All-Area Academic Excellence Team honors area seniors

Ron Lankford talks about the original All-Area Academic Committee in a photo from 1987 during an interview on Thursday at the Memorial Education Center. Globe | Roger Nomer

Although the coronavirus pandemic forced cancellation of the 34th annual All-Area Academic Excellence Team banquet, originally set for May 7, it hasn't taken any of the shine off the achievements of two dozen area graduates.

"Our kids are so resilient, and what’s greatly important is that we still honor them,” said Ron Lankford, former Webb City superintendent and current assistant superintendent for the Joplin School District.

“It’s a disappointment,” he added of the cancellation. “I enjoy these banquets so much, but I am more concerned and saddened for our students."

The banquet, put on by The Joplin Globe and sponsored by Missouri Southern State University, honors area seniors who excelled on the ACT or SAT exams as well as in the classroom throughout high school.

“When we started this thing, we put together the criteria that needed to be met with the idea of recognizing the academic all-stars of the area,” said Lankford, who helped launch the Academic Excellence Team. “We wanted it to be based on what the students accomplished in the classroom. ... We wanted leaders from the classroom.”

For seniors such as Savannah Dillard, who plans to attend the University of Oklahoma with a double major in history and classics, and Landon Vowels, who plans to major in computer science at the University of Missouri, being named to the All-Area Academic Excellence Team is an honor they say they will carry forever.

“For me, I love school, and I love learning,” said Dillard, of Thomas Jefferson Independent Day School. “I’ve wanted to be a leader practically forever. Every year, I have seen kids from our school named to the All-Area Academic Excellence Team, and I thought it would be really cool if that were me. Now it is. It almost feels like I have fulfilled a childhood dream.”

“I think it's a big honor, and it's nice to get recognized for all of the hard work I have done in the classroom,” said Vowels, of Joplin High School. “I am very grateful.”

Inspired by teachers

The banquet also gives students a chance to recognize a teacher who inspired them.

Vowels said he found inspiration in Chris Young, a former French teacher at Joplin High School who is now the instructional support and technology integration specialist for the district.

“I had Mr. Young for French my freshman, sophomore and junior years,” Vowels said. “He is a teacher that I formed a connection with because I could tell he had a passion for teaching students. You can see he really cares a lot about us, and that meant a lot to me and motivated me to be better. I think every student needs a teacher like that.”

“I think being recognized by Landon just reaffirms everything I tried to do with kids — building relationships,” Young said. “You want to make sure they have someone in their corner. It is rewarding to be appreciated like that. ... Having those kids that you really connect with, kids that appreciate all the extra hours you might put in as a teacher, it just reaffirms what you are doing as a career choice. It is so meaningful to see the passion for what they are doing start to blossom.”

For Dillard, Thomas Jefferson’s Zina Lewis, who teaches Latin for grades seven through 12, became more than a mentor.

“I’ve had her for the last six years, and over that time, our relationship has grown from a student-teacher relationship to her being almost family,” Dillard said. “She has been really supportive of me since seventh grade. She has given so much advice about school and what to prepare for in college and life. It’s a relationship I have never really experienced before. I am lucky to have someone like her in my life.”

“I found it very humbling,” Lewis said. “Even though she named me as her inspirational teacher, I find that she inspires me to be a better teacher and a better person on a daily basis. ... Students like her are essential and just as important to us as we are to them.”

Family support

Lankford said support students receive at home from parents or guardians is also critical to their success.

“Generally, you find that the one thing these students, who come from all different backgrounds, have is parents who are supportive and encouraging through this educational journey,” he said.

“It was a personal goal of mine if anything, and it was very important to me,” Vowels said. “My parents wanted me to be high-achieving, but they never forced me to maintain good grades ... or used it as a form of punishment. They supported me no matter what, and I think that really helped me.”

The students said they understand the circumstances that led to canceling this year's banquet.

“I’ve read the articles in the past about the banquets and how all of the students got to get up in front of everyone and talk about the importance of a teacher or their family to their success, and that was something I was really hoping to be able to do,” Dillard said. “That didn’t get to happen, but it is what it is at this point. It’s not something we can control.”

Canceling the banquet doesn’t change what the students who were named to All-Area Academic Excellence Team accomplished, Lankford said. Their hard work in the classroom has set them up for a bright future.

“As I look at the future of our country, I am excited for the potential,” he said. “To see kids who have dedicated themselves to be all they can be throughout their entire educational experience, it is inspiring.”

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