Saturday, 5 December 2020

A passion for life; Alice Evans finds beauty in learning, life and stories

There’s so much more to Alice Evans than meets the eye. Sure, she’s a pretty woman, perky and quick to smile, she has a kind word for everyone, a soft voice and a contagious laugh. And that’s not all…she’s got a soft heart, obvious to anyone who hears her talk about rescuing horses, abandoned dogs, or stray kittens. 

She started her life’s journey in nearby Lauderdale County in a little place called Three Forks. As a child she played with other children much like herself. The neighbors all knew each other and life was safer, quieter and a lot slower than it is now. Alice often went to sleep overat her friend Nan’s house, and played at the big mansion down the road with huge columns called The Forks of Cypress that belonged to Nan’s great-uncle.

She loved school and when she reached high school at Central, she joined or was elected to everything possible so as to make her experience as fulfilling as it could be. She was a cheerleader for five years and was captain of the squad for three years, she wrote for the yearbook, and was voted Miss Central High by her classmates, was active in the Beta Club, the Pep Club and was President of the Future Homemakers of America for two years (although she swears she can’t cook very well and can’t sew a lick) and was elected as VP of her senior class. She graduated in 1974. From there she was college bound, first attending UNA, where she attained a bachelor’s degree in Elementary and Early Childhood Development. Her first job as a teacher was in Moulton in 1978. She recalls having a wonderful teacher’s aide, “I was blessed to have someone in my room who was such a wonderful role model,” she says of Barbara Hardin.

The next year she left Moulton to teach in Sheffield because it was closer to her family. All the while she continued to attend classes, adding to her portfolio and when she was finished, if you ever finish learning, she had an impressive collection of degrees including an MA in Early Childhood Education from Alabama A & M, and Ed.S in Early Childhood Education from UNA, an MA in Guidance and Counseling from Alabama A & M, an MA in Administration and Supervision from UNA, and an Ed. Doctorate in Leadership from UAB.

“I always loved school,” she laughed, “I’ve been in school all of my life.” She comes from a family of educators, with an older sister and brother who are also teachers.  

One of the most interesting classes she ever took was something she didn’t earn a degree for, it was just for herself. In 2009-10 she enrolled in a writing class at the University of Alabama, her instructor was Rick Bragg. The class was filled with young, energetic, eager students, most of them younger than Alice. “Rick Bragg is just like you see him,” she described the Pulitzer Prize winning author of books like, “All Over But the Shoutin’,” and “Ava’s Man,” which told of his humble roots in an Alabama textile mill town. “He was very demanding and warned that he would wad up and throw away a student’s paper if there were too many grammatical mistakes,” she laughed.

Bragg often told the class that there was no such thing as God-given talent, that you must read good writing to learn from the works of others, and that you must work at your own writing. However, he would recant that statement when he read Alice’s piece on the Coon Dog Cemetery in Cherokee, Ala. “You should submit this,” he said. “You have a God-given talent.”

Her mentor’s praise gave her confidence. She took his advice and the piece was published. “I got interested in the Coon Dog Cemetery after visiting it,” she explained. “While I was there I discovered that I knew one of the families whose dog was buried in the cemetery.” She included in her story some interviews with a friend and principal from Lauderdale County who described the dog, Black Ranger, which had belonged to David Matthew’s family. “His dad was once made an offer that he couldn’t refuse and sold the dog, but the family mourned so badly that he bought him back,” she smiled. To view the documentary go to https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzoSwWzZ5W4.

Bragg was so intrigued by her writing style that he agreed to let her do a documentary about his mother. The name of the video is, “Alabama’s Rick Bragg Out of the Dirt”, which is the wonderful testimony of a mother’s love. It took a summer to film it, and in doing so she also met Alabama authors Sonny Brewer and Winston Groom, as well as interesting characters from Bragg’s life such as, Homer Barnwell, Alabama Historian Wayne Flynt, Tom Malone, Bragg’s high school counselor, and Jake Reiss from Alabama Booksmith in Hoover, Ala. Of course, the highlight of making the film was getting acquainted with Bragg’s mother, and his Aunt Gracie Juanita,” she laughed.

