Students dressed in blue polo shirts and khaki pants moved from table to table at the Dot Cooper Kelly Storm Shelter in Tupelo, Miss., on April 18, 2024. The students scribbled in small notepads as they spoke with industry professionals during the Fillmore Center’s first career fair.

Barbers, attorneys, restaurant workers, trucking companies and construction workers stood at tables flanking the brick wall of the building. Innovative and Alternative Programs Director Tanisha Smith stood near a table listening with one group. The fair was the realization of a vision Smith had for Filmore, which houses Tupelo’s Structured Day Program.

“I have been very intentional about who I’m bringing in (to the career fair) because I talk to students and ask what they are going to do when they graduate, and they say they will just get a job,” Smith said.

The administrator distinctly remembers the first time she walked the halls of the alternative school nine years ago, two weeks before the school year ended. At the time, she was shadowing then-principal Larry Harmon. As Smith observed the school in action, she began envisioning what it could become.

“That was the best thing I could have done,” Smith told the Crirec on April 16. “I saw things I wanted to change and how we could make it better. That next year I just took off, and it’s just gotten better every year.”

Smith began introducing her ideas immediately. She initiated a program called Take Kids On, which paired teachers with students and provided the children with a building advocate. As the program progressed, the faculty noticed students naturally found “their” person.

“We’ve noticed that after the first few weeks of a child being here, students tend to gravitate to one teacher or another,” SDP Biology teacher Jaclyn Robinson told the Crirec on April 16. “That teacher works with those children, makes sure they speak to them every day and does check-ins with them. (They) make sure that child knows individually that they are cared about and that there is somebody actively involved in how they’re doing, not just academically but with life.”

More than Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

The Structured Day Program houses an average of 65 students and 10 teachers. The school runs a block schedule where students receive face-to-face instruction in core courses and state tested areas while completing other classes online. To relieve the monotony of staring at computer screens, the school has introduced school-wide electives into the day.

In 2019, Smith lobbied to bring gardening and food-education to her school. She partnered with Mississippi State University’s Master Gardeners program to begin a school garden. When COVID kept those gardeners away, Smith convinced the Growing Healthy Waves program to adopt the school. The students have learned to plant and care for herbs, fruits and vegetables.

Students have grown spinach, kale, strawberries, carrots and more and have used them to make salads, smoothies and healthy meals to share with teachers and classmates. They bring in local chefs to show students how to cook healthy meals. A few students have even grown gardens at home with their parents. The school has also recently gained permission to host a farmer’s market to sell the produce, herbs and plants from their gardens.

“We had a food drive where kids (brought) a lot of tuna,” Robinson said. “When they brought in the tuna, we took some of the seasonings and herbs we grew out in the garden, and they made different tuna salads.”

A teacher leads hands on lab work at a table filling with soil
Innovative and Alternative Programs Director Tanisha Smith, center, implemented new programs in the district’s alternative school. Students at the Tupelo Structured Day School participate in the Growing Healthy Waves program. Students plant and care for herbs, fruits and vegetables that they will sell in a farmer’s market. Photo courtesy Tanisha Smith

Under Smith’s leadership, Fillmore was also the first alternative school awarded the Arts in the Classroom grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission. Teachers receive professional development from arts specialists or teaching artists that covers each of the major arts disciplines. The workshops provide strategies teachers can use to integrate hands-on art experiences into their curriculum to encourage students to learn academic concepts through high quality arts-based instruction.

“They love the idea of the alternative school because their philosophy is that art is the way to help children through all kinds of things,” Smith said. “What better population than those who are at your highest risk and are truly on the verge of dropping out to introduce and expose them to something else through (art).”

Smith, an avid reader, also shares her love of literacy with students and staff. She implemented the Drop Everything and Read program where students and teachers read aloud together for 20 minutes each day. They choose books that interest students, and the subjects often mimic the issues they face in their daily lives, Smith said. The classes discuss the books daily with teachers, spot checking for comprehension. On Fridays, the students write responses to their readings for Smith.

“​​I read all of their DEAR writings, and they look forward to that,” Smith said. “It is just another way I can connect with the kids and provide some feedback. … That’s my way of kind of offering them some advice without pointing the finger and saying, ‘This is what you should do or what you shouldn’t do.’ We kind of have a little banter going that is comfortable for them and for me.”

Putting Passion into Practice

Smith has always had a passion for marginalized communities and a gift for connecting with students known to have discipline issues. She holds bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice and English, master’s degrees in education and English, and a doctorate in criminal justice. She has been a classroom teacher, the director of curriculum and assistant for Tupelo Public Schools and Superintendent of Education for the Natchez-Adams School District. Of all those things, she feels that this job she presently holds in this school was meant for her.

