Art McCoy opens speaker series, talks leadership, initiative in Jennings

Dr. Art McCoy, Speaker Series presenter

Distinguished alumnus Art McCoy stopped by the ED Collabitat on South Campus to share anecdotes and wisdom garnered from his decades-long career in education. (Photo by Jami Hirsch)

“I lead with the notion that we are souls first, students second or souls first, staff members second. Whoever we are working with or for, it’s always souls first.”

These opening words from Art McCoy, as he spoke to a group of students and community members at the University of Missouri–St. Louis recently, brought about an immediate shift of energy in the room. This is something that probably happens often when McCoy is talking; people sit up straighter and lean in closer.

“Art is an exceptionally engaging leader and speaker,” said Assistant Professor James Shuls, who organized the College of Education Speaker Series that McCoy kicked off on Aug. 31. “You’ll know within moments of speaking with him that you’re talking to someone special.”

McCoy, who earned his PhD in education from UMSL, is a formidable force within the world of education both in St. Louis and across the country. His most recent appointment as the superintendent of the Jennings School District is only the latest in a long line of impressive and important career moves.

Since his earliest days as the youngest certified math teacher in the state of Missouri (through his time as the first African American superintendent in the Ferguson-Florissant school district), McCoy has been a true change maker when it comes to transforming educational environments for the better. He has served on countless local and national boards and councils, including as the education chair of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.

He’s also a published author and an adept fundraiser, helping to secure over $7 million for educational initiatives that support students in the St. Louis region and beyond. His latest honor comes from the St. Louis Business Journal, which recently named him one of their 2016 Diverse Business Leaders.

And yet, underneath all of these accomplishments and accolades, what really makes McCoy so special is something that is no less extraordinary because of its simplicity: He makes people feel seen.

This ability to connect was a key element in McCoy’s talk, “Transformational Leadership in Times of Transition.” In fact, it’s the very foundation upon which McCoy builds all of his principles of leadership, including the identification of needs.

“Whether it’s students, staff, constituents or co-workers, everyone has something seared on their hearts,” McCoy told his audience. “Transformational leaders identify these needs within 5 to 10 seconds of meeting someone.”

Such a quick assessment might seem difficult, but it really isn’t for someone like McCoy, who is truly in tune with his passion to transform lives. The foremost thought in his mind when he greets each of his students – with a smile, a handshake or a hug if needed – is a question: What can I do to make their life better, right now? That question fuels what he calls the next essential component of leadership: intention.

McCall understands intention as meeting needs, with purposeful action, through fruitful partnerships. And it’s this concept that is driving an initiative he is particularly excited to bring to fruition in Jennings this school year.

The STEAM College and Career Prep Academy is a program meant to prepare and propel students by providing them with not only hearty curriculum but soft skills, real-world job experience and career-relevant, industry certifications – some of which they can acquire while still in high school. The academy’s goal is to promote “empowerment, engagement and enlightenment” – not just for Jennings high school students, but for younger students and community members alike.

It’s an undertaking made possible largely because of the vast network of partnerships McCoy has established with local and national companies who have stepped up to give more than $500,000 so far this year. And their contributions are not just financial. Local business professionals in the fields of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics are pairing with educators to provide internships, pathways to post-secondary education, job opportunities and – most of all – a model of success for students who need it most.

Such a focus on mentoring is not only a crucial component of student success, it’s also one more thing that McCoy says every exceptional leader needs.

“We all have to see it to be it,” McCoy advised students during his presentation. “Find someone who models the way you want to lead and emulate it until you synthesize it.”

When asked for any other closing advice about leadership and following one’s passion, McCoy turned to the concepts of change and renewal.

“Find ways to revive yourself. Loving my students and loving my staff is what restores me,” he said. “Also know that change is inevitable, so identify four or five things you don’t want to change, and protect them.”

Finally, when asked what his ongoing relationship with UMSL continues to mean for his life and his work, McCoy spoke fondly of the College of Education and the leadership program he helped to redesign.

“The program shares and implements one of my most important goals,” McCoy said, “to take learning outside the four walls of the classroom.”

For more information about the College of Education Speaker Series, which is free and open to both UMSL students and the public, contact Shuls. For more information about the STEAM Career Prep Academy, including a list of its many local partners, view the video available on the Jennings School District website.

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