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Rocky grad brings passion for teaching back home
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More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
Alyssa Leone is a first-year special education teacher at the Rock Island Academy. The Rock Island native says she always dreamed of being a teacher.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
Alyssa Leone works with a student at the Rock Island Academy.
ROCK ISLAND -- Alyssa Leone leaned over the small wooden table and touched her finger to her mouth. "Shhhhh-shhhh," the first-year teacher said softly.

The three grade-school boys in the special education class immediately picked up the sibilant sound from Ms. Leone and imitated it.

Ms. Leone, 22, nodded approvingly. She had been preparing for this moment for almost two decades.

"I always played school. I always dragged my brother (Dominic) in as the student," recalled Ms. Leone, who grew up in Rock Island. "The neighbor kids were always coming down, using my little play easel to be the teacher."

On this brisk morning she began leading her students at the Rock Island Academy through the day's reading warmups, occasionally stepping in to help the children sound out particularly treacherous words or coax a tired head up from the tabletop.

Her parents recalled that their daughter had known since first grade she would one day become a teacher. "When you're a parent, you think, 'That's nice,' but even at that age I think she was kind of focused on it," said her father, Frank, who lives in Rock Island with his wife, Jan. "She never wavered from it – it was a goal of hers."

He remembered his young daughter's passion for school from an early age.

"We never had to tell her to do her homework or study for a test. She always took it upon herself," he said.

In her classroom, Ms. Leone's easy smile confirmed her father's convictions. She said she remembers waking up early and excited as a child to go to school each morning.

"I was really influenced in fourth and fifth grades by teachers that I had and just seeing how creative they did their lesson, how engaged the students were and just really helping students out and going above and beyond. And that's really what I wanted to do," she said.

During high school she participated in myriad activities, including the track and cross-country teams, student council, marching band and Letterman's Club. She graduated from Rock Island High School in 2007 and, four years later, received her teaching degree from Illinois State University.

"I got offers from two different schools, but I just wasn't ready to move away from home," she said. "I knew I wanted to come back."

Initially, there were no teaching positions for her, but after a few weeks, she received the call from the Rock Island Academy's principal, Lucille McCorkle, asking her to interview for a position as a special education teacher. By July, she received word she had gotten the job.

"It was a little nerve-racking. I would say I definitely had the little bug in my stomach of, 'Is this for real or not?'" she said. Despite early anxieties, she felt confident in her teaching abilities after having completed almost two full years of clinical experience and student teaching.

On this chilly day, as Ms. Leone helped her students sound out a story about a friendly picnic gone awry, she looked right at home.

"The kids are great," she said of the six children in her classroom who range from third through sixth grade, all of whom have a need for special guidance in behavior or learning. "It can be challenging some days and, other days, it's amazing to watch the kids get something," she said.

Ms. Leone teaches through a mixture of directive study and small group work, matching the curriculum to each student's grade level with the hope of eventually integrating each child into the general education program as much as possible.

Each morning consists of reading and spelling lessons before the students are allowed the chance to choose a book for silent reading time. The students leave for music and physical education, returning in the afternoons for math lessons.

Like any new job, there have been challenges, she said. "A lot of them carry a lot of baggage," she said. "So being at school isn't always what they want to do."

However, Ms. Leone said she has felt a growing sense of pride in her students as the school year has continued. Framed by colorful borders and cheerful hand-written posters in the background, she discussed her excitement at helping shape the students' progress.

"I just love the atmosphere. I love getting them engaged in lessons, watching them grow as learners," she said, adding, "I'm excited to be able to celebrate the ... the small growths they make."

Student chatter filtered from the hallway through her classroom door, and Ms. Leone smiled at the prospect of her students' future.

"I'm excited to watch them grow throughout this year and to see how my teaching impacts them as people in the community," she said. "And I hope that in five or 10 years, they say, 'Hey, Ms. Leone – this is what we did, this is what we learned. Thank you.' "

Living the dream

Who: Alyssa Leone, first-year teacher at the Rock Island Academy

Quote: "I always played school. ... The neighbor kids were always coming down, using my little play easel to be the teacher."

Local events heading

  Today is Thursday, Oct. 2, the 275th day of 2014. There are 90 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The ladies have adopted the fashion of wearing representations of insects in the flowers on their bonnets. Some look very natural.
1889 -- 125 years ago: T.F. Cary, former Rock Island alderman, has accepted a position as salesman for a Chicago wallpaper house and plans to move to that city.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Work on the new telephone building on 18th Street between 6th and 7th avenues is progressing rapidly.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Rock Island's new theater at 3rd Avenue and 19th Street will have a name significant of its location. The "Rocket" is scheduled to open Thanksgiving Day.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Two of Rock Island's newest water towers were vandalized last night, including the one at 38th Street and 31st Avenue, where police took five Moline boys into custody about 9 p.m..
1989 -- 25 years ago: Some of us who live in the Quad-Cities take the Mississippi River for granted, or at least we used to. But the river is not taken for granted by our visitors. And most Quad-Citians are realizing the importance of the river to this area as increased emphasis is placed on tourism.

(More History)