It All Started with a Teacher
A teacher’s quest to share the gift of reading prompted Jackson Academy’s (JA) founding in 1959. Teacher Loyal Bearss’ enthusiasm and success with phonics inspired parents, students, and other teachers so completely that a group of ten families took a chance on phonics and formed Jackson Academy. They did so during a time when sight-reading was the accepted and predominant method to teach reading.
During that first year, a new type of school was formed. “We were founded with an idealistic notion that the right way to teach reading was through the use of the phonics method,” said Bearss in a 2003 interview quoted in Jackson Academy: The First Fifty Years 1959-2009. The book said that elements of the first school included enthusiastic teachers; good literature; a challenging curriculum; independent reading, study, and thinking; and high scholastic standards.
Originally from Shelby, Mich., Bearss’ route to Mississippi began after graduate work in speech correction at Purdue University. He was offered a temporary teaching job at the University of Mississippi to fill in for colleague he knew through Purdue who was called to serve in Korea. In Mississippi, Bearss also taught night classes at Millsaps College and directed a speech and hearing clinic at the University of Southern Mississippi.
The idea for Bearss’ phonics program began while he was director of the speech and hearing clinic at USM, said Nancy Alford, a teacher with Bearss in the JA’s early years and later JA’s elementary dean. Bearss taught classes to help correct speech irregularities among his students. He discovered that when students understood that each letter makes its own sound, they were more successful at pronouncing the word correctly. Parents began noticing not only that their children’s speech had improved, but so had their reading.
Bearss named his program Beginning Phonics. He developed charts and lessons and wrote booklets to accompany his teaching. He sold his booklets for a quarter to anyone who wanted one. The program taught long vowels first, which was a highly unusual, but also successful, way of teaching, Alford said. Many children were able to read on the very first day of class.
“He gave you success right away,” Alford added. “He said, ‘Let the children come to school, let them read something on the first day and they are all off and running.’”
In the early days, academics were taught from 8 a.m. to noon with recess and snacks served mid-morning. After lunch, special subjects were taught, such as P.E., music, art and foreign language. Students were grouped together by performance, ensuring that students who were struggling would be given extra attention, Alford explained.
“If you didn’t get it, he stayed right there until five o’clock and worked right with you. He didn’t think the smart child was better than the child who was struggling,” said Alford. “He saw the worth of every child. And I think that was what also made him unique besides his program.”
The individual attention, small class size, and well-qualified faculty that distinguished the school in its early years remain essential elements of the institution’s character today. While the landscape of the JA campus has changed significantly in the 33 years Harriett Eppes has been teaching at JA, she says the family feeling of the school hasn’t.
“The buildings have changed, but there is a feeling of camaraderie that has always been here,” she says. The third grade teacher, who was named the Clarion-Ledger’s Best of Mississippi 2018 “Best Teacher” this school year believes the growth JA has experienced has been instrumental in continuously moving the school forward, but ultimately it has never lost focus on what is most important—the strength of its programs. Eppes recalls when her daughter, a JA graduate, took her first college English class., her professor was so impressed by her writing abilities, he made a point to inquire where she attended high school. He wasn’t surprised when she answered, because “JA graduates are always prepared,” he said.
Though academics are an important part of JA, Eppes also supports the school’s commitment to growing a student’s character.
“It is so important for the students to look outside themselves,” she said. “As teachers, we are here to not only educate students, but to love them and give them everything they need to lead a life with purpose and significance.”
Bearss encouraged students to take responsibility. Sixty years later, students are still stepping up. One of the recent initiatives that seeks to further strengthen students as they move into adult life is the Honor Code System.
“Students and faculty came together to craft the Jackson Academy Honor System during the 2017-18 school year,” said Avery Hederman, senior and chairperson of the council. “We worked together to create a system that would be for the benefit of not only the students but also the school as a whole. The establishment of the Honor Council has provided a practical way for our mission statement to be carried through and lived out.”
Hederman was involved in drafting the actual honor code. Students apply for the chance and responsibility of serving on the honor council. Since its inception, two groups have served as honor council representatives.
“Students choose to live by the Honor Code—they choose to live lives of excellence on the court, field, stage, or in the classroom. The Honor System encourages students to work to their own potential, allowing them to find purpose and to follow that purpose with integrity while being surrounded by a loving community that inspires success. I had the privilege of drafting the Honor Code and Pledge, and I was able to serve as the chairperson of the first Honor Council. Through being involved in this system, I learned the value of respect whether for classmates, teachers, or myself. I was humbled to have the opportunity to give back to the school that has given me so much.”
Some of JA’s most beloved traditions cause students to look ahead with eager anticipation and alumni to look back with fondness. Beatrix Potter tea parties have always delighted four and five-year olds, and kindergartners also look forward to Alpha & Omega where they are paired with a senior mentor and friend. First graders anticipate being a Little Dribbler during second grade. Lower School students look forward to the Little House play in third grade. Students can’t wait to be a “Book Buddy” in sixth grade, where they will compose a book about their first-grade buddy. Exciting and character-building rafting trips remain highlights in the memory of alumni.
To acknowledge its 60-year anniversary, Jackson Academy held four events throughout the academic year. A committee led by faculty member Sandra McKay envisioned events for families, alumni, students and the community. The Jackson Academy Association parent organization kicked off festivities with A Blue and White Night in August at the Country Club of Jackson. All alumni, as well as current parents and patrons, were invited to enjoy Southern food favorites, while dancing to the music of The Chill. An array of auction items was available.
In October, alumni from all classes were invited to a reception before the homecoming football game. A group of 350 people enjoying family-friendly activities and great food prepared by alumni chefs and restaurateurs was a highlight of the event. Food tastings were provided by alum chefs and area restaurateurs. The planning committee was led by Ann Purcell ‘01.
This spring, a committee chaired by faculty member Susan Ingram, conducted a book drive to help JA families and members of the community share their love of reading while celebrating the school’s 1959 founding for the purpose of teaching reading by phonics. During the 60th Anniversary Book Drive, students collected more than 3,500 books that were delivered to Spann Elementary and Big House Books, a non-profit that provides books to incarcerated adults in Mississippi. JA students regularly mentor students at Spann who participate in the Barbara Bush Foundation program.
To conclude the anniversary celebration, a spring event centered around the annual Color Me Raider run and baseball game focused on family-centered activities. The Color Me Raider run is coordinated each year by the JA Athletic Booster Club.
pictured above: The first location of Jackson Academy