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Pine Bluff teacher featured on NBC’s ‘Today’ show

by I.C. Murrell | August 23, 2023 at 11:02 p.m.
Pine Bluff Junior High Ninth-Grade Academy TyKesha Cross poses with former Dollarway High principal Yolanda Prim during Prim's surprise visit to the campus on the first day of school Aug. 16. The visit was part of a story that aired Aug. 23, 2023, on NBC's "Today" show. (Special to The Commercial/NBC News)

TyKesha Cross’ long road to becoming a certified business teacher in the Pine Bluff School District was featured Wednesday morning on NBC’s “Today” show.

Cross was reunited with Yolanda Prim, a former principal who gave Cross her first opportunity in education as a substitute teacher in the former Dollarway School District after she lost her job. Cross was a substitute teacher for two years before being hired full-time at then-Dollarway High School in 2019.

She recently earned full teacher certification from the Arkansas Teacher Corps, a partnership of the University of Arkansas, the Arkansas Department of Education and public school districts in the state.

Earning full certification was “a dream come true,” Cross said, becoming emotional. “Promise kept. It was a promise kept.”

The promise Cross made was to Prim, who left Dollarway as principal in 2021. Prim, who now lives in the Dallas area, surprised her with an on-air visit inside her classroom.

“Look at you now. I’m so proud of you, Cross,” Prim said.

Sitting down with reporter and former sixth-grade teacher Priscilla Thompson, Cross shared with her former boss what she meant to her.

“I honestly don’t believe you know how important you are to me,” Cross said. “You saved my life. You weren’t just a counselor. And wanting to be you is what pushed me and motivated me. It means a lot.”

The moment moved Prim to tears.

“You never think you’re saving lives. You’re just doing what you do,” Prim told NBC. “I love doing it.”

Prim was not the only inspiration in Cross’ career. Cross named Diane Murrell, Faye Wimberly, Linda Simmons, Elouise Shorter and Tenita Shannon Gragg as the “Fab 5” who mentored her.

“I have been blessed to be surrounded by a wonderful group of elegant educators who took me in as their own,” Cross said.

Cross said NBC cameras followed her from her home at 6 a.m. to her classroom at Pine Bluff Junior High Ninth-Grade Academy, which is where Dollarway High was previously located. The PBSD’s secondary schools merged on July 1, two years after the annexation of the Dollarway and Pine Bluff school districts.

The junior high is a merger of Robert F. Morehead and Jack Robey schools. Returning Dollarway High students now attend Pine Bluff High School.

NBC also visited the Jane Oliver Apartments near the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, where she grew up as TyKesha Gray.

Even then she had dreams of becoming a teacher.

“It was truly my calling,” she said. “When I was staying in the Jane Oliver Projects, when I was with my mom, I actually used to stay on the steps and have baby dolls, and I would teach my dolls on the steps.”

Cross was later raised by her grandparents, as her father died when she was 6 and her mother had been dealing with her own struggles. While in high school, she was shot in the head while visiting family in Little Rock.

“As my cousin got out to see his girlfriend, I was just in the car vibing, and he came back to the car,” she recalled. “As we were backing out to get out of the apartment complex, there was a gentleman on the side of the road. As he’s proceeding out of the complex, all I hear is [gunshots].”

Cross was pushed down by her cousin as the shots rang.

“My cousin gets off me and calls my name,” she said. “… But I cannot answer him. I can hear him call my name. As I hear him call my name, I hear him say, ‘You’ve been shot.’ I’m not able to communicate with him, but I can hear him.”

As she was driven to the nearest hospital, Cross recited a song by the Dallas Fort Worth Mass Choir that goes, in part:

“I’m sorry. Forgive me. Cleanse me up, Jesus. I never meant to hurt you or desert you, because I love you so much. I admit it that I did it. Cleanse me up and give me a second chance.”

Cross said she was released after a week of hospitalization.

She told NBC she became pregnant her senior year, and she thought her life “was over.”

Prim, then her guidance counselor at Dollarway, reached out to her at the time and encouraged her to return to Dollarway, where she graduated in 1997, and attended college. Cross became the first person in her family to graduate from college and earned business degrees from Southeast Arkansas College, UAPB and Webster University.

She went into real estate rather than education, however, and was successful at her job until an economic downturn caused her to lose her job. That’s when Prim reached out to her about achieving her childhood dream.

“As luck would have it, I had no desire,” Cross said. “Internally, that’s what my heart wanted to do. Financially, I knew being a teacher wouldn’t sustain the life I wanted to live, so I went to seek different avenues.”

Cross’ husband Dedrick is an assistant principal at James Matthews Elementary in the Pine Bluff School District. He, too, was certified as a teacher through the Arkansas Teacher Corps and encouraged his wife to do the same.

Although she passed the licensing test on her first attempt, Cross went through the Teacher Corps to learn how to manage the classroom.

“This was the divine journey,” Cross said. “I didn’t want it, per se, but it wanted me. God chose me.”

This story has been updated. It was originally published at 11 a.m. under the headline "Pine Bluff Junior High teacher featured on NBC’s 'Today'."


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