Salute to Excellence in Education honorees showcase strength of UMSL graduates

by | Oct 7, 2019

The St. Louis American Foundation honored three UMSL alumnae at its 32nd Annual Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship and Awards Gala.
Petra Baker, Tina Clark-Scott and Amber Mitchell

Alumnae (from left) Petra Baker, Tina Clark-Scott and Amber Mitchell were recognized by the St. Louis American Foundation for their individual contributions to education in the St. Louis region.

Petra Baker’s first teaching job was at Baker Elementary School.

The school was unaccredited, though, and there was no salary to speak of. That’s because the “school” was actually makeshift classes on the front porch of her parents’ house. Baker, a University of Missouri–St. Louis alumna, taught her siblings and neighborhood kids during the summer with extra supplies gifted to her by her third-grade teacher.

From an early age, Baker knew she wanted to go into education and to work with kids. She would go on to achieve her dream, becoming principal of the Gateway Michael Elementary School in St. Louis where she cares for a student population with serious health problems and multiple disabilities.

Her dedication to serving the children of St. Louis is one example of how the College of Education enriches the community. This September, the St. Louis American Foundation recognized the strengths of UMSL educators by honoring three alumnae – Baker, Tina Clark-Scott and Amber Mitchell – at its 32nd Annual Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship & Awards Gala.

The event began modestly in 1988 with the goal of celebrating outstanding individual educators and providing much-needed funding to local schools. It has quietly grown over the years, raising $7.2 million for local scholarships and community grants since its inception.

Here are the stories of UMSL’s three alumnae winners.

Leading by example

Petra Baker, MEd  2002, EdSP 2008, Excellence in Education awardee

Baker’s mother had expectations of her 13 children.

“She instilled in us a legacy of family, faith and education,” Baker said.

Those expectations drove her to succeed in St. Louis Public Schools, eventually leading to a place at Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School. Baker went from being at the top of her class to getting B’s and C’s, but it didn’t discourage her.

Her friends and teachers also had expectations of Baker, and she worked to meet them – earning a full scholarship to Alcorn State University, a historically black university in Mississippi. That could have been where she stayed.

“I just wanted to teach, but a principal saw something in me and encouraged me to apply to this principal cohort,” Baker said.

Baker came back to St. Louis to get her master’s at UMSL. That’s when she knew she was meant to be a principal, realizing she could affect the lives of more parents and students. She takes that mission seriously at Gateway Michael, aiming to speak to each of her students by name on a daily basis.

It’s a lesson Baker’s mentor Lynn Beckwith Jr., the former E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Urban Education at UMSL, emphasized.

“One thing I remember from Lynn Beckwith was ‘inspect what you expect,’” she said. “I knew I had to be visible throughout the school. I couldn’t lead from the principal’s office.”

Baker has also spearheaded an effort to make her school healthier. For the last five years, Gateway Michael has participated in Missouri’s Healthy Schools Healthy Communities program. The school has added a community garden, a walking path and a selection of healthy foods for classroom celebrations and lunches.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation has recognized Gateway Michael in its list of America’s Healthiest Schools 2019, bestowing a gold award. It’s the first school in the state to earn gold.

“I tell my staff, we’re kind of a big deal,” Baker said. “Not just in St. Louis, in the United States.”

Keeping children at the forefront

Tina Clark-Scott, MEd 1998, Excellence in Education awardee

Clark-Scott’s philosophy as assistant superintendent of Academics and Support Services at Normandy Schools Collaborative is simple.

“I do for families what I would expect someone to do for my family,” Clark-Scott said. “I always keep children at the forefront of what I do.”

She does this knowing that the things which befall children are beyond their control. In her role, Clark-Scott coordinates the support services students or families might use. Often, that means doing what needs to be done when a request or questions doesn’t fall to someone else

Sometimes it’s something simple, but other times it might be something more involved. For example, Clark-Scott recently helped a family member pursue legal custody of student. She noted it wasn’t technically the school’s problem, but she helped find the family pro-bono legal representation.

“We’re looking at the whole child, not just what you need at school,” She said. “What you need at home, what you need emotionally.”

Despite being such a dedicated public servant, Clark-Scott didn’t come to her calling until later in life. She went to college off and on but found it hard to focus because she didn’t know what she wanted to do. She had a family and a stable job in the banking industry, but it didn’t feel like a career.

After earning a bachelor’s degree at the age of 30, she pursued a master’s degree in education administration at UMSL. She had found her career.

“I was going through a difficult time in my personal life, and I didn’t know what my purpose was,” Clark-Scott said. “It was a lot of prayer and trying to figure what direction to go in. Then all of a sudden, it was like my purpose is children.”

Bridging the gap

Amber Mitchell, BA 2008, MEd 2013, MEd 2017, SEMO Counselor of the Year

Every summer, without fail, Mitchell gets calls from former students as they start to prepare for college. She’s happy to answer, though.

“I had to realize all this was foreign to them,” Mitchell said. “They didn’t feel comfortable talking to strangers about what they were going through.”

As a school counselor at Ritenour High School, and previously at Jennings Senior High School, Mitchell has seen the barriers her students face.

“There was no roadmap for them so they were extremely overwhelmed,” Mitchell said. “They don’t have a lot of people who look like them who are in the process.”

Mitchell has made it her goal to ensure her students not only graduate high school but also college. To do that, she works to understand students on an individual level and provide as much support as possible – including taking calls on the weekend and during the summer.

“I’m very person-centered,” she said. “I meet them where they are. Every student has a story. It’s my job to hear their story, understand their story.”

It helps that she has a similar story. Mitchell’s parents are educators, but she mostly navigated the college application process by herself. It led her to join the UMSL Bridge Program, a year-round pre-collegiate program for St. Louis-area students.

Mitchell continued to work at the Bridge Program while studying at UMSL. As she pondered her career path, it hit her one day.

“I looked forward to the Bridge Program, and I thought, ‘Why?’” Mitchell said. “It was because I really loved the work.”

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Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens
Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens

Biology student James Ott and Sustainable Energy & Environmental Coordinator Katy Mike Smaistrla pull weeds last week in the native gardens north of the Recreation Wellness Center.

Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens

Biology student James Ott and Sustainable Energy & Environmental Coordinator Katy Mike Smaistrla pull weeds last week in the native gardens north of the Recreation Wellness Center.

Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens

Biology student James Ott and Sustainable Energy & Environmental Coordinator Katy Mike Smaistrla pull weeds last week in the native gardens north of the Recreation Wellness Center.