Nashville’s 1st charter school was teacher’s longtime vision

Photo: WKRN
Photo: WKRN

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Nashville has 21 public charter schools, and while the debate continues as to whether there should be more, the force behind the city’s very first one is a special one.

Sister Sandra Smithson began Smithson Craighead Academy in Madison more than a decade ago.

The school was a longtime vision for the lifelong teacher whose mission is to help children who are underachieving in urban public schools.

“There’s no such thing as a child that can’t learn,” Sister Sandra told News 2. “He might have trouble learning what you want to teach him, but he’s learning all the time.”

Like many of the children she sees, Sister Sandra grew up poor.

Courtesy: Sister Sandra Smithson
Courtesy: Sister Sandra Smithson

When she was school age, Saint Katherine Drexel, a Catholic nun from Philadelphia, opened Nashville’s first Catholic school for black children.

“I was the first little kid to go ring the doorbell and I say, ‘I want to come to this school,’” she recalled. “And while I was doing that, I could hear the nuns praying downstairs. At the end of the day, they chanted it and it just sounded so beautiful, so beautiful. I decided this is what I’m going to do when I grow up.”

Sister Sandra also attended St. Vincent de Paul in Nashville and later, Xavier University in New Orleans , which was the only black Catholic college at the time.

While still searching for her purpose in life, she found a home with school sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee that focused on teaching and establishing schools.

Her first assignment was in Chicago where she taught for six years before moving to Latin America.

Photo: WKRN
Photo: WKRN

Sister Sandra spent 12 years overseeing education reform in Costa Rica before returning to Milwaukee in the 1970s and finally back to her old South Nashville neighborhood in the 1980s.

“The saddest thing was a lack of children growing up there. Anytime, day or night, you could see them walking the street – in the streets – hungry and not in school,” she recalled.

Upon returning to Nashville she turned to her sister and Nashville educator Mary Craighead and together the two set out to rescue the city’s at-risk children.

In the fall of 2003, Smithson Craighead Academy opened as Nashville’s first charter school.

The school is now 14-years-old. At 90-years-old herself, Sister Sandra comes to the school with one purpose in mind – the kids.

“I love them and I can’t desert them. They’re ours,” she said.