Greeting students and parents coming into the small school in its rural setting just north of Pell City, McGowan helped with registering new students, part of her job as the school’s director for the past 16 years.
As parents and students came in, she stopped in the hallway next to her office, reaching down to offer a pat and her reassuring smile.
McGowan has been an educator and administrator for 41 years, spending all of them in St. Clair County, but has announced her retirement planned for Aug. 1.
“I am missing it already,” she said, speaking of the approaching change in her life. “But, I do feel it is time I moved on before I could not do something else.”
McGowan said she knew very early in life that she would become a teacher. It was her first grade teacher, Jeanette Cunningham who taught her at Riverside school, who inspired her, she said.
She laughs, telling the story of how she and Cunningham became acquainted, at a much earlier age than most children meet their first grade teacher.
“I had two older brothers who were already going to school,” she said. “I was about 3 years old, and I wanted to go to school, too.”
The little girl would listen as her brothers got up in the mornings to get ready for school, and then sneak outside and hide behind a tree until the bus came to pick them up.
“Then, I would just get on the bus, too, and go with them,’ she said. “I do not know why they let me, but they did. I do not even know for sure if my mother knew I was going.”
McGowan’s love of education continued through her elementary school and later years, and she went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in business education with concentration in English from Knoxville College in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1969.
She later completed her master’s degree in educational administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and her educational specialist degree in educational administration from UAB as well in 1989.
Her postgraduate work continued with additional training from Johnson and Johnson Fellows at the University of California at Los Angeles, sponsored by the Office of Head Start in Washington, D.C.
McGowan was just 21 years old when she faced her first classroom full of students. It was 1969 and the place was St. Clair County High School in Odenville.
She experienced another first that day, too, she was the school’s first black teacher.
“But I never felt uncomfortable at all,” she said. “I believe it was because of the way I was raised. And everyone there treated me very well.”
Her position was one that allowed her to address her “first love,” teaching business education. She taught grades 10 through 12 for 14 years.
On that first day of teaching, McGowan said she doesn’t recall feeling afraid of her new task.
“What I remember is just wanting to do the very best job that I could,” she said.
McGowan was nominated as Favorite Teacher of the Year four times during her years there.
During this time, McGowan also worked as a part-time instructor for the Adult Education Program at the county’s vocational school, John Pope Eden Area Vocational Center.
In 1972, she began working in the county’s Migrant Education Program on Chandler Mountain, where her students ranged in age from infants to high school and night vocational students.
She later became director for the night program at John Pope Eden, and four years later, became director for the full day program at Chandler Mountain, working from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m.
From 1983 through 1989, McGowan was assistant principal for Moody Elementary School and in 1989, she returned to St. Clair County High as assistant principal until 1994, when she was hired as director for Head Start, to replace Walter M. Kennedy, who was also assistant superintendent for St. Clair County Schools at one time.
Kennedy had a strong reputation to follow, McGowan said. “and I was very apprehensive about accepting the position because of that.”
Since becoming director, the Head Start program has grown from 160 children to serving 217, and the staff has grown from 28 full-time employees to 48.
“I am very proud of our program and its growth,” she said. “I still have mental visions of growth and expansion.”
The Head Start program is one McGowan holds close to her heart.
“I know that we have produced great men and women, the boys and girls who received their initial training through our program,” she said. “Although we enroll only 217 children each year, our quality of services impact many more lives in all of our communities throughout St. Clair County.”
The main purpose of an educational institution is to prepare young people to become productive members of society, she said.
“It has always been my belief that young people are special and deserve the best education that we can afford them,” she said.
After a 40-plus year career in education, teaching students with special needs, different cultures and varied socioeconomic backgrounds, McGowan said they all share the same needs.
“They need love, respect, patience and understanding,” she said.
Though she turned her career from the classroom to administration years ago, McGowan said she still missed the classroom.
“I thought about going back into the classroom many times through the years,” she said.
Being an educator means more to McGowan that the academics that take place, she said.
“I wanted to teach, too, that it is important how you treat people, that you learn to treat them with love and respect, and have understanding and caring for people,” she said.
She reached out too, to the children she taught through the years who seemed to have difficulties.
“I wanted to care enough to reach out to that child in the classroom who seemed not to grasp what we were doing,” she said. “I wanted them to know that I cared.”
Through the years, McGowan has been a member of a number of professional and civic organizations, including the national, state and local professional education associations, United Way, the Red Cross Auxiliary, the Pell City Schools Educational Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, the Community Resource Development of the St. Clair County Extension System and the John Pope Eden Advisory Council.
She is a former member of the Pell City Chamber of Commerce, Leadership Pell City and Leadership St. Clair County, a golden life member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and is program chair for the local Women’s Society Organization. She is a member of Kappa Delta Pi Honor Society of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and was nominated as Outstanding Woman of the Year in 1979.
Two accomplishments she is especially proud of are coordinating and conducting the Substitute Teachers’ Workshop for St. Clair County Schools in 1986 and in 1979, during her leadership as former president of the St. Clair County Education Association, initiating the SCCEA Scholarship Fund of $500. The programs both continue today.
She said she is thankful to have worked with the fine staff at Head Start, the managers, specialists, teachers, assistants, food service staff, custodial staff and her administrative staff.
“They truly dedicate their souls, their efforts and their lives to the children and families in this program,” she said.
She is grateful, too, to the agency’s governing bodies, the Policy Council made up of community leaders and parents from throughout the county and members of the board of directors, for their dedicated service to Head Start.
“I leave Head Start with happiness, knowing that all is well here, but also with a heavy heart, sadness and a special love for our employees and children,” she said.
McGowan is married to James McGowan, city councilman for District 2 in Pell City, who was also an educator for 27 years, teaching telecommunications at John Pope Eden. He now works part-time at Jefferson State Community College Police Department in Birmingham.
The McGowans have two children, Kenneth McGowan, a corrections officer for Childersburg Work Release; and LaCindra McGowan, who works as a claims specialist for State Farm Insurance in Birmingham. There are two grandchildren, Jaylond, 15, and Kenya, 10.
She is a member of First Missionary Baptist Church in Cropwell where she is a member of the choir, serves as a youth advisor, deaconess and youth Sunday School teacher.
“Everyone keeps asking me what’s next,” McGowan said. “They may not believe it, but I have told them anytime they want me to come back, just to call me. They just need to tell me where they want me to go and what they need me to do. I do know I will miss Head Start.”
Contact Laura Nation-Atchison at email@example.com.