A Profile of Middle Tennessee’s Newest Education Leader.
An extensive educational background and history of working with the underprivileged led Sister Sandra Smithson to open the new charter school Smithson-Craighead Academy.
Sister Sandra Smithson isn’t your ordinary nun. She doesn’t wear the traditional nun’s habit, and she doesn’t live in a convent. In fact, most of her days are spent in a school setting. And, starting Aug. 11, they’ll be spent in Middle Tennessee’s very first charter school: Smithson-Craighead Academy.
Named after Smithson and her oldest biological sister, Mary Craighead, SCA is entering unknown territory for Middle Tennessee’s public education systems. Sister Sandra, as she’s affectionately known, has a strong educational background, and though it may not have always been clear, she is certain now that she was put on this earth to better the opportunities for minorities.
Smithson, 77, grew up in Nashville and attended St. Vincent dePaul, the very first private school for black children. There she received her early education from the Sisters of the Sacred Sacrament, a Catholic religious group that opened schools for blacks and Indian children across the South and in the urban populations. Smithson recalls education in those days: “This was a time when education wasn’t offered to black children. You got outside the metropolitan areas, and you could not find educational opportunities.”
After attending Xavier University in New Orleans, the only black Catholic college at the time, Smithson returned to Nashville to attend Fisk University’s master’s program for English literature, which she found to be unchallenging when compared to the diligent educational training she’d had up to that point. Disenchanted, Smithson left Fisk to take an on-air job at WSOK, the first black radio station in Nashville, where she headed up two programs: a gospel music program and “A Woman Speaks,” a program on political issues.
“I took on everything I could that was controversial,” she remembers. This didn’t last long, though, as she soon heard the call from a higher power. “I always felt I had a call to religious life,” she says. “I had postponed it, but it resurged.”
Smithson finally found a religious home that would accept blacks – the School Sisters of Saint Francis – and became a Franciscan nun. “As my first mission, I had it in my head that I would work with poor black children in the Deep South,” Smithson says, but she couldn’t go there to teach because of the Nun Cohabitation law, which said that white and black sisters could not live in the same convent together.
Instead, she was sent to Chicago. “While I was there,” she remembers, “I taught in one of the more affluent schools. I knew these children would receive an education regardless of whether I was there. I felt that I was meant to be working with populations that had less opportunities.”
Smithson headed south to Latin America, specifically Costa Rica. “They had a lot of little grade schools there, and kids were just on the floors with a blackboard, paper and pencils,” she explains. “The teacher dictated, and the students memorized, and that was education.” She also recalls how similar the social divide was in Latin America to that of the United States at that time, only in Latin America, the separation wasn’t based on race, but class.
While there, Smithson became principal of another affluent school to which she was appointed, and it was then that she began her career in educational reform. “I started working with the parents on what the real call of the Gospel was,” she says. Never afraid to shake things up for the better good, Smithson raised all of the sisters’ salaries to the equivalent of a teaching salary. Secondly, with the monetary surplus that the wealthy parents were paying, she started an “after-school school.”
Smithson says, “All the children who circled that school and who lived in the barrios [poor neighborhoods populated by Spanish-speaking people], we brought in after school to really begin to educate them.” Her goal? Within three years she planned to work with the community to prepare them that the “Great Divide” was going to disappear – at least in her school. She eventually was able to successfully integrate the poor kids into the school and retrain the thought processes of most everyone involved.
Shortly thereafter, Smithson was called home. She went to work at a high school in Milwaukee. Having been gone from the United States for 10 years, she missed the ’60s. “When I left the country,” Smithson says, “I never had a kid who couldn’t read. And when I got back, everyone entering that high school – the majority of those children were already below grade level.” She noticed the beginning of a trend in the public education system. “Especially among minorities and poor whites, we have a 70 percent failure rate,” Smithson says. “That is, 70 percent of our children are not getting the skills they should for the grade level they’re in.”
The Idea is Born
After her mother fell ill, Smithson returned to Tennessee to care for her. Still dedicated to education, she began visiting area schools and observing the similar situation of Nashville’s students. She realized that the circumstances were no better here than in Milwaukee, and she also made the connection that eventually led her to start Smithson-Craighead Academy: Failing students “won’t stay in that situation. They’re either going to create a problem,” she says, “or they’re going to drop out when they get to middle school or as soon as they can thereafter.”
In 1994, after countless hours of research, training, preparation and rounding up $110,000 in donations, Smithson was able to start her first summer of the Project Reflect Education Program (PREP). PREP began as an outreach program targeting the public housing community, “because that’s where the poorest kids are, and I could help them to develop the basic skills of reading, writing and math,” she explains.
