One tenet of the Effingham College and Career Academy is that preparing students for careers is not a one-size-fits-all process.
Possibly no teacher can relate that to students better than Ashley Kieffer, ECCA’s director of business logistics management.
The Effingham County native didn’t plan to become a teacher. He dropped out of college, ran a local pest control business for 16 years, finished college when he and his wife were expecting their first child, and started his teaching career just six years ago.
“My whole route into education was not the traditional route,” Kieffer said. “None of it.”
His roundabout path is ironic for someone who teaches, of all things, logistics — the management of the flow of goods from one point to another. However, he wound up in the right place.
Kieffer was chosen by his colleagues as the Effingham County School System’s 2014-15 teacher of the year.
“It’s all about the students,” Kieffer said, deflecting the praise. “It’s their program. I’m just here to facilitate it.”
A bug to be in business
After graduating from Effingham County High School in 1987, Kieffer envisioned having a career in a field such as banking, insurance or real estate. He headed off to the University of Georgia, but decided after two quarters it wasn’t the right fit for him and transferred to Georgia Southern University.
But a “funny thing,” in his words, happened on the way to Kieffer earning his college degree. As a senior, he dropped out.
“It was tough,” he said of quitting college, “but an opportunity presented itself. It’s something I don’t regret at all.”
An acquaintance in Effingham County was looking to sell a minority interest in his pest control business. Kieffer and his father looked into the company and saw a good opportunity.
“We went back to him and told him we weren’t interested in buying a minority percentage of the business — we’d buy the whole business,” Kieffer said. “Next thing I knew, I was the bug man.”
So, rather than completing a degree in business, Kieffer started running his own business. Along with being relatively young for a business owner, he was doing it in an industry in which he had absolutely no experience.
Kieffer did what he needed to do, becoming trained in the pest control business and receiving his certification from the Georgia Department of Agriculture. He encourages his students to take a similar approach in whatever they pursue.
“I’ve always considered myself a lifelong learner, and that’s one of the things that I try to instill in my students,” Kieffer said. “However large or small it is, learn something every single day of your life. And don’t stop when you get out of high school — keep learning.”
Kieffer’s commitment paid off, as he and his brother John Kieffer built Southeastern Exterminating into a thriving operation. They expanded it to include offices in Toombs and Ware counties.
Even before the business reached its peak, Kieffer said his parents supported his choices — despite having paid for three years of an unfinished college career. A big reason was the pledge he made to earn his degree at some point.
“I knew that I would go back and finish college,” Kieffer said. “I had gone too far not to.”
Kieffer was married when he returned to college. His wife Tracy took a more conventional path into the education field and taught at Effingham County Middle and Rincon Elementary, where she is currently assistant principal.
Twelve years after he first started college, Kieffer graduated from Georgia Southern in 1999 with a bachelor of business administration degree, majoring in finance. Once he decided to become the second teacher in the household, he earned his master’s in education from Georgia Southern in 2010 and his education specialist degree from Lincoln Memorial University in 2012.
“I have more education today than I ever thought I would have,” he said.
From bugs to books
The knowledge that Kieffer brings to the classroom goes far beyond what he learned in college, though.
“I think one of my strengths has been being able to relate real-world experiences to what we’re learning,” he said. “It’s not just something that I’ve read in a book that I’m trying to impart to them.”
He gleans a number of lessons from his experience running Southeastern Exterminating, including his decision to move on from it after 16 years. With the recession starting to hit some parts of the country in 2006, Kieffer believed the time was right to sell the business.
“I was looking for a change in life, quite honestly,” he said. “I thought, ‘There has to be something else out there.’”
As he pondered his next career move, Kieffer continued to run his other business, 21 South Mini Storage, which he still owns to this day. He then found out that South Effingham High School had an opening for a business education teacher.
That job appealed to Kieffer, who had conducted educational programs at schools when he served as president of the Georgia Pest Control Association. He and his colleagues would speak to students on topics pertaining to their industry, such as entomology and chemical safety.
Kieffer was hired for the position at SEHS in January 2008. Just like when he bought the pest control business without having any experience in that field, Kieffer’s first teaching job was all new to him.
“I kind of wondered what in the world I had done right there at the beginning,” he said. “But I really enjoy working with the students. It didn’t take long to get in a groove with it.”
