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JPS Honors the Best of the Best in 2023 Excellence Awards Celebration

December 20, 2023

Best of the Year honorees with plaques and Dr. Errick L. Greene

JPS Superintendent Dr. Errick L. Greene (center) presented awards to the 2023 JPS Best of the Year honorees (from left) Dr. Sara Harper, Administrator of the Year; Alesia White, Teacher of the Year; Dr. Wanda Clark, District Leader of the Year (right of Greene); Ella Pepper, Support Staff of the Year; and Celestial Gordon-Griffin, Parent of the Year.

On Monday, December 11, Jackson Public Schools recognized the excellence of leaders throughout the District. JPS Superintendent Dr. Errick L. Greene honored five outstanding individuals for their contributions which uplift our commitments to the scholars, families, and employees of our District. Each recipient received a check for $500 along with a plaque. The Jackson Public Schools' Best of the Year Awards honorees for 2023 are: 

  • Administrator of the Year – Dr. Sara Harper, Principal, McWillie Elementary  
  • Teacher of the Year - Alesia White, Van Winkle Elementary School 
  • Parent of the Year – Celestial Gordon-Griffin, John Hopkins Elementary 
  • District Leader of the Year – Wanda Clark, Office of Teaching and Learning 
  • Support Staff of the Year – Ella Pepper, Facilities and Operations 

About the Honorees

Administrator of the Year

Born in Sioux City, Iowa, Dr. Sara Harper relocated to Jackson, Mississippi in 1996. Following her graduation from Millsaps College in 2000, she embarked on her teaching career within the Jackson Public School District, where she has dedicated 24 years of service. Dr. Harper earned her master's degree in counseling from Jackson State University and later achieved her Doctor of Education Leadership from Mississippi College. 

For the past 11 years, she has served as the principal of McWillie Elementary and additionally acts as a principal mentor for the Division I Elementary Team. Dr. Harper holds a significant role on the Mississippi Department of Education Principal Advisory Council. Throughout her tenure in the Jackson Public School District, she earned the distinction of Teacher of the Year at both Lee Elementary, where she served as an exceptional education teacher, and McWillie Elementary, where she taught in the Montessori program. 

In 2016, Dr. Harper successfully completed the Leadership Greater Jackson program and has since remained an active board member. She is not only a graduate but also a board member of the Millsaps College Principals’ Summer Institute. Committed to community service, Dr. Harper has been a member of the Junior League of Jackson since 2018 and currently serves on the board for The First Tee of Central Mississippi. 

 Teacher of the Year

Alesia White, with 11 years of teaching experience, imparts knowledge to pre-kindergarten students at Van Winkle Elementary and holds pivotal roles as Student and Family Engagement coordinator, team leader, and mentor for novice teachers at her school. She began her career at the Center for Child Development at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Ms. White holds a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Jackson State University and a bachelor’s degree in Child and Family Studies. She is actively pursuing National Board Certification in Early Childhood. 

Ms. White's educational philosophy centers on fostering scholars' growth through developmentally appropriate experiences in a safe and nurturing environment. She believes in the unique potential of each child, emphasizing positive relationships with both students and their families. Viewing children as active learners, Ms. White encourages meaningful play in her classroom, promoting curiosity, discovery, and problem-solving. Her goal is to continue playing a pivotal role in the lives of young scholars, nurturing their success and development in her classroom. 

Beyond the classroom, Ms. White is a dedicated church volunteer, particularly involved in various roles in support of children. She extends her commitment by volunteering with the Parent Academy Program, offering free materials to parents of three- to five-year-olds for home-based readiness practices. She also secures essential resources through mini grants with a track record of 15 funded grants. Her additional noteworthy achievements include contributing to the establishment of Jackson Public Schools' first all-pre-kindergarten school, receiving the Rock Star Award for 2021-2022 and 2023-2024, and being honored with the 2023 Ask for More Jackson Outstanding Educator Award. 

Parent of the Year

Celestial Gordon-Griffin is the daughter of Bishop L. B. and the Late Peggy Gordon. She is married to Arlyn Griffin, and together they have a blended family of four (Ariel Hunt, Taj Sanders, Aniyah Griffin, and Arlyn Devon Griffin).  A native of Jackson, Mrs. Gordon-Griffin is a proud product of Jackson Public Schools. She’s a graduate of Callaway High School and Tougaloo College, and she is currently pursuing a master’s degree in political science at Tougaloo. Currently, she serves as the Program Director for the Bennie G. Thompson Delta Leadership Program at Tougaloo College.