“This allowed them to get into middle school and be able to read to learn.” (Smithson’s motto is that kids learn to read in the younger years and read to learn as they get older.) She called on her sister, Mary Craighead, who had not only taught at the elementary school level, but also trained teachers at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College.
PREP took that first summer at Moses McKissack school and served children from the Preston Taylor public housing project. “Believe it or not, every single one of those kids moved up to their grade level that year,” Smithson says with a proud smile. She can also tell you stories of the special children who overcame their dire situations to go on to graduate and even attend college. At first, Smithson made a habit of visiting PREP graduates during their lunch period the following year just to make sure they kept up the good work. Now, she says, there are too many to keep up with.
“We did a fairly good job here on the summer program,” Smithson says. “I kept trying to tell the teachers that if you’d just take the time to do this or that, you’ll get a better result with these kids.” She believes that there’s a better way to work with children of failing status, and says that teachers need to lift them up to a higher level where they will be better able to compete professionally, contributing to society after leaving their educational setting.
“These are not stupid kids,” she says. “They are just kids that need to be taught. They’re very language-deprived. There are no adults spending time with them. The conversation doesn’t happen. They’re not tucked into bed at night.”
Smithson believes that if the change and motivation isn’t occurring at home for these children, then it definitely needs to happen at school. Retraining teachers to learn how to deal with minority children – primarily blacks and the poor whites – is where it should start. “Kids are like sponges – they soak up what we put in the environment to soak up,” she says. “What we try to do is to help the teachers understand that you have to make it the opposite. You don’t meet outbursts with outbursts. You avoid confrontation like the plague. The kids are not bad; the behavior is bad. Help them understand the distinction so that they are not judged.”
Rather than waiting for the public education system to step in and change the teachers’ methods, Smithson and Craighead have a formula that has been proven to work in the PREP curriculum, which they are taking to the classroom this year at Smithson-Craighead Academy. The sisters developed a reading readiness program that starts at the individual students’ levels to form a solid learning foundation. Smithson explains, “We have a teacher’s manual that absolutely tells the teachers what words to say, and we also have a behavior modification component in that book. It puts in place those pieces that normal children who come from affluence would have gotten at home.”
Why a Charter School?
Unlike most schools, Smithson-Craighead will have non-graded assessments, allowing every child to move at his own developmental pace. “What we will not do,” says Smithson, “is allow the child to go to the next step until the current step is mastered.” The students will be monitored daily by both the teachers and Smithson herself. “What we really want to do is make sure the teachers understand who these children are and how they must modify their behavior,” says Smithson, “because self-control is absolutely the most important part of this situation.”
The purpose of the charter school, says Smithson, is to give parents a choice. “There’s a fallacy out there that these parents don’t care about their children,” says Smithson, “and it’s absolutely not true. Poor kids can’t be taught at home, because their parents are dropouts. There is no Sylvan (Learning Center) for them – they can’t afford that. Charter schools give them an option. They have the chance to opt out of a traditional public school – where they’re not being educated – into what looks like a private school where the standards have to be met, but where there is enough flexibility in the programming to meet the needs of the individual child.”
Smithson-Craighead Academy, located at 3307 Brick Church Pike in Nashville, will open its doors to 250 students in grades kindergarten through four on Aug. 11. To learn more about SCA, Project Reflect or Sister Sandra Smithson, visit www.projectreflect.org.
Ashley Driggs is associate editor for this publication.
CHARTER SCHOOL BASICS: One-on-One with Sister Sandra
What is a charter school?
“There’s an agreement between the state and the local school system or private organization to run a school for public school children. The government pays exactly to that organization per child what they would to a public school. What this does is allow for more flexibility in programming, and it allows teachers who are not functioning to be fired, not unjustly, but if they’re not performing.”
How long is the contract by which you’re governed?
“Three to five years. We have an evaluation after three years. After two more, we will renegotiate the contract to continue the program.”
Is there a fee to attend SCA?
“No. Charter schools are publicly owned and, therefore, publicly funded.”
Who will attend SCA?
“The three schools that were put on notice as low-performing schools in Nashville will be where the children will come from – Warren, Kirkpatrick and Schwab elementaries. Naturally they’re going to be low-performing schools because we’re going to be drawing from the low-performing population. Those schools who are adjacent to the public housing are mostly where the populations come from.
What grades will SCA have?
“Kindergarten through four. Who knows what will happen after five years? We may end up adding a middle school, but we really want to do a much more aggressive outreach during the school year and in the summers.”
Do you have a board of directors?
“Project Reflect is the sponsoring organization, and there is a board over the school.”