'Coach' working to change lives of Ark. juvenile offenders
Rusty McPhate, also known as “Coach Mac,” is changing lives of children incarcerated in the Sebastian County Juvenile Detention Center
By Kate Jordan
FORT SMITH, Ark. — Rusty McPhate, also known as “Coach Mac,” is changing lives of children incarcerated in the Sebastian County Juvenile Detention Center.
Coach, a man with a striking Delta-Cajun accent and a friendly manner, is the lead teacher in the Juvenile Detention Center Classroom. His co-workers say he is a great asset to the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office.
Originally from Natchez, Miss., McPhate graduated from Natchez High School in 1978, earned an associate degree from Copiah Community College, earned a degree in education at the University of Southern Mississippi and a master’s degree from Alcorn State University. He took classes at the University of Arkansas not only to get state-certified in teaching, but also because he loves the Razorbacks.
He also loves his wife, Brandy, and together, the two had a son they named J.R. The family packed their belongings and moved to Fort Smith nine years ago, and a month after, on Aug. 1, he began working in the Juvenile Detention Center Classroom.
“I was a football coach and teacher in Mississippi, and I worked in an alternative school down there and just wanted to move to this area,” Coach said. “I have relatives that live from Pine Bluff to Rogers that are from where I am from, and I just love it here.”
He works hard and says he loves what he does. Day-in and day-out, he works toward one night in May at the Stubblefield Center, when students who earned their GEDs in his classroom graduate.
“Graduation night: That’s (my) favorite part. It’s cool when you tell them that they’ve graduated because they jump up and down, holler and cry, and that’s really cool, but graduation is really real to them when they’ve got that cap and gown on. You can see that their self-esteem has changed. … Seeing them walk across that stage, seeing them walk across that stage is just the best.”
Every other day, however, the boys and girls he teaches are separated inside the JDC classroom, which is located at the corner of A and Ninth streets in Fort Smith. The classroom has no windows, but looks just like a classroom in a regular school, maybe nicer, despite being part of the jail.
The curriculum and hours are the same as a regular school.
Sebastian County Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck, Chief Deputy Hobe Runion, Quorum Court members and employees at state agencies say the Sebastian County Juvenile Detention Center has the model classroom.
“They wish everyone (other jail classrooms in Arkansas) was like us because we are as close to the outside as you can get,” Coach said.
There are 14 similar schools in the state, and Sebastian County is always selected as the best, Runion said.
The students McPhate teaches are incarcerated primarily for truancy. The reasons they get locked up range from misdemeanor shoplifting to felony murder, but Coach doesn’t see them as anything more than students.
With his eyes lit with happiness, he said, “That’s all they are to us. Everybody makes mistakes, and you tend to forget, other than them coming in here shackled and handcuffed and all that … it’s a school. They’re just your kids. You don’t really think about the incarcerated part.”
He says the kids are always respectful. “If they know you’re going to treat them with respect and you’re going to be fair and they know that you have their best outlook in your heart, they’re going to do what you ask them to do, and they’re going to do it gladly. They’re going to try hard for you.”
And they do try hard, he says, but sometimes things get challenging.
“As far as the GED, it’s getting them to believe in themselves,” McPhate said. “That’s the hardest thing. Getting them to trust themselves, because most of them are not good students, and they have been told they aren’t good students throughout their academic career, and getting them to realize, ‘Hey, I can do this,’ that’s the toughest part about my job.”
Every day of every year, except federal holidays and most Saturdays, he teaches individualized material to the children at the JDC. The material taught includes all core subjects and sometimes health, he says. In fact, Coach said, health used to not be taught at his school, but after asking, it was approved, and he now teaches that subject every now and then.
“The kids like health because you’re talking about relationships and things like that; it’s not just hygiene, so the kids like that,” Coach said.
Coach said, “We do all core subjects because you’ll have a 10-year-old and a 17-year-old in the same classroom. … We try to help them read better, get better math skills so when they going back into their home schools, they’re more comfortable in the classroom, and they’re not hiding. They’re raising their hands and ask to read and ask questions. We try to give them education and give them confidence to be better students.”
Not only does he teach class during the mandated six-hour class sessions, he tutors, teaches and helps the kids earn their GEDs in addition to the six-hour day.
“I will come in on the weekends, and I will stay in the afternoons and do stuff, or I might run over at lunch and spend the lunch hour over there with them,” he said.
“He is very dedicated. Extremely dedicated,” said his co-worker, paraprofessional Renee Winegardner.
Winegarnder administers GEDs to the students for testing at the jail.
Winegardner is from Iowa, came to Fort Smith in 2005, and before she began working in the JDC classroom, she was a deputy at the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office. After passing the Praxis Exam, she became certified to teach and has ever since.
They have another co-worker, Chad Pettigrew from Texas, who also worked at the Sebastian County Detention Center, and then became a teacher. He taught at Spradling Elementary School for about two years and then began working with Coach and Winegardner.
The number of students in the JDC “pretty much changes daily,” Coach said, but the students are primarily boys. As of Friday , there were only two girls in the detention center. The youngest student is 10. The oldest that can be taught in his school are 21.
“The former judge put a couple in here who were 20 to finish their GED,” Coach said. “He sentenced them GED, so we worked on that, they got it and got out.”
When speaking, Coach makes it obvious he cares greatly for any student he teaches. He speaks of them highly and says they work hard, which makes him proud.
“We have some really bright kids who come through here,” Coach said. “We’ve had some get scholarships to University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.”
With pride, he said he tells his students, “If you go to UAFS and you feel overwhelmed, call us. One of us will come up there, and we’ll help you.”
Coach said, “We give them a hand-up. We them give them a hand-up, and it’s left to them. We push college on them constantly because Renee and I both tell them, ‘If you can do this GED, you can be successful in college. That’s why this GED is like it is — to have you ready for college, and don’t waste it.’”
Perhaps his kindness, dedication, diligence and professionalism are what motivates his students to work hard. Some work so hard that they earn a GED in six weeks, he said.
“Which is amazing because we’re not getting AP students in here for this. We’re getting kids who didn’t go to school. These are kids who are in here for truancy. The GED, this is a college prep test, and these kids are basically doing four years of high school in six weeks, because they’ve got to be able to read and have math skills at a college level to get through this thing. These kids work really hard.”
“He (Coach) has a wealth of experience, and because of what he has done, he is able to relate to the students and motivate them to learn, and he really is,” Runion said. “He seems to be able to put himself on whichever level with the kids he’s teaching and find some common ground and motivate them to learn.”
Coach recalled one student in particular.
“I had a kid, and I’ll always remember this,” Coach said as his demeanor changed. “I was getting in my truck at graduation one night, and I can’t say his last name, but his first name is Quinton. He stopped me when I was getting into my truck, and he was crying, and he said, ‘Coach, I will run 1,000 miles for you.’”
Coach and Runion said the classroom leads the state every year.
“It’s because of him (Coach). It really is,” Winegardner insists. “He works really hard.”
Other people agree Coach is changing lives and is admirable.
“Daily, Coach is making a difference in the lives of young people in our community,” said Lt. Philip Pevehouse of the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office. “He is a positive role model.”