UAA Alumni Profile: Cessilye Williams
Moving up through education & Moving up through education
Some of Clark’s students were lucky to have enough love and support in their lives to move them toward happy futures. But some students—too many—lived without nurturing parents, without predictable meals, without reassurance and discipline.
Fortunately, a woman working inside that aging school building, Principal Cessilye Williams (M.Ed., Educational Leadership, 2002) had committed herself to enhancing the lives, education and community of the 1,150 children in her care.
Cessilye walked the halls of the old Clark for six years, a brace of keys swaying from her hand. She continued looking after her flock for the two years they attended other schools, while a new Clark structure bloomed. And now she walks the halls at the reborn $65-million Clark, located on 23.75 acres west of Bragaw Street and south of Mountain View Drive.
As she walks, an assemblage of fobs, carabiners and newer keys slung over the shoulder of her immaculate suit mingles companionably with the constellation of pearls and gold adorning her neck.
“I’m here at school pretty much every day but Sunday—but sometimes on Sunday,” Cessilye said.
Moving up through education
Cessilye Scott was born and raised in Abilene, Texas, one of four children of a Baptist minister who was Abilene’s first African-American city council member and its first African-American pharmacist.
She married Timothy Williams in 1981, in Nolan County, Texas, and received her bachelor’s degree in education from Angelo State University. A close friend Tim had grown up with lived in Fairbanks and told him of a job opportunity there, so the couple moved to Alaska in 1984.
She taught preschool on base at Fort Wainwright, language arts and English at nearby North Pole Middle School and kindergarten at Chena Elementary School, and earned her first master’s degree, in guidance and counseling, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“That’s my love,” she said. “I’m really good at that. That’s the heart of any job I would do. I care about other people, like to peel away the layers to see where their strengths are, as well as their weaknesses and pathways that exist.”
They moved again after the Air Force transferred her husband to Anchorage, in 1992, and Cessilye began working as a counselor at North Star Elementary School.
She enrolled at UAA and started pursuing her second master’s degree, in administration.
“Each degree I’ve obtained has been because someone else was able to see qualities in me,” she said. “Someone told me, ‘You really should go into counseling.’ I’ve followed those suggestions.”
Margo Bellamy, principal of Wendler Middle School and director of the Anchorage School District’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, was the person who told Cessilye she should go into administration because she would excel in it. Cessilye followed her advice and, after earning that master’s degree, worked as Hanshew Middle School’s assistant principal before applying for the job of Clark Middle School’s principal in 2000.
“Cessilye is one of the brighter lights,” Bellamy said. “She’s fabulous. When she focuses on something, she’s a pit bull, but in a good way. The kids know who she is, knows she’s got their backs. She’s very involved—I don’t see how she ever sleeps. I can call on her. She’s dependable, very quiet, very thoughtful. If you didn’t know her, you might think she is detached, but she’s not detached. She’s approachable. She will walk on hot coals for her kids. If there’s anything they need, she will get it. Haircut? Dental care? She’s going to figure out how to meet that need.”
Growing fresh opportunities
When Cessilye first arrived at Clark, her goal was to take the time to listen and develop plans for the future with engagement from parents, teacher, students and the community.
“I wanted to let them know who I am, my mission, relate to them in more ways than words,” she said. “They’re my priority relationship.”
She asked what they wanted and what she could do to make teaching (and learning) easier and better.
And, she helped continue forming and growing partnerships with businesses and other organizations in Anchorage that were eager to help Clark’s students: Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta sororities and Sam’s Club helped out on Multicultural Day; Wells Fargo helps teach Clark students financial literacy; Municipal Light & Power supplied all Clark classrooms with emergency backpacks; Lions Club gave a donation to the nurse and for the life skills class; Anchorage Fire Department Station #3 helped teach first aid skills and went through student portfolios; Aurora Vending donated SmartWater; Nine Star Education and Employment Services provides tutoring after school and Tre Mickens of New York Life provides tutoring and mentoring.
“When you’re placed at a school, you don’t know what it really has in store for you,” Cessilye said. “I can teach, mentor kids. Any caliber, it’s about the connections you make. I make very strong connections with kids. Schools are the path to higher education, community connections, scholarships. Clark’s transformation over the years has been tremendous. The student body, parents and community give me overwhelming support. It’s humbling—they want great things for these students.”
Another service that came about as a result of that dialogue between students, parents and others in the community, an on-site health center, fulfills a key goal of keeping students healthy and in class. Clark offers free medical services Mondays and Wednesdays during school, for minor illnesses and injuries, and staying up to date with sports physicals and immunizations.
And, the school’s website offers information for parents about ways they can help their child succeed at school and in life.
A sense of discipline and pride about school—both the building and the people who inhabit it—are qualities Clark students seem to have taken to heart.
Classroom doors on the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade levels of the 174,000-square-foot school offer glimpses of children fully immersed and engaged in what they are making, writing and hearing.
“This has always been a very diverse school,” she said. “It’s such a gift to be exposed to these students. And the students from other countries it’s exciting to meet them here, firsthand.”
Providing a foundation
Cessilye tries to help Clark students access as many opportunities as possible.
In addition to math, reading, writing, physical education and integrated science courses, students at Clark Middle School may study pre-med or aviation, anatomy or exploratory art, the electronics, robotics and rocketry of applied technology classes, debate or family consumer science, economics or law or business tech.
They may also participate in band, orchestra or chorus—including swing choir and a marching band that features a wildly popular and dynamic drumline.
Cessilye—who played clarinet and attended band camp as a child—received approval last year for $25,000 for the band’s drums and other musical instruments. Her short-term goal? Enriching the educational experience of students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford instruments. And her long-term goal? Making school a place they want to be, a place they enjoy and want to participate in—and using that connection to improve grades and attendance.
“I can’t remember the last time I set my alarm,” Cessilye said. “I’m up, ready to go, with great energy to get started. My barometer for the education we offer at Clark is, would it be good enough for my own children?”
Cessilye is as strict at Clark as she likely was with her own two children—UAA alumna Jazmine Williams, 24, B.B.A., 2013, Marketing, and her son Scott, 19, who attends Fort Valley State University in Georgia. (Cessilye’s husband, Timothy, director of freight sales & marketing for the Alaska Railroad, is yet another UAA alumnus, M.S. Global Supply Chain Management, 2004.)
She instills in students a sense of respect for themselves, for others and for their still-pristine-after-six-years school. Cessilye spotted a small scatter of peas and broccoli on the carpet of an otherwise-orderly hall, but didn’t hesitate or call a custodian. Even though she was wearing heels and perfectly creased gray slacks, Cessilye bent, scooped the spilled vegetables into her hand and carefully tossed them in a nearby garbage container before resuming her walk.
“I’m proud of the transformation of our school’s reputation,” she said. “I want to be a partner in our students’ learning.”
This article first appeared in the UAA Alumni Spirit, May 14, 2015.