Judge Jimmie Edwards is the founder of the Innovative Concept Academy (ICA), a groundbreaking school in St. Louis, Mo., that acts as a last resort for unruly teens.
Edwards grew up in the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in north St. Louis, just blocks from where the ICA now stands. The oldest of four, Edwards learned from his single mother the importance of both relying on, but also helping others. This simple lesson changed the course of his life, over and over again. In high school, Edwards read about Justice Thurgood Marshall and Brown v. Board of Education, which laid the groundwork for what was to come: Saint Louis University (SLU), law school and a career dedicated to making a difference.
“I felt my attitude, my demeanor, my philosophy, my core changed at Saint Louis University,” Edwards said. “Because Saint Louis University taught me that it was never about me; it's always about somebody else.”
After professional success as an attorney for Sabreliner and Southwestern Bell, Edwards opted to leave the corporate world for an appointment to the St. Louis City Circuit Court in 1992. He spent 15 years hearing adult cases, and then assigned himself to juvenile court in hopes of making a difference in the lives of children before they became criminals.
He quickly realized that the problem of juvenile delinquency was much more complicated than he’d thought, and that to truly change lives and make the community better, he had to give these kids more than a sentence: he had to give them a chance.
In 2009, Edwards had an idea: Why not start a new kind of school, one that addresses the very specific, intense needs of kids on the brink?
“I thought, what a wonderful opportunity it would be for me to take these children and teach them irrespective of what the state says – teach them because it's the right thing to do,” Edwards said. “It's best for them, best for their family and best for our community that they become rehabilitated and that we fix the pathways to delinquency and finality.”
To realize his vision, Edwards brought together the legal system, the public school system and dozens of community partners. The resulting “community hybrid” provides students in grades 6 through 12 a comprehensive experience that both opens their minds and keeps them off the streets.
A typical day at the ICA includes not just reading, writing and arithmetic, but a wide range of extracurriculars such as culinary classes, golf, ballroom dance, classical music and chess. Students stay at school from 9 a.m. until at least 6:30 p.m. They have access to on-site tutoring, social and mental health services, and job training.
“I'm not naive enough to believe that they come because we have this wonderful educational opportunity – that's not the reason they come,” Edwards said. “They come because they're homeless; they come because they're safe; they come because it's climate-controlled; they come because they need affirmation; they come because they're frightened. And so, we take the opportunity to feed them, to clothe them, to teach them. And then before you know it, they'll tell [you] about square roots. It's amazing.”
While it’s too soon to measure the long-term success of the school, the ICA – and Edwards – has attracted national praise, including stories in The Wall Street Journal and a visit from the U.S. Secretary of Education. In 2011, Edwards was one of only six people in the country to be named a “Hero Among Us” by People magazine.
Despite all of the attention and the job of mentoring hundreds of children at ICA on a daily basis, Edwards continues to maintain a full schedule as a judge for St. Louis’ 22nd Judicial Circuit. A proud father of three, he and his wife still live in the neighborhood where they grew up.
“I haven't done anything magical,” Edwards said. “The question that I ask is: ‘Did you do good when nobody was looking?’ In my mind, it's what I do for others that matters most.”
For more information on Judge Jimmie Edwards, check out “Encouraging the Incorrigible” via TEDxStLouis.
By Laura Geiser, Saint Louis University