Corey Alderdice was propelled from a childhood on a small tobacco farm in rural Kentucky to the helm of one of the top public high schools in the country by his widowed mother and her emphasis on education.
"Education has definitely been a thread throughout my life," says Alderdice, who was hired by the University of Arkansas board of trustees in 2012 to lead the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts, a public residential high school for gifted students in Hot Springs.
Alderdice was just 18 months old when his father died of kidney failure following a transplant. He and his twin brother were raised by their single mother on the farm that was about 15 miles south of Mayfield in Graves County, Ky. She was a seamstress for a denim company and later worked on an assembly line in a tire factory. His grandparents owned the land, and they lived next door; on the other side of them lived Alderdice's aunt and uncle.
"It was kind of that traditional close-knit Southern family. I grew up in a working-class single-parent household but the thing I always am grateful for, though, is my mom didn't have a chance to attend college but it was always set in stone and quite apparent that education was a value, it was a priority, and, by gosh, we were going to college," he says.
He was finishing up a doctorate in postsecondary education at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green when he saw a listing for the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts job in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
He was, at the time, an assistant director at the Gatton Academy in Bowling Green, Ky., a residential school for gifted and talented high school juniors and seniors interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math, similar to the Hot Springs school.
THE HALFWAY MARK
His job with Gatton was rewarding, but so much of what he had done before had prepared him for this opportunity. The timing was right, too.
Alderdice was 29, a new father -- his son, Elliott, was almost 2. His wife, Stephanie, enjoyed her job as a collegiate speech and debate coach, but traveling with her team as a new mother was challenging.
They were intrigued by the idea of a new opportunity that allowed them to live in Hot Springs, roughly halfway between his family's home in Kentucky and her family's home in Dallas.
Since he took the helm at Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts, his focus has been on strengthening the school's programs for gifted students as well as increasing its outreach, providing resources for other organizations across the state as they try to strengthen the science, technology, engineering and math programs they offer their students.
The Arkansas General Assembly passed a law in 2015 requiring every high school in the state to offer computer science. The school was already offering distance learning courses, particularly valuable for rural schools where adding computer science would take time and resources.
"ASMSA certainly has been one of the leading forces in helping to realize the governor and General Assembly's vision on this front," he says. "In a given year -- even as the number of students taking coding classes grows year-by-year -- the hybrid program we offer accounts for about one in eight students across the state taking a computer science course."
Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts helps to fill gaps for other schools by providing training and support for teachers so they can offer instruction in classrooms around the state, not just in computer science but in math, biology, physics and even business and language courses.
"Most people think of the school as simply that residential experience, the roughly 250 students living on campus 10 months out of the year," Alderdice says. "Really there is this dual mission to help support education and educators across the state -- to ignite the full potential of Arkansas students and educators. Last year alone, we served more than 2,000 students and educators across the state through those initiatives."
Alderdice feels a kinship of sorts with the students, many of whom, like him, come to the campus from rural parts of the state for the purpose of education.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Growing up, he enjoyed tinkering on computers and taking piano lessons and participated in various enrichment programs during school. In high school he found his niche in competitive forensics -- speech and debate.
He was valedictorian of his graduating class, but as a first generation college-bound student he struggled to figure out his options.
"I probably had, in all, about 30 minutes with a guidance counselor," he says. "I'll say it all worked out in the end."
Spending five weeks of the summer between his junior and senior years of high school in the Kentucky Governor's Scholars Program at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, Ky., helped him find direction.
"I had such a tremendous experience being around other bright, talented, motivated students that once I was in college I wanted to go back and be a residential counselor for the summer program," he says.
Alderdice went to Western Kentucky University, a hub for the Kentucky High School Speech League, on a full presidential scholarship.
"For a kid from a pretty modest background whose mom had scrapped and scraped over the years to make sure that college was going to be attainable, that was quite a relief, to say the least, that that was going to be picked up and paid for," he says.
During the summer following his freshman year, he was a counselor at the Center for Gifted Studies. The Center's model was similar to the Governor's Scholars Program, he says, but geared toward sixth- through 10th-graders.
"I fell in love with the work," he says. "The thing I would often tell students during those five weeks is that the reason I do that -- and continued to do that for the better part of a decade -- is that I had the opportunity to be the person that I wish I could have been when I was at that age, in middle school or early in high school -- to be around other people who love learning but also ... geek out over the things they're excited about."
BUILDING A SCHOOL
Kentucky's General Assembly voted to set aside money for the Gatton School about two weeks before Alderdice finished his master's degree in English.
His master's thesis was about how the origin of Superman comics changed through the decades, given the anxieties and values of those times.
He considered pursuing another master's or a doctoral program in literature or pop culture.
Then he was offered the opportunity to help start Gatton.
"Schools are not typically things that originate from the ground up. Occasionally new buildings will open but to be able to work toward building something new from whole cloth was really, quite frankly, incredible," Alderdice says. "We were going to welcome students to the campus in August 2007, so there was a lot that had to happen. Programs like the Texas Academy of Math and Science and the Missouri Academy were templates, but it was a chance to take a fresh look since it had been a decade since the most recent program had opened so we had the chance to look at this whole concept ... afresh."
As the school welcomed students to campus the following year, Alderdice was named one of four assistant directors of the school and began overseeing admissions and public affairs.
