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Following in His Footsteps


The Great Outdoorsman

As Ray Higgins floated down the Chattooga River last summer, he did so with mixed emotions. After 40 years at Jackson Academy, this would be his last “official” year leading the annual rafting adventure. What started as a van full of adventurous middle school students had grown to be the hallmark experience for JA seventh graders. The challenge and thrill of the rapids remained, yet the moment was bittersweet.

“I recall telling Ray I only had one requirement, and that was that I be allowed to go with him.” ~Bruce Sumrall

The Start of a Tradition

In the early 1970s, Higgins had recently graduated from Ole Miss. The Memphis native was working as a youth director at a Jackson church when he spotted an opening at JA. Thankfully for JA, he got the job. Taking part in Young Life while in school and summers at a Christian camp had shaped the young history teacher’s outlook on how fun and community could lead to greater understanding of self and spirituality.

“As a teacher and coach, I wanted to incorporate that at JA,” Higgins said. “So I just started the trips. I loaded up a van and asked kids, ‘Who wants to go?” The first summer, he took two trips—one for girls and one for boys. Soon after, fathers started joining in, driving a second or third car. The trips grew from 30 to 60 to more than 80 students and chaperones typical of today. Upper school students now join the fun as mentors. Higgins organically grew the seeds of an idea into the can’t-miss opportunity of Middle School—one that alums remark on today as seminal to their time at JA.

“Outside of a church setting, Ray Higgins expertly demonstrates through the high-energy setting, devotionals, and quiet time that living the Christian life is an adventure!” ~Suzanne Guild

“The kids start a little uncomfortable with it all and then you watch them get comfortable,” said Higgins. “They find they need help to get through things like hiking down a canyon or shooting Class V rapids. It’s fun stuff, but it’s challenging stuff.” As part of every trip, Higgins also shares devotionals and the stories of the Gospel. The older students talk about their faith and spirituality with the younger students. “They’re not perfect at it. I’m not perfect at it,” he said. “But we’re all getting out into God’s creation.”

“The third person from JA I met was Ray Higgins,” said teacher Bruce Sumrall, who joined JA in 1977. “In his inimitable style, a combination of gentleness, conviction, and persuasion, he told me of his programs and, because at the time I was the Middle School dean and assistant headmaster, he asked for my permission to continue. I recall telling Ray I only had one requirement, and that was that I be allowed to go with him.”


More Than Adventure

“More than experiencing the high adventure of these trips, there is an underlining component that has eternal impact,” said Suzanne Guild ’92, who traveled with Higgins as a middle school student, student chaperone, and again this year as a parent chaperone. Outside of a church setting, Ray Higgins expertly demonstrates through the high-energy setting, devotionals, and quiet time that living the Christian life is an adventure!”

JA is exploring ways to expand similar opportunities for students and families to step away from the classroom and hubbub of daily life, examine their relationships with each other and with God, and reflect on what it means to live a purpose-driven life.

“When you spend a week together as a group sitting around a campfire at night, jumping off 200-foot-tall rock ledges into a river, swimming beneath a 100-foot waterfall, and breaking bread together over meals, meaningful bonds are created that last long after the trip has ended.” ~Gregory Johnston

“The kids haven’t changed at all in my time doing this,” Higgins said. “They are still live wires. Other things have changed. The culture has changed. Some of them might be trying to grow up a little earlier. But they’re still kids. They’re still 12 years old. They are looking to be accepted. They fake their way through things. They think they’re invincible. But they’re not.”

Higgins’ work has won him legions of fans from Jackson to Nantahala. On last summer’s trip, the Nantahala rafting outfitter presented him with an honorary paddle and a cake. Fathers on the trip—some of them JA alums who had rafted with Higgins as students and have returned as chaperones—contributed a plaque to commemorate his dedication. “Throughout the trip I contemplated just how many lives that Coach Higgins had touched over those many years,” said alum and father Gregory Johnston ’91. “When you spend a week together as a group sitting around a campfire at night, jumping off 200-foot-tall rock ledges into a river, swimming beneath a 100-foot waterfall and breaking bread together over meals, meaningful bonds are created that last long after the trip has ended.”

As JA middle school students become upper school students and graduates, they take pieces of Ray Higgins with them. On a recent Outdoors Club trip to Montana and Canada, Bruce Sumrall discussed future plans with nine students—all seasoned Ray Higgins veterans—gathered around the campfire. “They planned to travel that summer to every continent except Antarctica. Because of Ray and his leadership, part of Ray and part of JA would travel with them.”

