School leader goes the extra mile to ensure student success

The CEO’s colorful silk gown kisses the floor, making her steps seem fluid, just as she handles all of her various responsibilities at Suncoast School for Innovative Studies.

When Sherika Evans became executive director of SSIS in 2019, she also became one of the school’s bus drivers, certified food service manager, tutor, notary, and teacher.

When asked why he goes to this point for his students, Evans clasps his hands, leans forward, and in a subtle Southern drawl says, “To understand that, (to understand) that I am these kids.”

Suncoast School for Innovative Studies Executive Director Sherika Evans takes on multiple responsibilities to enable her students to succeed.

Photo by Dariela Delgado

the path to something better

In the summer of 1991, in the poorest part of the Mississippi Delta, 11-year-old Evans was toiling his first job picking cotton.

“That part of Mississippi is stuck in a particular moment,” Evans said as she looks back on that time in her life. Her younger self was determined to help pay for her brother’s clothes, so on her first day she cut cotton.

As the youngest and only female in the group, she did her best, only to get fired on her first day. “They said cut cotton,” Evans said as she shook her head. “She was supposed to cut the weeds out of the cotton.” They sent her home immediately after her; however, she returned the next summer ready to try again.

“I grew up working hard,” Evans said. “As poor as we were, I didn’t know it.”

When he got to high school and heard other students talk about college, he didn’t really know much about it.

“I heard people talking about college and I didn’t know what college was. I said, ‘Is it at Walmart?’ because Walmart was 30 minutes from my town,” Evans said.

He turned to his best friend, Daniel, for answers about this college phenomenon. “Dude, where is the university?”

“Whatever I do, you do. I’ll make sure you get there,” she recalled Daniel telling her. He told her that they were both going to Jackson State.

Evans applied to several schools and got into every one of them, including Harvard. “I didn’t know it was a big problem,” he said. His mother did not want him to go to college at all “because it was so different from his lifestyle.”

Evans ended up attending Jackson State University earning a degree in elementary education in 2002. She earned her master’s degree in early childhood education in 2004 and earned her doctorate in educational leadership from Argosy University in 2010.

“I know what it’s like for our students to not have their education celebrated,” Evans said. She was always an outstanding student, even though she never studied. “They ridiculed me for that (not studying) because that is not going to help me in the fields. It’s not going to help me or the way of life that people in the city knew.”

Because of Evans’ background, she hopes to be an example of how to become a better version of herself through education.

“I’m an example of ‘How do you get over that?’ I’m an example of ‘it doesn’t have to define who you are forever,’” Evans said. “I always want to help children like me, like my brothers and like my cousins.”

driving the bus

There are two school buses that are parked at the back door of Evan’s office. SSIS Mental Health and First Aid Paraprofessional Latosha Robinson-Butler and Evans are the designated bus drivers. “Not only do I drive the bus, I also became a qualified trainer so I can teach others to drive the bus,” Evans said.

SSIS Mental Health and First Aid Paraprofessional Latosha Robinson-Butler runs the Sunshine Room.

Photo by Dariela Delgado

When SSIS was shorthanded with the bus drivers, he took matters into his own hands. “That’s not what’s going to shut down my school,” Evans said.

In his office there is a mini-kitchen. “I cook a lot. I cook for my staff and my students,” Evans said. “Many of our families are homeless. Mrs. Tasha and I cook often so they have hot food for the weekend.”

When the students return home, she makes sure to deliver the hot food along with the non-perishable items.

SSIS is currently collaborating with the All Faiths Food Bank to provide food for staff, students, families, and the community. The charter school currently has two food pantries.

“I knew from my experience as a first-year teacher in the Mississippi Delta that I never had enough money to buy food,” Evans said. “I want my families to use the pantries as a store.”

In her efforts to provide children with a better life, Evans is passionate about helping not only them, but her entire family. One of her plans is to open a laundromat for families to wash their clothes while they have a student-teacher conference and cook spaghetti dinners for staff, students and their families.

“I think having our parents rediscover their worth is going to be the next part of this journey: we will lift up our students,” Evans said.