Alicia Leathers

Alicia Leathers, an UMSL College of Education graduate, will be the new middle school principal at Lift for Life Academy this school year. She has previously worked at Jennings Senior High School and College Prep Academy as a college advisor with the Missouri College Advising Corps and as a literature teacher at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School. (Photo courtesy of Alicia Leathers)

Thinking back to her time at Roosevelt High School in St. Louis, Alicia Leathers is somewhat self-deprecating.

“I don’t know, I’m probably a teacher’s pet,” she said with a laugh.

Whether or not that assessment is actually true, Leathers did have great relationships with her teachers in high school. They went above and beyond to expose her to opportunities and show her that she could better the circumstances of her childhood in north St. Louis – particularly Dr. Kacy Shahid, her marketing teacher.

However, their influence didn’t lead Leathers to pursue teaching initially.

She entered the University of Missouri–Columbia as a journalism major but quickly developed an interest in Africana literature. Leathers found her way to education after graduating from MU with a bachelor’s in English, joining Teach For America and entering the master’s education program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis College of Education.

Since then, Leathers has shone as a literature teacher at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, where she’s worked endlessly to inspire her students and has reconnected with her mentor, Shahid. This school year, she will take on a new challenge after being named the new middle school principal of Lift for Life Academy – an independent charter school serving students in grades K-3 and 6-12.

The change is bittersweet, but Leathers feels prepared after her tenure at Central VPA.

“It’s home, and you don’t want to leave something that’s super comfortable,” she said. “But it was also time for me because I had mastered the teaching aspect, and I was just like, ‘How can I turn an entire school into my classroom? How can we improve the culture and make the kids want to be there?’”

Leathers has always strived to connect with the students and provide them with the resources they need to succeed, even before officially becoming a teacher.

After graduating from MU, she joined the Missouri College Advising Corps. MU established the program in 2007 to empower Missouri students to go to college and succeed. MCAC hires recent graduates to work with 48 partner high schools throughout the state.

Advisors help students understand that completing an undergraduate degree is possible, navigate the application process and find postsecondary institutions that fit students’ interests. The program placed Leathers at Jennings Senior High School and College Prep Academy.

“You try to build those relationships with those kids and support them through all their trials and tribulations,” she said, recalling her time as an advisor. “I mean, they still contact me today, asking questions and asking for advice.”

It was the best job she could have asked for post-graduation, but after two years, she knew it was time to pursue her desire to teach English.

Leathers began taking education master’s classes at Webster University, but also started looking at alternative ways to earn a teaching certificate while studying for a graduate degree. Teach For America offered an attractive path forward.

The organization’s partnership with UMSL provided certification at the university and an option to further her education with a master’s degree. It sounded like an ideal solution – on one condition.

“When I applied for Teach For America, I specifically put in that I needed be, and wanted to be, in St. Louis,” Leathers said. “At that time, it was a high-need region. I stressed that I was in school, and I wanted to stay in school here. My family is here. I want to serve the city of St. Louis.”

Leathers got her wish, being placed at her alma mater, Roosevelt High School. During her two-year stint teaching sophomore English at the school, she worked to emulate the teachers who meant so much to her as a student.

“My way of doing that was through educating students about content they would have otherwise not been exposed to,” she said. “A lot of the times when I was a student in the classroom, I didn’t learn about things until I was in college, and I was so upset.”

While she was at Roosevelt, the master’s coursework at UMSL set the foundation for her pedagogy in the classroom and for a future doctoral degree at Maryville University. She credits her academic advisor Lela Taussig with getting her through the program.

An opportunity to work for Shahid, now the principal at Central VPA, presented itself shortly after Leathers finished her master’s degree. It was a dream come true to work with the mentor who had pushed her to join extracurriculars in high school and encouraged her to set her sights high.

Leathers started teaching American literature and African American literature to juniors and soon added seniors, as well. Shahid let Leathers “spread her wings” and try new things, as long as she could provide solid reasoning for her ideas.

She put that philosophy into practice immediately by reimagining what a classroom should look like.

“I got rid of the desks,” Leathers said. “I got Ikea furniture. I got a futon donated. I got some bean bags. It really looked like a living room. I wanted kids to learn. Why don’t they have a space that makes them comfortable and makes them excited to learn and want to come to class?

“I put in – I can’t tell you how many hours – redecorating, painting and revamping the space. If kids don’t want to be there, they’re not going to want to learn. I don’t care how you do it. You could be on a bean bag, you could be on the floor laying upside down, as long as you’re reading this book.”

It was a bold change, but it worked. Students were engaged, and they became enamored with one book being taught, “The Hate U Give.” It tells the story of a 16-year-old Black girl who witnesses a white police officer kill her close friend.

Capitalizing on their interest, Leathers raised money to take her students to the 2018 movie based on the book. Later, she also found donors to fund a field trip to McKendree University, where Angie Thomas, author of the novel, was speaking at a social justice conference.

“It was one of those impactful, life-changing things,” Leathers said. “She talked about your existence being radical, how your existence is protest and how your little self can still make a big change in the world. I just thought that was amazing.”

Leathers intends to keep making an impact at Lift for Life. As a first-year principal, one of her primary goals is to get students involved in a “data process,” where they recognize where they stand academically and how to master necessary skills to get themselves to the next level.

But most of all, she hopes the school can feel a little bit like her English classroom.

“I do want to enhance the culture that is already there to really make it inclusive, make it intentional and inviting,” she said. “We’ve already been talking about some ways that we can do that.”

Burk Krohe

Burk Krohe