Education Edge

The official blog of the Ole Miss School of Education

Willie Price Replants Learning Garden

by UM School of Education on October 9, 2017

Parent and volunteer Tess Johnson helps Willie Price Lab School students sow seeds at the school’s new learning garden.

OXFORD, Miss. The seeds are planted for a new learning garden at the University of Mississippi’s Willie Price Lab School, which will allow the pre-K facility to integrate gardening and an understanding of food sources into its curriculum.

On Friday, Oct. 6, several 3- and 4-year-olds at Willie Price, part of the UM School of Education, planted radishes, lettuce, carrots and garlic with the help of  FoodCorps service member and parent Tess Johnson and others.

Sarah Langley, director of Willie Price, also partnered with preschool parents UM Landscape Services, the Office of Sustainability and the Mississippi Farm to School Network reinstall the garden, which had previously been part of the school’s curriculum.

“Tess became involved with FoodCorps and she approached us about revitalizing the space and has volunteered to lead a parent committee and organize all of the planting and harvesting events for our Willie Price students,” Langley said. “Before, the garden was an amazing space with tomatoes, blackberries, carrots and herbs everywhere and the children were out there all the time. They were working with two gardeners but for budget reasons, from what I understand, the space became neglected and we were no longer able to maintain that partnership.”

Johnson said that it was her work with students at Bramlett Elementary School in Oxford that inspired her to help bring gardening back to Willie Price.

“I’m always blown away when I ask even fourth- or fifth-graders, ‘what’s your favorite food,’ and, if they say French fries, they think they came from McDonald’s or the grocery store,” Johnson said. “They have no idea that someone grew those potatoes and that’s how their food got there.”

Johnson also helped Willie Price students make a healthy snack of homemade hummus with pita chips and carrots the day of the planting.

“It’s just so important for kids to be outside with fresh air, green space and to know where their food comes from,” she said.

In addition to enthusiastic parents, Willie Price also received a $500 grant from the Mississippi Farm to School Network to re-open the garden.

“We are interested in reaching out to more early childcare programs with our school garden grants because we know that the earlier we can reach kids with good produce, fruits and vegetables, the more likely they will be interested in those foods when they are older,” said Sunny Young Baker,” co-director of the Mississippi Farm to School Network.

 Through multiple partnerships, Langley feels there’s a bright future for Willie Price’s garden.

“We are partnering with landscape services, which is awesome because we have the most beautiful campus in the country,” said Langley. “They’ve been coming over to help us and just do as much as they can to help us protect the space.”

Langley also partnered with the UM Office of Sustainability to obtain compost from their compost program for the garden.

Before the installation of the garden, Willie Price students learned about nutritious food and healthy living in a two-week unit on health that concluded with planting seeds in the re-opened garden.

The Willie Price Lab School is a preschool on the campus of the University of Mississippi. It provides opportunities for UM students and faculty to provide services to students and to conduct research.

By Emily Hoffman

Essary Named Early Childhood Education Coordinator

by UM School of Education on October 2, 2017

Jessica Essary, Ph.D., is the SOE’s new early childhood coordinator.

OXFORD, Miss. – Jessica Essary, an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi School of Education, is the new coordinator of UM’s online master’s degree in early childhood education.

Essary comes to UM with research emphasis on international education, diversity in education and equity in teacher instruction.

“I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated the voices of young children,” Essary said. “Early childhood education is about developing an expertise in educating and caring for children from birth to age eight.”

Before joining UM, Essary spent more than four years as an assistant professor at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates, after completing her dissertation research in Tanzania. At Zayed, Essary supervised local teacher candidates in more than 100 classrooms and taught 15 undergraduate and graduate courses. Essary received her Ph.D. from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

The online Master of Education program, which Essary now heads, started in the fall of 2015 and will graduate its first cohort this May. The program requires 30-credit hours and students have the opportunity to become credentialed by the Mississippi Department of Education to teach in the state, if they choose.

Essary hopes the ­program will expand in upcoming years to reach more international students with the allure of an entirely online education from a top research institution.

“There’s so much to offer at this institution,” Essary said, “Ole Miss understands how to use online technology in a way that’s effective for learning.”

The online coursework includes readings, interactive opportunities, field experience components and projects covering topics from child development to the theory of play and its function.

