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Two Sisters on a Mission: Teaching Reading With Heart 

Image: pixabay
Image: pixabay

It’s tough for 88-year-old Mary Smithson Craighead to walk the halls of the Smithson-Craighead Academy in Nashville, Tennessee. The children keep stopping her every few steps to ask if they can read a book to her.

Beaming like a proud grandmother, Mary wraps her arms around them, giving them hugs, squeezing their cheeks—and, more importantly, bending down to hear them read.

While politicians and educators debate the latest national school legislation, Mary and her 78-year-old sister, Franciscan Sister Sandra Smithson, are busy catching the children who are falling through the cracks in today’s public-education system.

They aren’t doing it with lots of money, fancy technology or the latest educational curriculum. Their academy, which opened in 2003 as the first charter school in Nashville, takes a simple approach: Teach students the basic skills they need to build a foundation for success in school and do it in an environment that loves, nurtures and respects every child.

“I told the superintendent to give us all the children others don’t want to teach and we’ll teach them,” says Sister Sandra. They are succeeding.

Early Education

The two sisters know that a good education equals a good life. And they want disadvantaged children to have the same chance they had growing up in the Nashville area. Like many of the students they teach, they were poor. They grew up in a family of 12. Their mother was a homemaker who took in laundry and other work, and their dad worked odd jobs.

“When I look back, I realize we were poor, but we had all the important things in life—we had food, we had shelter, we had love. So we were the richest of the rich,” says Mary.

And they had something else—parents who stressed education.

“We were expected to learn,” says Sister Sandra.

Their home was filled with books and reading. “Mother read all the time,” adds Mary. In the evenings, their father would gather his children at his feet and read from the Bible.

Their favorite memories are of Friday trips to the library. They lived in north Nashville and would walk miles to the only black library in the city.

“We would follow my mother, who was pushing the baby buggy. On the way back, one of us would hold the baby because the buggy was filled with our library books,” says Mary. The Smithson children knew that education would give them a better future. Their parents told them so—often.

A Call to Teach

I knew I was going to be a teacher,” says Mary, turning toward Sandra, smiling. “And she was my first pupil.”

Mary spent a lot of time caring for her little sister.

“Mommy had her at home, and when she was born, I thought she was a little doll. When I held her, I fell in love with her,” recalls Mary.

And Sandra idolized her big sister. When Mary went to school, Sandra would wait for her to return in the afternoon. When Mary would sit down at the table and start her homework, Sandra would pull up a chair.

“She was always asking, ‘What’s that? What’s that?’ I thought, This child wants to read. And so I was pointing out words to her. In fact, by the time she was four, she was reading. Her memory was sharp. That’s when I knew I wanted to teach.”

“I like to say I awakened her,” Sister Sandra says with a laugh.

A gifted student, Mary Craighead loved school. In fact, she went to school all the time—including summers and at night.

“I love the smell of schools,” Mary adds with a laugh.

By the time she was 19, she received her teaching degree. But there were no teaching jobs in Nashville, so she left for Alabama where she taught for two years before marrying and returning to Nashville.

Still unable to find a teaching position, Mary got a job as a school secretary. But that didn’t stop her from teaching. When children were sent to the principal’s office for misbehaving, Mary convinced her principal to let them bring their schoolwork with them, and she would help them.

Soon she had a tiny classroom of students outside the principal’s office. One day, the school superintendent came to meet with the principal about heading up a school that was still being built, and he saw the school secretary teaching her small group of students.

“Are you teaching?” he asked.

“No, I’m just the school secretary,” replied Mary.

“No, you’re not. You’re a teacher,” he countered, and offered her a teaching position in the new school.

Mary Craighead finally got her own class. And as she grew as a teacher, she grew to understand that each child is different. She created a curriculum that helped meet the unique challenges of each child. In the process, she made hundreds of games from cardboard boxes, fabric or plywood to help children grasp educational concepts.

Mary started the first kindergarten in Nashville. And later as the civil-rights movement and school integration took hold, Mary became the first black person to become principal of a predominantly white school. She visited every home in the district to encourage families not to pull their children out of the school.

