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Written by: UAB National Alumni Society

In the classroom of a Birmingham elementary school, Tronci Southall-Mason’s life changed. As a research assistant, she often visited local schools and administered aptitude tests, used to evaluate students who did not attend pre-kindergarten. 

In one interview, she spoke with a young student about his hardships in life and in school. In that moment, she decided to go back to her alma mater, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and pursue a degree in education.

“It sparked something in me that made me want to be an educator and make a difference,” Southall-Mason said.

Today, Southall-Mason makes a difference daily. She has worked at Glen Iris Elementary School for the last 25 years. As the principal and instructional leader of Glen Iris, she dedicates her life to the students and teachers that fill its halls. With the elementary school resting on the edge of UAB’s campus, Southall-Mason remains in partnership with UAB as both institutions give back to the community and encourage lifelong learning.

Originally from Mobile, Southall-Mason was attracted to Birmingham because of its size in comparison to her hometown. She attended UAB and graduated in 1995 with a degree in health education and health promotion.

Not long after graduation, she accepted a research assistant position through the UAB Civitan-Sparks clinic. This position required visiting local schools to perform research for the clinic. Through this role, she met the student who inspired her to become a teacher.

On this particular day, she visited an elementary school located in a low socioeconomic neighborhood. She spoke with a third-grade student about his dreams and the challenges he faced in the classroom. He was reading below grade level, and he struggled to answer the aptitude test questions.

This little boy said his life goal was to be like his dad and sell watermelons on the side of the street. While she felt that it was endearing that he wanted to be just like his father, Southall-Mason feared that unless he overcame his academic disadvantages, he might never escape the impoverished cycle he grew up in.

“Something in me kept saying, “There has to be something I can do to help these children get out of poverty,’” Southall-Mason said.

Instead of trying to change his dream, she wondered how she could elevate that dream with him – instead of just selling watermelons, maybe he could receive a marketing degree.

Although this particular boy stood out, his story reflected that of many students in the school. In that moment, she knew she had to be the change for that scholar and others.

She returned to UAB, this time graduating in 1997 with a degree in early childhood education. Southall-Mason said her time at UAB still impacts her today.

“The professors were very involved and checked in often to see if we needed any support,” Southall-Mason said. “The education courses that I took and the professors that were there at that time shaped me.”

She accepted her first teaching position as a kindergarten teacher at Glen Iris Elementary School, just minutes from the heart of UAB’s campus. After teaching kindergarten for 16 years, she worked in curriculum and instruction before being promoted to assistant principal. In 2019 she became the instructional leader and principal.

Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Mark Sullivan, Ph.D., a former principal of Glen Iris, said Mason is helping the district reach its goal.

“Birmingham City Schools’ goal is the be the first choice of education for parents in this particular area,” Sullivan said. “The work that Ms. Mason is (doing) is helping to ensure that we are that. There are hundreds of transfer requests every year of students wanting to go to Glen Iris and that’s due to the leadership she has at the school.”

Glen Iris Elementary School is in the heart of downtown Birmingham. The school has over 700 learners that represent over 17 countries and 17 languages, many whose parents are researchers at UAB.

“We’re one on the few Birmingham City Schools that offers Spanish, band, music, advanced technology and art,” Southall-Mason said. “We offer a plethora of unified arts for our scholars to experience. We try to set ourselves apart and stand out in a positive light.”

Southall-Mason is passionate about ensuring that they teach students how to read and write, while also developing the entire child.

“We are teaching them about life, about exploring, about making positive choices and decisions,” Southall-Mason said. “I want all the scholars that I come in contact with to remember at least one thing I taught them – even if it’s just to look both ways before crossing the street.”

Southall-Mason does more than just serve as principal. She cares so deeply about her school that she takes on any role that is needed. If the custodian is out, she comes in on the weekends and cleans the school by herself.

“You have to be willing to do things that you don’t feel like is your job,” Southall-Mason said. “If there’s anything I can do to help educate the students, I am going to do it. You have to make sure the environment is conducive and safe for learning. Without a second thought, I just do it.”

UAB and Glen Iris continue to stay connected to one another. Glen Iris frequently accepts student-teachers as they work to complete their observation hours for their degree.

“As a UAB alumna, I am able to give back to this community by letting these UAB students come in and volunteer. It’s unity,” Southall-Mason said. “Even though I am no longer at UAB, it allows me to still feel connected to UAB and the great work they are doing.”

Tondra L. Loder-Jackson, Ph.D., a professor in the UAB School of Education, brings her classes to Glen Iris as a part of her pre-Teacher Education Program (pre-TEP) every semester. She uses these visits to introduce an exemplary Birmingham school.

“My students learn what it takes to be an effective teacher and a school administrator during these visits,” Loder-Jackson said. “They observe classrooms and main office interactions, view student wall displays, and learn more about the school’s urban garden and how parents, community members, and civic organizations are enlisted to support it.”

Loder-Jackson said Southall-Mason has never turned down her request to bring these college students.

“Whenever we visit, she always leaves the door wide open for them to return as student-teachers and volunteers,” Loder-Jackson said. “Her elementary school students come up to her and hug her legs and greet her warmly during our visits. I marvel at how she adeptly addresses school matters without missing a beat in speaking to my class and touring us throughout the building. She is a wonderful ambassador for both the UAB School of Education and the Birmingham City Schools.”

Twenty-five years after she received a degree in early childhood education, Southall-Mason has a daughter in college studying to be a teacher. Even when the work is tiring, the love for her daughter helps her stay motivated to help these children succeed.

“Everything I want for my daughter, that’s what I want for every scholar that walks through the door,” Southall-Mason said. “I want them to have as much as a positive learning experience as they possibly can. We want our students to know how important they are and that they can succeed.”