• By Kenya Vaughn Of The St. Louis American

    “Don’t you let anybody tell you that black people don’t care about education,” said Carol Daniel, mistress of ceremonies for the St. Louis American Foundation’s 29th annual Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship and Awards Gala at America’s Center on Saturday, October 1.

    She knew that the more than 1,200 Salute guests knew better, but was so compelled by the success story of 2016 Monsanto School of Excellence recipient Riverview Gardens High School that she felt the need to encourage them to remind others.

    More than $500,000 in scholarships was awarded to students. Scholarships endowed in the name of American Publisher Donald M. Suggs – from undergraduate to post-graduate studies – were presented by University Missouri-Columbia (the foundation’s first scholarship partner), Southeast Missouri State University, Missouri State University, Harris-Stowe State University, , St. Louis Community College, Webster University, Maryville University and (the foundation’s newest scholarship partner) Fontbonne University.

    The St. Louis American Foundation’s total scholarships and grant awards for 2016 was more than $700,000. “I’m proud to report that since 1994, the foundation, together with its education partners, has fostered over $4.5 million in scholarships and community grants,” Suggs said at Salute.

    The first standing ovation of the night was given spontaneously to one of the new 2016 Suggs Scholars, Vera Stidmon, a student at St. Louis Community College interested in pursuing a career in social work. Chancellor Jeff Pittman introduced her as his “hero” for maintaining a 3.6 GPA while raising six children on her own.

    Thousands of dollars also were awarded to teachers and administrators in the form of educational grants for their commitment to creating environments conducive to learning. Institutions and individuals alike received praise for their performances as scholars and educators.

    “There’s so much negativity that you read and you see about Ferguson, and I wanted to make sure we highlighted a positive story,” Monsanto Fund President Al Mitchell said before presenting Riverview with their award.

    Mitchell spoke of district’s turnaround spearheaded by the arrival of Superintendent Scott Spurgeon and high school Principal Darius Kirk – who received the evening’s second standing ovation.

    Other awardees included 2016 PNC Bank Early Childhood Education Award recipient Aurdeen Clarkson, an infant room teacher at the Flance Early Learning Center; 2016 SEMO Counselor of the Year Award recipient Erica Snelson, a college counselor and department chair at Grand Center Arts Academy; and two 2016 Golden Apple recipients for exceptional teachers in The American’s Newspapers In Education program, Carmen Little, a teacher at Northview Elementary in the Jennings School District and James Perotti, a teacher at Buder Elementary of Saint Louis Public Schools.

    Eight educators received the 2016 Excellence in Education Award: Kimberly D. Berry, kindergarten teacher at Bermuda Elementary; Sarah Briscoe, principal of Bryan Hill Elementary School; Cori Cloyd, dean of Students at KIPP Triumph Academy; Kathleen Foster, English teacher at Jennings Middle School; Stacy Hollins, associate professor of Information Systems at Maryville University; Kacy Seals, principal of Central VPA High School; Gladys Smith, assistant director of Counseling and Life Development at Webster University; and Cynthia D. Warren, executive director and dean of Students at Dwight McDaniels Theological Seminary and extended site coordinator at Lindenwood University

    Like Daniel did before them, Salute’s two main awardees – 2016 Education Advocate Awardee Deborah Patterson and 2016 Lifetime Achiever Charlene Lofton Jones – both told the audience that, while there is plenty to celebrate, there is also much work yet to be done.

    “I want to remind everyone that, in order to achieve economic and educational success, it takes community advocacy,” said Patterson, who recently retired as president of the Monsanto Fund.

    She said the success stories in the room were largely because of those who had help – and access.

    “I don’t believe that those children who get ‘left behind’ and their families don’t want an education,” Patterson said. “They just don’t know how to navigate the many challenges and stresses associated with staying on the path to graduation. They need empathy and wraparound services.”

    Jones – who was handed the 2016 Salute’s highest honor as Lifetime Achiever – said that, to succeed, one must be willing to fail. Now assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and assistant professor of Political Science at Harris-Stowe State University, Jones has raised more than $500 million for Saint Louis Public Schools through 25 tax and bond-issue campaigns.

    But what few people know is that the most successful fundraiser in district history started out as a failure.

    “I lost my first four campaigns,” Jones said, “but I won my next 21. Never be afraid to fail.”