J. Kelly Orbits Back to Education as Director of Instruction

MasteryPrep Director of Instruction J. Kelly

Mom would be proud. Her son is a star, and figuratively speaking, he led a team ‘to the moon and back’ in what he considers one of his most impactful moments as an educator. 

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a temporary shutdown of schools, disrupting in-person learning. Like all educational providers, MasteryPrep had to pivot to a virtual platform to continue providing college readiness resources to, at the time, its more than 200,000 students.  

“I told our team, ‘We are going to the moon and back. We were tasked with finding a virtual classroom platform that rivaled or exceeded the high-quality, in-person instruction we were known for, and we needed a model on how to teach students in an online world. It was up to all of us to work together on how quickly and effectively this could happen; we threw ourselves into it wholeheartedly.”

MasteryPrep launched an online adaptive test prep program and released a new course offering platform that over the last two years has helped the company double its student reach, impacting nearly 400,000 students through partnerships with 625 school districts and institutions 

From Anchorage, Alaska, to Miami, Florida, in 47 states total, MasteryPrep once delivered more than 100 virtual classes in a day. In 2021, MasteryPrep partnered with the fourth largest school in the nation, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, to instruct a spring SAT class, followed by a fall ACT course, in which 90 instructors taught 10,000 students from 30 high schools.  

Miami was a moment of crystallization of everything we worked for,” said Kelly. “We were a part of something special that changed the way you can deliver education in the world.”  

“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.”

MasteryPrep Director of Instruction J. Kelly presenting

Kelly’s biggest challenge was training his dynamic, in-person, live instructors to be the same effectively engaging teachers from behind a camera.

Cue Fred Rogers. Yes, Mister Rogers, who once said, “Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.” 

"I YouTubed Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood television shows. He was a legend who used TV in its infancy as a powerful tool to reach young people. He connected everyday with people he could not see. I studied his engagement techniques - the way he slowed down his tone, how he maintained eye contact with the camera and how he made transitions from one topic to another. There were elements of those things we put into our virtual training."

With all instructors trained from the same neighborhood, MasteryPrep dove full force into online instruction in the summer of 2020, delivering 40 virtual classes for its TRIO partners – federally funded programs for students of impoverished and disadvantaged backgrounds.  

“That summer we made it happen. We also found advantages that we did not realize. We could virtually walk the hallways of schools across the country,” said Kelly. “We could evaluate our instructors online rather than being in the classroom; we could substitute in someone quickly; and we were reaching students in communities that we could never have imagined before.” 

In spring 2021, through a contract with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, “Mission Miami” saw 30 MasteryPrep instructors deliver virtual broadcasts to classrooms, prepping 3,000 students for the SAT. Later that fall, 60 instructors taught 7,000 students for the ACT in “Miami 2.0”. “When we were successful in Miami, we knew we could do this anywhere,” said Kelly.  

Today, MasteryPrep continues to deliver a virtual learning platform option, in addition to its in-person learning, which provides schools with effective, equitable college readiness access proven to produce score gains on the ACT, SAT, TSIA2, EOC and WorkKeys.  

“Virtual is now a key component of our company,” said Kelly. “It was a defining moment for our instructional team and one of the most impactful moments of my career given the heightened situation after COVID of finding a means to teach our young people.”  

MasteryPrep Instructors

Started with the ‘Prep’; Back at the ‘Prep’ 

J. Kelly is very familiar with the alarming statistic that 11% of low-income high school students graduate with a college-ready standardized test score.  

“I have served a lot of students in poverty knowing that if a student can make even a few points jump on test scores, then they can attend college, avoid debt and be set up for success,” said Kelly. 

Kelly likes to say he began his career with the ‘prep’; now he’s back at the ‘prep’.  

In 2000, he was hired as a teacher/head basketball coach at Northwood Preparatory Charter School in Amite, Louisiana. The school was launched for at-risk youth. “It was a second-chance school for kids who had fallen through the cracks; they could barely write, could not take tests well, and my role was to communicate a high level of curriculum to give them one last shot at graduating high school and attending college,” said Kelly.  

Unfortunately, Northwood Prep closed after three years, and in 2003, Kelly transitioned to teach within the Tangipahoa School System. He was there until 2005 when in the fall of that year, his mother LaVanner S. Brown passed away. She was an inspiration for Kelly’s career in education. 

