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Picayune Teacher Receives Award

Picayune Memorial High School teacher Donna Porter, an Oral Communications and Forensics teacher at Picayune Memorial High School, was presented with the Thad Cochran Distinguished Arts Educator Award for Arts Integration at the Mississippi State University’s Riley Performing Arts Center in Meridian on Friday.

The awards ceremony was the conclusion of the Arts Front and Center Forum, which was hosted by the Mississippi Alliance for Arts Education.

Amory native Sam Haskell was the keynote speaker at the ceremony. Haskell is the former world-wide head of television for the William Morris Agency and agent to stars such as Dolly Parton, Bill Cosby, George Clooney and Ray Romano,

Porter said in an interview Saturday morning that she believes she was nominated for the award by Dr. Penny Wallin, former Superintendent of Education for Picayune Municipal Separate School District, for the work she did with fellow teacher Julie Dugan on a grant proposal for Project Renaissance, which was to celebrate the reopening of the school’s auditorium following a major renovation project.

Also, Porter and her sister, PMHS English teacher Melonee Franklin, worked together to rebuild the school’s speech and debate team, which has gone on to produce three state champions and a national finalist.

Another reason for her nomination would be her passion for arts integration being used throughout the school district, because she says that “using arts in the classroom reduces the drop-out rate, increases academic achievement and increases student motivation and interest.”

Porter believes that arts integration is the key to motivating students to do their best in schools and to opening doors for the students in the future. One example she likes to use is former student Amanda Williams who was very shy and reserved when she first came to Porter in her junior year at the high school. Porter encouraged Williams and helped her develop her communication and public speaking skills, and by her senior year, she had blossomed into a talented stage actress. Recently, Williams, who is in her freshman year at William Carey, called Porter and told her she has been awarded the role of “Shelby” in a campus production of Steel Magnolias. Porter calls her a “diamond in the rough” and says that had it not been for the opportunity for her to excel in arts in high school, she might never have had the chance to shine.

Another student, Benjamin Daniel, who spoke at the forum on Friday, wrote a letter of recommendation for Porter’s nomination for the award. In his letter he says, “She was more than your average theatre, art, or drama teacher. … She went even further out of the box by showing us how communication is the basis of life, and as such is how we achieve a higher learning or living standard. … She genuinely was this great teacher, showing us the life spring of our current days.”

A student on whom Porter based her acceptance speech for the award told her, “Thank you for allowing me to see green, when all I saw was gray.”

Porter has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University of Southern Mississippi and is board-certified in speech and language pathology. She has taught for the past five years, but has been in education for more than 20 years. She has been an educational diagnostician and early childhood intervention and dyslexia coordinator in the Picayune school district.

In 2002, she was named Community Developer of the Year by the Partners for Pearl River County for her involvement in obtaining the grant from the Lower Pearl River Valley Foundation to start an early childhood project in the school district. In 2005, she was named Picayune School District Teacher of the Year, which led to her being named 2006 Teacher of the Year for Congressional District IV, which covers the area from Laurel to the Gulf Coast. She was also a finalist for Mississippi Teacher of the Year for 2006.

The Thad Cochran Distinguished Arts Educator Award was established in 2000 as one of the Mississippi Alliance for Arts Education Awards, and is given to art educators and those who incorporate art into their classrooms.

The award is named after U. S. Senator Thad Cochran, to honor him for his dedication to the arts and arts education programs and funding. Awards are given in dance, music, theater, visual art and arts integration. The arts integration award is given to a teacher who excels in using all aspects of art in her curriculum and makes connections between art and other disciplines. Other award categories include Exemplary Arts Service Award, Outstanding Administrator of the Year, Higher Education Award, Lifetime Achievement in Arts Education Award, and Distinguished Community Arts Agency Award.