(Smyrna, TN) You won’t find murals or mascots or bright colors adorning the hallways at Smyrna West. There are no pep-rallies, busy hallways or throngs of socializing students. Instead, the hallways are quiet and muted. The walls are colored a soft blue. The school’s design is intentional.
“You’ll notice that our colors in the school are calming. We don’t have any reds, greens or purples. Everything is very intentional. We are a very strict and structured environment. Students forfeit some things by coming here, but I think they also gain some things by coming here,” said Judy Sides, principal of Smyrna West.
Sides has been the principal at Smyrna West since 2016. Previously she taught at Oakland High School for 17 years and was an assistant principal at Riverdale High School for eight years. She has a total of 31 years with the county.
“When I was a young girl, my next-door neighbors were teachers. The whole family, and I just enjoyed the things they talked about,” Sides explained. “They sort of made me want to go into teaching. For about 10 years I traveled with a country music artist on the road, but when I came back, I got my education and began teaching. It’s never too late to start.”
Students who arrive at Smyrna West are not there by choice. They have either been remanded or they have a zero-tolerance offense on record. The school consists of students from sixth to 12th grade and runs on a staff of 17 teachers, two administrators and six total courses.
The school has a no cell-phone policy, a strict dress code and students must stay on task and adhere to all the rules the school has set forth.
“We have a few electives we’re able to do,” said Sides, “but they’re forfeiting some of their pathway classes such as cosmetology or construction or computers. Socially we are also a silent school. You won’t hear any conversation in our hallways. Students at lunch sit facing one way. When they finish eating, they read. I get a lot of students who ask why we do that. I tell them if there’s no difference from your home school, then you’re not really learning a lesson.”
The impact on students, perhaps surprisingly, is that teachers and administrators at Smyrna West are building relationships with students and learning who they are. Students who attend Smyrna West find themselves walking away from the experience with new skills and new confidence. This means discovering talents students have or didn’t know they had, Sides said. Smyrna West aims to teach students how to deal with conflict and social problems in a better way.
“We do not disrespect our students here, and we do not tolerate disrespect,” said Sides. “The main thing I look for when hiring staff is a willingness to build relationships with students and to understand we teach students at risk — emotionally, academically or socially. We need people who understand and are going to be willing to build that connection, who value them as a person and see their potential.”
Most recently, Smyrna West has celebrated Hope Thornton, a former student who graduated from the fire academy and is now employed by LaVergne Fire Department. When asked about the success of students at Smyrna West, Sides didn’t hesitate in showing her confidence in students who return to their home school.
“I see all our students as successes,” Sides said. “She came here, and she got her life on track. I think everybody assumes we are just about behavior and that we’re punitive, but I think one of the best things we do here is show students education is important. They need to know how to self-advocate. We teach them to build confidence so when they do return, they have some skill and can advocate for themselves.”