“I told the parents that this school would be second to none in the district,” says Mary. She was right and, by the second semester, so many families returned that they had to build portable classrooms to house the students. She would go on to serve as principal for four elementary schools.

Her reputation as an effective teacher and educator grew, and she was asked to write an early-childhood-education program at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. That model was later used for the nation’s Head Start program. “She knows elementary education better than anyone I know,” adds Sister Sandra.

Finding Her Calling

A strong religious upbringing was just as important as education in the Smithson family. Three times a week, sisters came to the Smithson house to teach catechism classes.

When Sandra Smithson was old enough for school, she attended St. Vincent de Paul, the very first private school for black children. She received her early education from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who opened schools for African-American and Indian children across the South and in urban populations.

“We had a real rich education that included character formation and religious training,” says Sister Sandra.

And like her sister, Sandra was a strong student who graduated with honors. Unlike her sister, however, Sandra didn’t feel called to be a teacher. “I had no interest in teaching. I wanted to work in media. I liked to write; I wanted a job in television or radio,” says Sister Sandra.

After attending Xavier University in New Orleans, the only black Catholic college at the time, Sandra returned to Nashville to attend Fisk University’s master’s program for English literature. Finding that work unchallenging, she left 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.

Still, something was missing. “I always felt I had a call to religious life,” she says. “It haunted me.” She wrote to the Daughters of St. Paul, who had a ministry in the media, and was turned down.

In fact, she sent out letters to 50 religious communities before finally being accepted by the School Sisters of St. Francis, a community that focused on teaching and establishing schools.

“So I thought I would be a house sister. I could cook and get the sisters off to work in the morning; and when they left, I could spend my time reading and writing. I made that suggestion to the mother superior, but she didn’t like that idea.

“She said, ‘We need teachers and you have a degree and have started your master’s. You’re going to teach,” Sandra says with a laugh.

But, if she was going to teach, Sister Sandra decided she wanted to work with poor children.

“I wanted to work with minority children and poor children because not a lot of people wanted to work with them.” But again, God had another plan.

Her first assignment was to teach freshman English at the community’s prized high school in a wealthy enclave of Chicago.

“When I got there, I cried. I thought it wasn’t where I belonged,” says Sister Sandra. Her mother superior reminded her, “I know you’re disappointed with your assignment, but these children have souls in them, too.” And that’s what Sister Sandra found.

“All these sweet faces came into the class. It was love at first sight,” says Sister Sandra, who taught there for six years, sharing her favorite literature and poetry with the students.

Teaching in Latin America

Then Pope Pius XII requested volunteers to serve in Latin America, and Sister Sandra raised her hand. Again, she saw an opportunity to go serve underserved poor children of the country.

The town where she was sent had only tiny grade schools for the poor. Children sat on dirt floors and copied down what the teacher would write on the blackboard. It was more dictation than learning, recalls Sister Sandra.

But Sister Sandra didn’t get assigned to one of these schools. She was assigned to one of the wealthiest Catholic schools in Costa Rica. She taught—and waited. And when she was appointed director of the school, Sister Sandra was ready.

“I started working with the parents on what the real call of the gospel was,” she says. First, she raised the sisters’ salaries to the equivalent of a teaching salary.

“Before that, it was as if these sisters were supposed to come down here and donate labor,” says Sister Sandra.

When the salaries were raised, the sisters used the surplus funds to start an afterschool program for the poor children who lived in the neighborhoods circling the school.

“I wanted to bring their skills up to the level that they needed so we could integrate them into this school,” says Sister Sandra.

The children succeeded in the program. And within three years, she had fully integrated the school. Her working model was used to restructure the educational system and teaching methods throughout Costa Rica in the 1970s. This period of educational growth and reform was known as the “Golden Age of Maria Crucis [Mary of the Cross],” which was Sister Sandra’s religious name before she returned to her baptismal name after Vatican II.

Sister Sandra would spend 12 years in Latin America, overseeing educational reform in Costa Rica and serving on a provincial team in Honduras that oversaw the work of 80 sisters throughout the region.

Confronting the Statistics on Childhood Education

She returned to the United States in the early 1970s, arriving in Milwaukee to teach. And she found education had changed.

