front&center Gloria Wright

By Elizabeth Pannell Published August 10, 2008 at 2:39 a.m.
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— Deep down, years ago, Gloria Wright wanted to

be a beautician, but her mother just wouldn't hear

of it.

After that dream came and went, Wright, with

the inspiration of her ninth-grade home economics

teacher, set her sights on becoming a home econom

ics teacher and returning to her hometown of Mal

vern to teach high school.

"My ninth-grade home economics teacher was

the most beautiful, gorgeous, all-together lady I had

ever met. I thought to myself, 'That's what I want to

be,'" Wright said. "Once I got into high school, I re

ally decided that I was going to a home economics

teacher and come back here to teach. So that's what

my goal was." Three years after her high school graduation

Wright received her bachelor's degree in education

from Henderson State University and immediately

returned to Malvern to begin teaching home eco

nomics. After teaching in the district for 20 years,

Wright heard about the new alternative-education

program within the district and applied for the job.

Wright, 57, became the dean of the Beta School

in 1992. She said the Beta School, now known as the

Malvern Learning Academy, is an intervention pro

gram for students who have difficulty in school and

need traditional barriers eliminated in the regular

education program.

The program has been changed to work with

elementary, intermediate and seventh and eighthgrades instead of working strictly with high school students.

"This year we have revamped our program, changed our name, and we are going to begin focusing on younger students so we can help make more of a difference and get the students back into the traditional school," Wright said. "Traditional is what it's all about." Wright said beginning early is important so that students can be successful by the ninth grade.

"We know that ninth grade is the most critical and that the most dropouts come during the freshman year, so that is why it's so important to begin early." Wright built the program from the ground up by cleaning classrooms, speaking to community organizations and writing grants.

"We started out with four rooms that had been used as storage. I couldn't even open the door to get in, so I just started taking things out piece by piece," Wright said. "I spend a lot of time under a shade tree cleaning furniture." Since the program began Wright said she has written several grants totaling $1 million. The alternative program is funded through the school district, but Wright wanted grants for additional things like a small library.

On the first day of school 16 years ago, Wright asked the five students, some of whom had wandered in from the streets, what the rules should be.

"They told me the rule should be 'Come to schooland do right' so we have put everything we do under that rule. Most of our students don't transition back into high school; after being with us they want to stay because it's safe and secure," Wright said. "The key is being fair, firm and consistent."

Wright said that although many students don't move back to high school, many have graduated and gone on to be successful. But Wright said the students are not the only ones who have learned from the program.

"We have graduated between 200-250 students. Some are in nursing school, working for Wal-Mart, work as mechanics or they are in child care programs," Wright said. "I have received far more from this program than anyone else because I have grown from it personally. You can't help someone else without receiving some of that help yourself. It's been a good thing all the way around."

Wright said the f irst few years the program had 15-20 students and has grown to see as many as 102 students. The staff has grown as well. Originally Wright had the assistance of one teacher's aide, then gradually grew to 22 teachers, aides and paraprofessionals.

Potential students for the program are recommended through principals, teachers and counselors. Wright said because the program is small, it has the ability to cater to the individual student.

"That's what makes us different; we can make an individual plan for each student. We specialize in helping each child in whatever area they need help in," Wright said. "We do a lot of assessment to find out what they need and how we can help."

Lori Lamb, alternative education director with the Arkansas Department of Education, said Wright is innovative in alternative education by improving and adding techniques to the program.

"She offers her students excellent opportunities to improve their future. She has a fantastic reputation, and we can always turn to her for leadership," Lamb said.

In July, the Arkansas Association of Alternative Educators named Wright as the 2008 Administrator of the Year. Wright said she was shocked to receive the honor.

"I don't like the attention. I couldn't do a thing that I have done without the help of others. The award belongs to everyone, not just me," Wright said. "There would not be a program without the students; they are what really make the program possible."

When Wright is not helping her students she enjoys spending time with her children, Jotham and Ashley, and her grandsons, Houston, 7 and Will, 8. She is also active in her church, First United Methodist Church.

"My parents live with my husband and I, so a lot of time is devoted to them. My life is focused around church and family," Wright said. "If I could get my family to work with me every day, then I would have it made."

Wright said retirement isnot in her near future, but when she does retire she wants to stay involved with the program.

"I haven't even t hought about retirement. I have a hard time letting go, so when I do retire I want to stay involved in some way because it has been such a big part of my life for such a long time."

Wright said this job has been one of the most rewarding and frustrating jobs she has ever had.

"I have always said t hat when I stop having fun, I'm going home. My favorite part of my job is the interaction with the students. I love to see the growth in them throughout the years," Wright said. "That is my payoff." - epannell@ arkansasonline.commatter of fact Birth date: Oct.13, 1950 Birthplace: Malvern Family includes: Husband Jimmy; son Jotham; daughter Ashley; grandsons Houston and William; son-in-law David Hobbies: Travel Most people don't know: I love NASCAR.

I cannot live without: My family Worst subject in school: Math My favorite memory is: All of the memories I made with my family.

I got detention for: Never did - was too afraid of what would happen when I got home.

The world would be a better place if: Everyone would just do the right thing Favorite quote: "The best and most beautiful things in the would cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart." By Helen Keller My goals for the future: To take full advantage of each day that I am given.

None Elizabeth Pannell can be reached at .