In addition to having more time to spend with his wife Millie (a JA pre-school teacher) as well as frequent trips to Oxford to visit his two children at Ole Miss (while perhaps taking in a game or two), Higgins will continue to share his wisdom and expertise as a consultant to JA. Families can expect to see him on future trips—just not every one. “I’m really more of a kayak-on-a-lake kind of guy, but I will always go to the Chattooga River. It’s by far my favorite. I just won’t have 80 people with me.”

Here’s What to Expect

Planning on joining a future rafting trip as a chaperone? First off, some important advice from Ray: “When you take thousands of kids over 40 years, there’s ample opportunity for things to go wrong. I’ve learned to be flexible. But before every rapid I still have butterflies. So I go back to one of my favorite verses: ‘If God is for you, who can be against you?’”

Day 1: 
Head out from Jackson. “Coach Higgins employs handwritten maps that can be delightfully imprecise to the untrained eye,” said Gregory Johnston ’91. “Many of the rural destinations on the trips have no cell phone coverage.” Once you make it, spend an afternoon of hiking and swimming in Alabama’s Cathedral Canyon, followed by a steak cookout at camp.

Day 2: 
Raft the Ocoee River in Tennessee. Just a little bit scared? Ray reminds us: “You can sit at home or trust in God.” Make camp in North Carolina for the night.

Day 3: 
Hike and visit North Carolina waterfalls that include the highest drop east of the Mississippi River. Keep an eye out for unforeseen hazards at White Water Falls. “About five years ago, we bee bopped down there and behold there were 15 naked hippies on the rocks,” said Ray. “I had to go talk to them and ask them to put some clothes on so we could slide. They did. We slid, and then left. They went right back to it.”

Day 4: 
Fill up on Chick-n-Minis at Chick-fil-A before tackling the challenging, yet beautiful, Class V rapids of the Chattooga River. You’re an outdoors pro by now. Then drive to Atlanta in the evening for dinner out and a relatively luxurious stay at a hotel.

Day 5: 
Head back to Jackson, bursting with new friendships, stories to last a lifetime, and true life-changing experiences.


Building on Coach Higgins’ Legacy

It’s clear that Ray Higgins is a veritable force of nature, not easily duplicated. Thankfully, Higgins has agreed to work as a consultant to help guide the JA team in maintaining and enhancing what’s available to students.

“There’s only one Ray Higgins,” said teacher and coach Nic Henderson. “He just thought our kids could benefit from these things so he did them. Then he had another idea. And another. Now we’re trying to turn it into a program.”

As part of the program, JA seeks to incorporate outdoors experiences with other character-building opportunities and offer signature events for grades first through twelfth. Henderson will step away from coaching and classroom duties and will take the lead, with support from other faculty and staff, in shaping this leadership program that will be a key role in our strategic plan.

“Coach Higgins’ rafting trips are legendary. I meet alumni from Jackson Academy all the time, and they always ask me if he still takes people on the same rafting trips. Coach Higgins left JA better than he found it.” ~Steven Irby, Class of 2015

Together, the trips and events will continue to 
nurture student growth and spirituality. Planned opportunities include:

Visits to the Down Range ropes course in Clinton.

Learn more at:

Lunch to Lead workshops and talks.

Learn more at: and

Canoe trips on the Mississippi and Okatoma rivers.

Learn more at:

Hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains

A visit to the Heifer International Village in Arkansas (see JA magazine pages 16-19)

Capstone service projects

JA also will continue the popular “Chicks to the Chattooga” rafting trip that took its inaugural run last summer, pairing mothers and JA counselors on a mini version of the student trip.

For further reading, you can read personal reflections from faculty, parents, and alums about the importance of these JA experiences, including:

Bruce Sumrall on why he might be 
Ka-Raaaay-Zee about the outdoors

Deanna Funderburg on Chicks to the Chattooga

Faculty Help Students Bridge Senior Year and College Experience

When we think of a doctorate degree, we think of the highest degree attainable in an academic field held by a person who is a subject matter expert. The degree holder imparts knowledge to college students, conducts research, and exemplifies critical thinking.

