There’s a Rebel in the running for the coveted crown at this year’s Miss America pageant.
Katherine Kelley, a 23-year-old Clark County School District teacher pursuing her master’s degree at UNLV’s College of Education, has spent the last several months racking up the titles of Miss Summerlin and Miss Nevada.
On Sept. 13, Kelley will take her winning combination of classical piano, elegant gowns and advocacy for improved school attendance to the 2016 Miss America competition in Atlantic City.
Kelley, a Madisonville, Ky. native, is a University of Alabama international studies graduate who moved with Teach for America to Las Vegas in May 2014 to help address the local teacher shortage. When the outdoorsy Mojave High School geometry instructor isn’t working on secondary math education coursework here on campus, she enjoys trips to Lake Mead and Red Rock.
She recently sat down with us to chat about her background and thoughts on education in America.
On becoming a teacher
Even in the four years I was in college, I had many career aspirations — from foreign service officer with the State Department to political journalist — but my time spent volunteering in the Alabama Public School system really impacted my views on race, poverty and the education system in America. I felt led to make a difference. Teach for America and the Miss Nevada Scholarship Organization have provided me a way to do that. Oddly enough, it didn’t truly “click” for me until I was sitting in my interview with Teach for America. I was learning about the movement for educational equality and I knew then that I was meant to play a part. My goal for now is to remain in the classroom, but I can see myself going into education policy in the future as well.
Why Miss America
I have competed on and off in pageants since I was a high school senior, but only in states where I resided at the time. I moved to Nevada to become a teacher, and I am so honored to have been chosen to represent our state at Miss America as well. I value the skills that the Miss America Organization builds in young women: confidence, public speaking, fitness, service, etc. We are also the country’s largest provider of scholarships to women, and the money that I have earned from participating will allow me to finish my master’s degree debt free.
On her platform “Every Day Counts: A Comprehensive Plan for Improving School Attendance”
I noticed the poor attendance in my own classroom very shortly after the start of the school year. And the more research I did, the more I realized that attendance is a huge issue nationwide, especially in high-poverty areas. Miss Nevada allows me to bring attention to this issue, as well as work with local and state organizations to turn this trend around.
On the “girls aren’t good at math” stereotype
Absolutely, some female students — I’d say 80 percent — buy into it. Part of my job as a teacher is to make sure I’m encouraging both my male and female students. Studies have shown that teachers tend to favor male over female students, so I strive to make sure not to do that. Teaching math is hard in general because students come in the first day already knowing they hate your class. But my job is to encourage them and make sure they understand it’s something they need to know in life.
Students on her new celebrity status
It’s summer break (at the time of the interview), so I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to them about my crowning. I told them about winning my local title, Miss Summerlin, back in February and they were very excited for me. I think it helps them to see me as a real person, not just their math teacher.
Advice to students or aspiring teachers
Remember that no one is perfect. You will make mistakes and you will struggle at some point on your journey. You will be discouraged. In those times, remember why it is that you are passionate about your field and learn from your mistakes. Learning to grow and adapt will carry you very far in life.
The 2016 Miss America competition airs live 9 to 11 p.m. ET (6 to 8 p.m. PT) on Sun., Sept. 13, 2015 on ABC.