TUPELO • At her core, Stewart McMillan is a helper.
“I want to help people, I want to help make their lives better,” McMillan said. “And I enjoy educating, especially when I can work personally with individuals.”
McMillan, a Tupelo native, joined the CREATE Foundation on Aug. 5 as a part-time project manager for the Toyota Wellspring Education Fund where she’ll be able to help education students across Northeast Mississippi.
The Wellspring Fund targets Pontotoc, Union and Lee counties specifically, but McMillan said she looks forward to impacting all 17 counties that CREATE supports across Northeast Mississippi with this year’s Imagine the Possibilities Career Expo.
McMillan went to work immediately, helping with app and web development and lining up “Mentor for a Minute” videos from working professionals for the career expo which typically takes place at BancorpSouth Arena in Tupelo, but will be held online this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think that we have a great opportunity with COVID to all think more outside the box, to challenge the status quo not for the sake of challenging, but to benefit kids,” McMillan said. “The angle should be ‘What is in the best interest of students? How do we best support them? How do we prepare students to live, work and play, to be contributing members of society?’”
The expo has shifted its focus from eighth grade to tenth grade students this year and will continue to provide “authentic, career-oriented opportunities.”
The Toyota Wellspring Education Fund’s three pillars are to expose, prepare and connect, all of which resonate strongly with McMillan. She hopes that by moving the expo online, more students will be reached.
McMillan lives in Tupelo with her husband Victor McMillan and two sons, 3-year-old Henry and 5-month-old Jack, and said she looks forward to both of them being products of the Tupelo Public School District one day.
She is a lifelong member of First United Methodist Church, where she’s served on a variety of committees, and also serves on United Way and CATCH Kids boards.
McMillan attended Vanderbilt University where she earned double Bachelor of Arts degrees in Psychology and Human and Organizational Development.
She started out teaching fifth and sixth grade English Language Arts in Nashville as part of Teach for America before deciding to step away from the classroom to focus on education at a district level, working for the Achievement School District, a school system in Tennessee.
After having their first son, McMillan and her husband moved back to Tupelo where she took a job with the Mississippi Charter School Authorizer board based in Jackson.
In Mississippi, charter schools are their own district, so the role gave McMillan the experience of working with multiple districts before joining Tupelo Public School District in 2018 as its Innovation Program Facilitator.
She said her work with the district and Tupelo community that resulted in TPSD being designated as a District of Innovation, is the accomplishment she’s most proud of in her career so far.
The designation allows the district to support college and career readiness from Pre-K through 12th grade in new, innovative ways. Tupelo’s designation allows process standards waivers to help progress and expand initiatives like Project Lead The Way and the Middle College program.
“That was truly an 18-month process that was community driven from the beginning with our 14 meetings across various stakeholders to get input,” McMillan said. “Having that as the driving force for that work and then being able to say ‘These are our greatest needs as a school district. Let’s find innovative ways to meet these needs and let’s not be complacent.’”
McMillan said the designation will push the district to constantly be more innovative and evaluate what it can do in this changing learning environment to best support students.
McMillan said her mantra in education is “A rising tide raises all ships.” She wants to see everyone get better in collaboration with one another.
“I think there’s a place with athletics for competition, but when it comes to people’s lives and livelihood, we all want to be better together,” McMillan said. “Let’s all share the things that we’re doing that are going well, and let’s be transparent about things that aren’t working as well so we can get better together.”
She would like to challenge individuals to find ways to support their local school districts, especially during the pandemic, whether that’s calling a teacher or school administrator to thank them for their work or supporting a PTO to help provide a meal for teachers.
“We are developing our students who will be our workers and our leaders of tomorrow and there are so many opportunities to get involved,” McMillan said.