Kieffer moved to the Effingham College and Career Academy in 2010 and was instrumental in starting its logistics program. ECCA became the first high school in Georgia to offer a logistics pathway.
Logistics was a good fit for the Career Academy, especially with Effingham’s proximity to the Georgia Ports Authority’s container terminal in Savannah. The program also serves a range of students, Kieffer added, whether they plan to attend a university, technical college, enter the military or go straight into the workforce after finishing high school.
“I believe that any student can learn and will learn if given the opportunity,” he said. “I know for a fact that when they finish this program, they will have some skills to go out and get a front-line job. It may be something as simple as running a forklift and unloading containers, but it’s still a job and you’re still going to be a productive citizen.”
Along with teaching logistics, Kieffer worked with at-risk students to help them stay on track to graduate. He called it “one of (his) biggest accomplishments” as a teacher.
Kieffer was part of a group of teachers involved in credit recovery, in which students take computerized classes to make up a course they failed rather than having to re-take the entire class. They enjoyed “great success getting some students graduated,” he said.
“What I found with most of the at-risk students, they just needed somebody to listen to them,” Kieffer said. “They would tell you what they needed to be successful and get out — you just had to listen. Those students still call me periodically for advice, even though they’re gone and graduated now.”
Kieffer is now devoted to ECCA’s logistics program full-time, though, because it has taken off so quickly. The logistics pathway grew from 22 students in its first year to 66 last year and 91 this year.
He attributes the rapid growth to the recruiting he and his students have done. Students talk up the program to other students, Kieffer said, and often accompany him on visits to middle schools to tell eighth-graders what the logistics field is and the opportunities it can provide.
“I think we’re on the right road,” Kieffer said. “I think we’re really teaching skills that are going to be important and be useful to these students if they decide to get into logistics.”
One of the students impressed was Ian Mahan. He is enrolled in the logistics pathway as a ninth-grader.
“Mr. Kieffer has given so much to the class,” Mahan said. “He’s teaching us so many new things. He explains it very well and he goes into depth.”
Another First in Georgia
ECCA’s logistics program continued to be a trendsetter when last year it became the first in Georgia to partner with the non-profit organization First Book.
First Book provides new books to children in need. Effingham students help by storing shipments of books, processing the orders and shipping books to children in all 50 states.
The students work at an Effingham County School System maintenance warehouse, giving them hands-on experience in all facets of the logistics industry. Students in their second year of the logistics program work two or three days a week in the warehouse while first-year students help there as needed, Kieffer said.
The real-world experience was endorsed during a recent conversation Kieffer had with a student who completed the two-year logistics pathway. He now has a job at Gulfstream Aerospace through the work-based learning program.
“He said, ‘I’m doing exactly at Gulfstream what we did in our warehouse. I’m not doing it with books, but the same fundamental concepts that you taught us are what I’m doing,’” Kieffer recounted. “That felt good.”
Since the partnership began in March 2013, ECCA students have processed approximately 450,000 books valued at $6.8 million for First Book, according to Kieffer.
Effingham’s logistics program is allowed to keep 5 percent of First Book shipments to give to local children. That adds up to 27,000 books that have stayed in the county to be distributed by the Effingham County School System, Live Oak Public Libraries and agencies such as Parent University and Manna House Ministries.
“This program really ended up being a win-win-win-win,” Kieffer said. “First Book’s a win, we’re a win, the school system’s a win and the children of the community are a win.”
Along with the knowledge and training the students receive through the First Book partnership, they see the value of helping others. The students visit classrooms throughout the year to read and give books to children, including some with special needs.
One student showed a giving spirit after ECCA received about 100,000 books designated for areas in the Northeast affected by Hurricane Sandy. As with any First Book shipment, Effingham County was entitled to keep 5 percent of the books.
“A student came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Kieffer, we don’t need to be keeping those books. Those books were given for a specific cause for the relief of the storm,’” Kieffer recalled. “I said, ‘You know what? You’re exactly right.’”
All 100,000 books were sent up north, with none staying in Effingham County. Instead, the students had the satisfaction of helping others.
“So they are getting it,” Kieffer said. “They do get that there’s more to this than just us working with books over there.”