“When I got back, the majority of children, especially minorities and poor whites, were already below grade level,” she says. It was a problem that would nag at Sister Sandra even as she returned to Nashville in the 1980s when her mother became ill.

“I was confined to home with my mother, who liked to watch TV. And we would see these news shows of so many children getting into trouble….I remember a statistic on CNN that said 43 to 46 percent of these children who are coming out of urban poverty are failing in public schools,” says Sister Sandra.

Those statistics took on a face when she met students who were attending alternative schools for juvenile offenders in Nashville. And she realized that Nashville had the same educational problems that she’d seen in Milwaukee.

“These students couldn’t read. They were failing students. And I knew once they got into middle school, they were going to get into trouble or they were going to drop out,” says Sister Sandra.

“I thought, ‘Well, this is a problem, so let’s fix it.’”

Fixing the Problem

Sister Sandra’s goal was to reach the younger children, those in the elementary grades, and teach them basic skills: reading, writing, arithmetic.

“I wanted to see if we could make a difference and give them a chance to succeed by the time they reached middle school,” says Sister Sandra.

She met with local school officials who agreed to let her use an old school building for a summer program, and she raised $110,000 in donations. But most importantly, she convinced her sister Mary to come out of retirement.

“I knew my sister knew how to train teachers and I knew she had written effective curriculum for early-childhood education,” says Sister Sandra.

In the summer of 1994, Sister Sandra started the Project Reflect Education Program (PREP), a remedial program for disadvantaged children that combines a caring environment with high academic standards.

The sisters had one goal—“Teach. That is the solution.”

Deciding whom to bring into the summer program was challenging. When Sister Sandra was granted access to the test scores of the students who lived in the public-housing project that would be served by the summer program, she found that four fifths of the students were already failing kindergarten and first grade.

Because she had room for only 50 students, she took the lowest-performing students.

“In six weeks those children were reading. Those kids grew in leaps and bounds,” Sister Sandra recalls with pride.

Besides educating the children, she and Mary worked on the teachers, too. “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,” says Sister Sandra.

To Sister Sandra and Mary, educators must come to believe that all behavior is learned; thus, it can be changed.

“These are not kids who cannot learn,” says Sister Sandra. “They are just kids who need to be taught. They’re very language-deprived. They have no vocabulary. There are no adults spending time with them, reading to them.”

That’s why Sister Sandra Smithson and Mary Craighead not only provide teachers with effective teaching methods, but also give them skills to work with children who are coming from a negative environment.

“If you give kids what they need, most will be able to maneuver through schools. But what happens is many of these children come from environments that are destructive. 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. You remember the kids are not bad; the behavior is bad. We want to help them understand the distinction so that they are not judged.”

Providing the Solutions

The sisters believe they have found the formula to help every child succeed. And that is what motivated them to start the first charter school in Nashville, the Smithson-Craighead Academy, which opened in the fall of 2003.

But the sisters think Tennessee’s charter school law is written too narrowly. It says only children attending low-performing schools can attend a charter school. Last year, only children from two Nashville schools were eligible to attend the academy.

“I think it should be for low-performing children and not low-performing schools, because we are losing many children,” points out Sister Sandra.

That’s why, besides running the school, the sisters and their supporters are lobbying Tennessee legislators to broaden the law so more children who are being left behind in the public schools can have an opportunity to enroll in other schools.

Meanwhile, the sisters are hoping the success they are having with students in their academy will inspire school districts and teachers across the country to visit the academy and learn about their teaching methods.

Mary Craighead has written a teacher’s guide, Reading Success, with eight workbooks that provide teachers or parents with everything they will need to teach children to read.

“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.”

In addition, they recently created an interactive software program based on the Reading Success curriculum. This program lets children build on reading skills through a series of games.

But they’re still not done. They hope their school serves as a training ground for aspiring teachers.

“We want to bring in college students and let them do their practicum [student teaching] here. We want to run training programs for current teachers,” says Sister Sandra. “We want people to begin to see these children differently, to see them as lovable and capable of learning.”

Joanne Mamenta is a freelance writer and editorial consultant from Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband and daughter. This article first appeared in the February 2005 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.