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Jimmie Edwards uses innovative concepts to give troubled kids one last chance

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 18, 2011 - When visitors to the Innovative Concept Academy in north St. Louis step inside the front door, the first things they encounter are a metal detector and a bank of four TV screens, each monitoring 16 spots where trouble might be brewing.

So far, so normal, as far as many urban schools go. But then, if they look all the way down the front hall, they can spot the starfish mural and might begin to understand how the academy's purpose and methods are quite different from other St. Louis public schools.

The story of the starfish is one that Judge Jimmie Edwards likes to tell to explain why and how the academy began in 2009. The story of the academy -- and of Edwards -- has been told nationwide, from the Wall Street Journal to People magazine, which named Edwards one of its 2011 Heroes of the Year. He was featured in PBS' kickoff event last month for its effort to combat dropouts, held at KETC.

In a few days, it will be NBC's Today show's turn to let people know about the school that takes in some of the area's toughest teens and gives them a second chance -- and maybe their last one.

Pointing out the words painted around the border of the brightly colored mural -- words like success, hard work, crime free, drug free -- Edwards tells the parable that is also engraved on a plaque on a nearby wall.

A young girl is busy on the beach, picking up starfish that have washed up with the tide and throwing them back into the water, one by one, so they won't shrivel up and die. A man walking by asks what she is doing, then insists her actions are futile because countless starfish are stranded on the sand, so "how can you possibly expect to make a difference?"

Undeterred, she picks up one more starfish, hurls it into the water and replies, "You may be right, but it made a difference for that one."

The lesson is one that Edwards tries to impart to the students at the academy as well as to the defendants who appear in his city juvenile court -- not to mention the dozens of community partners that have helped make the school a success.

"Our mission here is to save one kid at a time," he explains. "If we save two, it's a blessing."

Two Kinds of Schools

Edwards says that when he transferred to the city's juvenile court in 2007, he often saw younger versions of himself slumped before his bench. He grew up just across the way from the academy, which is housed in the old Blewett school at 1927 Cass Ave., near the site of the razed and unlamented Pruitt-Igoe housing complex.

"When I see these kids," he says, "I see myself."

On the bench, he realized that what he calls the old paradigm of zero tolerance for young people who had committed low-level crimes was not only unsuccessful, it was harmful. Being locked up with older, more experienced criminals gave impressionable youths precisely the wrong kind of education.

If you lock up a 12-year-old with someone who is a habitual criminal, Edwards says, "that child will leave that locked-up facility more educated than before. But what he learned was how to be a robber or how to cook crack cocaine, not reading, writing and arithmetic."

To provide a more positive kind of schooling, Edwards realized he needed a place where children -- and to him, they are all children, despite what they have done -- would have structure, supervision and a helping hand with the basic necessities of life, from clean clothing to nutritious meals. Most of all, they would need a variety of activities to keep them off the streets and let them discover that they are worthy of trust and respect.

No one was showing them that path, he recalled.

"I refer to them as invisible children," Edwards said. "They were invisible to their families, invisible to the school board. Nobody had spent a lot of time trying to do something for children that everybody else had thrown away, children that nobody wanted."

Then he saw that the St. Louis Public Schools planned to shut down a lot of buildings because of declining enrollment, and he knew the time had come to make a difference.

"That was my moment," he said. "That was my opportunity. I said give me one of those buildings, and I will be able to educate children. I had the building within three hours, and I had the school opened 23 days later."

Partnering with the city schools and with MERSGoodwill, Edwards and the juvenile court opened the Innovative Concept Academy. Why that name?

"Innovative. I knew that we were going to have to do something different. I knew that regular school had failed these children. Some of these kids had been languishing in classrooms semester in and semester out, and there had been no positive outcomes.

"Concept was really important to me. It simply means that we would be willing to make adjustments and make it fit. We don't always think alike. We are going to have to have the ability to change things, change from day to day sometimes, on how we deal with children."

