2014 Reasons to Believe Alumni Honor Roll

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Role models who give us Reasons to Believe in the power of education

Dr. Christi A. Walter

J.C. Harmon High School, 1976

Other Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools Attended: T.A. Edison Elementary and Rosedale Junior/Senior High

Dr. Christi A. WalterChristi Walter’s work is intended to lead to healthier lives. Her current work is focused on addressing how DNA repair in cells can sustain normal biological functions, and how changes contribute to disease. The areas of biology impacted by her work include stem cell biology, reproductive biology, aging, cancer and genetics.

Walter is professor and chair of the Department of Cellular and Structural Biology at the University of Texas Health Science Center. She holds a joint appointment in research and development at the South Texas Veteran’s Health Care System. She has been an active independent researcher since 1988, and is one of only a few women in the U.S. to chair a department in a medical school.

She finds her work gratifying because it allows her to make a difference while also satisfying her own curiosity as to how things function, and to simultaneously cultivate the appetite of students fascinated by science.

It was her high school biology teacher, Mr. Rogers, who ignited Walter’s fervor for the field of science. His energy and enthusiasm in the classroom intrigued her. He mentored her first independent lab experience, and it enabled her to see that she was passionate about doing science.

Walter was valedictorian of her graduating class at Harmon, but her shyness was a challenge while she was going through school. For that reason, she opted to stay close to home for college. She attended Rockhurst University, where her interest in biology continued to be nurtured. She went on to Florida State University to work on her Ph.D. She fulfilled her postdoctoral fellowship at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, which is the foundation for her current lab work.

Walter is a lecturer in genes and development and program director for the graduate program in cellular & structural biology. She is past president of the Texas Genetics Society and received their Distinguished Service Award in 2008. She is a member of the American Federation of Aging Research National Scientific Advisory Council.

In 2007, the University of Texas Health Science Center presented Walter with the Faculty Senate Administration Leadership Award for her administrative leadership.

She feels that one of her greatest accomplishments is training Ph.D. students in her lab.


2014 Reasons to Believe Alumni Honor Roll

Reasons to Believe logo

Role models who give us Reasons to Believe in the power of education

Dr. Jayson Strickland

Washington High School, 1989

Dr. Jayson StricklandJayson Strickland has been connected to the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools (KCKPS) all of his life. He is proud to continue his family’s legacy and dedication to serving students.

Strickland is the assistant superintendent for secondary education for KCKPS. It’s not only his work, but also his background that makes him an invaluable asset to the district. He has spent his entire career in KCKPS. His positions have included teacher, assistant principal, principal, executive director for elementary instruction and director of curriculum. He has been an assistant superintendent for four years. His favorite part of his work is watching students grow and watching leaders grow.

He knew that he always wanted to be a teacher because his family was so involved in the education system. Their positions ran the gamut from educators to nutritional services staff, and from bus drivers to custodians. He feels like there is no separation between his family and education. And he is proud when he sees the names of his grandfather, Roosevelt Strickland, and grandmother, Mabel, and many other family members’ names, on the Sumner High School historical marker that was erected by alumni at the school’s original site at 9th and Washington.

Strickland’s first male teacher inspired him to want to be an educator. He was a wonderful role model and as he progressed through school, Strickland imagined himself in that teacher’s position. He had planted a seed. That modeling, combined with Strickland’s family ties to education, brought him back home after college to live and teach in the district.

He remembers so many staff at Washington High School who gave him reasons to believe in himself. From his theater teacher to his assistant principal, they provided an expectation for him to do what was right, and helped to engage him in the educational process. A field trip to the state Capitol in Topeka has stayed with him all of these years. It was his first overnight trip away from home, and the experience opened his eyes to responsibility, leadership and independence.

Strickland’s advice for today’s students is: “education offers you an opportunity that will open doors for you if you take advantage of it.”


2014 Reasons to Believe Alumni Honor Roll

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Role models who give us Reasons to Believe in the power of education

Dr. LeeRoy Pitts

Sumner High School, 1951

Other Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools Attended: Grant Elementary and Northeast Junior High

LeeRoy PittsLeeRoy Pitts was taught from a young age to seize every opportunity that life afforded him. He was never told what he couldn’t do. These are lessons he has passed on to thousands of students throughout his 49-year career as an educator.

Pitts taught for 14 years in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools before moving on to teach at Penn Valley Community College. He taught there for 35 years, and even served as chair of the biology department.

He did not aspire to be a teacher. His undergraduate degree is in industrial design and drafting with a minor in science. But in 1958, he took a temporary job as a science teacher at Northeast Junior High, and during that year, he fell in love with teaching. The experience of seeing a light turn on in his students’ eyes was one he wanted to relive again and again.

