Ginger Smith is founder and administrator of The Renaissance Academy, a division of the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center, which works to educate troubled students in Hinds County. Since 2004, Smith has directed her passion to kids at the academy, though she has been in the business of teaching hard cases for 36 years. Her initiative and drive got her on USA Today's All-USA Teacher Team in 2001. The Monticello native was working as a coordinator of the education component at Henley-Young when she devised The Renaissance Academy. Components of the program entail daylong alternative teaching classes, work-force development, an after-school program and family-support classes, which take the teaching to parents desperate to turn their kids around.
Why did you come up with the Renaissance Academy?
I had a problem with the amount of children expelled from JPS. (Youth Court) Judge (Houston) Patton and I agreed that the kids needed to be in school.
What happens after they're expelled from every school in the district?
They sit at home.
The parents can put them in private schools, but most parents don't have that kind of funding. And if the private schools know the kids are expulsion cases, they wouldn't want to take them. Judge Patton and I decided they needed somewhere to go, so we came up with the Renaissance Academy.
I thought law required the kids to be in school. It's not legal to keep them at home, is it?
It is if they're expelled.
I didn't know that. So how do the kids get in?
Not just anybody can get in. You have to get a referral from a youth-court counselor or a youth court judge. Then they go through orientation and parent meetings. There are many steps. I didn't publicize the academy at first because we'd get flooded. There are parents who would pull their students and bring them over there.
How does the academy work? Is it a temporary thing?
For most. We help the children deal with the issues that got them expelled from school and improve their education skills. Some kids are slated for mainstreaming, some end up in home-schooling programs, and some finish out their GED programs at the academy.
How many children are currently in the academy?
We have about 25 kids, all boys—we've got an elementary child from Utica, but most are from middle school or high school. Two kids have been with us a year are now getting ready to go back to regular school, but we're always bringing in new kids throughout the year as kids are expelled. The number picks up as the year goes on.
What's different about the environment?
One, there are smaller classrooms. Second, there's no security. We also work with individual children on whatever issues they might have. We don't just kick you out or say you can't come back. We have (Transition Counselor Brian) Daniels who works specifically with each child. A lot of the children come to class with issues they don't know how to deal with. They don't think before they react, and they get into trouble. Some don't know how to handle authority. …
The second part is a lot of those children come from homes with internal problems with the family structure. There may be some issues with the mother or father before they got to school and they haven't solved those issues, so they take those problems out on authority figures in their lives, usually the schools.
How often is recidivism a problem?
We've had about five kids come back. We don't have that many kids (come back). And some of them go back to school and deliberately sabotage their mainstreaming just to come back because they want the warmer environment here.
No, really. First of all, we require parental interaction. The parents have to make them a lunch and bring them over here, and we do follow-up and push accountability with the parents, which the children love, of course. We have two parenting classes, and you have to develop a family relationship with the parents and all those kids. Then, we have a homier environment in the school. The teachers interact more freely with the kids, sometimes helping them fix their own lunches, and listening to their problems. What child doesn't want that?
Where do I sign my kid up—
No, don't you—
Just kidding. Give me some more of your techniques.
If a child gets angry in the class, Mr. Daniels will take that child out and just go out and walk with them and talk to them and tell them about some problems that he might be having to break the ice. Sometimes, if a child is sent to Daniels' office, he talks to the child in a manner that some adults may not understand. He doesn't fuss, but he might be doing little things, like read a book. The child will ask him what he's reading, and Mr. Daniels will go over the book with them, and discuss the pictures, when actually he's talking to the child, trying to feel out what's really going on with him. Some people might accuse him of doing nothing more than sitting there talking and playing chess with the child when actually he's learning the child's feelings.
What's some of the advice you'd give parents?
We're living in a new century. Ultimatums don't work anymore. If you tell a child to get out, he's gone, and he'll have somebody picking him up. It only gets worse from there. Instead, you have to think about what's going wrong with your lifestyle. You have to look at who you're bringing into your house. Sometimes, in our group meetings, I'll learn that momma's boyfriend is almost as young as the child. You have to deal with the parents on a lighter note. You have to explain their problem to them in steps. Also, parents have to trust the children. They're not going to be perfect angels, but you have to prove to them that you'll be with them for the long haul, and that you're willing to change if it's necessary.
That is so sweet. I'm glad that there is a better option for these kids.