August 14, 2018
By KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT
Rutherford County Schools
Life is not always pretty.
However, Dr. Jessica Supakhan’s journey from a broken home in Travers City, Michigan, to the hallways and classrooms at Holloway High School in Murfreesboro, is a pretty fascinating tale of overcoming culture shock and second chances.
“I succeeded because of this school,” said Supakhan, who graduated from Holloway in 2000 and began teaching business and marketing at Holloway four years ago. “I knew in order to (teach) to retirement and love every day, I had to teach here.”
“It’s the kind of story you see in a movie,” said Director of Schools Bill Spurlock, who met Supakhan on the night of Holloway’s annual open house in July.
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Supakhan lived in Traverse City until the summer before she started third grade.
That spring, her parents divorced. Jessica and her older sister, Sarah Peralta, who teaches English as a Second Language at Kittrell Elementary School and Daniel-McKee Alternative School, moved 700 miles south with their mother Sandra Hanson.
They spent a month staying in Columbia with family members, who made the same move from nearby Flint, Michigan, in the 1970s, after the local General Motors plant was shut down.
Sandra, who had previously been a stay-at-home mother, found work in Murfreesboro at the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System and enrolled in school at Middle Tennessee State University, where she studied social work.
Jessica and Sarah attended Christiana Elementary School.
Jessica had been an A student back in Michigan.
The divorce and especially the move to Tennessee coupled with a teacher, who had a thick southern drawl, had a profound impact on her grades. She got every single spelling word wrong on her first test, and Jessica and Sarah had an equally difficult time making friends.
The girls felt out of place.
With everything their mother was doing, life at home was busy and they only saw their father, Dale Hanson, six weeks every summer.
In high school, things got worse.
They both felt overwhelmed at Riverdale. It was prior to the opening of Blackman, Siegel and Stewarts Creek and the enrollment at Riverdale had ballooned to well-over 2,000 students.
It became a daily chore for Sandra to get her daughters out the door for school. They weren’t bad kids, but they missed class almost as much as they made it.
Jessica and Sarah knew getting an education was important to their mother.
“We watched our mom (go to college) later in life,” explained Jessica. “She was trying to get her ball rolling.”
Jessica added, “I’d say everything that we have done — me and my sister — is because of her being our role model. … She was always, ‘I don’t ever want you to get a divorce and then be stuck on welfare and food stamps.’”
Dropping out was never an option.
Instead they visited Holloway High School, interviewed with then-principal Ivan Dungan and transferred.
Despite its false reputation as an alternative school, Holloway is actually one of only a few choice schools in Rutherford County. With an enrollment of less than 200, Spurlock said students are able to benefit from more one-on-one instruction time with teachers.
He added, “Or more of a connection in a smaller environment.”
“Every teacher in the school knew our names,” Jessica said. “Whether we had them ourselves or not. We’d see them in the hallway and they would call us out by name and say, “How are you?”
Seemingly overnight everything changed for both girls.
Jessica made a lifelong connection with Dr. Robert Blair.
Blair had been a professor at MTSU, but spent a few years teaching marketing at Holloway.
“He had such high expectations for me,” Jessica said. “He made me aspire to do better and always just pushed me to want more and the determination to keep going.”
Blair is once again a marketing professor at MTSU, while Jessica now teaches business and marketing in the same room Blair taught in. Her senior year at Holloway, she spent nearly the entire day in Room 101.
Jessica graduated from Holloway in 2000, earned an undergraduate degree in business education in 2004 and a master’s in 2005.
A self-proclaimed “school junkie,” she earned an education specialist’s degree in administration supervision in 2008 and finished her doctoral work in 2013.
“It was a good day,” said Jessica, smiling with a distant look in her eyes. “My sister graduated (with her master’s) on the same exact day I was graduating with my doctorate. My mom says it’s one of her proudest days.”
Jessica was teaching at Central Middle School where she had taught keyboarding for four years when she applied for an open position at Holloway for a second time. That time, she was not only called in for an interview but got an offer.
“I knew immediately if kids could meet her, she was the epitome of what’s possible,” said Holloway Principal Sumatra Drayton. “Anything is possible if you’re willing to keep your eye on the prize, keep working and not giving up. She is someone I want the kids to know. She was what they consider a typical Holloway student.”
Drayton added, “She’s not ashamed. She wants kids to know — I was just like you.”
“I was so excited,” Jessica recalled. “From there … the wheels started turning of all the things that I was planning on doing with the program.”
One such opportunity she’s created for her students is an annual day trip.
The past three years, Jessica has planned, booked and chaperoned day trips to Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C. The trip, which started with five students joining her and Drayton on a trip to Chicago, has doubled each year.
The idea was born after one of her students talked about her dream of being a makeup artist.
Jessica suggested seeking out a job at the MAC Cosmetics counter at a local department store. Her student was not familiar with The Avenue and Jessica discovered several students had not been beyond the downtown neighborhood they had grown up in.
For some of them, the day trips in which they fly out and fly back in on the same day might be the only out-of-state adventure they have.
This year, she and Drayton, who is also a Michigan native, are considering Detroit and a couple other cities.
“It is a lot like Holloway,” Jessica said. “I think it’s got a bad rep, but there’s a lot of good in it too. And it’s kind of on the progressive side.”
“To have people like Dr. Supakhan, who actually graduated from there,” Spurlock explained, “and then come back and give back, that’s amazing. That’s the kind of story that makes us all stand up and say, ‘I’m proud to be an educator.’”
At home, she helped to raise two step-children — Kevin, 23, and Katelyn, 21 — and has two of her own — Ethan, 8, and Cooper, 5 — with her husband of 15 years, Bak, who works in Smyrna for Nissan.
This past weekend they moved into a new home they had built here in town.
Her two youngest attended Homer Pittard Campus School and Katelyn began her first year of teaching at Christiana.
Though she has no plans of teaching anywhere other than Holloway and would love nothing more than to have an opportunity to move right into an administrative role at the same school, Holloway has thrived under Drayton since she arrived in 2012 and assistant principal Fred Campbell.
“I would never teach at any other school,” Jessica said. “However, I do have my administration supervision degree, so I want to move up.”
One day her office could very well be Jessica’s.
“That would be the ultimate full circle dream,” Drayton said. “To me, that would be the best legacy to know that she and I worked together and that one day she took over the reins of the same school. … She’s a product of this school and its recent history and now she’s Dr. Supakhan.”
With tears in her eyes, Drayton added, “She is currently our dean of students. We created that position for her, but she’s ready (to be an administrator) and my fear is that she’s ready. If I don’t get to keep her, she’s going and she’s going to be good wherever she is.”
“One day it would be my ultimate legacy to be the principal of this school,” Jessica concluded. “It would define my career.”
PHOTOS / KEITH RYAN CARTWRIGHT