DHS Academy of Insurance and Finance blazing trails for students locally, statewide

Connie Davis with the notebook covering one semester of lesson plans, student resources and teacher resources for one of the courses she teaches in Demopolis High School's finance program.

Connie Davis with the notebook covering one semester of lesson plans, student resources and teacher resources for one of the courses she teaches in Demopolis High School’s finance program.

Kelly Gandy, Courtney Kerby and Connie Davis are passionate about making sure their students at Demopolis High School are well prepared for life after graduation.

They are so passionate that Gandy and Kerby designed a curriculum using National Academy Foundation (NAF) guidelines that provide a career path for those who are interested in working in the financial and insurance fields.

And Davis’ passion is shown in her devotion to DECA, the marketing club whose members are preparing for the State Career Development Conference Feb. 19-20.

What Gandy and Kerby did garnered so much interest that the state department asked them to create a new insurance course to help build that component of the Career Tech program for Alabama.

Now in the third year of a grant from the State Department of Education, the DHS Academy of Finance and Insurance is designed to give students a basic background in personal and business finances and insurance. Tied in with the marketing education courses that Davis teaches, students who finish the two-year curricula are prepared to step into jobs after school or be well prepared with the basics for more rigorous study in college.

The second year of the grant involved planning, and last fall the three began teaching the curriculum to juniors who chose the career track. The teachers now are preparing for next fall when the students will take the second year of the coursework as seniors.

“The Academy has a pretty intense curriculum,” said Gandy, the Academy director. The NAF is nationally recognized, and businesses understand what the students went through to earn that endorsement on their diploma to show they are NAF graduates.

“Our students stand out. They’re special. We cater to them,” Gandy continued. “With the help of the advisory board, we are teaching what they know our students need to know.”

The Academy advisory board includes members from every bank and almost every insurance office in the city as well as higher education and community representatives. It meets at least twice a year to review the curricula and offer ideas for areas of enrichment. Members serve as guest speakers, and students will be completing internships in many of their offices before they graduate, an Academy requirement.

Kelly Gandy (L) and Courtney Kerby standing before the Academy of Finance banner and a culmination project by student Mya Smith.

Kelly Gandy (L) and Courtney Kerby standing before the Academy of Finance banner and a culmination project by student Mya Smith.

Davis meshes her marketing education classes with Gandy and Kerby. By the time her freshmen and sophomore students have completed her courses, they have a strong base and worth ethic if they choose to continue in the Academy.

Her NAF classes include the principles of finance, ethics, economics and entrepreneurship.

Davis also directs the coop program, placing eligible juniors and seniors with businesses in the area to learn first-hand the challenges of business.

Both Gandy and Kerby are Auburn University graduates. Gandy majored in business administration with a major in finance. She began her career at Trustmark Bank in Demopolis as a real estate loan processor and then became the fixed asset analyst in the accounting department at Rock Tenn. The first thing she did at the bank was earn her insurance license.

When she heard about the job opening for a business teacher with a background in finance, accounting and insurance, she thought to herself, “The Lord must be speaking to me.”

It didn’t take long for her to realize that teaching was where she wanted to be, and she returned to school to earn her teaching certificate.

Kerby started out in business but switched to business education and went on to earn her master’s degree. She taught at Hillcrest High School in Tuscaloosa before coming to DHS three years ago.

Both are concerned with teaching financial literacy to their students who only know of the buy-now-pay-later way of thinking. They are advocates of Dave Ramsey who preaches paying cash and carrying no debt.

Davis, now in her sixth year teaching at DHS, is a graduate of Mississippi State. She and her husband have moved extensively for his work, and she has taught in many states.

“It’s just been one big basket of great,” Davis said of her time in Demopolis. “Honestly, this has been the best teaching experience I’ve had, being a part of this community where we have so much support from area business people, parents, everybody working toward making our kids successful, working with teachers who love what they do.”

She finds the Academy curriculum is more rigorous, more in-depth and more content-filled.

“My expectations are really high for my students,” said Davis, “and I want their expectations for themselves to be high.” They know that, and the students are meeting those expectations.

NAF requires on-line experience for students, and all the teachers provide that. Davis’ students can log on each day to find out what is being covered in class, see what has been assigned and submit their work on line as well. The use of technology is the biggest change Davis has seen during her tenure at DHS.

“The use of technology has changed the way that I teach on a daily basis, and it helps me prepare my students for college or career,” she said.

“The kids actually could do all of their coursework completely outside of the classroom,” she said. “It’s absolutely fabulous,” said Davis. “It has made my life so much easier using the NAF curriculum.”

Dr. Al Griffin, superintendent, approached Gandy and Kerby about starting the academy curriculum. They traveled to Connecticut to observe a “distinguished academy,” an example of a premier program at a self-contained campus.

They would love to see an academy setting in Demopolis eventually. Such an arrangement fosters a family-like togetherness with each student helping the other. The idea is not to lose any at-risk students and to prepare them for college or to go from high school directly to the work force.

“There are so many jobs out there that the kids don’t realize you don’t have to have a college degree to do. You just need skills,” said Kerby.

In their classes the Kerby and Gandy are providing students with the opportunity to earn credentials that are resume-builders. Already offered is Microsoft Office specialist. They will begin a new finance credential with Everfi in general finance, and they are looking into an accounting certification through Quicken.

Kerby, who is the yearbook sponsor, teaches the NAF financial planning course in addition to multi-media design and insurance. Gandy’s NAF courses include principles of accounting and managerial accounting in addition to financial management.

Both women teach career preparation. They coordinate lesson plans so they cover the same skills at the same time and even give tests on the same day.

They have found that each complements the other. Gandy offers her business experience, and Kerby has proven an able education mentor to Gandy.

While the DHS Academy is new, the three teachers are delighted with the progress of their students during the first semester. Each had to complete a culminating project, and they took an end-of-course assessment. An average of 80 percent passed the tough NAF test.

This story is the first in a series that will highlight the career tech programs at Demopolis High School in honor of Career Tech Month. The series will appear on Sundays throughout the month of February.

But the biggest sign of success is the response from their students.

“They’re selling it to the students in the grade below,” said Gandy.

“I see it growing,” added Kerby. “I see the interest building.”

“My high hopes for the academy is awareness to the community, awareness to other teachers and to understand exactly what we have here,” said Gandy.

While the three teachers have a loose collaboration, primarily they work independently. “We’re all working toward the goal of making the Academy successful for the kids,” said Davis. “It’s all about the kids.”

So many kids see themselves moving away from family, but talking with her students, Davis finds they like Demopolis and want to raise their children here.