Woman has full career as teacher, counselor, helper

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published April 14, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated April 12, 2013 at 11:22 a.m.
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Sherry Chandler is retiring as head of the alternative learning program for Jessieville, Fountain Lake and Cutting Morning Star school districts. She is an award-winning director of the program for the Garland County schools.

Sherry Chandler is retiring — again.

At one point, she and her husband moved halfway around the world to retire, but a call for help always came.

It is not like Chandler, 62, hasn’t earned the right to retire. She has helped establish alternative-education programs for several school systems and has been a special-education teacher. Chandler is the award-winning director of the alternative learning program for three Garland County school systems.

She was honored recently at the state Capitol by the Arkansas Association of Alternative Educators.

Perhaps this time retirement will take, if for no other reason that Chandler thinks it’s the right thing to do.

“I don’t know any particular reason now,” she said. “It’s just time to pass the torch to someone else.”

The torch she has been carrying since 2004 is Alternative Learning Experience , or ALE, for the Jessieville, Fountain Lake and Cutter Morning Star school districts.

“We started with Jessieville and Fountain Lake. Cutter Morning Star entered the program two years ago,” Chandler said. “We started small with four students in one classroom; now we have 60-plus students.”

Alternative-learning programs are for students who must overcome obstacles that might make it harder for them to succeed in a regular school environment.

“A student could be homeless or have behavior issues, along with other reasons they need a different way to go to school,” Chandler said.

In Arkansas, ALE programs are formed under the guidance of the Arkansas Association of Alternative Educators, the Pygmalion Commission on Nontraditional Education and the Arkansas Department of Education.

The program Chandler started for the three school systems was for students in grades seven through 12.

“Then a fifth-grader needed help and we added a class,” Chandler said.

“A third-grader is the youngest we have, but we are prepared to take younger students,” she said, noting the students could be as young as kindergarteners.

As the program expanded, so did the facilities. She outgrew two locations and recently moved into a former Boys and Girls Club facility that she calls “phenomenal.”

Chandler said the success she has with students in the alternative-learning program comes from building a close relationship with them.

“Our kids get a tremendous amount of support. We have 12-15 students in a class and there are four adults — a teacher, a counselor, a therapist and a teacher’s aide,” she said. “There are plenty of opportunities for interaction, and you can make real progress with that kind of support.

“We treat the whole child,” she said. “If you don’t know about all that’s going on in a child’s life, then they are not going to succeed academically.”

Chandler said an example is when a child, who lived with his father, came in crying. The adults in his classroom found out that his mother had been put on life support in another state.

“He was crying that he wanted to see his mother before she died,” Chandler said. “I picked up the phone and made a phone call. Soon, a gentleman was walking in the door with money in his pocket for the airfare, and I had already sent the child home to pack his clothes. If we had not found out what the young man was dealing with, we could not have helped him.”

Chandler said her concern for special-needs children must have come from her mother.

“She was in education for 40 years as a teacher and administrator, so I grew up in a home where education was valued,” Chandler said. “She always thought outside the box, but her primary concern was always the kids.”

That concern was a major influence on Chandler when she was growing up in Hope.

“My mother was doing alternative education back when it didn’t have a name,” she said.

With an educator for mother, it may be no surprise that Chandler became a teacher, but that was not the original plan.

“I went to cosmetology school in the summers when I was in high school, and I graduated both at the same time,” Chandler said. “But I decided after about a year and a half that I needed to get a degree.”

Already married and a mother, she entered Henderson State University when her daughter was 6 months old. Chandler graduated three years later, prepared to teach, but she said she found another job.

She lived in Benton and worked with the Community Mental Health Center in Saline County.

“We were two people in 1974,” Chandler said.

One of her jobs was to help write grants. Later, she monitored treatment facilities for the center.

Then, Chandler’s career went underground as she joined Alcoa as a supervisor in the bauxite mines.

She scheduled jobs and vacations for the labor crew and found replacements when people were out.

“And I was one of the first groups affected as the mines and aluminum plants began to shut down,” she said.

Then she helped find jobs for dislocated aluminum workers.

Chandler said she decided in 1991 that she wanted to teach.

“When I was 40, I guess I grew up and decided what I wanted to be,” Chandler said.

She returned to Henderson State and earned a master’s degree in special education in 1994.

Her first job was in Paron.

“I had 42 students, with at least one student from every grade except second [grade], in one class. I had to have a lesson plan for each student. I guess I got my feet wet in that experience.”

She moved to ALE programs as the Pygmalion Commission was establishing alternative education regulations for schools. Her first ALE job was for the Benton School District in Saline County.

“To me, it just meant that students had need for special help,” she said. “You don’t have to be a special-needs student to have special needs.”

For five years, Chandler helped establish the program in Benton, then she thought she was retiring when her husband retired.

The couple moved to Hawaii, but soon she was teaching again.

“The Columbus Education Service had a contract with the state of Hawaii to improve their special-education system,” Chandler said. “In the first school I went to, I was the only certified teacher — the other 11 were high school graduate substitute teachers.”

After about three years living on the “Big Island” of Hawaii, Chandler said her husband decided it was time to go.

“He said our time in paradise was up. We needed to come back home,” she said.

She said they traveled to Arkansas several times while living in the 50th state.

“It is a long way back and forth,” Chandler said. “Of course, we had visitors, too. It is surprising how many friends you have when you live in Hawaii.”

The couple moved back to Hope and, again, Chandler said she was done with teaching. Then she answered the phone.

“I got a call from the special-ed teacher in Hope,” she said. “I told her I wasn’t working anymore, and she said, ‘Oh, yes, you are.’ She was my phys-ed teacher my senior year of high school, and so I went back to work.”

A few years later, the couple moved north of Hot Springs to their current residence in rural Saline County and Chandler applied for a special-education job in a joint venture for the Fountain Lake and Jessieville schools.

“They also had an opening for an alternative-education program, and I asked if I could do that,” Chandler said. “They looked at me as if I had lost my mind, but I got the job in 2004.”

As the final weeks of school go by, Chandler said she realizes she will miss the kids.

“Not a day goes by when one of them doesn’t say, ‘I love you.’” she said. “We are like a big family.”

Chandler said several students told her that if she was not coming back in the fall, they would not, either.

Chandler said she told them, “If I have to call you every day and remind you, you’re going to finish school.”

She said she is not coming back.

“Being there would not be fair for the kids, or for the person who takes my place,” Chandler said. “But I might drop by.”

Chandler said she and her husband plan to go back to Hawaii for a month.

“We have planned on returning in five years, and it has been 11. We want to check in with our friends and be beach bums for a while.”

And, it just may take that half of an ocean to keep her away from her students.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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