By Jeff Truesdell and Alex Tresniowski
Updated October 10, 2011 12:00 PM
Advertisement

In the fall of 2010, Jakayla Ivory stabbed a classmate in the neck with an ice pick during a fight. That crime-second-degree assault-had now brought the stubborn 16-year-old to a St. Louis courtroom to face a Family Court judge. She’d already been bounced out of four schools since the seventh grade for “mischievous stuff,” says her mom, Nichole Scott, who sat nervously in court that day in November 2010. Now Jakayla, after spending 26 days in lockup, could be kicked out of the school system altogether, all but dooming her to be a dropout. Head down, expecting the worst, she waited to hear the judge hand down her fate.

Then something surprising happened. Instead of throwing the book at her, Judge Jimmie Edwards-sternfaced, soft-spoken, no-nonsense-threw young Jakayla a lifeline. “If you’re interested in graduating high school,” he told her, “I can help.” And so, as a condition of her supervision, Jakayla joined the Innovative Concept Academy, an experimental new school created by Edwards as a last resort for wayward teens. The only school of its kind in the U.S., the Academy plucks the most desperate cases out of the St. Louis legal system and gives them one final chance to change their behavior and re-enter mainstream schools. “I knew I could do better than just taking away someone’s liberty,” says Edwards, 56, who had sentenced hundreds of men and women to prison before transferring himself to juvenile court in 2007. “You have to get these kids while they’re impressionable. If you lock them up, they only learn how to be better criminals.”

The Academy, while not quite a boot camp, has mandatory classes and activities designed to keep students off the streets in the after-school hours when many teens get in trouble. Besides a basic curriculum, the Academy also exposes students to what are, for them, new and unlikely pursuits: music, tennis, fashion, golf, even ballroom dancing. “In order to dream,” says Edwards, “you have to know what to dream about.”

At the center of it all, is the judge himself, who on breaks from court two or three times a day journeys two miles to a formerly shuttered, three-story public-school building the district allowed him to take over in 2009. Edwards-raised by a single mom on St. Louis’s violent, gang-ridden North Side and now a father of three and youth football coach-prowls the hallways in his dark suits and ties, making sure students are in uniform, giving them firm pep talks, dispensing his Judge Jimmie lessons (see box).

So far it’s too early to tell if his tough but supportive approach is working, but of the 700 6th-to-12th-grade students who entered the Academy since it opened, only four students have gotten in trouble with the criminal justice system since enrolling and been returned to jail by the judge. School officials across the country are keeping an eye on the program, which, say many, shows promise. With funding from corporate foundations, nonprofits and the public school system, the Academy delivers better attendance than other alternative schools, while its partnership with the courts provides police and justice officials as mentors. “We sent him the toughest students in our city, and he created a safe-and-disciplined environment for them,” says Kelvin Adams, the St. Louis Public Schools superintendent. “I know this school has saved children’s lives.”

But could Edwards’s Academy make a difference in the life of Jakayla, a seemingly incorrigible case? PEOPLE tracked Jakayla’s progress starting in December 2010, when she showed up as defiant as ever. “School can’t change me,” she said. Jakalya signed up for an after-school class focusing on self-esteem and chose to write a report about the rapper Tupac Shakur. In February she ran into Edwards during one of his hallway visits.

“C’mere, little girl,” he beckoned. The language was deliberate. Outside in the world, “you might be a parent,” says the school’s principal, Michael McCrory, 31. “But when you’re here, be a kid.” Edwards asked Jakayla about her paper. “I think Tupac Shakur has been a bad influence on a lot of kids,” he told her. “Are you going to put that in your report?” Jakayla said, “I’m going to write, ‘Judge Edwards said he’s a bad influence.'” They both laughed. “When you’re done,” he said, “I want to read it, okay?”

Like most kids at the Academy, Jakayla’s home life can be fractured. Her mother, a certified nursing assistant, works nights and takes college classes, leaving Jakayla to care for her two younger brothers much of the time; her father is serving time for murder. But her quick temper is less an issue at the Academy, where there is more supervision than at public schools. As a result, “I don’t get in trouble,” Jakayla says. Two months into her first term, her grades have improved from F’s to B’s and C’s.

Another student, Beatrice Gibson, 18, was expelled from school after jumping into a gang fight. After three months at the Academy, she didn’t want to leave. What turned her around? Chess. “It taught me to be patient, to be precise, to think,” she says. “That overlaps in my personal life.” Gerrell Rodgers, 16, entered the Academy after being kicked out of school for fighting and brought his temper with him. To avoid more fights, he ducked into a conference room during lunch hours and began playing a piano there. He got so good, Edwards took him to perform at a country club-an afternoon that changed his life. “He exposed me to other people,” says Rodgers, now in mainstream high school and dreaming of college and a music career.

Four months into her stay at the Academy, Jakayla had a confrontation with a cop-this time across a chess board. She’d signed up for the program and found herself in a match with Officer Darrin Young, 45, who is assigned to a police substation at the Academy and mentors students. “They have to earn the victory,” he said as he sat across from Jakayla. Before long she checkmated Young, high-fived the chess coach and ran out to make a call. “Momma!” she exclaimed. “I beat Officer Young!”

This spring Jakayla earned her first A, in consumer education. On the last day of her first term, this May, Edwards tracked her down in the hallway. “Gurrrrrrl,” he said, giving her a hug. “You’ve grown up a lot. I’m really proud of you, okay? But you’ve still got to become academically strong, with good grammar and not being so shy, and able to talk to folks.”

“All right,” said Jakayla. “Thank you, Judge Edwards.”

The two would meet again in court, in June, to review her progress. Eventually Edwards allowed Jakayla to return to public school, where she is now doing well and is a cheerleader-though she still goes to the Academy after school to play chess. In court Edwards told Jakayla he planned to keep riding her until she graduated high school. “And then I’m going to make you go to college,” he said. “What do you think about that?”

“You won’t have to make me,” said Jakayla clearly. “I’ll go on my own.”

TO VOTE FOR THE READERS’ CHOICE HERO, GO TO PEOPLE.COM/READERHERO