Joy Village School plans a new approach to education

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Lora Smothers’ new school aims to be more than just a school in Athens.

Surrounded by family, friends, community members and government officials, Smothers offered a glimpse of her vision for Joy Village School on Saturday at Oconee River Wesleyan Church. The new school is expected to open in August and focus on educating black youth.

But the mission to open Joy Village also stems from Smothers’ personal journey and experience as both a teacher and a student.

Smothers said while she enjoyed her school years, she often experienced racial trauma as a student. Years later, as a teacher, she was forced to come face to face with this experience.

“What I saw was that other students 20 years later were going through the same things as me,” she said. “Being punished just because of their culture, marginalized just because of the way they spoke, the way they wore their hair, the way they wore their hoodies or the music they listened to.”

Meanwhile, Smothers said she also hears the dissatisfaction of black families with their children’s education. Likewise, teachers described the challenges they faced in ensuring that students received the education they deserved.

“We are fighting for the basics while our kids deserve the best,” Smothers said. “So I started Joy Village School to give the best to our children.”

Smothers said the mission is to create learning environments of cultural safety and affirmation where black youth can learn with joy. She said the end goal was to leave space for black ownership in Athens.

She also highlighted the historical importance of black schools in Athens.

“So many in our community still mourn the loss of what we had in those schools,” Smothers said. “I was really inspired by that.”

After a year of fundraising, including running its own youth camps, the school is now months away from opening. The school’s core subjects include math, language arts, and black history.

Smothers also provided insight into what she described as joy-focused education, which aims to be community-based, interdisciplinary, experiential, and play-based through interactive play.

“I want it to tap into all the senses of learning modalities; I want it to have kinetic energy,” Smothers said. “I want it to be like children.”

But the day also marked a momentous occasion for Joy Village as it opened its doors to the public for the first time. Visitors were able to walk through the decorated hallways and classrooms to see what the students will experience.

The school includes several classrooms, a music room, a library, an art room and more.

Attendees described the school as a visionary approach to educating black youth.

“To me, you can really tell it’s going to pour out to the kids and love them,” said Haley McMillan, president of the Eta Xi chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. “Some schools miss that.”

McMillan was one of many volunteers showing families around the school on Saturday.

Kennedy Cleveland, another Alpha Kappa Alpha member, said part of their job is to inspire young black people to attend historically black colleges and universities. At Joy Village School, black students can see themselves reflected in their educators and curriculum.

“If they start here, it will be really easy to lobby for HBCUs,” Cleveland said.

The history of black Athenians was also highlighted throughout the school, with a classroom showing community leaders over the years and their impact on the city.

Smothers’ husband, Solomon Smothers, said that while Joy Village School aims to fill a need in Athens, its mission is not to compete with other schools. Instead, he said, the school was created to address some of the pitfalls black students face in the current education system.

“The African-American community deserves the best and that’s what this school is trying to achieve,” Solomon said.

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