I started Project Reflect in 1992 because I was deeply concerned about the number of children I saw playing in the streets of North Nashville when they should have been at school. Crime was pervasive, something that I never experienced in my own childhood in the same neighborhood. An investigation revealed the links among crime, illiteracy, and school failure.
With seed money from over 100 U.S. faith communities, I was able to found Project Reflect to reflect on the causes and cures of school failure and to implement programs that would result in healing our community.
The intervening years have taught me much about the culture of poverty with which I was unfamiliar. Although I grew up in a family with a low income, my siblings and I read voraciously books from the public library. We took dance and music classes from Bethlehem Center. Our mother sent us out into the neighborhood to care for the sick, the elderly, the lonely, and others who needed help that young children might provide. My father helped build the first Catholic church in Nashville that black people could attend, and we walked each Sunday five miles into South Nashville to attend that church in the segregated South. My parents worked through the Depression to support their ten children without taking welfare. We raised vegetables in the backyard garden, raised chickens, and picked fruit from the trees my father planted. We all went to school without fail, studied for tests, did our homework, and graduated from college.
We were a low-income family, but we did not have those characteristics of generational poverty that cripple so many of the children of urban families in the United States today. It is not poverty but a culture of poverty that grinds down urban children who are underachieving in school. Characteristics of this culture include lack of vocabulary, which leads to inability to understand readings or do critical thinking; no regular bedtime on school nights; poor nutrition; reliance on lying, stealing, and cheating to get resources and avoid punishment or responsibility; behavior that does not sacrifice now to achieve future goals; and violence as a way to solve problems.
At Project Reflect, we want to transform children from a culture of poverty to what we call a culture of learning and caring about others. We provide a school home where children learn the hidden rules that will help them succeed in school and in life. We do this with our best understanding of what will work for the children, and we have succeeded with a lot of help from many groups and individuals, including many of the parents of our children, and, most of all, the grace of God.
Thank you to all who have helped – and who will help in future – in this mission of rescue. I pray for you daily to the God who watches over us all.
God bless you,
S. Sandra O. Smithson, O.S.F.
Executive Director, 1992-2012
STATE COMMITTEES: Project Reflect has participated on three state-wide committees by invitation of the Tennessee State Department of Education:
- Special needs students
- School improvement
- Committee of Practitioners
CHARTER SCHOOL INNOVATIONS:
- First Nashville school to initiate school uniforms;
- First Nashville school to practice full inclusion of special education students in regular classrooms;