Three faculty members at Jackson Academy have that experience and have chosen to teach in a secondary environment. What does that mean for them and for the students they teach? Get to know our Ph.D.s here:



Teaching an honors college class of university freshmen propelled Dennis Conklin, Ph.D., to the secondary classroom. In fact, out of all the classes he taught, his favorite college teaching experience occurred with this particular group. When Dr. Conklin saw an advertisement for an instructor of history at Jackson Academy, he reasoned that juniors and seniors in a college preparatory school were similar to the honors freshmen he was teaching, and he decided to interview.

“I can’t thank God enough for it,” said Dr. Conklin. “I would never have dreamed I’d be teaching in a high school, but I feel like this is where I belong. I love my job.”

His work at JA is modeled on his college teaching experience. Having taught college freshmen in other classes who were unprepared for higher education, Dr. Conklin is determined to make sure his JA students know what they will encounter.

“College is not about memorization. It is about critical thinking. All my essay questions require students to make an argument and prove it. I want to get them ready to thrive in that environment,” he says.

Adopting an argument and proving it corresponds well with Dr. Conklin’s other previous career—that of the law. Writing briefs in a big law firm left him unfulfilled, so he returned to college to pursue his love—history—and to teach on the college level.

“I firmly believe God puts us on a path to a vocation,” he said. “If you are listening to that inner calling, you are headed in the right direction.”

As a person who changed vocations, Dr. Conklin has perspective. “You’ve got to follow your heart and do what God calls you to do. If you do that, you are going to be happy in a way that none of the material things the world offers will give you.”

He now teaches four sections of eleventh grade U.S. History, a post Civil War elective, and a debate rotation for eighth graders. He is especially eager to begin the spring semester in which students taking the Civil War elective will create web pages on a topic of interest, such as medicine or ancestry.

Dr. Conklin holds both a doctorate and a master’s in history from the University of Southern Mississippi, a Juris Doctor from Loyola University of New Orleans, and a bachelor’s in political science from Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois.



Katharine Todd, Ph.D., planned on a career in education. “Teaching is my chosen career, and I think it’s the perfect job. It’s wonderful to have a career that offers a fresh start each year. Material might be repeated, but the classroom dynamic is never the same,” she said.

Dr. Todd earned a doctorate, a master’s and a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Mississippi. She taught in the department of English and held administrative roles with the university. Her work experience has included editing narratives for a published work, consulting with students through the university’s writing center, and consulting with students who were preparing to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) for admission to graduate school.

At JA, she teaches British Literature, AP Language and Composition, and creative writing, while advising the staff of the literary magazine, Images.

Dr. Todd finds that getting to know students is a special part of her job. “The best part about teaching high school versus college is that you really have time to get to know the students on a personal level,” she said. “Honestly, the only drawback to teaching seniors is that they leave at the end of the year, but I was so touched by how many of my students came back to visit before leaving for college.”

Having experience on the college level helps her prepare students for what college professors will expect and for standardized tests. “I held a teaching fellowship in graduate school at the University of Mississippi, so I was able to gain years of teaching experience on the college level which helped tremendously in preparing me to teach juniors and seniors,” she explained. “It also helps that I know first-hand what college instructors expect from their students, so that’s another great advantage in reaching my goal of preparing students for college-level English courses. Years of experience working in the Writing Center and teaching a GRE prep course at Ole Miss have likewise provided me with knowledge I can pass along to high school students working on personal statements, standardized tests, and other required steps along the path to college.”

In addition to getting to know her students, Dr. Todd also appreciates JA’s environment. “I also enjoy the camaraderie between the faculty members—JA truly has a family atmosphere unlike any other. You feel the “All for One” atmosphere every day—it’s not just a marketing phrase, it IS The JA Way,” she said. “This year I appreciate that camaraderie on a deeper level since Kate is now a JA student. As a parent, I cannot imagine a better atmosphere in which my child could learn and grow.”

Dr. Todd advises students to take note of high school and college courses that they like and dislike as one signal of career fit. “Don’t choose a career based on what someone has done before you or what someone thinks you should do, and don’t just fall into a career—really think about what you would enjoy doing,” she advises. “Having said that, always know you can change direction. Take advantage of career counseling services that are available to you—that’s a great way to start. The bottom line is find something you enjoy doing. I have a bumper sticker that sums it up—do what you like, like what you do.”



Laura Reynolds Zettler, Ph.D., brings a wealth of college-level teaching experience to her first semester at JA. As she is teaching JA seniors, she applies the economic principle that decisions have tradeoffs. This approach helps students with practical aspects of financial management and career choices.

