• Posted:Thursday, August 2, 2012 12:05 am

    By Rebecca S. Rivas|

    What separates you from the person who has nothing – no future, no family, no education and no hope?

    “It is easy to go through life without ever asking the question, never contemplating where we might be without the opportunities we were born into or were lucky enough to stumble upon,” said Judge Jimmie M. Edwards of the 22ndJudicial Circuit Court of Missouri and founder of Innovative Concept Academy.

    After serving 20 years as a judge in St. Louis, Edwards understands that children without adequate adult supervision and education will have a bleak future. Because of the Safe Schools Act and “zero tolerance,” he has watched teenagers get kicked out of school, land in his courtroom and then drop out.

    So in 2007, he started the Innovative Concept Academy in North St. Louis. It’s the only school in the country that invites children with the toughest juvenile cases to reform themselves and refocus on education so they can return to their regular schools. The school provides strict security and supervision, along with a full curriculum, job-readiness training and mental health services.

    On September 14, Edwards will receive the St. Louis American Foundation’s 2012 Stellar Performer award at the Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship and Awards Gala. The event will be held at 7 p.m. at the America’s Center Ballroom, following a reception at 6 p.m.

    Chess game

    A typical day at Innovative Concept Academy runs 10 hours, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. After the regular school day, the academy offers free but mandatory afterschool activities, including music, dance, cooking and chess classes.

    “Most of my kids are impulsive, reactionary and they lash out without thinking through the consequences,” Edwards said. “Chess teaches them patience and teaches them that there are consequences to bad decisions.”

    “In chess, you can lose your queen,” he said. “In life, you can lose your life.”

    Edwards calls the academy a “unique hybrid community school.” Various factions of the community have played a role in making it successful. For instance, the chess program is funded by the local Chess Club and Scholastic Center, which opened in 2008.

    The St. Louis Public School District pays for the teachers and the building, which is a formerly closed, three-story SLPS middle school. As students grow in the program, they enter into MERS Goodwill’s job training program.

    Nadia Jones, a senior at the academy, currently has an internship in the MERS Goodwill office. She said her office position is a lot different than her job at Taco Bell.

    “Now I have office experience,” Jones said. “If I was by myself, I’d maybe go and put in an application and maybe don’t even put it in. With them, they have helped me find something totally different.” 

    A place where they belong

    Brandy Turner, a junior, arrived at the academy in October 2011 because she pushed a teacher (who, she said, pushed her first). 

    “At first I didn’t want to be here,” Turner said. “I cried.”

    When she first heard Edwards tell her to “get to class,” she thought he was mean. But now she thinks the world of him.

    “Some people are caught in the wrong situation at the wrong time and they have to face the consequences,” Turner said. “Most of the people who go here, once they get the hang of it and meet everyone, they don’t want to leave. Like I don’t want to leave.”

    Jones said the school creates a safe space.

    “You have great teachers and great staff who are willing to help you,” Jones said. “Even if you are not getting it at home, you can come here and it’s guaranteed that you’ll get it here.”

    Jones thought she had been through the worst, she said, but now she knows kids who have been through way worse.

    “This is a school where all of your kind are here. Everybody from robbing to anything, they are all there,” she said.

    “You don’t feel alone, and you can bond together. Maybe your enemies are here. I think this school has brought people together that you would think weren’t going to be friends – or maybe even would have killed each other a year or two from now.”

    Safe Schools

    Edwards feels his children are victims of the Safe School Act, which expels children for committing certain acts or infractions. As a result of the Missouri 1995 Safe Schools Act, several hundred children in the city of St. Louis were left without a school.

    “In the spring of 2009, I was in my office and I read in the newspaper that the St. Louis Public Schools was going to be closing a school due to the reduction in population,” he said.

    “I thought what a wonderful opportunity that would be for me to utilize one of those buildings to educate those children that I knew had been expelled from public schools for lengthy periods of time.”

    Edwards was thinking of educating only 35 children. But the St. Louis Public School Board had a different idea. They asked him to take 250, and now he has 350.  

    He has taken Innovative Concept students to speak before the U.S. Senate and Supreme Court because sadly it is the only school of its kind.

    “It has given us the platform to have a conversation about zero tolerance all over this country,” he said. His message from that platform is clear.

    “Zero tolerance, it does not work. Lock them up and throw away the key – it doesn’t work, because I know that when delinquent children reach a certain age, the legislative bodies in all 50 states say, ‘Release them,’” he said.

    “The question that I ask is, ‘How do you want our children back?’ Do you want them back with a more sophisticated criminal mind because we have locked them up, or do you want them educated with an understanding of what it takes to be law-abiding and to be a good citizen because we’ve taken the time to educate them? I prefer the latter.”

    How he grew up

    Edwards was raised by a single mother “in the shadows” of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing projects in North St. Louis. The academy is located in the exact neighborhood he was raised in. He had many people who cared about him and wanted to see him succeed.

    “Growing up, given my circumstances and surroundings, my life could have gone an entirely different direction,” he said. “Where would I be today without the support of my family, the love and sacrifice of my mother and the dedication of my teachers? It’s something I can’t help but contemplate every day in the courtroom.”