And why academy, instead of just a school?

"We could have called it a school," Edwards admits. "We could have called it anything. But quite frankly, I liked ICA. I didn't like ICS."

65 Gangs, Three Colors of Slacks

Using his expertise gained on the bench and at the school, Edwards can readily explain why and how the students at the academy got there -- 145 of them as of last week but more coming every day. He said the ideal enrollment would be 250, but they had 400 last year and have had referrals from as far away as Kansas City. (The school serves students between the ages of 10 and 18.) He said 65 gangs are represented in the school, but staff members do their best to keep the peace. A police substation is located off the main hallway, just in case.

While it is too early to have graduation rates or other statistics, Edwards said that so far, 14 students have earned GEDs, four have graduated from high school, and two have gone on to college.

To complete their uniform of a white shirt, students wear different color pants -- blue, khaki or black -- to designate why they are there. If Edwards sees the wrong color pants in the wrong hallway, he knows someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time. That kind of watchfulness is important, he said.

"We just hope that what we're giving them during the day will sustain them overnight," Edwards said. "Then we start all over again the next day.

"They want structure, but they know if they're going to survive in their neighborhood, they have to be a certain type of person."

He explained that the children who are there either have been expelled, are getting their GED, are just out of lockup or are on long-term suspension. He also has a list of three paths students such as these find their way to delinquency: lack of adult supervision, too much idle time and economic constraints.

"If I can wipe out any two of those pathways," Edwards says, "I have a better chance at success."

The adult supervision and filling up idle time come with the school's extended hours -- as late as 8 p.m., with after-school activities ranging from chess to training stray dogs.

"In their minds," he said, "the children see that dog like they see themselves. They see it was thrown out and kicked into the community and nobody wanted that dog. In many instances, it is the first time they had anything that belonged to them, their first opportunity to teach something to a living thing. The dog teaches them how to be responsible."

As far as economic constraints go, Edwards can thank the generosity of the community. He walks into an office where dozens of puffy black coats are piled up, courtesy of Wal-Mart, which donated them without even being asked. Students will get them along with gloves and a scarf to ward off winter.

"For the very first time," he said, "someone has given them something they need."

The academy also has washers and dryers available, even showers for those students who don't get those basic necessities at home.

Students don't necessarily take well to the academy's rules right away, Edwards admits, often needing a few weeks to get out of what the judge calls their "hard shell." The goal, he adds, is for them to become "positively socialized" through the school's variety of programs and activities.

"We see the gang colors start fading and behavior changing" he said. "They start to care about themselves and become interested in things beyond what they're doing.

"Criminality goes in cycles and cycles. Stupidity also goes in cycles and cycles. In order to break the cycle, you have to introduce them to new things."

Learning How to Lose, How to Win

For most of the students, one of those new things has been chess, a game that Edwards says helps them learn important skills like strategy, concentration and making the best of the situation you have.

"Who cares if you were born in north St. Louis in a one-room apartment with no running water?" he said. "Your job is to work hard and try to make a better life.

"Chess teaches you to deliberate. It teaches you to think. It teaches you how to figure out what your next move is going to be. But it also teaches you about consequences. If you touch the wrong piece on the chessboard, you might lose your queen. If you touch the wrong someone in real life, you might die."

One of Edwards' favorite stories, one he told in a speech to a conference in St. Louis last year, titled "Encouraging the Incorrigible," is about one of the academy's kids named Andre, age 17, and his experience at a chess tournament. He and his fellow students arrived in a bus that says "Juvenile Court" on the side, escorted by police officers but dressed up in ties that Edwards says make the students feel smart.

Andre's appearance, replete with tattoos, wasn't like that of most of the players there. His 11-year-old opponent, Amy, who is described by Edwards as blonde, blue-eyed and affable, approached him and said they would be playing against each other -- and she had never lost to an adult.

He followed her to the chess table and came back 15 minutes later.

