Excellence in everything: Black SOCSD leaders share stories

From left to right: Armstrong Middle School Assistant Principal Ra’Mon Forbes, SOCSD Athletic Director Cheyenne Trussell, SOCSD Director of Student Assessment and Intervention Andrea Pastchal-Smith, Starkville High School Lead Teacher Cynthia Millons and SOCSD Superintendent Eddie Peasant. The group discussed their upbringings and the importance of diverse leadership with the SDN. (Photo by Charlie Benton. SDN)
Staff Writer

The Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District considers diversity one of its strengths, with students and teachers from a wide swath of backgrounds, races and communities.

In recognition of Black History Month, the SDN sat down with five African-Americans serving in leadership roles in the district. The conversation included Superintendent Eddie Peasant, Athletics Director Cheyenne Trussell, Armstrong Middle School Assistant Principal Ra’mon Forbes, Director of Student Assessment and Intervention Andrea Pastchal-Smith and Starkville High School lead teacher Cynthia Millons.

The group discussed several topics, including their upbringing, mentorship and the importance of diverse leadership in the school district.

Prior to integration, Trussell entered the white West Lauderdale Elementary School in Lauderdale County as a first grader. He told the SDN he didn’t realize the scorn and terror his family faced for their decision until later.

“I didn’t understand why there were dead animals drug in front of my house in our driveway, or why there were baby dolls with a rope around their neck,” Trussell said. “I didn’t know what was going on. It wasn’t until I got to the first grade that I realized that it was different.”

He said he had a teacher at the school who took him under her wing and encouraged him to do well in school.

“When I rode the bus, I had to sit on the first seat,” Trussell said. “I couldn’t go on the playground with everybody else, because I had to stay within a certain radius. Whenever we walked anywhere, I was always right behind the teacher.”

He said when integration was mandated when he was in the third grade, he was already somewhat ahead of the curve.

“I was more like the facilitator, mediator, because I was already there when the schools merged,” Trussell said.

Trussell cited his father as a major influence in his life.

“I grew up in the country, in Collinsville, Mississippi,” Trusssell said. “My dad believed in work, and one of things he supported was athletics, so I tried to participate in every possible sport. I didn’t really get out of my chores, but the biggest thing I take is the impact my parents had on my life. They believed in doing the right thing.”

Peasant, who grew up in Mobile, Alabama, also cited his parents as a major influence, pushing him and his brothers to take the next step and earn college degrees.

“My dad worked in a paper mill,” Peasant said. “Early on, I learned from him the importance of working, taking care of your family as the man of the house, but as I stated, they were both high school graduates. They some way instilled in us that we would not stop there, we would go to college and graduate. Obviously, I did and both my brothers did.”

Peasant also said being the oldest sibling and the oldest of 25 cousins had prepared him for leadership roles later in life.

He said sharing his story with students was important so they would know he came from a similar background to many of them.

“I think it’s good for them to hear that,” Peasant said. “My life when I was 10 years old or 12 years old was a lot like (theirs), and I made it to this point, so being that inspiration and being here to share those stories is important.”

Forbes expounded on the importance of setting an example, saying African-American students need to see AfricanAmericans in leadership positions.

“Not all, but a number of them unfortunately are in environments and situations that, right now don’t speak toward success,” Forbes said. “For them to see other black men in leadership, wearing a shirt and tie, dressed nicely, speaking professionally, for them to see men of integrity and character, as well. I believe that it helps them, as well, to be able to see those leaders.”

Forbes said mentorship was important to him, as well, being a person his students could talk with about problems they faced.

“When you start having the opportunity to share that with those young men, as well, it assists in ultimately what I call a win-win,” Forbes said. “It enables us to produce more successful people overall, but especially impacting those young black men.”

He referred to the statistic of black men having the highest rate of incarceration in the country, saying it increased the need for mentorship even further.

“Just being able to change that trajectory and that narrative, as well is also an added benefit,” Forbes said.

Millons said her parents, who worked at the former Bryan Foods plant in West Point, encouraged her to get an education, so she would be better off than they were. She said her parents would often tell her she did not want to work in a factory.

“One thing that mom and dad taught us is the work ethic, but also the education part,” Millons said. “It was like they knew that we would be successful athletically, but, it’s about that education.”

Pastchal-Smith said her mother, who raised her as a single parent also pushed her to earn a college degree.

“My mother always instilled in me the value and importance of education, as well,” Pastchal-Smith said. “She served as a nurse assistant for many years, and she would tell me, ‘you don’t want to do this position, so strive to be your best.’”

Peasant said his father would often have similar conversations with his children, telling them they didn’t want to work in a paper mill or other factory.

Trussell and Forbes also said their parents expected academic excellence from them.

“There was no not going to college, not finishing,” Forbes said. “That wasn’t acceptable for mom. She had her master’s, so the bar was set to where noting lower was acceptable. I remember getting a whipping for the first C that I brought home, and I never brought home another one.”

Pastchal-Smith also spoke to the importance of teaching students about black history, saying young people needed to understand the sacrifices and struggles of previous generations.

“We have to understand where we have overcame as a race and a nation,” Pastchal-Smith said.