MasteryPrep Director of Instruction J. Kelly with a group at a conference

Brown was the former director of the TRIO program at Southeastern Louisiana University, and she was the 2000-2001 President of SWASAP (Southwest Association of Student Assistance Programs), which since 1971 has opened doors of educational opportunity for disadvantaged low income, first generation, veteran, and differently abled students.

“I gained a lot of experience seeing the impact her work had on opportunities for impoverished students. Last year, there was a SWASAP conference where they recognized past presidents. There I was, on a video representing MasteryPrep and addressing the crowd, and in that room was a picture of my mother. I had no idea any of that was going on until I received a tearful message from a conference attendee. No coincidences. It is a culmination of life’s work and full circle that I am working with the same partners I grew up around.”

After his mother’s passing, Kelly took a 10-year sideroad from his path in education, working in sales for a newspaper, radio station, and then landing the role of Branch Rental Manager with Enterprise Rent-A-Car. There, he got his first taste of leading team training for a national business.  

But education also remained in the side-view mirror. While working with Enterprise, Kelly was appointed to the Tangipahoa Parish School Board. He participated in policy decisions, improved teacher training and certification, increased community involvement and helped bring STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to the forefront of the system’s curriculum. 

“I served under the theme ‘Every 1 Counts’ because I believe in the power and necessity of community in determining academic success,” said Kelly. “I was determined to be in a position to positively influence student achievement and outcomes on a broad scale.” 

As part of that effort, in 2015, Kelly partnered with a Hammond City Councilman, local pastor, and Dr. Calvin Mackie, to bring Dr. Mackie’s STEM NOLA camp to underserved youth.

“At the time, STEM NOLA was relatively new, and my partners and I were excited about Dr. Mackie’s vision and the prospect of bringing STEM into the neighborhood to be accessible for all,” said Kelly. “We were the first group to bring STEM NOLA to the parish, and this served as a launching pad for other STEM initiatives to follow. This was also my introduction to the idea of a ‘boot camp’ where students can interact, have fun, learn and have a life-changing experience, all in one day. To see hundreds of young students gain hands-on exposure to STEM through the efforts of a small group of committed partners along with Dr. Mackie was inspiring and confirmed my belief that community relationships and efforts can move mountains in education.”

Kelly received that opportunity in 2018. A customer from Enterprise had mentioned she worked at MasteryPrep. “I said that company sounds interesting; it could combine my career in education and business,” said Kelly. “When you’re an educator at heart, serving in education in some capacity – whether it’s teaching, training or any other role – that feeling can only be satisfied doing those things, so I applied and was hired as an instructor, facilitator and trainer.

‘You’re the Reason I’m Going to College’ 

Kelly was teaching his second ACT Boot Camp at Vandebilt Catholic in Houma when a student from the previous one came up to him and said, ‘You’re the reason I’m going to college.’ “When you get that kind of compliment, you know you made an immediate impact,” said Kelly.

“I realized early on at MasteryPrep the potential positive impact our work could have on the lives of these students. We can alter the courses of generations of lives by impacting just one student, and I take that to heart.”

Kelly oversees recruiting, hiring, training, coaching, evaluation, and scheduling of MasteryPrep’s 85 high-quality, effectively engaging instructors. He has trained close to 300 instructors. “One of the staples of our instruction is you have to be able to communicate at a level of effective engagement,” said Kelly. “Our responsibility is to take complex information, make it simple and create an environment in which they grasp and learn the content they need.”

Kelly works with school district and institution partners to implement MasteryPrep resources and products in an effective manner. Also, he is a public speaker and presenter to education, social and business organizations, with an emphasis on “leveling the playing field” for low-resource learners and providing better opportunities for students to graduate high school college and/or career ready. 

“Everybody can’t be the best, but everybody can be better,” said Kelly. “That’s what we work to do every day – I am motivated to make life better for someone, whether that is through speaking to the educators on a national scale, training teachers or working with just one student.”  

‘To shoot for the stars, even if you hit the streetlight.’  

MasteryPrep Director of Instruction J. Kelly presenting

About MasteryPrep:

Founded in 2012, Baton Rouge-based MasteryPrep provides mastery-based college readiness services and resources for the SAT®, ACT®, TSIA2, EOC, and WorkKeys®. MasteryPrep is the nationally preferred SAT and ACT prep provider of the Council for Opportunity in Education and partners with schools and districts to level the playing field on standardized assessments and accountability measures. MasteryPrep is ranked among the Inc. 5000 “Fastest Growing Companies,” featured by “Entrepreneur 360,” and selected among the “Growth Leaders” by Louisiana Economic Development for two years in a row.


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