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Back to school: Small classes, fresh starts at Smith Academy for Excellence

Area's first all-boys school aims to offer alternative to traditional classrooms

Monday, August 13, 2012 - 9:51 am

EDITOR'S NOTE: The signs for various schools are in yards around the city; the advertisements are on TV and the radio, encouraging listeners to enroll in one school or another. Choice has become a buzzword across the state when talking about education.

Whichever side of the choice debate you're on, the evidence of Indiana's and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett's push for more choices is evident in the various options parents now have for their child's education.

As students head back to school, this week's stories will feature different families and the education choices they make, their reasons and why their schools are right for them.

Smith Academy for Excellence, or SAFE, announced its formation back in February, and today, six months later, SAFE students begin classes.

The school's co-founder, Thomas Smith, served Fort Wayne Community Schools for nearly 30 years as a teacher and administrator. Smith will lead the school with his two sons, Corey and Cameron, who are also educators.

Smith said SAFE, the area's first all-boys school, will offer families something different.

“SAFE will be a true alternative to the traditional school setting. The schedule and culture will be unique and innovative,” said Smith. “Our goal is to enrich the lives of young men and their communities.”

The charter is authorized by Grace College and will be managed by Leona Group LLC, the same charter management company that runs Timothy L. Johnson Academy on South Anthony Boulevard.

Smith had hoped the school could locate in a new building on the city's southeast side, but funding challenges have moved the charter's location closer to downtown, in St. John Lutheran School's former school building.

Here are some of the students who will be attending:

Jay Thomas, 8th grade

Previous school: Lane Middle School, Ward Education Center

At first, Jay Thomas said he liked Lane Middle School, but when he went into seventh grade, things changed. He said he felt “ganged up on” by his teachers and struggled with his work because of distractions in class. He said often when students acted out, the entire class would get off-topic, and he came home with nearly-failing grades.

Jay's mom, April, began receiving calls from school that Jay was talking too much in class and wouldn't stay in his seat. She said she had Jay tested for Attention Deficit Disorder, but found Jay didn't suffer from it. April said she would go into school and sit with Jay in class to help him stay on task.

“All the kids were doing the same thing (as Jay was said to be doing),” she said. “Teachers didn't have control over the classroom.”

April said her request to change Jay's schedule was denied.

“I didn't know what else to do,” she said.

Eventually, Jay was suspended from Lane for disruptive behavior and sent to Ward Education Center, Fort Wayne Community Schools' alternative school for at-risk students. While at Ward, Jay's grades improved, and he forged good relationships with some of his teachers.

At the start of this school year, Jay would have returned to Ward, but only until October, when he would be sent back to Lane. April believed the situation would revert.

So when she heard about Fort Wayne's first all-boys school, she thought it might be a good option for her son. Like Ward, SAFE offers small class sizes and requires students to wear a uniform. After an orientation session, Jay also liked the idea of the school, especially when he saw a favorite teacher at Ward would be teaching at SAFE.

“He said to me, 'Yeah, Mom, I want to go here,'" she said.

April said Jay felt before that he couldn't talk to his teachers, but at SAFE he will have his own community mentor to whom he can talk and ask questions.

She also said the system of rewarding students for completing work, like being able to go on field trips and participating in sports, will help Jay as well as the school's focus on character education, “teaching him how to become a young man,” she said.

Jeffery Hidy, 7th grade

Previous school: Carroll Middle School

It's likely that on his first day at a new school, Jeffery Hidy will be a little nervous.

He doesn't know any other students at SAFE, but hopes that with some more individual attention, he can improve his C average.

Hidy said at his previous school, Carroll Middle School, there could be as many as 35 students per class. With so many students, teachers don't always have time for individual attention.

Hidy said sometimes he couldn't get his questions answered during class or maybe a teacher was too busy with other students. He said he often came home not knowing how to do his homework, and most of the time his parents couldn't help.

He said it is sort of a drag that the school is all-boys, but hopes it will be the right fit for him.

“(SAFE) sounded cool. It might be a little bit harder, but I think it will help me be successful.”

Gnostic Martin, 9th grade

Previous school: Northrop High School

Larissa Martin calls SAFE, “the answer to my prayer.”

Larissa's first four children all attended Canterbury School, but her son Gnostic, also known as G, didn't want to go to Canterbury because he wanted to play football. He attended Jefferson Middle School and Northrop High School for his ninth grade year, which he will repeat at SAFE.

“He didn't transition well into Northrop,” Larissa said. “Academically, he had a bad year. He didn't get very many credits his freshman year. Every day, it was something different.”

Gnostic said at Northrop he was left without a third-period class for the first few days of school. Fights in the hallway caused disruptions, and one day he was beaten in the bathroom.

“That's when I decided to turn my life over to God,” he said.

Gnostic now carries his Bible around, but over the summer a popped blood vessel in his eye was evidence that he hadn't escaped the violence at school. He was “jumped” outside a youth center shortly before the start of the school year.

He's hoping a new school can really be a fresh start. Larissa believes the school will have an impact not just for Gnostic, but for other young black men in the community.

“All these killings recently … those are because of the education system. Young men do not have access to mentors in the community.”

Both Larissa and Gnostic have also been impressed with Thomas Smith.

“He actually cares,” Gnostic said. “(SAFE teachers) are out to help you. I'm actually looking forward to school starting.

Larissa said she's heard nothing but positive feedback about Smith and hopes his example can break through stereotypes in students' minds and in the community.

“People say black people can't do math. Thomas Smith is an example of an educated black man who teaches math.”

Gnostic said he felt disrespected by many of his teachers in the other schools he attended, but thought all the SAFE teachers he's met make it a priority to give respect to students in order to get respect back. Although he said he was hesitant about the school at first, because it is all-boys, he's excited about the upcoming year.

“When the school opened, I felt like it opened just for me, a tailor-made school. Except without the girls,” Gnostic said.