Mrs. McCray Believes Every Child Needs A Champion
When Denise McCray, the principal of the new Aiken Intermediate School, says she knows “the power” of teachers to make a difference in students' lives, she speaks from experience.
The teachers at an intermediate school in her hometown town of Phenix City, Alabama, changed her life. Their and other teachers' impact ran deep, and she still remembers their names: Donna Moulton, with “the blue eye shadow,” Angela Stancel, Rose Johnson, Annie Lindsey and Joe Nathan Wright.
Aiken Intermediate will open Monday just for Aiken County Public Schools' sixth-graders in Aiken, and McCray hopes the school's focus on “letting sixth-graders just be sixth-graders” – without distractions from older classmates – will help them, like it helped her, make the transition from elementary to middle school.
“That's why I feel like this is my place right here. My mission is having that opportunity to level the playing field for students, to help build their confidence, to help them to be ready and prepared to take the next level.”
A sixth-grade-only school offers the perfect environment to focus on children's development as they grow from childhood into adolescence.
“Right now, the kids are at a very interesting developmental stage,” McCray said. “They're moving from concrete thinking to being able to think more abstractly. They're developing who they are and opinions that they have and developing that sense of self and confidence.
“If we catch them right here and give them the tools they need as they move forward, they have the skills and the strategies and the confidence they need to keep on growing and building.”
And helping sixth-graders develop that confidence will be one of the cornerstones of Aiken Intermediate School.
“It's really building confidence and teaching them to advocate for themselves and others,” she said.
McCray started her teaching career at an elementary school in Eufaula, Alabama, after receiving her undergraduate degree in elementary education from Auburn University.
She later returned home and taught fifth and sixth grade at Phenix City Intermediate School, where she was named the school's and the district's Teacher of the Year.
McCray and her family moved to South Carolina in 1999, and she taught at Chukker Creek Elementary for eight years.
She then worked in Lexington County, where she taught and became an assistant principal at Lake Murray Elementary in Lexington District 1.
After a short return to Columbus, Georgia, the family moved back to Aiken, and McCray became the principal at Schofield Middle School for the last two years before starting her “adventure” at Aiken Intermediate School.
McCray's personal adventure in education grew from her love of learning, a passion that her mother, Mary Alice Ziglor, encouraged and helped instill in her.
“My mother's circumstances dictated that she had to leave school to take care of her grandfather,” McCray said. “My mother did not have an opportunity to graduate from high school, but all three of her children and all of her grandchildren have graduated or are in college. She always pressed the importance of education on us.”
McCray's mother also taught her and her brothers, Lawrence and Jimmy Stephens, the importance of faith and gave her a strong foundation in the church.
“My husband laughs that we went to church almost every day,” said McCray, who attends Mount Anna Baptist Church in Aiken and whose brother, Lawrence, is a pastor in Alabama. “We grew up with the church being the center of our lives and being a strong focus.”
McCray and her husband, Johnnie McCray III, who works for Kimberly Clark, have been married 27 years. They have a daughter, Ashley, a nursing student at USC Aiken, and a son, Jonathan, who is a Technical Scholar at Aiken Technical College, works at Bridgestone and also is a USCA alumnus.
McCray's decision to become a teacher brought her and her husband, whose nickname is Butch, together.
McCray's mother and her stepfather, James Ziglor, brought a dresser from home to her first apartment in Eufaula.
“My stepdad needed help getting the dresser upstairs, and here comes my husband walking out of his apartment, and you know how moms are: What's his name? See if he'll help James,” McCray said. “I introduced them, and moms have to know where are you from and who are your people?”
As it turns out, he was from Columbus, which is just across the Chattahoochee River from Phenix City. And McCray's mom and her husband's aunt worked together for years.
“His aunt actually bought me my first pair of shoes,” McCray said. “My husband likes to say that the McCrays have been keeping me in shoes all of my life.”
Having experienced the life-changing power of teachers personally, McCray now hears from her former students about how the power of the relationships she fostered with them changed their lives.
One of those students, who now lives in Texas, found McCray on Facebook and messaged her.
“This particular young man's desk was always right beside my desk,” McCray said and laughed. “To say that we had our ups and down that school year – that would be putting it lightly.”
Now a motivational speaker, deejay and Christian rap artist, he talks about his relationship with McCray when he shares his testimony.
“I was kind of taken aback,” McCray said. “He said that I didn't give up on him. He knows that he was a challenge, but I just kept on coming back. I wouldn't give up. I wouldn't let go. I think that's so important. Our kids have to know that they're worth the fight – they're worth the challenge. We won't give up.
“Educator Rita Pearson in her TED Talks mentions about how every kid needs a champion. And every kid does need a champion, someone who believes in them, someone who has an unconditional positive regard for them.”