Advocates play key role in student success 

Jessica Leonard’s e-mail signature includes the quote, “One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching."

She brings that mantra into her classroom every day as a 7th grade science teacher at Stevenson Middle School in southeast Houston. At Stevenson, 100 percent of the students qualify for free lunch, and the majority of her students know very little about the opportunities that exist outside of their neighborhood. 

Leonard has taught at Stevenson for four years. She spent the first two years there working for Teach for America (TFA), an organization rooted in domestic education reform that focuses on enlisting, developing and mobilizing as many as possible of the nation's most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity. TFA, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary later this month, emphasizes that together we can solve the achievement gap through selective recruitment and training of top college graduates with excellent critical thinking, organizational, interpersonal and leadership abilities. 

These characteristics prove most effective in helping students of all backgrounds achieve dramatic growth – not just those from upper class families. Shell has partnered with TFA since 1992, and our support helps fund the placement of hundreds of math and science teachers across Houston.

“I didn’t realize how much background and socioeconomics mattered until I began college.”

-Jessica Leonard, 7th Grade Science Teacher – Stevenson Middle School

“I grew up in Birmingham, Ala. with strong advocates in my parents and teachers, but most low-income kids don’t have strong advocates in their lives. This makes success very difficult across the board, and I wanted to do something about it.”

Students learn about the importance of Energy

Use interactive materials to bring science to life

Leonard found that many of her students had fallen behind academically, and she looked into appropriate science materials that would stimulate them, focused on interactive learning and would give them tangible skills they could use moving forward. 

She found out about the National Energy Education Development (NEED) project, which encompasses a curriculum portfolio of over 130 teacher and student guides designed to teach teachers and students about energy. Annually, NEED reaches roughly 75,000 classrooms, several million students and tens of thousands of teachers. 

“Kids develop misconceptions about energy due to the media, and a lot of them think too much in black and white, e.g. renewable is good and nonrenewable is bad,” said Emily Hawbaker, NEED’s curriculum director.

“There are pros and cons to each, and we try to help them understand the advantages and challenges that both offer.”

-Emily Hawbaker, Curriculum Director – NEED

Shell partners with NEED to help students become energy savvy

For more than 10 years, Shell has partnered with NEED to improve energy education by engaging K-12 students and teachers in a deeper understanding of energy fundamentals. One program includes The Science of Racing. Recently, over 100 Houston-area middle and high school science teachers learned new ways to teach physics and chemistry. The workshop provided teachers with hands-on experience on various aspects of racing, including material science, fuels, engines and polymers. 

“Most kids understand that they pull gas from the pump and take electricity from the wall, but they don’t have to think about how those resources get to them, how or why prices go up or down, how we get from point A to point B, etc.,” said Hawbaker.

NEED staff ultimately want students across the country to become educated consumers and voters and realize how their day-to-day activities compound and impact society.

Mary Spruill, NEED’s executive director, said most consumers never appreciate energy until they don’t have it, e.g. a hurricane or power outage occurs. 

She added that teachers often feel like they don’t have enough time to teach everything students should know about energy – and many of them don’t have an energy background. 

“Our goal is to make sure that teachers receive everything they need to teach energy effectively and efficiently in diverse classrooms.”

-Mary Spruill, Executive Director – NEED
Students engage with science

Hands-on supplies stimulate learning inside and outside of the classroom

Leonard said she used NEED’s energy curriculum this year, and the organization provided numerous hands-on supplies for her students. Her class learned about oil and gas, wind energy, solar energy and transportation.

“NEED’s supplies help me bring important concepts to life, and my kids had a chance to run through the entire oil production process,” she said. 

“The program empowers my students to trouble shoot – a skill they’ll need both in their careers and in their personal lives.”

Leonard said the best measure of success is when her students tell her they understand that there’s more to the world than what lies directly in front of them.

Teacher refuses to let her students give up 

While relaying the importance of science in our daily lives remains one of Leonard’s focus areas for her students, she places just as much emphasis on inspiring her students to push through barriers and not give up when they don’t understand a concept or make a mistake. 

“My father never let me quit anything when I was a kid, and it’s a value that has stayed with me over the course of my life,” she said.

“It’s so easy to give up when things aren’t easy – especially for students from low-income backgrounds where the odds are often stacked against them – but I refuse to let them take that path.”

She paused before adding, “I strive to serve as a key advocate in their lives…someone who believes in them and follows up incessantly until they see things through. It’s not about winning or getting the highest score – it’s about work ethic and valuing what each individual brings to the table.”


You may be interested in

Supporting Education

Shell supports a variety of educational initiatives.

STEM is everywhere

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

Teach for America Alum Empowers Students to Dream Big

Teach for America alum and ProUnitas, Inc. founder Adeeb Barqawi uses what he learned in the classroom to help local agencies connect the dots for Houston’s neediest children.