“I am enjoying the opportunity to teach economics here at JA, which will definitely include an emphasis on personal finances. I believe the personal finance topics are important for these seniors to begin thinking about before they go off to college and start making their own financial decisions,” she said. “I also hope that in helping them understand economic concepts, they will become better decision makers and have a better understanding of how the world around them functions.”

Dr. Zettler holds a doctorate from the University of Missouri and master’s and bachelor’s degrees from the University of Alabama. She served as a full-time faculty member at the University of Alabama and the College at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. She continues to teach on the college level as an adjunct professor for Mississippi College and as an online professor for the University of Alabama. Her teaching experience includes courses in economics, personal financial planning and management, retirement planning, investments, financial stewardship, risk management, tax planning, estate planning, and business skills for life.

“In addition to classroom teaching, I have been involved in various research projects, and have experience working for the U.S. Senate, the Speaker of the House, and the Federal Reserve Board. I love how my field of study applies to such an important part of our everyday lives,” she said.

Her varied experience comes into play in the classroom in a way that benefits students. “In choosing a career, I would first advise the students to be open to exploring options in various fields of study. At the heart of economics is decision making and considering the trade-offs of the decisions we make. My number one piece of advice when it comes to career planning is to seek out an internship sooner than later. Internships or any type of volunteer or part-time work experience in the field they are considering will help them understand important parts of the day-to-day job activities they may have a hard time understanding otherwise,” she explained. “It is also a good idea to research the current social, demographic and industry trends to determine the future demand for your career choice. Last, if they are really struggling to choose a career path, something that helped me was taking various aptitude tests, and career-based personality and interest inventories. These assessments are available online or through the career center at universities. They helped me narrow my focus a little and ultimately pointed me to the profession I enjoy.”

“It excites me to think of all the new experiences these young men and women will face in the near future,” Dr. Zettler said. “I pray my passion for this field of study is contagious and they will realize the relevance of economics in their own lives.”

The Zettlers’ children Lily and Claire are JA students.

National Merit Recognizes JA Seniors

Being surrounded by a supportive community makes a huge difference for students. Jackson Academy seniors who have been recognized by the National Merit Scholarship Program cite the support of family and teachers as a factor in their success. Yet they also demonstrate that taking personal responsibility and being a self-directed learner are traits that help them reach their goals.

Georgia Gibson and Robyn Hadden have been named semifinalists and Dalton Gibson, Rebecca Nosef, and Davis Ripee have been commended by the National Merit program. They are among the nearly 1.5 million students who took the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test last year as juniors. Those receiving semifinalist status make up less than one percent of high school seniors across the country. In addition to testing, students seeking finalist status must validate other qualities of excellence, involvement, and leadership through a detailed application process.

Jackson Academy’s students took a moment to reflect on their favorite class, their future plans, and their advice to other students about senior year.

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Calling All Future Engineers

John S. Smith and his Introduction to Engineering class visit an Entergy power plant.

The world needs more young engineers. That’s the resounding statement of John S. Smith who is teaching Introduction to Engineering at Jackson Academy. In its second year, the class offers college-level engineering and college credit through an arrangement with Mississippi State University, Jackson State University, and JA. Besides giving students an early start on their college path, Smith hopes the course will kindle student interest in a profession that he says is rewarding, exciting, and needed by society.

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Heifer Village Trip Enlightens Sixth Graders


What do a rooster crowing, bartering, lack of sleep, a mouse, and joy in the midst of hardship have in common? All are part of the Heifer Village experience. In March, sixth graders spent a night in this experiential learning setting designed to increase awareness of how hunger and poverty affect people. Student Priya Ray says she will cherish the memory forever.

Heifer Village in Perryville, Ark., reenacts the challenges of living in areas of the world where Heifer International sends aid. “My friends and I learned so many things. We learned about how hard it is to live in poverty and how to survive. We also learned how to live without all our gadgets that we have today,” said Priya. “Heifer teaches us how to live with just a few resources—without cars, phones, a nice kitchen, and other technology. It teaches us to be more thankful…”

Seven Matches, Oil, and a Paring Knife

Shortly after providing orientation, Heifer Village staff randomly assigns students, faculty, and chaperones to a village in a poverty-stricken area of the world where they “live” for nearly 24 hours. Each village is given limited supplies and instructions for setting up camp, building fires, and making a meal. For example, one group of 14 was given a plastic tub filled with a pot, seven matches, a container of oil, and a paring knife. They then had to barter for wood to build a fire and acquire food by bartering, offering to work for food, or even stealing.

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