Julia Link Roberts, an advocate for the creation of Gatton, first met Alderdice when he applied to be a summer counselor at the Center for Gifted Studies.
"He did that for several summers and then he was head counselor, and then he worked with us as we planned Gatton Academy of Math and Science, which is very much like the school he now directs," Roberts says. "He had lots of ideas, lots of energy and he has the ability to carry through on his ideas and to put them in place."
Alderdice remains on the advisory counsel for the Center for Gifted Studies and he and Roberts see each other a couple of times a year at meetings, although they are in contact more often.
"The fun of being a colleague with Corey is that there's always something to talk about," she says. "There's always something for the future, and that is such a special quality that not everyone has, to look forward."
EMOTIONAL AND MENTAL SUPPORT
Rheo Morris, Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts's dean of students, says Alderdice was immediately responsive when she asked, in the aftermath of trying to find support following the death of a recent graduate, that a mental health professional be brought on board to address future needs.
"Other people who had been here were like, 'No, that's not going to work,'" she says. "They were afraid we would get bombarded and we are not a counseling center."
She suggested clearly defining the scope of the job.
"He said, 'Tell me more,'" she says. "We talked about it, we ran the numbers, we explored what it would look like, and -- because this stuff has to be approved through the University of Arkansas -- we got that employee line and he gave me the go-ahead to hire a mental health professional."
This became even more critical during the covid-19 pandemic as students grieved missed opportunities and isolation. When extra money is available, he gave her the greenlight to add another mental health professional to the staff.
Alderdice and Morris have also collaborated on ways to support low-income students, expand housing and help students find balance as they mature.
"He is not a sit-behind-your-desk kind of guy," she says. "He gets to know the kids as well as anybody at his level can. He is excited about being involved when kids come to his office and hang out for a little bit. I feel like we are lucky to have somebody who is as passionate about gifted education as he is. He is a really big advocate of gifted education and making sure that it is equitably accessed by the students of Arkansas."
A SIP OF SAKE
Mary Zunick, executive director of the Hot Springs Sister City and the Hot Springs Area Cultural Alliance and honorary consul general of Japan in Arkansas, commends Alderdice for his vision in using the relationship between Hot Springs and its Japanese sister city, Hanamaki, to benefit Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts students.
"A lot of the kids who attend ASMSA have some interest in Japanese culture through the history, of course, through anime, and Pokemon and all that they've grown up with," says Zunick, whose son graduated from the school last year. "Corey has always been receptive to the exchange possibilities."
Alderdice, who is vice chairman of the Hot Springs Sister City Foundation Board, traveled to Japan to see the Super Science program at Hanamaki Kita High School in Osaka, Japan, sister school of Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts.
"He has furthered that connection to extend many years beyond that initial couple of visits that we had through the Super Science program," Zunick says. "They also now have a friendship school, that is a connection with Tennoji High School in Osaka."
Through his interest in Japanese culture, Alderdice has joined Zunick in becoming an amateur sake enthusiast and advocating for the sake brewery, Origami Sake, set to open in Hot Springs later this year. He has checked out other craft sake breweries around the country while traveling for work or to visit family.
"When we didn't have someone to help with the sake education classes we've offered with the Cherry Blossom Festival, Corey jumped in and learned about sake," Zunick says. "Also we had planned to take a group to be there and support our sister city through the Olympics ... well, we all know what happened with the Olympics in 2020."
Since they wouldn't be able to go during the covid-19 pandemic, the group decided to record a song to show support.
"Corey downloaded the music and he learned how to play it -- then we changed songs and I felt bad for him," she says. "But he was our group leader as we learned to sing a song in Japanese, and that's just another example of how he grabbed something and ran with it."
Alderdice often spends time in the evenings, especially early in the school year, answering emails and returning calls from parents of students at Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts. He also makes sure to spend uninterrupted time with his family.
A MATCH MADE IN CARTOONS
"I think there's a personal connection for him, as somebody who grew up in a rural area, who grew up in a household with a single parent and a twin brother -- he had tons of potential and he had that ambition and grit, and he sees that in so many of these students and families across the state," says wife Stephanie Alderdice, who owns a marketing agency, SixtyOne Celsius. "It's personal to him, seeing the school and students succeed, because he knows what it's like when a door opens for somebody who may not have those opportunities."
The couple met while competing in high school forensics and discussed, on their first date, their mutual appreciation for '90s afternoon cartoons, including the sci-fi superhero show "Gargoyles." Subsequent dates included viewing the DVD boxed set of "Gargoyles."
"We're a family that enjoys technology and pop culture. We enjoy the arts and stuff like that," she says.
He plays chess with their son, and they banter about the shows they watch together.
Moving from Kentucky to Arkansas 12 years ago so he could take on the job at Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts was the result of the stars aligning, she says. He is right where he needs to be.
"Stephanie very regularly remarks, on the good days and bad days, that everything happens for a reason," he says. "Whether you believe that's part of your faith or whether you believe that the choices you make build on the next ones to help get you where you want to be, we have certainly been very, very fortunate. But sometimes it's just that willingness to take on the next opportunity when it presents itself."
Even after all his years of education and education experience, he still finds profound lessons in the words of students. He remembers in particular a revelation he heard from one student speaking several years ago about her experience at the school.
"She said this: 'I've learned that comfort and growth don't tend to go hand in hand,'" he says. "I wish I could have had that kind of awareness at 17."