehend some of the things we were learning, and it was hard to connect with my teachers and ask for help. No one knew me or took the time to understand how I learned – my parents were in the military, so we moved around a lot – but when I got to high school, one teacher took the time to get to know me. She even encouraged me outside the classroom: on the basketball court when I played for the school team. Knowing that someone cared about me helped me focus in her and other classes. That sense of connection makes you feel more comfortable in your learning environment.“

When asked if anyone in her life made a lasting impact in her becoming the woman and teacher she was today, her answer was immediate: everyone.

“Everyone I’ve ever come into contact with has impacted my life and gotten me where I am today. All of my teachers growing up and the teachers and administrators I work with today,” Sharianita said. “One of my current administrators, Mr. Dameon Blair in particular, is always helping me get better, and he supports his educators in a way that allows us to be ourselves and lead with confidence.”

“My family has also made an immeasurable impact on my life,” Sharianita recalled. “My aunts and uncles helped raise my brothers and me when our parents were deployed. The values my family upholds were instilled in my brothers and me from day one, and that helped shape us into who we are today.”

“Most of all, however, I would thank my mother, Siobhan for all she’s taught me,” said Sharianita. “She’s the most dedicated, hard-working person I know, and she always cared about not just who we were but who we were becoming. I owe so much of who I am today to her.”

Being named the Grand Marshal of NOLA Education’s Krewe of Astraea is an honor in which Sharianita can be very proud. And while this award’s Mardi Gras roots are all about pomp and circumstance, Sharianita’s humble and relentlessly student-focused spirit is definitely worthy of the awe and celebration associated with the title.

Star Academy Summit: A National Educator Event with New Orleans Flavor

It’s autumn in New Orleans: the leaves are changing and hitching a ride on the cool breeze alongside the tune of a lone trumpet’s serenade. If you’ve never visited New Orleans in the fall, you should. And if you weren’t in the City this October, you really missed out: the Star Academy Summit hosted by NOLA Education was truly a standout gathering!

During the two-day event, educators from Arizona to South Carolina (and many states between) came together at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Hotels New Orleans to learn how to make their Star Academy programs and students shine even brighter. Speakers from leading programs across the country shared a variety of personal experiences and best practices as well, including:

  • Recruitment Excellence: N. Overstreet, Mobile, AL
  • Project Based Learning Best Practices: L. Howze & V. Lett, Mobile, AL; S. Robinson, Phoenix, AZ
  • Leadership Roundtable: J. Owens, Monck’s Corner, South Carolina
  • Successful Student Profile: B. Bateman, Pine Bluff, AR
  • Ace Project-Based Evaluations: D. Blair, Phoenix, AZ

Each speaker at the Summit presented their topics with passion and a heartfelt desire to encourage, support and connect with their Krewe of Astraea (NOLA’s client community) peers. The Krewe gladly accepted their feedback and often, you’d find educators gathered around these speakers for additional information or advice between sessions or before the next day’s programming began.

The 2022 Star Academy Summit wasn’t “all work and no play” however: the Krewe had a wonderful time of celebration and fun during the Krewe of Astraea awards ceremony, when attendees were honored for their number of years with the Star Academy program, and the after-hours networking event.

“The Summit was an amazing experience,” said Latarisha Howze, a Star Academy teacher and featured event speaker. “The collaboration and bonds that were formulated truly empowered and motivated the ‘Krewe!’”

The team at NOLA Education, who puts on the event annually, was equally thrilled with the event.

“This was our biggest and best Summit to date,” said John Alvendia, CEO of NOLA. “It was both educational and inspirational, an opportunity for Star educators to share their unique  experiences while getting pumped up about the collective difference the Star Academy Program and Krewe of Astraea are making in the lives of the next generation.”

The team at NOLA Education is already preparing for next year’s event, and they’re looking forward to keeping the positive momentum going.

“Events like the Star Academy Summit are an invaluable means of sharing knowledge and building relationships beyond the walls of each school,” said Alvendia. “This gathering builds understanding and confidence, and inspires our partners to lean into not just NOLA, but the entire Krewe of Astraea community to make their programs and skillsets even stronger.”

While the final details haven’t been solidified for the 2023 Star Academy Summit, there is one thing to know for certain: you’ll want to be there!

All Hail Grand Marshal Natasha Overstreet!

Have you ever felt a tangible, electric sense of excitement in the air? Like the thrill that comes on Christmas morning or as you walk towards your first Mardi Gras parade?

Chances are, you’ll feel similarly when Counselor Natasha Overstreet approaches you – her energy, passion, and vision are electric!