Many of the students Smith sees have spent the earliest years of their life living through traumatic experiences. She has heard stories of students witnessing their parents involved in domestic violence, living with parents who are functioning alcoholics, or bearing witness to things like suicide or gang activity. Those traumas affect them emotionally, physically and mentally, Smith said. Yet, many don’t receive any form of counseling or therapy.

“They don’t know how to quiet their minds and block out all the drama and everything that’s going on around them because their lives are just unreal,” Smith said.

Those experiences have prompted Smith and her teachers to begin exploring restorative-justice measures. The concept seems unusual for an alternative school because students are already there as a consequence of inappropriate behavior and the school has strict rules. However, Smith said it is important to open conversations with these students instead of continually suspending them.

“This year we are reading ‘Hacking School Discipline,’ and it’s about restorative-justice practices,” Smith said. “We’ve been reading these nine hacks as a school. We have a consultant who’s working with us, and that’s his area of expertise. He’s helping us to work through which hacks we are going to implement.”

One method called Circle Up prompts teachers to spend five to 10 minutes after a classroom discipline event where a student is removed debriefing with students about what prompted the incident and how it could be handled differently. Once the student or students involved in the issue return to class, they must offer a sincere apology. The teacher then facilitates another discussion that includes those involved in the infraction. The method’s intention is to encourage all students to reflect on inappropriate behavior and not just the students involved.

“We are working on implementing those kinds of things and trying to be more proactive versus reactive,” Smith said. “(And) when something does happen, (we have) a conversation with everyone, not just the party involved, because everybody can learn that lesson from whatever it is that happened.”

Changing Lives and Futures

Smith and her teachers watched as the students interacted with guests at the fair. They stood up straight, asked questions and shook hands. Tupelo Municipal Court Judge Willie Allen was one of the presenters. He said he and many of the others in attendance have discussed the success of the fair.

“We all are actively involved in trying to mentor kids, and we took great pleasure in being there and appreciated the invite,” Allen told the Crirec. “If (they) have another one, I would love to come there again. I think everybody benefits. We benefit in that we learn something about the children and how to deal with them outside of that platform, but we also can offer something to them as well. So it was great both ways.”

Tupelo Municipal Court Judge Willie Allen sitting at a table and speaking with students
Tupelo Municipal Court Judge Willie Allen spoke with students at the Tupelo Structured Day Program’s first career fair on April 18, 2024. Photo courtesy Tupelo Public Schools

Allen said that he and others were impressed with the students’ demeanor and interest.

“They were listening and had a lot of questions. … We had great conversations with them,” Allen said. “And their interaction with me was pretty good. What I found was, speaking with them, you couldn’t tell that they had been in any type of trouble because their demeanor didn’t come across as such that they were problems.”

Smith was not surprised by her students’ behavior. She knows these kids better than most and said that although they may often be seen in a negative light, they are simply children who have made bad decisions.

“You just have to sit down and talk to them and learn what’s going on with them, but they have great hearts. They really do,” Smith said. “They just need some guidance and some somebody to keep them on track and not let up.”

Smith hopes to expand opportunities for students to gain real-life work experience. When students enter Tupelo’s SDP, they are no longer able to participate in vocational courses. Smith said that this is problematic because many of the students that she sees may find a future in a trade. She is exploring apprenticeship opportunities that will afford students real-world training.

“I’m working on getting some true partnerships where they can apprentice under electricians, construction workers and plumbers, because every one of those guys that I’ve talked to say that’s the best way to learn. You don’t need to necessarily learn in school like the ICC, which is our local community college and get a certificate,” Smith said. “So just exposing them to some things and helping them figure out what they can do other than just going to work at a fast food restaurant or a factory.”

Smith hopes that events like the career fair, opportunities for apprenticeships and the strategies students learn at the SDP can help them to see other paths for their futures.

“They have so much more potential if they’re exposed to it and know that it’s out there,” she concluded.

Torsheta Jackson is MFP's education-equity reporter, in collaboration with Report for America. She is passionate about telling the unique and personal stories of the people, places and events in Mississippi. The Shuqualak, Miss., native holds a B.A. in Mass Communication from the University of Southern Mississippi and an M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Mississippi. She has had bylines on Bash Brothers Media, Mississippi Scoreboard and in the Jackson Free Press. Torsheta lives in Richland, Miss., with her husband, Victor, and two of their four children.