When Alexandra Hackett, ’13, first stepped foot in Overby-Sheppard Elementary School as a sophomore, the business major did not realize her relationships with students and a teacher would fuel her to advocate for education reform.

“I’m Ms. Alex,” Hackett greeted a quiet student sitting in the back of Phyllis Wilson’s second-grade classroom on a recent afternoon. “I don’t think I’ve met you before. What is your name?”

After a brief conversation with the student, Hackett conferred with Wilson about a math test. Then Hackett and the veteran teacher moved around the classroom answering general questions as the second graders completed a worksheet.

Having worked together weekly for the last three years, Wilson and Hackett manage the classroom well as a team. Hackett has played a variety of roles as a classroom aide, including copying papers, grading tests, working with small groups, and even leading a lesson.

“As the kids and I get to know each other, I am able to recognize light bulb moments when they understand a new concept,” Hackett said. “These moments are invaluable toward building a student’s confidence.”

Encouraging children as they learn is vital to their success at school, according to Hackett.

Hackett first became a classroom aide to fulfill the community-based learning (CBL) requirement for the course Justice and Civil Society. She quickly became aware of students’ successes and struggles and began to feel invested in their education.

“After completing Justice and Civil Society, I wasn’t done learning,” Hackett said.

“I want to continually learn more about the context of poverty. Rather than just seeing a sad news story about school test scores being low, I want to understand why the scores are low and see hope in the eyes of students who are full of potential in an imperfect system.”

Hackett decided to return to Overby-Sheppard as a classroom aide through Build It, the University’s neighborhood-based civic-engagement program.

Time in the classroom prompted Hackett to form questions about the public education system. She noticed that education includes curriculum and testing, as well as parenting, nutrition, and communication within the school.

Hackett joined the UR-student-run issue coalition, Students for Educational Equality (SEE), which works to create dialogue about public education inequities. This year, she is on the SEE leadership team.

After graduation in May 2013, Hackett will begin a full-time job in sales and marketing. But her time as a classroom aide will continue to impact how she votes and views education policy for the rest of her life, she said.

She thinks about educational policy in terms of her moments in the classroom when elementary students were empowered by knowledge.

For now, Wilson and Hackett are celebrating their respective journeys in the classroom. Many things have changed since she began teaching for Richmond Public Schools 32 years ago, Wilson said. But not everything.

“Children, remind me what we say in my class,” Wilson prompted.

“I will be proud of myself and others will be proud of me too,” the children confidently recited together. “I came to school to learn, and I am going to have a great day.”

Wilson and Hackett have learned that behind each test score and education report is a unique child: a child who needs encouragement to build confidence and flourish.

Photo: Alexandra Hackett, right, volunteers in a second-grade classroom under the guidance of veteran teacher Phyllis Wilson, left.