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March 30, 2022

Heidi Alexander is a National Blue Ribbon Schools-recognized Education leader with 25 years of experience on both coasts as a teacher and administrator.

She has led interventions for children who are gang-connected, traumatized and vulnerable. She has shared her talent and caring as a homeroom teacher, principal, and in school district leadership roles.

ASU Prep Pilgrim Rest Founding Director Heidi Alexander. Photo by Yenifer Macias Lopez
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And she’s ready for her next challenge: building a school from the ground up specifically designed to address the barriers or traumas that students of color have encountered at school.

Alexander joined ASU Prep Academya community of charter public schools in the valley, in July as the founding director of the newest ASU Prep Campus at Pilgrim Rest.

The campus will serve preschool through sixth grade students in and around the Eastlake area; The campus is located on the grounds of the Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church.

Pilgrim Rest is a 100-year-old ministry that reaches thousands of parishioners in the Eastlake neighborhood and throughout the Valley each week. Elder Richard Yarbough, administrator of the Pilgrim Rest Foundation, said the church’s mission is to be a beacon of hope for all by providing programs, access to world-class speakers, and direct help through supply and rental support, food boxes, and more.

Eastlake and Pilgrim Rest have been important gathering places for African Americans for celebration, connection and education for decades, Yarbough said. He said the church is honored to have worked with ASU to bring speakers and this new collaboration to campus, as the community firmly believes in the power of higher education to bring people a better quality of life for themselves and their families to offer.

“The prep school on our campus will provide access for many students of color, specifically the opportunity to expand their goals and dreams at an early age,” Yarbough said.

Registration is now open for the school, which will open in Fall 2022 and will offer personalized learning with a focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and a unique jazz program for students from kindergarten age upwards. Alexander works with the Pilgrim Rest church fellowship, as well as black community leaders, to “construct” the school as a trusted and conscious educational space inspired by the experiences Black students and families have had in traditional educational settings, and on this reacts .

A new task

Alexander accepted this challenge after spending her early career in education in the San Francisco Bay Area as director of state and federal programs for a K-8 district and in Long Island, New York, where she studied English at high school School and later became an elementary school administrator. A college grad and first-generation educator, Alexander said she’s always been interested in helping the students who needed it most.

Her first step beyond the classroom was to facilitate an alternative GED program for her school.

“We reached out to those whom the system had displaced or whom the system did not welcome. I had many opposing gang members, students who unfortunately communicated violently towards others. So it felt like a last chance stop, this program,” she said.

Alexander eventually decided to move on to elementary school in hopes that it could make a difference earlier in students’ lives.

“There’s a lot less to unlearn and more space for us to build that learning when you’re working with younger kids,” Alexander said.

Of course, not all students experience school the same way. discrimination in behavior enforcement, gifted placement and more has impacted how many families attend school. Because of this, an important part of ASU Prep Pilgrim Rest School’s mission has been to work with community partners to create an environment that places the Black experience at the heart of education.

Parent A. Kassi has two children enrolled at ASU Prep Pilgrim Rest starting this fall, one in preschool and one in third grade. Kassi, who is an ASU graduate herself and has a history with the Pilgrim Rest Church, was inspired to join the school community because of ASU’s reputation, the educational opportunities for her children, and Alexander’s leadership.

“Having ASU Prep opens the door to better education and accessibility for lower, middle and upper class families alike. The school will be able to provide a comprehensive insight into cultural aspects that are not learned in some schools such as: B. Some or more parts of African American culture. The smaller class sizes allow each student more personal and engaging time to enhance their growth and knowledge,” said Kassi.

Parent Jocelyn Andrews, who is a member of Pilgrim Rest Church, had wanted to send her child to an ASU prep school for years but was not selected in the lottery system. As such, she is excited that her daughter, who will be in the fifth grade, will be coming to ASU Prep Pilgrim Rest in the fall.

A native of Arizona, Andrews said that while she never went to college herself, she values ​​education very much and looks forward to her daughter receiving invaluable preparation for college and the future at ASU Prep.

