The 2021-2022 school year held many sweet moments for former Wooddale Middle School principal Marysa Utley.
In April, she was named to serve as Green Dot Public Schools Tennessee first Chief of Staff. In May, she saw her first class of students get their high school diploma; and two of those students from that first class became the Valedictorian and Salutatorian at Bluff City High School.
The feeling, she says in her own words, “you can’t describe it, it’s amazing!”
“It’s one of those things that you adore, you plant seeds, and you might not see all (the results) but they grow. This is the first time in my career where I’m able to, that I watched those kids grow all the way through from the time they were in sixth grade to leaving me when they’re eighth graders, keeping up with them through high school and now they are off to college,” said Utley, who began her teaching career at Green Dot seven years ago.
Jordan Joyce and Marlen Martinez were students in her classroom during the 2015-2016 school year, when Green Dot partnered in Memphis to transform outcomes at Wooddale Middle. Utley believes that partnership changed not only Joyce and Martinez's future, but also of all the students that were in sixth grade that year.
“Absolutely, I believe we changed their future, I believe we sent them on a trajectory of success, we instilled in them the importance of hard work and the importance to advocate for themselves,” explains Utley. “I think we instilled in them those values of “you're somebody special, you’re worth it.”
Utley’s leadership was recognized immediately, becoming assistant principal at Wooddale. Two years later, she was no longer an assistant, assuming the top administrative role at the school.
One of the reasons for being on the road to success at Wooddale was making the students feel that they were family, caring for them, helping them figure themselves out. Most importantly, loving them as if they were her own children.
“We’ve been able to keep that family atmosphere and when we say we are your family, we mean it,” adds Utley. “For me I think it’s like a part of motherhood. You take the child in, the first time we meet they become our children. The partnership with Green Dot, because we have the pipeline allows them to go from sixth grade to twelfth grade, we are able to continue to see them grow and continue to have a hand in their life.”
One of the things that inspired the native of Jackson, Tennessee, who moved to Memphis very early in life, is her desire to change the world. This desire led her to become a teacher in a small charter school in Memphis, moving later to the Memphis-Shelby district before joining Green Dot.
“Becoming a part of the community is becoming a part of the family. So, I wasn’t just Principal Utley, I was Ms. Utley, the one you see in church, the one who goes to see the basketball game, the one you see at the local dollar store. We’ve been able to open to our community,” explains Utley.
Green Dot’s middle and high schools in Tennessee have had great success achieving impressive scores in the December iReady English and Math tests. Utley attributes this to being able to get students involved in the process and making it something personal to them.
“We really challenged them. Before you can be a leader for somebody else, you have to be a leader for yourself. We encouraged them to do their best, and then to not just when they do their best once they get the results, look at what areas are you struggling in. Take accountability for yourself and here are the things that we can offer you to help you in those areas, but you have to take accountability for yourself and show up. And they have been showing up”, concludes Utley.