Dr. Ceretha Brown-Levingston, recently named Liberty-Eylau Independent School District deputy superintendent, believes education opens up the world to and for students.
"The reason I do what I do is I feel every child has a right, a civil liberty, to a quality education. I grew up in Liberty-Eylau," Ceretha said. "For a lot of our students where I taught and where I am now an administrator, about 85 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged and education will be the way for a better life for them.
"I want them to be able to have a great education, to have many diverse experiences," she said. "That can be going to college or learning a trade, whatever it takes for them to have a successful life. I want it to be able to make a difference in the lives of our children."
A servant leader, Ceretha began teaching at an early age with the help of her teacher.
"I was interested in education even as a little girl in elementary school. I can remember during the summers playing school with my friends on my front porch. I was always the teacher," she said with a laugh.
She credits her second-grade teacher, Char Crane, with helping her develop her love of reading. Ms. Crane also supplied materials to Ceretha for her budding carer.
"I always asked her for old worksheets and old Basal reading books and I think it developed there. Ms. Crane would also print out worksheets for me to use."
Even at this young age, Ceretha firmly cemented and consistently kept her teaching role when playing school.
"They (children she played with) were actually fine with it. I never got any push back from it. People always tell me I've always been very mature for my age. I've always been a problem solver, organized, detail oriented and a planner. They were fine with it They wanted to play kickball and I was like, 'No, let's play school first,'" she said.
Her leadership qualities came naturally as the eldest of four siblings. Brother Patrick Strong is an attorney in Houston, sister Teresa Lewis works at Texarkana Regional Airport and sister Tonya Weatherall is a counselor at L-EISD.
Their mother, Emma Strong, and stepfather worked for and retired from Wadley Regional Medical Center — her mother in housekeeping and stepfather in laundry. Their father was the late James E. Strong.
Growing up, Ceretha had rich experiences reveling in books.
" Because I come from what I would consider a poor family — we had food, but not extra money for Scholastic book orders. I loved to read and my mom knew that and she would order one book. I always used to say when I grew up and I had kids, I would buy them books."
She kept her word while raising her own children, daughter Kayla and son Kameron.
Ceretha has opened up the world of reading to many schoolchildren over the years.
Among her favorites to share are Addy of the American Girls Collection, which Connie Porter authored, and the Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park.
"There was one I would read every year to my students, 'The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.' It is about a family called the Herdmans and if you ever read that book, it is so funny. It is a group of kids who have never been to church but they go and put on a Christmas pageant," she said.
As her education continued, Ceretha had a strong connection with other teachers at L-EISD. They taught her about the subjects she studied as well as life.
"I remember two teachers that really had a positive impact on my life and education — Gail Preston. She was my sixth-grade teacher and I learned a lot in her class, not only academic wise, but I learned a lot about social skills, life skills — what young ladies should do and what young ladies should not do, how to carry yourself. Hazel Groce was my typing teacher and she was such a great role model for me," she said.
Ceretha was a Top 10 graduate of L-E High School in 1987 and a 1992 Cum Laude graduate of then-East Texas State University-Texarkana with a bachelor's degree in Elementary Education — Concentration in Reading.
She promotes the importance and benefits of reading.
"To me, reading opens up a whole world to a person. And what I mean by that is you can go places you've never been, you can learn about things you may not have access to and I guess that is why I took so many reading classes in college. I understand without a good foundation in reading, it will impact other areas of education, like math. In order to do math, you have to be a good reader. You have to be able to read and decipher what the next step is to solve the problem," she said.
"Without being able to read nowadays, students are at such a disadvantage because it will impact how well they do in school — if they are able to get certain jobs. Without it, I don't know where I would be if I did not learn to read. I cannot tell you how many things I have been able to teach myself to do it is not just calling words, but comprehending them and using that comprehension for what you have to do, whether it is at home or for an actual job."
"Sometimes you see kids get as far as middle school and high school and because they did not learn to read, they struggle through high school and the remainder of their lives," she said.
She taught math for eight years at L-EISD
"Math instruction is very important in everyday life. It teaches students to think analytically and builds problem-solving skills. Math is something we use every day to survive. Daily, I stressed how the concepts we were learning would be used in the future. In other words, how will you use it to make your life easier," she said.
The advent of technology has transformed learning as well.
"Technology provides infinite resources and because of it, we have our resources and programs we have to help students with reading. For instance, dyslexic students are the ones that come to mind they struggle with putting sentences together. We have software programs to help them practice. The main way it (technology) has helped is by providing infinite resources," she said.
After eight years as a classroom teacher, she was awarded a scholarship to pursue her doctorate at Texas A&M University-Commerce.
"When I first started in the classroom, I thought I would always be a teacher. And when I was working on my master's degree, one of the professors, Barry Nutter, we had a conversation about me going back to school and getting my doctorate and he encouraged me to do that. Once I started in my doctoral program, I was surrounded by a lot of administrators in education and that is when my goal started changing by moving from teaching to the administrative side of things," she said.
Her first job as an administrator was as an elementary coordinator and later an assistant superintendent.
Her dissertation explored the portrayal of African Americans in state-adopted reading textbooks.
"It was not a true representation. They were very cookie cutter and they used the same character and colored the shading of them in order to interest people in reading, they need to see people who look like them and they need to be positive portrayals," she said, noting there were not any African American doctors, teachers or lawyers in the books she examined for her dissertation.
"One of the other things I found in stories is it is always a white person saving a person of color or being the hero. Maybe someday I can go back and find out if that has changed over the years," she said.
In her new role as deputy superintendent, she oversees curriculum and instruction and the special education departments, human resources, career and technology, the district's federal and state programs and accountability.
Putting the best interests of the students first has always served her well and will continue to do so as the district navigates the school year amidst the pandemic.
The primary goal is how best to support the district's students — whether they are at school or learning at home.
Safety and following the Centers for Disease Control and state guidelines are of utmost importance, she said.
"In the classroom, we are going to make it the safest environment we can. We will definitely do our best and make sure they have all the PPE as far as the instructional side goes," she said.
Offering a quality education and ensuring the at-home students are engaged daily are also top considerations.
"We have to take attendance daily and they have to check in and we have to figure out how to do that, how we provide them with the support, especially the students who are at home, with the academic support they need," she said. "For virtual students, we want to provide training for when school starts and show them how to check in with us, access assignments and access resources."
As for her legacy, Ceretha wants to be remembered as someone who worked hard, was fair, consistent and cared about the district's students, staff and community.
"I am just grateful and thankful to be able to be a part of the Leopard family and being able to serve in the capacity that I do and being a part of the legacy of success at L-E. We do the best we can to create the best environment and be the best district to serve our parents and community."
And, the L-E community means so much to her.
"Liberty-Eylau is my home, it has always been my home and it will forever be my home. It gave me the foundation to go out in the world and get a higher education and then come back and be able to serve and give back to our students because I want them to have the same opportunities I had or even more opportunities than I had as a young student," Ceretha said.
"The world is at their fingertips. That's why I worked hard to provide all the opportunities, resources and materials anything I think can help our students learn and reach the goals they want to reach. I try to support that in our classes and on our campus," she said. "I want everyone to love our district the way I love our district. L-E for me is a family atmosphere, it is community, it is not about me or someone else, it is about students. They are the driving factor of why we do what we do every single day."