For the past six years, Stephanie Matlock has taken the bus or had friends and family give her rides. On Friday, that changed.

Walking out to the parking lot at her daughter Taylor’s school, Matlock was dumbstruck as she saw her new set of wheels.

“Congratulations!” shouted a crowd of students and faculty from Scotlandville Pre-Engineering Magnet Academy who’d gathered around the red 2011 Chevy Malibu that now belongs to Matlock.

“Oh my goodness. You’ve gone above and beyond!” said an emotional Matlock, hugging Principal Shalika Scott.

“Who knew you could get a car from a school?” Matlock asked incredulously.

The middle school, which goes by the acronym SPEMA, got into the automotive business after reviewing a curriculum known as the Flying Classroom.

The science-and-math program was developed by famed pilot Barrington Irving, who was the first first African-American to fly around the world, and at the time the youngest person to do so. Irving flew his plane to Baton Rouge to visit SPEMA in March 2018. One of the lessons in the Flying Classroom involves building a car, but it cost about $175,000. Principal Scott opted for different approach.

Last summer, the school persuaded Gerry Lane Chevrolet to donate one of its cars, and then selected 14 SPEMA students, all in the engineering class, to work on it.

The idea was the students would upgrade the car with modern amenities and later donate it to someone in need. Matlock, who's worked as a paraprofessional at Southdowns School for the past three years, said she had heard about the car and briefly considered trying to buy it from the school.

“Income tax, different expenses kept popping up,” she explained. “It just didn’t happen, so I really brought my mind to just ride the bus and keep going.”

Then she learned in late April that the car would be hers after all.

“Ms. Scott told me that the children were working on the project and they were looking for a family to give it to and they chose us,” Matlock explained. “I feel grateful, so grateful.”

It wasn’t until Friday, though, that she set eyes on the car. She beamed as she sat in the driver's seat, tuning the radio to her favorite stations.

The car’s tax, title and license were paid for by yet another donor, the Spencer family, which has a special, tragic connection with the school.

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In August 2017, brothers Steward and Joshua Spencer drowned while on vacation in Alabama. Joshua, 12, was an eighth-grader at SPEMA. His family has since donated money to both SPEMA and Sharon Hills Elementary. SPEMA decided to use that money to help Matlock.

Gwen Spencer, Joshua’s grandmother, added to the pot Friday, giving Matlock a $50 gas card.

Capital City Collision also helped out by donating a new windshield and two months worth of gas.

Since starting work on the car February, the students have updated it with several modern features including a Bluetooth and iPhone compatible radio, backup camera and sensors, dash camera and general hands-free capability.

“If you need me to wire your car, I can,” said student Jeremiah Givens.

The students took a bus twice a week to the EBR Career & Technical Education Center, or CTEC, where they worked under automotive instructor Ron Parrish.

“These young kids have really been impressive,” Parrish said. “The kids picked up electricity very well. They can draw simple circuits; they were out there teaching each other on the board with it.”

Parrish also used the car with CTEC students, all from local high schools, so they could learn about brakes and suspension.

Bria Jarrell, the engineering teacher at SPEMA, expressed pride in her students.

“They’ve been phenomenal,” Jarrell said. “They’ve been examples of what we want our students to be.”

Matlock thanked the heavens for her good fortune: “I just believe it’s favor, the favor of God, the love of God coming out of them.”


Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.