Student from state’s first pre-k class set to become early childhood educator

January 22, 2019

Montgomery – On December 15, 2018, hundreds of students walked across a stage set up at the end of Warhawks Gymnasium on the campus of Auburn University Montgomery to receive their diplomas. Included among them was Shernelia Cook, who graduated summa cum laude with a degree in early childhood and elementary education. For most in Shernelia’s major, the commencement ceremony signaled the start of their early childhood career. For Shernelia, it marked her full-circle return to early childhood education.

Shernelia was a student in one of the first state-funded Alabama pre-k classrooms. Her school, Drew Court Child Development Center in Sylacauga, had one of the eight Alabama First Class Pre-K classrooms opened at the time. A year later, her mother, Gwen, joined the program as an auxiliary teacher; a position she held for more than a decade. 

Now that she has graduated, Shernelia hopes to join her mother, as well as her aunt who runs a local daycare program, as an early childhood educator.

Shernelia pointed out that many of her classmates at AUM were attracted to careers in early childhood because of the job opportunities created by the state's ongoing pre-k expansion. However, for Shernelia, it was her experience attending one of the state's very first pre-k classrooms that inspired her to work in the field of early childhood education. 

"Being a teacher is something that I always wanted to do because I've always been surrounded by it," Shernelia said. "The early childhood part wouldn't have caught my attention if I wouldn't have known about the pre-k classes. I would have thought it was about changing diapers all the time with young kids, and that's not for me."

Shernelia remembers how pre-k exposed her to experiences that she otherwise would not have had growing up. She fondly recalled tours of the local post office and the Birmingham Zoo.

“In pre-k, I thought everything was just kids having fun,” Shernelia recalls. “But now, I know that everything the teachers were doing was very intentional. They had plans and an end goal in mind at all time. Anything that we did was a learning experience.”

Pre-k also, Shernelia explained, helped her expand her horizons and learn to think more for herself.

"I have a brother and a sister, but they're six and 12 years older than me," Shernelia said. "Being in that pre-k class was the first time I really got to be around friends my age. It opened me up to being more vocal and friendly.”

Shernelia credits her teacher, Kay Jennings.

"I knew the rules of how to act, walk in a line, but as far as thinking for myself, she wanted me to do that."

Shernelia started college at Talladega College but transferred to AUM because she wanted to shift her focus from elementary education to early childhood. AUM is one of the only schools close to her hometown that offers early childhood and elementary education.

“Knowing that at the end of my college career, I could be teaching a pre-k class, something that started my educational career off, is what motivated me to be an early childhood educator. I'm doing something that I really believe helped me to choose my career and I could not be any happier about it.”