Arkansas Tech University graduate student Valencia Rochelle knows from experience that there are both challenges and benefits associated with teaching fourth graders.

"They are at that age when they are coming into their own a little bit," said Rochelle, fourth grade teacher at Taylor Elementary in Jacksonville. "They are becoming more independent, but they still need nurturing. It can be difficult to gauge where they are on any given day. They are just beginning to find themselves.

"On the other hand, they still have their innocence at that age," said Rochelle. "They are not jaded, and the social norms from outside the classroom are not influencing them as much as older students."

Rochelle is among a cohort of 20 Walton Leader Scholars who recently began their first year of study in the Master of Education degree program in educational leadership at Arkansas Tech.

By applying for and gaining admission to the newly-created LEAD 21 program in the Arkansas Tech Center for Leadership and Learning, Walton Leader Scholars receive free tuition as they pursue their master’s degree through a blended format of online courses and seminars.

Educators in Pulaski County and the Delta region of eastern Arkansas are eligible to apply to become Walton Leader Scholars. A second cohort of 20 educators will be selected for the program in summer 2014.

LEAD 21 is made possible through a $974,157 grant to Arkansas Tech from the Walton Family Foundation.

Participants in the program sign an agreement that they will remain in Arkansas as an educator for a minimum of two years after the completion of their master’s degree.

That condition did not faze Rochelle.

"I had no hesitation," said Rochelle. "Texas is home for me, but I love central Arkansas. As long as I feel like I am making a difference for my students, the two-year commitment will not be adverse for me."

The Walton Leader Scholars gathered for their first seminar in Russellville May 31-June 1. There, they had an opportunity to learn from Dr. Mary Gunter, dean of the Arkansas Tech Graduate College and professor of educational leadership.

"Dr. Gunter is real," said Rochelle. "When you read the mission statement on the Arkansas Tech Center for Leadership and Learning web site and then you meet Dr. Gunter, you see that those words are true to her heart."

Rochelle was recommended for the LEAD 21 program by her school principal, Jackie Smith.

"When I looked further, the program seemed interesting," said Rochelle. "I thought it was refreshing that it aligned closely with my goals for educational leadership. It is focused on building leadership capacity in others. The key phrase is open door policy. You must be able to distribute leadership and be confident in teachers to make decisions on their own while maintaining open channels for feedback."

Among Rochelle’s career goals are to become a building level administrator. If and when that opportunity arises, she says that she will focus on building a self-sufficient staff and becoming the best principal she can be.

Rochelle said her experiences at Taylor Elementary School have had an impact on her as she goes through the Lead 21 program.

"My experiences at Taylor Elementary have really helped to develop my teaching and leadership skills as I mature as a teacher," she said. "I am much more aware and appreciative of students and parents who came from all walks of life and how those individuals can enrich each other’s experiences and perspectives. I am also grateful to be a part of a staff of educators who view their roles as teachers as so much more than a job, but more of a calling. I have been officially and unofficially mentored by some of the greatest teachers whose passion and dedication are so intense, that you can’t help but to embrace that same excitement in your own teaching practices."

According to Rochelle, the direct impact that this has had on my journey through the Lead 21 program has been the desire to positively impact as many students as possible, which she believes can be most effectively done through a position as a future school administrator myself.

"I also want to be a leader/mentor to others in the same way that the Taylor family has nurtured and encouraged me," she said.

For more information about graduate degree programs in education at Arkansas Tech, visit