"He had a big old smile on his face, the biggest smile ever," Edwards said. "Before the boys could ask, his response was yes, yes, yes, she kicked my ass."

But Edwards' story about Andre doesn't end with him losing to Amy. He was defeated in two more games, a fate he was not used to when he was playing at the academy, and when Amy saw him sitting, dejected, she went over and explained what his problem had been -- he was too aggressive, he wasn't thinking ahead.

Andre took her suggestions -- and won his next game.

"She taught him how to win," Edwards said, "and she taught him how to lose."

'Locked Up or Dead'

Those kinds of life lessons are far from rare at the academy. Three students who got together to talk about their experiences used the phrase "second chance" often as they told why they were there and how their experience was different from what they had seen before.

"We're all getting older now," said Nadia Jones, 17, who is studying for her GED. She was referred to the academy by the juvenile court after being kicked out of school for fighting.

"It's preparing us to go out into the real world. We have a lot of supportive people. We feel like this is our second chance."

Terrence Mayfield, also 17, said he didn't even make it to high school before doing five months time for stealing a car.

"I realized I was wasting my time," he said. "I had to get my work done and do what I was supposed to do.

"If I didn't make it here, I would have to go back to the eighth grade. This is all I've got left."

Danyell Todd, 19, who has a 1-year-old son, Char'dell, also was kicked out of school for fighting. She recognizes that the structure and discipline that the academy enforces are just what she needs now.

"It's a good program," she said. "It ain't like high school. We don't have a bunch of kids just running around. In high school, you can just do what you want to do.

"I've got a baby at home. I've got to teach him right and make sure he's on the right track."

Staying on that track isn't always easy, the students admitted. But the support they are getting makes a big difference.

"The teachers are good to us," Danyell said. "They don't put too much on us that we can't handle. They want us to get out of here as much as we want to get out of here."

Added Nadia, "I clowned my freshman year and I clowned my sophomore year. I disappointed my family and I disappointed myself. I wasn't raised like that. I had to prove I wasn't just a wild child."

All said they were trying to make the most of their second chance, and they have vivid evidence of what can happen otherwise.

"The people I hung around with, they're all locked up," said Terrence. "I'd probably be locked up too -- locked up or dead."

Changing the Pipeline

Nurturing and monitoring the conditions that can provide those second chances takes a lot of time and work -- and money. Edwards noted that with the $10,000 he gets from People magazine for being a hero, he plans to add a drama department, an area of the arts where he knows that academy students will excel.

"These kids have amazing skills," he said. "But no one has asked them to share them. That's been their obstacle."

Removing obstacles is one of the biggest tasks the school has, Edwards said. His roster of community partners helps, and he notes that their involvement is not only a civic duty, it's a plus for them as well.

"If I have 200 or 400 kids here every day," Edwards says, "That means 200 or 400 fewer kids on the street with a propensity to steal your car or hurt you. That's why partners started to call me and want to be a part of this program."

The discipline and structure they gain in the academy is a far more positive outcome than the prison's school for crime that the old approach tried, he said, with little success. At some point, when teens grow too hold to be in the juvenile system anymore, it may be too late to turn things around.

"When a child reaches a certain age," Edwards said, "the state must release that child. The question is, how do we want that child back in the community?"

In the end, much of the success of the Innovative Concept Academy comes from Edwards himself and the way he can distill his experience and his vision into epigrams that hit home hard.

"A kid who knows what it's like to be shot," he says, "won't care too much about a math test."

"Would we rather be tough on crime or smart on crime?"

"I don't know too many people who can learn that the square root of 2 is 1.414 when their daddy is having sex with them."

That kind of ability to get his message across has helped the academy recruit a long list of partners and sponsors who -- once again, in his words -- "make each step happen, make each roadblock disappear."

"The purpose is to not have a school-to-prison pipeline," Edwards added. "No matter what they're doing, they understand they have to go to school. If we don't modify their behavior now, we will just have to manage it later."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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