In an email to The Moulton Advertiser, Rick Bragg had this to say of his former student, “Alice is a very fine writer, something I’ve known for some time, but she has continued to show that she can tell a story in any medium. She even made me look good; if only she could have made me look slimmer and younger, and make me sound smarter. But, with what she had to work with, she told a lovely story. She understands very well that the best way to tell a great story is to do it in pictures, and she can create those in more than one way.

She went on to write a series of books about famous Alabamians, such as former governors, Lurleen and George Wallace, Guy Hunt and W.C. Handy, among others. One of the projects she co-authored with colleagues for the Alabama Department of Children’s Affairs is called “Alabama Performance Standards for 4-Year- Olds.” It earned great recognition in the educational field. Her children’s books are ‘God Bless Y’all – Letters to Soldiers from the Children of Alabama” co-authored and published in 2004, and featured on Gov. Riley’s Operation Grateful Heart website. “US President’s and Their Animal Friends” is featured in the Presidential Pet Museum in Washington, D.C.

“I love doing the research for books, talking to people, getting to know them and hearing their stories,” she said thoughtfully. “If someone watches the videos or reads one of the books, and is touched, then that’s enough for me.”

She also loved the classroom, interacting with students and misses that daily dose of childhood wonder and fascination that comes from being around young children. She left the classroom to go to the Central Office in 1994 and went on to become the Elementary Curriculum Specialist and Federal Programs Coordinator / Pre K Director, in Lauderdale County. In that capacity she would be instrumental in securing millions of dollars in grants for public education focusing on early childhood development. One of the grants that came across her desk in the late 90’s was the Early Learning Grant which offered $100,000, requiring planned initiatives to help young children make the transition from home to school. “We really believed that home visits would be the key to this,” she recalled. “I wrote that we would do that and also have a two-week summer kindergarten to ease the transition. We got the grant, which included a stipend for teachers who took the time to make home visits to incoming kindergarteners and we saw great results from this program.” After the grant’s three year funding period ended, the school board made the decision to continue funding the program for several years themselves because it had been so successful. 

“During this time, the Alabama Department of Children’s Affairs was created, and the Office of School Readiness was added in 2000 to provide quality preschools for 4-year-olds, as well as quality training for pre-k teachers. The eight counties receiving Early Learning Grants were invited to apply for a state-funded pre-k program. Several agencies in our county applied, and again, our school system was extremely fortunate to receive this grant,” she said.

There were stringent requirements and the utmost quality was expected, from teacher credentials, parent involvement, classroom materials and other essentials, “But we were given assistance and support from the Dept. of Children’s Affairs, so all of the pilot programs were successful,” she explained.

The following years, other counties were invited to apply for funding of preschool programs, and the Department of Children’s Affairs made it their mission to fund preschool classes throughout the state. This initiative on the part of a group of dedicated educators would turn into one of the benchmark programs by which others are still measured. In fact, Harvard University is making a documentary about the program, which the group lobbied for in Montgomery in its infancy. “We spoke to governors and legislators on the steps of the capitol and they were interested enough to let us tell them more,” Alice explained. “We got a lot of support from the state department of education and from state business alliances.”

She credits that support to the foresight of local and state leaders who got behind the program early on and stayed the course. “In those early years we had eight classrooms with 18 students in each one, for a total of 144 students, and a budget of $100, 000,” she said. “From then until now the budget has grown to $96 million and as of July we served 18,864 students, ages 4-5,” she said proudly. “There are now a total of 1,039 classrooms thoughout our 67 counties.”

This initiative is now the First Pre-K Classroom Program in Alabama, and when they realized what a difference it made in the lives of so many children, every governor since Don Seigelman has been on board with the project. “They asked good questions and were very interested in the program,” said Alice. “We experienced phenomenal growth and the program is now considered the best of its kind. We have had wonderful support from parents, too. Those first few years we never knew if we would have the money the next year, but because it made such a big difference we continued to receive funding for it.”

The program is now managed by the Alabama Department of Early Learning. Children continue to be selected for the limited slots by random drawing at the local level and grants are now available to public and private schools, child care centers, Head Start programs, faith-based programs and other community–based preschool settings. “While we still have 39 percent of eligible 4-year olds who do not have access to state–funded preschools, we have made tremendous strides,” she stressed.