His teaching philosophy is, “Our battle is to get our youth to believe in their possibilities and in the worth of trying.”

He remembers school being a haven to him while he was growing up. He had a constant thirst for knowledge, and he had so many teachers who gave him empirical answers to his “why” questions. It gave him a passion for learning, which has stayed with him throughout his life.

He said, “If I couldn’t continually learn, I don’t think I would live very long.”

He has a master’s degree in biology and a doctorate in theology. He is said to be one of the most sought after speakers in the religious community in KCK.

Pitts was very involved in community affairs in the 1960s and was a member of the City Planning Commission. In 1995, he received the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching for challenging and motivating students.

He has documented his life in his autobiography, “Up From the Bottoms,” which refers to the West Bottoms area of KCK where he was raised. He wrote the book for his grandchildren, so they would know their family history, but the book serves as an inspiration to all who read it.

His wife, Eligene, is a 1953 graduate of Sumner High.

Other Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools Attended:


2014 Reasons to Believe Alumni Honor Roll

Reasons to Believe logo

Role models who give us Reasons to Believe in the power of education

Harold L. Simmons

Wyandotte High School, 1965

Other Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools Attended: Douglass Elementary, Quindaro Elementary and Northwest Junior High

Harold SimmonsHarold Simmons believes his greatest accomplishment is being of service to others. And for the past 14 years, he has dedicated his life to doing just that.

As president of the largest Baptist men’s organization in the United States – the National Baptist Laymen’s Movement – he travels around the country conducting workshops, lecturing and promoting Christian fellowship. Through this work, he has been a tireless advocate for the education, development and promotion of young students, particularly African-American inner-city young men.

He said, “If I can get one person to turn around then I will have done good work.”

This is Simmons’ second career in his life. He previously spent more than 29 years with the KCK Police Department. He started out as a patrol officer and also a beat walker in the area from 5th and Washington Boulevard to 5th and Quindaro Boulevard. From there he moved on to other units in the department including homicide and fraud. He retired as a detective in the Chief’s Office. He brought the DARE program to the community, and he worked to improve racial relations. Once, he formed a singing police officer trio with a Hispanic officer (Steve Lopez), and a Caucasian officer (Don Ash).

He thinks it’s ironic that in his first career, he put people in jail, and now in his second, he works to keep them out of jail.

He remembers the support and discipline provided to him by his teachers in the KCK Public Schools. He played basketball in high school and was cut during his senior year. But his coach, Walt Shublom, promised him that if he kept playing he would get him a scholarship to KCK Community College to play ball there. And true to his word, he did. That led to a scholarship to play at Murray State University in Kentucky. After college, he was offered a chance to play basketball in Italy, but wanted to come home to KCK.

His advice for today’s students is, “Learn all you can and get all the education you can get, then turn it over to the Lord to be used for good in your community.”


2014 Reasons to Believe Alumni Honor Roll

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Role models who give us Reasons to Believe in the power of education

Marcus Newsom

F.L. Schlagle High School, 1988

Other Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools Attended: Arrowhead Middle

Marcus NewsomAs a coach and mentor to thousands of athletes over his career, Marcus Newsom has pushed his athletes to persevere during times of adversity. He believes the most meaningful lessons in life come from tough times.

Newsom is the head men’s and women’s track and field coach and assistant athletic director at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. Under his direction, the women’s track team has won 29 consecutive conference track and field championships since 1999, and eight national championships. The men have won 16 conference titles.

But Newsom doesn’t measure success by titles or trophies, he measures it by character, scholarship and attitude. He recruits students based on these attributes because he believes that’s what makes them good athletes.

As a student in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, Newsom had his share of challenges. His father left when he was five, and his mom worked hard to support the family. At Schlagle High School, Newsom played football, wrestled and ran track. He had a number of teachers and coaches who gave him reasons to believe in himself. Mrs. Fields, his English teacher, taught him how to write – a skill that was invaluable to him in college. Coach Randy Westfahl mentored him as a player, but also served as a father figure. And athletic director Mary Stewart taught him and the other athletes to be “good young men of character.” However, his mother was his biggest mentor and supporter, and the best coach he has ever had.

“She taught me to work hard, have a positive attitude and to always have faith, and that’s what coaching is,” he said.

He is thankful that he grew up in a diverse school district, and with teachers who were passionate about teaching and mentoring students. He tries to emulate that in his work today. He believes that diversity plays a huge role in developing well-rounded scholars.

He wants students to remember not to place judgment on others.

“If you don’t place judgment and others do the same,” he said, “then you are leaving the door wide open to possibilities. You can walk through any door with an open mind.”