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Back to School special: Judge Jimmie Edwards’ school makes strides in St. Louis

Superheroes are bound by their ability to sense when the defenseless are in danger, and to be in a unique position to help. Judge Jimmie Edwards found himself with a clear view of the precarious students who passed by his bench. Then, he used what he knew to rewrite the futures of more than 200 St. Louis kids at the year-old Innovative Concepts Academy.

These children were about to be marginalized, forgotten. They were in limbo between adulthood and the haven of school because they were “incorrigible”: they’d broken laws, disrupted classrooms or violated public school safety codes. Some serious infraction had removed these children from their public school and funneled them into a labyrinthine system where education was unlikely and graduation seemed completely out of reach. These were the children Judge Edwards heard from daily, and it was only a matter of time before they ended up back in Edwards’ courtroom on more serious charges and with less hope.

The reaction from Edwards was superhuman. In April 2009, he saw opportunity in the closing of Blewett School on Cass Ave., and in a few short months he had a building, 45 community partners, and a Principal vetted by the toughest juvenile offenders to open ICA.

Innovative Concepts Academy, in just its first year, is getting local and national attention for the profound changes happening in the lives of the most “incorrigible” youth. A few ideas seem to be the pillars of this success, and are woven into every program:

ICA is a place to be safe. Sure, it’s replete with security tech and staff – but they also provide medical services and 3 square meals a day, counseling, and staff trained to deal with trauma victims. For Edwards, it’s not enough to treat symptoms like acting out in class: many of the kids at ICA may have witnessed violent crimes or may be in a situation that precludes success.

ICA is a place to learn – or for many students, the ONLY place to learn. A child expelled from school doesn’t lose access to classroom learning and accountability. A juvenile offender doesn’t while away time in a facility that further limits her opportunities. More than that, students get and learn respect. Some of the boys mention that adults take them more seriously when they’re wearing a tie. The entire staff and mechanism of the school reinforces the idea that effort is rewarded – even desirable – and that they are all capable.

Third, it’s a place to get inspired. While mandatory extra-curricular programs keep kids off the street and out of trouble, those 45 community partners have given ICA students a remarkable smorgasbord of activities that aren’t simply about marking time. Golf lessons, chess instruction, classical music, creative writing and ballroom dance are just a few of the ways students can spend their afternoons.

A St. Louis Magazine documentary of Innovative Concepts Academy ends with one young man at a piano knocking out beautiful riff after beautiful riff: for me, that made the ICA not just a good idea, but something we should cherish, support and replicate. Just think, a pianist, a chess master, an author, a thinker, a good parent, or a hard worker may be that child who was about to slip through the cracks.

The plight of students in St. Louis is often harsh. The dropout rate is untenable: some kids are homeless, others are hungry, and some are discouraged. In one year, a rejection of all the things that don’t work; a fresh start based solely on what at-risk kids need to choose a better path; and a resolute leader accomplished not just a good school, but also hope.

We now have hope that there are solutions to the problems that have baffled us – but only if we’re willing to be radical thinkers, and put our energy behind a good idea.