Education Edge » Mississippi Teacher Corps Alum Shines with STAR Recognition Program


Mississippi Teacher Corps Alum Shines with STAR Recognition Program

by avcowan on March 13, 2023

From left: Lauren Zarandona, ALL-Star Teacher (MTC Class of 2003); Ryan Blackwell, STAR-Teacher (MTC Class of 2021); Hannah Halford, STAR-Teacher (MTC Class of 2014) Submitted photo.

Several alumni of the Mississippi Teacher Corps program have been saluted by ALL-STAR and STAR students as outstanding teachers. Ryan Blackwell, Hannah Halford, and Lauren Zarandona were selected and recognized at the 2022 STAR Education Celebration by some of the best and brightest students in the state.

The Student-Teacher Achievement Recognition (STAR) Program highlights the scholastic achievements of Mississippi’s most outstanding high school teachers and students over the past several decades. The newest class boasts twenty ALL-STAR students and teachers, as well as over 320 STAR students and teachers.

This cohort joins more than 20,000 of the state’s top intellectuals and prominent educators who have qualified for acknowledgement in the STAR program, one of the most esteemed academic recognition programs in Mississippi. Chosen from hundreds of public, private and parochial schools, STAR students are seniors who have a minimum 25 ACT composite score and a minimum 93 academic average in the classroom. The top 20 STAR students receive the prestige of being ALL-STAR students.

Former participants of the Mississippi Teacher Corps program have been handpicked by ALL-STAR and STAR students as the educator who made the most prominent contribution to them during their academic journey. Lauren Zarandona graduated from the Mississippi Teacher Corps in 2005 and now teaches at the Mississippi School for Math and Science. Zarandona has been chosen by two ALL-STAR students, Amy Q. Zhang and Andrew C. Yu.

Mississippi Teacher Corps alumna, Lauren Zarandona pictured with her ALL-Star students. Submitted photo

Hannah Halford graduated from MTC in 2016 and now teaches at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School. Halford was designated by ALL-STAR student, Catherine B. Purvis.

STAR teacher, Ryan Blackwell has made an impact before graduating from the Mississippi Teacher Corps program and describes feeling shocked about his selection after only months of working with his STAR student, Nia S. Kindred at Leland High School in Leland, MS.

Pictured from right: Mississippi Teacher Corps alumus, Ryan Blackwell with his STAR student recipient, Nia S. Kindred. Submitted photo

“Honestly, I was surprised and honored to be chosen by our STAR student after less than a year working with her. Nia and I worked hard to perfect her academic writing, resume, and scholarship applications. As a non-state tested English teacher, I tried to focus on building strong relationships with my students and tailoring my English class to their individual needs and goals after graduation. The award felt like a validation of my teaching philosophy and priorities,” Blackwell said.

Director of the Mississippi Teacher Corps program, and former alumnus of the program, Dr. Joe Sweeney feels that early career support is necessary in producing successful, committed teachers throughout our state.

“We love to see our alumni find success and recognition in the classroom. Our main purpose is to support our teachers as they begin their teaching careers, and it is wonderful to see them recognized, whether it is during the program or beyond. Their success is a testament to their passion and commitment to teaching,” says Dr. Sweeney.

STAR scholarships are funded by the Kelly Gene Cook, Sr., Charitable Foundation, Inc. The Foundation was formed by Mr. Cook and his wife, Peggy in the 1980’s with the purpose of providing funds to support educational organizations across Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana over the past twenty years.  

Last year’s top ALL-STAR Scholar received a scholarship totaling $24,000 over four years, the first runner up received a $20,000 scholarship, and the second runner up received a $16,000 scholarship. Teachers of the top ALL-STAR Scholars received a $1000 gift. Remaining ALL-STAR Scholars received a $1000 scholarship and their teachers are gifted a $500 award.

Recognition initiatives, like the STAR program help combat the stigma around low recognition and low pay for our educators.

“Teachers rarely receive the recognition they deserve, so it is nice to see something like the Star Program highlighting how important teaching is in the lives of students in Mississippi. Teachers often go unappreciated, and recognitions like this, along with higher pay, would go a long way to help alleviate the teacher shortage crisis,” Sweeney said. 

Under the theme, “The Pursuit of Excellence”, the M.B. Swayze Foundation and the STAR program will recognize its 2023 award recipients on April 13th at the Clyde Muse Center in Pearl, MS. The Education Celebration will provide teachers, students and their loved ones a chance to celebrate their accomplishment.

To learn more about the Mississippi Economic Council’s STAR Program, visit for more information.

By: Adrienne Edney