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It wasn't until Isis Smalls arrived on campus wearing a rhinestone-encrusted tiara and a sash emblazoned with "Miss Houston" that her students discovered she was a newly crowned, bona fide beauty queen.
Smalls had told her principal and a few other teachers about the pageant, but she kept it a secret from students until just after she'd won the title. Smalls teaches sixth-grade English and has coached girls' volleyball at Project Chrysalis Middle School, just east of downtown Houston.
At first, her students were shocked, especially the girls on the volleyball team.
"That was Honey Boo Boo stuff," said Evangelina Alvarado, 15. "She wasn't really doing her makeup or anything. She was like, 'I'm a teacher, that's what I am.' And then she became Miss Houston. It was like the queen, the glam – she was like the boss of everything."
Smalls, 24, won the Miss Houston crown last year, in her first-ever beauty pageant. Her fully beaded, periwinkle evening gown shimmered under the stage lights. She won not only the interview, but also the talent and "people's choice" categories. This summer, she went on to compete for the Miss Texas title and placed sixth out of 52.
"Miss Houston has been a lot of me coming out of my shell," Smalls says. "It's all these things that I'm passionate about, with sports and women, and I've always wanted to speak and influence children."
It was also nerve-wracking, she adds. "So it was a personal journey for me, that journey of self-confidence. I wanted to make my girls proud by doing it."
On campus, Smalls is known for promoting athletics and fitness.
"As a coach, she's really supportive," said Martha De La Rosa, 17, who was a volunteer assistant coach for the volleyball team. "She's never negative. She's always supporting them and saying they can do better."
Smalls says she entered the pageant because it offered an avenue to promote her real passion: empowering girls through sports. "I didn't grow up chasing crowns."
But she does have an older sister, Jade Simmons, who was Miss Chicago and Miss Illinois in 1999 and first-runner up in Miss America in 2000.
Smalls says her coaching experience was invaluable.
In fact, she trained for the pageant for a year, often rushing from the middle school to voice lessons across town. On weekends, when she wasn't planning for class, she prepared for the pageant interview. Mock panelists would drill her on questions, like why she went into teaching.
"I think being able to come out of my shell in a classroom certainly helped when I was on the stage," she says. "I felt I could be out of the box."
And her students motivated her, too: "You're fighting not just for yourself because you worked so hard. But you're fighting for the kids that you want to influence."
The principal, Jose Covarrubia, said Smalls has set an example for her students. "Here's a teacher that has other aspirations and wants to do other things and she can pursue those. So they can, too," he said.
He hopes Smalls stays on campus. She joined teaching through Teach for America, which recruits top college graduates to spend two years in the classroom. In her third year of teaching, Smalls said her work at school isn't done, but she also wants to attend business school one day.
Though her 2014 reign has officially ended, Smalls gets to keep the crown. Sometimes she takes it out of its glittery, snakeskin case and shows it to the students. They can pose for selfies with it – they just can't put it on: The pageant rules say only the reigning Miss Houston can wear the crown.
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