Photo by KikiMorton
Sister Sandra Smithson (left) and her sister, Mary Craighead, share a moment outside the Smithson-Craighead Academy, which the sisters started in the fall of 2003.
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
“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.
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
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
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.
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
“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.
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
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
“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.
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
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.
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.’”
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
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.”
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
“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
“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
To learn more about Project Reflect curriculum and software, visit www.projectreflect.org.