At age 94, Sister Sandra remains committed to transforming education

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Sister Sandra Smithson, SSSF, helps a student at Smithson-Craighead Academy, Nashville’s first charter school that she founded with her late sister, Mary Craighead, in this file photo. Sister Sandra is currently donating all royalties from two of her recently re-published books to a scholarship fund for children in need to attend Catholic schools. File photo by Theresa Laurence

Sister Sandra Smithson, SSSF, age 94 and quarantined in her West Nashville home, is still hard at work on her mission of improving educational opportunities for poor and at-risk children. “I have to do something about it before I die,” she says matter-of-factly.

What she’s doing right now is re-publishing two of her books and donating all royalties to support scholarships for children attending some of the state’s “priority” public schools, “kids who have demonstrated the desire to learn more, who are coming out of abject poverty.”

Two of Sister Sandra’s books, a reflective nonfiction book, “From Out of the Shadows: Doubt in the Service of Faith and Other Paradoxes,” and a fictional allegory story for young readers, “Alegro and the Very Imperfect Poodle,” are now available for sale through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Ingram booksellers.

The royalty money from the book sales, she said, “is for kids who are already shining brightly and could shine more brightly if they had better opportunities.”

In the past, with support from one of her major benefactors, the late Catholic businessman and philanthropist Jim Carrell, Sister Sandra was able to identify promising Metro Nashville Public School students and send them to Father Ryan High School, Pope John Paul II High School, and Subiaco Academy, a Catholic boarding school in Arkansas. 

“We’ve had very good results with scholarships” in the past, said Sister Sandra, with recipients going on to study at Morehouse College, Vanderbilt University and others. 

Now, she wants to revive that scholarship program, and she’s hoping to jumpstart fundraising through her book sales. Ultimately, she said, the money will go to Catholic schools to help pay tuition for promising students in need who could not otherwise afford the tuition.

“I’m appealing to the Catholic community to support the scholarship fund to help the kids most in need who are not being served in our public school system,” she said. 

Sister Sandra, a Nashville native whose family was one of the founding members of St. Vincent de Paul Church in North Nashville, has dedicated her ministry to education, especially to serving poor children. A member of the School Sisters of St. Francis for more than 60 years, Sister Sandra has taught in Nashville, Chicago, Milwaukee, Costa Rica and Honduras. 

She and her sister, the late Mary Craighead, also a renowned educator, founded Nashville’s first public charter school in 2003, designed to serve children who were attending some of the district’s lowest performing “priority schools.”

Smithson-Craighead Academy in Madison continues to draw children from around Davidson County, but Sister Sandra wants to reach beyond the walls of that school to better serve as many children as possible who are falling behind in school. 

She knows that not every deserving student will have the opportunity to receive a scholarship to attend Catholic schools, so she remains committed to finding new ways to improve the educational experience for these students. 

Working with partners on the Metro Nashville Public School Board and on Metro Council, Sister Sandra hopes to introduce some new tutoring programs and approaches to learning at the district’s lowest performing schools. “I’m very concerned about these priority schools that are primarily inhabited by minority, poor children,” she said. 

She’s been exploring a partnership with SkyLearn, which provides individualized, online tutorials to improve students’ reading and math skills. With this program, Sister Sandra said, “kids learn by individual achievement,” and they will be fully prepared academically to move onto the next grade level. 

“When children are behind in literacy and language, that’s a major stopper,” she said, keeping them from staying engaged in school. If children do not gain the literacy skills they need at a young age, they are more likely to drop out of school and engage in riskier behavior, often leading to incarceration, Sister Sandra said. 

“We really do have to do something about the poor in the public school system,” she said. “How can we not try to do something?”

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