As a child, Dr. Crystal Ricks played at Tattnall Square Park. Across the street, Mercer University’s academic buildings looked like a castle to her and represented what she thought was an unattainable future. But she became the first generation in her family to go to college, earning a bachelor’s degree in early childhood/special education and master’s degree in holistic education at Mercer and a doctorate in reading and literacy at Nova Southeastern University.
Today, she helps students see their full potential and ensures they have the educational resources they need as the coordinator of advanced learning for Calvert County Public Schools in Maryland and a 2022-23 Department of Defense Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Ambassador.
“For me, it’s all about providing equitable access and opportunities for our students and not allowing the fact that we’re here in a rural area to dictate where they can go and what they can do,” she said.
Dr. Ricks, a Double Bear who completed her Mercer degrees in 2007 and 2008, started her teaching career in Monroe County. She taught third grade and special education before becoming an instructional coach. After moving to Atlanta, she went back to teaching in the classroom and then became a K-2 instructional facilitator in Clayton County. She also served as an adjunct professor for Mercer’s Tift College of Education for two years.
Seeking a slower pace, she and husband Gerald Lee Ricks — an alumnus of Mercer’s Townsend School of Music — and their two children relocated to Maryland five years ago. With Calvert County Public Schools, she was a special education teacher her first year, an inclusive programming specialist her second year and is now the coordinator of advanced learning.
Dr. Ricks oversees the gifted and talented program at the 25 schools in her district. She ensures that students are equitably served and receive appropriate education and services for their needs; provides professional development training for teachers; and works closely with community partners.
“Many people feel that because students are in gifted and talented (programs) that they are smart enough and don’t require additional structures to support their diverse learning needs, but that’s just not the case,” Dr. Ricks said. “Every student deserves to learn something new and exciting every day. I want to make sure that every kid is taught the way that I would want my kids to be taught, and that’s the driving force for how I serve our students and our families.”
Advocacy is an important part of Dr. Ricks’ work. In addition to teaching students to advocate for their own diverse needs, she spends a lot of time connecting with the community to have conversations about the importance of serving this student population and sharing her vision.
Her efforts have resulted in grant funding and unique opportunities for the students in her district. With the support of community partners, three cohorts of middle school students have been able to participate in an initiative called “This Girl STEAMs” (science, technology, engineering, art, math). Another grant allowed students to be involved in the publication of an e-book about artificial intelligence.
In September 2021, Dr. Ricks secured a $1.5 million, five-year grant for the STEAM Ecosystem Expansion Demonstration Project. The funding, received through the Assistance of Arts Education program, centers around supporting STEAM resources for students and families and creating a STEAM pipeline for a diverse workforce.
Dr. Ricks’ accomplishments and vision led her to be selected to a cohort of 22 Department of Defense STEM Ambassadors from around the world in August.
“It was an absolute honor and blessing to be selected to serve,” she said. “I don’t take my role lightly. For me, it’s about cultivating and providing access, representation and opportunity for individuals.”
Dr. Ricks is working with the other ambassadors to curate STEM resources. Her other responsibilities include attending regular meetings with STEM experts; serving as a guest author for the Department of Defense STEM blog; and presenting at a conference of her choosing. She has accepted an invitation to speak at a STEM Technical Exchange in Washington, D.C., in February.
“I’m really excited to be able to learn and grow with other individuals, and to see the great things that other ambassadors are doing in their school system that we can bring back to Calvert County as well,” Dr. Ricks said.
She hopes to gain additional knowledge on how to cultivate the talents of students, connect with families, and provide more resources to ease financial barriers in STEM learning.