“I hope my daughter will experience the possibilities of self-growth, self-confidence and a willingness to accept change. I hope she adapts to working in a smaller school with a more personalized, hands-on learning environment,” Andrews said. “I’ve always respected the ASU name itself as it’s our own state university. Additionally, preparing my daughter for college education, skills and attitude will be so valuable to my daughter and other students in the community because these children are our future.”

Alexander said creating safe spaces for families to communicate and for children to learn is goal #1.

“The things that have emerged create safe spaces for children to learn, families to understand, interact and communicate in a place that deserves the trust of families and the community with their children. Restorative justice practices have been of great importance to communities that have been or have been harmed,” Alexander said.

“The Eastlake community, where Pilgrim Rest is located, is definitely an important site for African American and Black experiences in the Valley where people have experienced local systems and injustices. The feedback from the community is that they want our school’s practices to be culturally sensitive, restorative as far as behavioral practices go, and a place where the children can be competitively prepared for careers and education.”

A different kind of curriculum

When she joined the team, ASU Prep leaders asked Alexander to heed the community’s input, and she listened. The team assembled an Instructional Model Committee that includes parents, educators, ASU professionals, and business owners. Alexander explained that the ASU Prep team and the Eastlake community prioritize a restful and competitive academic structure to support career and educational paths.

Preparation for studies and work are the basis of the school curriculum. The strong musical tradition of the Pilgrim Rest Church has also inspired the innovative jazz program that students will have access to on this campus. Alexander points out that student participation and access to high-level math, science, technology and music remove barriers to success in higher education.

“Music will not just be once a week; these are traditional models,” said Alexander. “We’re talking about multiple touchpoints in one week where kids will engage with music and jazz lessons; This is the part that we want to renew.”

ASU Prep Pilgrim Rest students receive singing, musical instrument, and dance instruction. As they approach fifth grade, students may choose a jazz performance concentration that includes singing and dancing.

“We’re about to have a pretty sizeable jazz ensemble coming our way – an elementary one at that. If the students don’t play an instrument, they will all touch one for some time,” Alexander said. “They sing or dance in the upper classes with intention and focus. You have the opportunity to decide, ‘Hey, where do I fit in after I’ve sampled everything?’”

Music pedagogy offers a forum for expression, but also elements of mathematics and teamwork.

“The children will take full advantage of the music lessons. Research has shown that students and children who engage in music education have higher success rates in high school and college and beyond. We want to provide that access for students,” Alexander said.

Ready to open

As enrollment begins, innovative educators join the ASU Prep Pilgrim Rest team. But the school family continues to grow.

Alexander said she joined ASU Prep because she is open to new educational models; She is developing these with other educational innovators and said she has enjoyed building a rigorous school community with intent for students of color.

“It’s often like walking around in the dark. But there are glimmers of light, and you encounter an opening. It is exciting. And it’s challenging because you want to make sure you’re taking into account the input and needs of the community,” Alexander said. “We make sure we have all the basic structures and build new structures. Not the traditional ones that haven’t worked for everyone yet.

“It’s definitely a challenge to make sure you have all those pieces. So it’s a challenge, but worth it. It’s great to see all the bright spots and to think of this place that will be filled with thriving kids in a few months.”

The dedication and work of Alexander, the leaders of Pilgrim Rest and the community leaders is evident in the parents who enroll their children in this new school community. For parents like Kassi, access to education means opportunities for their children and for entire communities.

“As parents, we love Ms. Alexander’s commitment to ensuring that all students receive the best education and that they see themselves in their teachers and learn more about their culture and their roots,” said Kassi. “The opportunities I have heard that my children can and will have in the future and the opportunity to someday attend ASU is amazing. …Education means access to a better life, a better future, access to things our children will have that we didn’t have as parents: stability, growth, and the ability to give back and flow into your community.”

Alexis Young, ASU Student Life Storyteller, contributed to this article.