A local Atlanta mentor and high school student have been featured in a short film following the story of their relationship.
The film, called “The Push,” comes from Communities in Schools (CIS), an organization that aims to provide struggling students with the tools they need to succeed in education. Darrell Smith, a CIS site-coordinator and an Atlanta native, is featured in the film, which focuses on his relationship with a Stone Mountain High School senior.
CIS is a national organization, and Smith is just one of many site coordinators working in 2,900 schools in 26 states and Washington D.C., according to CIS’s website. Smith’s case load at Stone Mountain High is comprised of about 40 students.
“There’s never really a day that I can say I know exactly how it’s going to turn out,” he says in the film.
In an interview with Reporter Newspapers, Smith said that over four years with CIS, he’s learned that a site coordinator can serve many different roles. There are a multitude of reasons a student might not be performing well in school, and site coordinators can provide help with anything from offering a listening ear, to helping students who might be struggling with food insecurity at home, to even offering clothing if needed.
“Pretty much anything that’s going to support the student and make them feel comfortable being in the building,” Smith said.
According to Smith, the top three issues he finds himself working through are behavior, academics, and poverty.
“Most of the time, they’re acting out behavior-wise because they haven’t [eaten], or they don’t have a place to sleep, or there may be some abuse going on at the home,” he says. “Those are some of the challenges that our students are dealing with in the building.”
The film features scenes that show Smith interacting with different students throughout the day, but it focuses specifically on his relationship with a high school senior named Ja-Mez Lewis. Smith explains that early in his high school career, Lewis was expelled from Stone Mountain following an argument with a teacher, and had to attend an alternative school.
“I tried to step in,” Smith says in the documentary. “But it was at a point of no return.”
In the documentary, Lewis talks about where he was personally at that point in his life. He lost his father in a motorcycle accident at a young age, and had lost friends throughout his life as well.
“Back then, I didn’t really see a future in myself,” Lewis says in the documentary. “I had that mentality where you can’t do it. You can’t. I can’t, I can’t. That’s always what I said.”
After a semester, Lewis was able to come back to Stone Mountain. He continued his relationship with Smith, and was able to graduate on time with the class of 2022.
“I think CIS was a big stepping stone for him,” says Lewis’ mother in the documentary. “And I’m very thankful for them.”
While Lewis was in alternative school, Smith kept an eye on him – even though he wasn’t part of Smith’s case load at the time. He began to share more about himself with Lewis so that Lewis would feel comfortable opening up to him.
“It was a new feeling to have a shoulder to lean on,” Lewis says in the film. “He was the only person that could calm me down. I could go to him and he would talk to me and let me know everything was going to be okay.”
In addition to Lewis’ story, the documentary features a program Smith started in Stone Mountain High he calls “Stepping in the Right Direction.” It’s a program where students can win a pair of shoes based on their performance in school, or even on their need.
“It started very small,” Smith said of the program. “Some of the teachers, some of my friends, started to see what I was doing and started to donate, and it started to grow from there.”
The day-to-day of Smith’s job is chronicled well in the documentary, with images of small group meetings, one-on-ones, and more. Watching students struggle with so much can also take a toll. Smith said it’s difficult to deal with that toll while still providing the best support possible.
“When we’re dealing with families who are homeless, or have food insecurity, it touches home,” Smith said. “If you’re a real person, you’re going to feel that.”
Smith referred to himself as a “translator” between students and adults. He said the biggest thing adults in power need to learn when dealing with students is to watch out for their body language, and to be patient.
“The biggest thing, I believe, is that teachers expect the student to come up front and just tell them everything that’s wrong with them, tell them all of their challenges, tell them their home situations, and it’s not going to come through that easy for the teachers,” Smith said. “A phrase I often use is, we have to train ourselves to listen with our eyes.”