Natasha has been a school counselor for over a decade, and for the last eight years, she’s been the Pathway School in Mobile, Alabama’s Star Academy site Counselor. During that time, Natasha’s love for her students and passion for their success has made her a leader within the Star Academy Network, known as the Krewe of Astraea. Natasha often develops best practices, then shares them with Krewe of Astraea members across the nation. Needing some encouragement? Facing a challenge? Natasha is right there to help you develop a plan, then cheer you on across the finishline. That’s why it’s no wonder that earlier this year, Natasha was awarded the most prestigious Krewe of Astraea award offered: The Grand Marshal honor.

The Grand Marshal honor is a well-known New Orleans and Mardi Gras tradition – this individual serves as the energetic leader of the annual Mardi Gras parade. Likewise, NOLA’s Grand Marshal honor is awarded to a Krewe of Astraea member whose contagious energy and passion for Star Academy just doesn’t quit. And Natasha Overstreet? She fits the bill perfectly.

“I just love being a Star Academy program counselor,” said Natasha. “This program, the environment it creates, and the opportunity it gives these students – it’s truly a game changer for so many of them. Its not an easy job to get students in the door: as counselors, we’ve got to recruit them, get their parents on board, overcome their reservations, and get students showing up to the program daily. Then, after a while, it’s like a light bulb comes on – they start feeling something they haven’t in a long time: hope and some pride in themselves. And that’s when the game really changes for these kids.”

During our interview, Natasha told us that she believes that counselors may underestimate their role in their Star Academy program’s success, and myth she believes needs de-bunked.

“As counselors, we must be the biggest cheerleaders, advocates, and salespeople for Star Academy out there,” said Natasha. “We have to help students, parents – and even sometimes teachers and administrators –  see and believe in what’s possible for students who really embrace this program. You see, Star Academy is different from traditional classrooms and different scares people. But that’s why it works. That’s why it’s reaching students. When they can get hands-on, explore and investigate the world, and immerse themselves in an environment that wants them to succeed, they start to see what’s really possible for them – in and beyond the classroom.”

Natasha believes successful counselors need to exhibit a few key characteristics to really thrive as a Star Academy site counselor.

“You’ve got to be upbeat, filled with hope, and passionate,” Natasha told us. “Often, we’re dealing with students and parents who feel run down, like they can’t succeed in the system of education. And the teachers, sometimes they’re feeling that way too. That’s why we have to encourage, encourage, encourage and invest in people, not the numbers they represent.” 

Lifting up others and building relationships with parents is also a crucial part of the recruiting process, according to Natasha.

“I always try to find two things to say to each parent during each interaction: a compliment about their child and a compliment for the parent themselves,” said Natasha. “Sometimes, that compliment could be as simple as, ‘Girl, I’m loving those nails!’ or ‘Your son is doing a great job at getting to school on time – I bet that’s a skill you taught him.’ You’d be surprised how far a compliment can go in helping conversations move along smoothly while building rapport with and self-confidence for the parent.”

Students also thrive when compliments and encouragement are sent their way, however, that’s not enough to get every student on-track in difficult times.

“As a counselor, we have to be observant and try to identify the minute details that others may miss, but could really be affecting our students,” Natasha said. “For instance, if a student isn’t showing up to class on time, it doesn’t always mean they’re being intentionally irresponsible – sometimes they don’t have an adult they can depend on to get them where they need to go, or ensure they have what they need when they get there. Seeing behavior issues? Search out root causes: for instance, maybe they’re being bullied for the way the smell – which is because they don’t have running water at home. We only see a little glimpse of a students life while they’re at school, but we’ve got to try to put the rest of the puzzle together, so we can help them feel safe, focused, and learn while they’re with us.”

“My mom and dad have been the biggest inspiration and best examples I could ask for,” Natasha said. “Their ‘golden nuggets of wisdom’ still guide me today!”

Natasha comes by her love for students and passionate leadership style honestly – they’re all traits she honed by seeing her parents exhibit them daily in her own home. Natasha’s mother, Ernestine Overstreet was a long-time educator who taught Natasha to care about every student’s story and remember that each has a quality that makes them special. Her father, Rev. Dr. Rudolph Overstreet, displayed leadership skills and a servants heart daily at home and behind the pulpit (and the scenes) at Ebenezer Baptist Church of Mobile. A beloved college professor, Dr. Brown of Alabama State University was also an inspiration to Natasha, as he encouraged all of his students to think long term, and build strategies, not short term plans: ‘Remember to play chess, not checkers in life!’ he would often say.

Today, you’ll find Grand Marshal Natasha hard at work at the Pathways Star Academy site, where she’s motivating students, parents, teachers, and new counselors who are just beginning their first year in Star Academy. She’s always remind them and all of us:

“Take ownership of your program, believe in what’s possible, and start visualizing success,” said Natasha. “If you do those three things, and put in a lot of work and heart, big things will happen for your students this year – you can do it!”