“Our online master’s in early childhood education includes a variety of coursework to support those whom are advancing in the field as well as those whom are relatively new to an early childhood emphasis in their studies,” Essary said. “The students can generally work through the modules at their own pace. They can Skype call in during office hours or call our office directly if they need to get in touch with our early childhood education expert faculty members.”

Essary describes early childhood education as a holistic practice.

“We’re considering the young child’s physical, intellectual, emotional and social needs,” Essary said, “It’s beyond A-B-Cs and 1-2-3s.”

Essary explained that many students think the only job prospect for early childhood education graduates is teaching young children. She tries to help graduate students see the wide range of opportunities in the field.

“Graduates can teach in the public or private sector, work in non-profit administration, policy-making, entrepreneurial endeavors such as publishing children’s books, working for toy companies and the additional possibilities are endless,” she said. “I got into the profession to help each child develop to their full potential. It’s very unfortunate when you see a 3-year-old lacking social stimulation—you know that if given opportunities they can really enhance their abilities early on, which is just so exciting.  It’s not just about academic growth, it’s definitely physical, emotional and social development, as well.”

Applicants interested in the online program are required to have a 3.0 Undergraduate GPA, passing Praxis II content scores or GRE scores, and two reference letters. If they elect to do so, students will also have the opportunity to become licensed early childhood educators in the State of Mississippi.

By Emily Hoffman

CELI Helps Little Free Library Program Grow

by UM School of Education on September 28, 2017

OXFORD, Miss. – The Lafayette County and Oxford Public Library has teamed up with the University of Mississippi Center for Excellence in Literacy Instruction (CELI) and the LOU Reads Coalition to install six new Little Free Libraries in Lafayette County.

The small book exchanges, which operate on a “take a book, return a book” basis, are located at Lafayette County Fire Stations in Harmontown and Paris and on Highway 30 East, as well as at Mary Cathey Head Start Center, Gordon Community and Cultural Center in Abbeville and at Community Green, an LOU Homes affordable housing neighborhood. While there are three other officially registered Little Free Libraries in Oxford, including those at Avent Park and the Stone Center, several unofficial libraries exist in town. The Lafayette County and Oxford Public Library, CELI and LOU Reads chose to focus their efforts on communities in the county.

“We know that it can be much harder for those who live in the outer reaches of the county to make it to the public library and Little Free Libraries allow us to take a bit of the library to them,” said Meridith Wulff, youth specialist with the Lafayette County and Oxford Public Library, a branch of the First Regional Library system.

The libraries were built by Oxford resident and University of Mississippi student Harriman Abernathy with materials donated by Elliott Lumber Company. Each library is overseen by an individual steward in that community who checks it weekly to ensure it is stocked and in good repair.

“We are so excited to have a Little Free Library here,” says Harmontown resident and First Regional Library staff member Randie Cotton, who serves as steward of the Little Free Library there. “People can just grab a book for themselves or their kids on their way to and from work or church and bring them back when they’re done. It doesn’t get much easier than that!”

The libraries are stocked with books for both children and adults. Putting books in the hands of children is a priority for the library, CELI and LOU Reads. All three organizations are part of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a nationwide effort that focuses on grade-level reading by the end of third grade, an important predictor of school success and high school graduation.

In Mississippi, 74 percent of  fourth-graders and 80 percent of eighth-graders scored below proficient in reading on the 2015 National Assessment of Education Progress.

“The Little Free Libraries make it easy for parents and caregivers to make reading and early literacy skills a fun part of everyday life starting at birth, which is critical to their children’s early development and how they do in school,” said Angela Rutherford, CELI director.

In addition to books, the libraries contain information for parents and caregivers about how to use books and other resources to develop their children’s early learning skills.

“This library really supplements all we do to promote family literacy every day by putting more books in the hands of our students and their caregivers,” said Charline Hubbard, director of the Mary Cathey Head Start Center. “They love having it here so they can just pick up or bring back a book as they come and go every day.”

Little Free Libraries are a global phenomenon, with more than 36,000 around the world in 70 countries. The Little Free Library nonprofit organization has been honored by the Library of Congress, the National Book Foundation, and the American Library Association. Each year, nearly 10 million books are shared in Little Free Libraries. To learn more, visit

By Meredith Wulff

9 Questions with SOE Alumna Wanikka Vance

by UM School of Education on

Wanikka Vance

SOE Alumna Wanikka Vance (BAEd 03) is one of four 2017 Practitioner of Distinction Award winners and has served as a Chicago elementary school teacher for more than 10 years.

