Alumni Plaza the center of the Dowagiac campus


Jayna has completed 23 years at Sam Adams in Cassopolis

Jayna has taught 23 years at Sam Adams Elementary School in Cassopolis

Her special education classroom in Cassopolis

Her special education classroom

Her sons played football for the Bobcats

Both her sons played for the Brandywine Bobcats

Connor and Carter tower over their mom

Connor and Carter tower over their mom

Carter and Connor

Connor studies aviation flight science at WMU to become a commercial pilot. Jayna expects Carter to find his place in agriculture.

Jayna and Torie

Jayna and Torie

Staying Close to Home is Sometimes the Perfect Choice

Published on June 13, 2024 - 11 a.m.

At 45, Jayna (Peterson) Sobecki has been teaching Cassopolis children half her life. After her 23rd year at Sam Adams Elementary School, it’s been 26 years since her selection to speak at Southwestern Michigan College’s 1998 commencement.

She had been Brandywine High School valedictorian, so the full-ride scholarship she received made it any easy decision to follow her parents to SMC, just as two younger brothers followed her.

The Peterson clan have been mainstays of the agricultural community and of the Cass County Fair Association for generations, their cattle farm providing a bucolic view across M-60 from the Niles campus, where Jayna took night classes.

“I remember feeling honored to be the speaker and excited to be graduating,” Sobecki recalled. “I was vice president of (Sigma Psi chapter of) Phi Theta Kappa,” the international community college honor society, “so maybe that’s why. I’d like to find my speech because I don’t remember what I talked about” at the graduation ceremony in the gymnasium of the Charles O. Zollar Building.

When she returns to campus, it’s usually to hike on the “peaceful, pretty” trails. “I’ve also had Cassopolis professional-development trainings there in the library.”

She’s a true Roadrunner, Oct. 28 logging a half-marathon — 13.1 miles. She completed her first last August.

“I didn’t want to give up after all the training I did to get to that point,” Sobecki said.

While her dad, Gail (SMC, ’72, then Michigan State), and mom, Mary Lou (Springsteen, ’74) graduated from SMC, they met at the fair, where he served as president of the board, vice president, director and beef superintendent.

Her grandparents, the M. Kenneth Petersons, were grand marshals of the fair.

Of her three brothers, only the youngest, Jeff, did not attend SMC. He went to Black Hawk College in Moline, Ill.

“I think I won reserve grand champion my second year showing steers,” Sobecki said, “but they always won. All four of us were in Showmanship Sweepstakes at one time or another. I showed sheep and steers and a lot of still exhibits — cooking, sewing, photography. My mom was key leader of our 4-H club, the Country Trailblazers. She worked as a bank teller before I was born, stayed home when we were all young and got a part-time job as a secretary at SMC when I was at SMC.

“After that, she was the attendance office secretary at Brandywine High School for like 10 years. Then, she ‘retired,’ but not really, because she does all the books for the farm, which is like a fulltime job, but she can do it from home.”

Dennis and Alan both transferred to MSU from SMC.

“I kind of ruined the streak because I went to Western” for teacher education, she said. “I decided I wanted to be a teacher when I was 3, in preschool. I loved school. I’d line up my stuffed animals and dolls, I’d be the teacher and I’d make my brothers be my students and give them assignments and homework.”

She graduated from WMU in December 2000 after student teaching in Three Rivers “because it was the closest partner with Western that I could drive from home to save money on housing.” Coming out of college mid-school year, she spent a semester subbing for Niles.

Then her phone rang. It was Cassopolis calling in the form of Tracy Hertsel, now an SMC trustee. He needed a kindergarten teacher, so Sobecki reported for an interview and got hired.

In high school, she considered teaching high school math, but SMC calculus recalibrated her plans.

“Lower elementary is definitely my favorite,” Sobecki said. As she remarked early in her career, “This is what I always wanted to do. Kindergarten is exactly what I wanted to teach. I’ve also taught first and second, and second was only for one year.”

“Now I’m a special education teacher,” she said. “I’m working on getting my master’s degree in special ed from Eastern Michigan University. This is my second year.”

“I love seeing them learn new things,” she said. “They get so excited when they can say all of their letters or know all of their sounds, sound out a word or read their first book. They’re so proud of themselves that they can do it. It’s amazing to think (former students) are in college, out of college or have kids of their own. I have not had any children of my students. Yet. But I know some of my students have children, so one of these years. That will really make me feel old.”


Becoming a special education teacher

Throughout her years teaching kindergarten and first grade, Sobecki always had children in her classroom with special needs.

“I always enjoyed working with them and trying to adapt things to help them, so two years ago, when our principal said we needed another special education teacher and said anyone who wanted to go back to school could teach while taking classes, I thought, ‘Maybe that’s me. Maybe it’s time to switch over.’

“It’s been a really good change. It’s something different, yet I’m still working with the same grade levels. I never thought about doing it before I had that opportunity. I like being able to help teachers who need help with certain kids to help them learn in different ways so they can be successful,” drawing on her experience with more than 500 children spanning two generations.

Both her sons tower over her. Connor, 20, is a sophomore at Western Michigan University, studying aviation flight science. He wants to become a commercial pilot. Carter, 17, was a junior at Brandywine who plays football, wrestles and loves farm life.

“I feel like he’ll end up doing something related to ag because that’s where his heart is,” she said.

She and all three of her brothers live in the Peterson enclave off Reum Road. Dennis found a wife in Belding, so lived up there northeast of Grand Rapids for a few years.

“He lives on the farm, but he’s not part of the farm,” commuting from Niles to Zoetis, the global animal health company in Kalamazoo, which he has spoken about to the SMC Ag Club. Dennis earned an animal-science degree with an agribusiness minor from MSU.

Jeff, in 2005; Alan, in 2002; and Dennis, in 1998, are members of an exclusive fraternity as champion showmen.

Showmanship Sweepstakes is a fish-out-of-water event where anything can happen with many of the eight large animals outside of an exhibitor's area of expertise.

Alan and Jeff run the farm, with Alan handling crops and Jeff focused more on cattle. Jeff is the fair’s beef superintendent, assisted by Dennis. Jayna is the sheep superintendent. Alan helps in the draft horse barn.

“We’re all still very involved” in the fair, Sobecki said. “I’m still a 4-H leader for Country Trailblazers because my boys are in that club.” This generation of Petersons has produced 11 children — Dennis, six; Jeff, one; Alan, two; and Jayna, two.

Summers, when she’s not hiking or running, she can be found tending her flower beds.

“I have good memories of SMC,” she said. “I enjoyed my time there. I knew my parents went there, so I didn’t consider anywhere else. I knew it would be cheaper for me to start out there.

“And, at that time, I didn’t want to go very far from home. I liked being close to my family, so it made sense. With small class sizes, it was like high school because some of my friends went there, too. Then, as valedictorian, I got a full-ride scholarship, so I only had to pay for books.”