By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
Diane Page had worked for more than 30 years in traditional education settings before learning about an opportunity that she couldn’t resist.
Following a long-held passion to assist troubled students, Page became education coordinator of the learning center at the Lee County Juvenile Detention Center in 2001. She’s held that position since, working to educate and to improve the self-esteem of countless 12 to 17 year-old adolescents who have cycled through the detention center through the years.
It’s been a strenuous routine that will come to an end soon when Page retires at the end of this month. She will be replaced by Emily Pulliam, who is currently serving as principal of the Lee County Schools’ Belden Center.
“My heart has always been with the kids that were falling through the cracks,” Page said. “That was my weak spot.”
Page’s coworkers have seen that giving spirit manifested many time during her years at the detention center. Reading specialist Judy Loden said she has watched Page buy school supplies and books for the children there on multiple occasions.
“She cares so much about the kids and always put their needs first,” sad certified teacher Angie Roberts. “That is what makes this place so special. It is all about the kids.”
Page began her teaching career in 1967 when she was a classroom teacher in Houston, Texas. She left and taught in Memphis before moving to Tupelo to become a classroom teacher at Pierce Street and Joyner Elementaries.
She taught adult education classes at Itawamba Community College, helped pilot Tupelo Schools’ 4-year-old program and served as an assistant principal in Fulton and an elementary principal in South Pontotoc. While completing her Ph.D., she helped train assistant teachers and later published textbooks and training modules for assistant teachers.
In spite of her vast experience, Page said working with the youth in the juvenile detention center has been an entirely new experience.
“You use the skills you have acquired in public schools, but it is a whole different way of thinking,” Page said.
While traditional teachers and principals can plan for students that will be present for an entire year, youth are in the detention center for no more than 90 days at a time.
“Teaching has to be one-on-one,” Page said. “We have juveniles who come in here who are very limited, and juveniles who are very smart. You go from one end of the spectrum to the other.
“They will be doing their schoolwork, but it is not set up like a classroom or a school room because they have had bad experiences in that setting. It is set up like an office with zero tolerance. They know what is expected of them and they get it done.”
Because of privacy regulations, the students in the detention center were not available for interviews or photographs. But Page’s coworkers said the students through the years have really respected Page. Administrative assistant Amy Swan said once one of the students returned to the center and invited her and Page out to lunch.
“They can see she actually cares for them,” Swan said.
The number of students in the learning center at one time varies, but Page said it is usually around seven or eight. Most of them are from Tupelo and Lee County but they also come from surrounding counties. If there are too many students in the program at one time, instructors will divide them into two shifts, but that is rarely needed. Otherwise, students attend class in the morning and afternoon.
When students perform well during the week, Page said she’ll often reward them with movies and popcorn on Friday afternoons. They’ll also hold celebrations for student birthdays.
“I feel like if I would have had someone like that in my life coming up, I could have been so much more than what I am right now,” said correction officer Cpl. Ruby Dye.
“It takes a very special person, especially dealing with these kids because some of them have behavior problems. You have to have patience, which is something that a lot of us don’t have. She doesn’t care how hard it gets, she keeps going until she gets it right.”
Staff deserves credit
Page can be strict, but she insists that it is important that the instructors don’t raise their voices. Her coworkers tease her because she is particularly sensitive about the learning center’s cleanliness. She won’t tolerate eraser shavings, mop lint, paper scraps or popcorn kernels anywhere within the room.
They will call anything that needs to go in the trash a “doodle.”
“And I am the doodle queen,” Page said.
Page insists that the success of the learning center doesn’t belong to her but to the entire staff from the sheriff’s department and shift sergeants to the teachers in the classroom with her. She also thanks local churches who minister to the children, school personnel she works with and judges and youth court counselors.
She said that all of the kids who come through the center are lovable.
“All of these kids are great kids, they just made some stinky choices,” Page said.
Once retired, she will spend more time with her family, her husband, Fred, and her two children and five grandchildren. She wants to be more active in her church, All Saints’ Episcopal, to do some educational consulting and to write a children’s book.
“A lot of these kids and a lot of their parents are going to miss that woman,” Dye said. “We are going to truly miss her because she tells you like it is and that is the way it is going to be.
“I get tears in my eyes just talking about it.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or firstname.lastname@example.org.