Alabama is one of only three states with a pre-k program that meets or exceeds all 10 of the benchmarks required to determine program quality in 2018, as well as the benchmarks which will be used to determine quality in the future. The nationally recognized state-funded program is being profiled in an upcoming documentary from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A brief portion of the documentary, “Starting at Zero: Reimagining Education in America” has been shared on both the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education and Governor Ivey’s websites. The documentary, produced by the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation for the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative and the Harvard School of Education was filmed last December at First Class Pre-K Classrooms located throughout the state. Many educators were interviewed, and Alice, along with others who have been with the program since its inception were included. The full-length documentary is expected to be released within a year.

Dr. Alice Evans is now one of several Region 1 Pre-School Coaches for teachers who work with the program. She and her counterparts work with teachers on strategies for various behaviors and different learning styles. “Mostly we listen to children and ask open-ended, “thinking” questions, even in play, which helps us to learn and build on ways to make learning more enjoyable and effective.”

Dr. Evans also taught classes in Childhood Development at Calhoun Community College from 2011-2016. “As rewarding as it was to work with children, it was also important to be able to teach others to love them and to offer advice to make the experience of learning even better,” she said.

“They say life travels in circles,” she mused. “Many, many years ago my very first teaching job was at Moulton Elementary. I lived in Florence and met my carpool at 6:00 am Monday through Friday to drive one and a half hours one way to teach – oops, make that ‘be taught’, by 30 something second graders. I was right out of college and thought it was the most incredible job ever!”

“The next year I was offered a job much closer to home, so I left Moulton Elementary and throughout my life doors continued to open which led to amazing opportunities in many areas of education.”

“Throughout the years God placed amazing people in my life who have continuously inspired and encouraged me.  My work with Alabama’s pre-k program began when my mentor in the state department took me under her wing and paved the way for me to work with this wonderful project many years ago, which has now become a special calling for me,” said Alice. “My mentor, Jacquelyn Autrey is a precious friend, who lives in Montgomery but still continues to inspire me in all that I do. Jackie and I wrote U.S. Presidents and Their Animal Friends together, and she was steering Duane’s sailboat on the Great Salt Lake when he proposed to me – we have named a room at Ravenwood, the Lady Jacquelyn Room, in her honor.”

Alice’s family remains in the Lauderdale County area and remain very close. Duane is extremely supportive – they are each other’s greatest fans.  “He encourages me to write, which is another passion of mine,” said Alice. “I enjoyed researching and writing for the Alabama Roots biography series of famous Alabamians, working on the documentaries, and collecting information for articles that remind people just how very special Alabama and it’s people are…we are a little quirky at times, but I love quirky!”

“The journey continues and last fall (2017) while eating a barbecue sandwich at Chief and Snoogie’s Hickory Pit, I ran into Charlotte Nixon, who I have known for several years (as a pre-k coach I had once visited the preschool program where Charlotte served as director). That very week, Charlotte had decided to retire from her position and asked if I would be interested in working with Alabama’s First Class Pre-K again,” Alice recalled. “I was working full time at Calhoun, but had already started thinking about retirement, so, running into Charlotte ( I call it a God Wink), brought me back to the Moulton area to work just as I was beginning yet another amazing journey in my life.”

She and her husband, Duane Evans, had begun remodeling their forever home in the Bankhead Forest. “We are less than five minutes from the school where I quickly learned that ABC’s and 1,2,3s have very little to do with being a teacher…perhaps I have come full circle.”

Alice and Duane have jumped right into the community, helping to make Lawrence County a better place to live and work. They are not only advocates of education but of preserving history, and the couple is creating a nurturing atmosphere for writers and artists, a place where they can come to share ideas in one of the most beautiful settings in the area. They call it Ravenwood, and it is nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains at the base of the Bankhead Forest. The couple has put hundreds of hours of hard work into creating this retreat, and will soon be sharing it with others. “Duane and I are honored to have been given the chance to restore Ravenwood to its beauty – it is a very special place and we both love breathing life back into the log home and its grounds,” said Alice. “We are working on a Prayer Garden now, with many other projects planned and one of our dreams is to share Ravenwood with others through retreats for writers and artists.” 

Source: http://www.moultonadvertiser.com/news/local/article_2a79b01c-9b3c-11e8-8fe3-c79a071af46c.html

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