In 2011, Vance founded Foundations 4 adVANCEment, a P-1 school, which focuses on preparing young learners academically and socially to become college and career-minded from their earliest stages of growth and development.

While at Ole Miss, Vance had the privilege of being a student of T.P. Vinson, a late SOE professor who was honored earlier this year by being inducted into the School of Education Hall of Fame.

We recently sat down to speak with Vance about her time at UM and how she is working to change the educational landscape of Chicago and beyond.

What experience influenced you most as an Ole Miss student?

Student teaching. I did my student teaching at Bramlett Elementary School in Oxford for first grade. The students were phenomenal. I had never seen students who excelled at their rate. They were reading and writing at least one-to-two grade levels higher. It astonished me. When I went home to Chicago and started teaching, I expected my students to be able to excel at that same rate. They were the total opposite. It made me teach to a higher standard because I expected them to be like the students at Bramlett, so I started teaching that way for my Chicago students.

What attracted you to Ole Miss?

I had a full track scholarship. So, I decided to come and I loved every minute of it.

Are you still running?

No. I have a summer track team but I don’t run anymore. I train kids from ages 5 to 18.

What advice do you have for future teachers?

Teach with passion. Follow your heart. Change the face of education. Don’t go with the norm.

What have you enjoyed most during your career in education?

I have most enjoyed seeing children grow. I love taking them through the beginning steps and watching them grow into little people. I’ve always taught kindergarten and first grade, and when they first come in they are a blank slate. Then, by the end, they have gained knowledge. I love teaching the whole child and seeing them develop their own personality through academics.

What goals do you have for yourself professionally?

Right now, I have my own school. So, my goal is to be able to be a mentoring site for other early learning academies. I’m also writing my own curriculum, so I would like to have that in several other schools.

Was there a faculty member at Ole Miss that made an impact on you?

Dr. (T.P.) Vinson definitely impacted me the most. I’m so excited that Dr. Vinson is being honored as a member of the Hall of Fame. I remember being in his class. Dr. Vinson made sure I was striving to be the best. He made sure I had high expectations and he challenged me. I liked that. I find myself challenging my students in the same way. I’ve had students come back and thank me for it. I had a student who is now in college come to me and tell me that I pushed him in kindergarten for excellence and he thanked me. I look back and realize that is the same way my professors were at Ole Miss. They didn’t let me slack. Just because I was an athlete, they didn’t let me slip by. They held me accountable.

What was your favorite part about going into Dr. Vinson’s class?

I’m always up for a challenge. When I went into his classroom for the first time, I was nervous. He made sure I worked hard. He wasn’t just giving me a passing grade. I had to earn every piece of it, but I liked the challenge.

What does it mean to you personally to be recognized as a 2017 Practitioner of Distinction?

It is a great honor. I couldn’t believe it when I found out, because most of the time when you leave your alma mater, you’re just gone. For them to say that they have actually been following me professionally was a bit surprising. It is a great honor for me to know that the work I am doing is not in vain.

Read more about Vance and other SOE Practitioners of Distinction in the 2017 edition of our Education Edge Alumni Magazine.

By Kathleen Murphy and Andrew Abernathy

Hutchens to Give Guest Lecture at University of Kentucky

by UM School of Education on September 27, 2017

Neal Hutchens, Ph.D., J.D.

Professor Neal Hutchens, SOE interim chair of higher education, is scheduled to give a guest lecture at the University of Kentucky on Monday, Oct. 23, reports UK’s College of Education.

His lecture titled “From Snowflakes to Milo: The Search to Reconcile Free Speech and Social Justice Concerns on College and University Campuses” will be “an interactive session focusing on free speech controversies that have arisen at colleges and universities throughout the (United States).”

Hutchens was recently named interim chair of the SOE’s new Department of Higher Education, where he is also a full professor. An expert in first amendment and free speech issues, Hutchens joined UM in 2016 after serving as the professor in charge of higher education at Pennsylvania State University. He also held faculty positions at the University of Kentucky and Barry University.

Hutchens holds a Ph.D. in higher education policy from the University of Maryland, a law degree from the University of Alabama, a master’s degree from Auburn University at Montgomery and a bachelor’s degree from Samford University.