An advocate for teachers and education, Mrs. Gordon-Griffin has always been active in the role as a support parent to the schools in which her children attended. She works tirelessly in her community.  From teaching and advocating for homeownership for black and brown individuals, to holding voter registration drives and inspiring the next generation of voters.

In 2005, Mrs. Gordon-Griffin co-founded Tools of Hope, a non-profit that was started to help Hurricane Katrina victims that relocated to Jackson. Understanding the financial constraints that parents of Hurricane Katrina students were facing, she knew the importance of making the transition of coming to Jackson as smooth as possible.  So, she raised funds, and had over 500 uniforms donated to JPS for the students who were victims of Hurricane Katrina. Now Tools of Hope focuses on the Warming Hearts Blanket initiative and Peggy’s Toy Chest.  Warming Hearts blesses homeless individuals during the Christmas season with a blanket and a care package to let them know that they are seen and loved. Peggy’s toy chest is based in Flora, Mississippi, where her family hosts an annual toy give-away in honor of her late mother, ensuring no child is without a gift on Christmas. Service, gratefulness, and compassion are three things she lives by.

District Leader of the Year

Dr. Wanda L. Clark currently holds the position of Director of Instructional Support Services in the Office of Teaching and Learning. Originally from Tchula, Mississippi, she earned her bachelor's degree from Jackson State University and further pursued her education, obtaining a master’s degree from Belhaven University. Additionally, Dr. Clark holds specialist and doctorate degrees in Educational Leadership from Mississippi College. With over 23 years of experience, she takes pride in her role as an educator. 

One notable achievement in Dr. Clark's career is her tenure as the principal of Sykes Elementary School, during which she and her team successfully transformed the school from a failing to a thriving institution. Dr. Clark firmly believes in providing a high-quality education for ALL scholars, emphasizing the responsibility of educators to ensure they receive it. Guided by Maya Angelou's words, she values the lasting impact of how individuals make others feel and endeavors to serve with dignity and respect. 

Beyond her role as a principal, Dr. Clark has served in various capacities, including assistant principal, curriculum specialist, master teacher, Cornerstone literacy coach, and classroom teacher. While acknowledging the challenges of educating scholars, she emphasizes that it is not only hard work but, more importantly, "heart" work. Driven by a sense of joy, she finds fulfillment in dedicating herself to this meaningful work each day. 

Support Staff of the Year

Ella Pepper serves as the Facilities Operations Custodian Supervisor overseeing the north zone. A native of Bolton, Mississippi, she pursued Business Technology at Hinds Community College after graduating from Raymond High School.  

Her connection with JPS dates back to 2010 when her children attended Hardy Middle School. Following a basketball game cleanup with the late Mr. Fred Sutton, then head custodian, she felt inspired to join JPS. Ms. Pepper's journey evolved from head custodian at Cardozo Middle School to custodian foreman (January 2013) and custodian supervisor (July 2023) due to her unwavering commitment, hard work, and collaborative skills with school leaders.  

Ms. Pepper's daily dedication extends beyond her official role. She contributes to establishing best practices in facility operations, acts as a trainer for staff, and serves as a role model for her team. Sandra Robinson, executive director of Facilities and Operations, describes Ms. Pepper as a servant leader who leads by example. Her passion for motivating staff and performing selfless acts, from trainings on computer applications to stepping in during staff shortages, exemplifies her commitment to the District at all levels.  

About the Awards

In keeping with our commitment to cultivating a community of accountability and excellence, Jackson Public Schools annually recognizes team members who make outstanding contributions toward our mission of developing scholars' success and achievement through world-class learning experiences. While our program honors one individual in each category, we acknowledge that these awards are representative of many individuals throughout our District and our overall community making a difference in the development of young people. 

Based on the state-level recognition programs, our Administrator and Teacher of the Year awards seek to honor individuals who demonstrate a superior ability to inspire their colleagues, faculty, and staff; demonstrate exemplary leadership practices; and ongoing, active involvement in the community. Additionally, the Parent of the Year recognizes an outstanding JPS parent, or grandparent, whose significant commitment, through generous gifts of time and other resources, has a powerful effect on the success of the school. Our Administrator, Teacher, and Parent of the Year will go on to represent Jackson Public Schools in the annual Mississippi Department of Education recognition programs. 

In 2020, we added two awards to celebrate the very real contributions of our Support Staff and District Leaders, which gives us another significant opportunity to highlight exemplary service among the multi-faceted teams who help make our District a conducive environment for our scholars to grow and develop. 

Congratulations to all and keep up the outstanding work! 

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