Cori M. Smith
Justice in the Schools
Cori Smith is the Program Director of Justice in the Schools (JTS). JTS operates out of several schools in the Kansas City and Hickman Mills school districts to help students and families with issues that negatively affect their lives and learning. As a joint project between Legal Aid of Western Missouri, Kansas City Public School District, SchoolSmartKC, Hickman Mills School District, and the Local Investment Commission (LINC), Legal Aid provides high-quality, free legal services to eligible families within each school district’s boundaries. The clinics assist families with eviction defense issues in an effort to address the student mobility crisis, as well as address other issues within the practice areas.
Q1: How long have you been with Legal Aid and working in the Justice in the Schools program?
I have worked with Legal Aid since September 2018. The Justice in the Schools (JTS) program was also launched in September 2018.
Q2: What drew you to this work?
I am deeply drawn toward social justice, and after my first year in law school, I realized I wanted to have a more direct impact on communities that resemble my own. After moving back home in the spring of 2017, I decided to step into nonprofit work. After serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA, I was extremely interested in working to provide service-learning, especially for those who do not have many opportunities to help build their communities, through piloted experiences and building programming. In 2018, I saw alignment in Legal Aid’s initiative to create programming that would directly impact students in low-income communities that are negatively impacted by the student mobility crisis. I have always been super passionate about providing or connecting people to resources and helping create sustainable solutions.
Q3: What are the greatest challenges facing Kansas City students in the public school system?
Pre-COVID, the answer was etched very loudly as an issue with stability, attendance, and support. However, since COVID we are now dealing with a variety of issues and unmet needs that require creative solutions. Our families are struggling with the transition to 100% virtual learning, on top of issues that may have been bandaged long before COVID. There has been a big issue with student attendance, and now with COVID many students have altogether been pushed out or are on the cusp of being totally absent due to issues such as lack of stable housing, loss of utility services, parents facing unemployment, lack of substantial assistance with childcare, and families who may not have stable food sources, etc.
Q4: What is it like to be a high school coach in your spare time?
I have played volleyball a good portion of my life. It’s led me through high school and into a national championship title at the college level while attending Clark Atlanta University. After graduating, I began coaching high school volleyball and have been able to continue to coach. I currently coach volleyball at one of the neighborhood high schools in the Kansas City Public School District. I have just concluded my second season with the girls, and it has been such a dynamic experience. I was formerly a coach in Kansas City, Kansas and it was incredibly challenging to have to adjust quickly since I accepted my current position right before the volleyball season started. But this job has always been an unexpected blessing, and so many of the conversations that I get to have with my players has definitely opened my lens and perspectives. I would not trade any of these experiences for the world.
Q5: What inspires you?
The fact that I am able to see a direct impact really motivates me in my position. I am from Kansas City and understand what a lot of these circumstances look like firsthand. I am big into holistic wellness and health, and as a Black woman, it is so important for me to be a face that looks like many of our clients and help connect these families to better solutions. Seeing the children’s faces at the initial point of contact and then seeing the difference later on at the start of a new school year is everything to me. These children are carrying such a weight on their shoulders that learning cannot be a priority, and that is simply not fair to them. It is too much to ask them to continue to suffer and accept that this is just the way it goes. It is not. Justice in the Schools is my way of showing families that we are here for them, and that their voices and their rights matter. It is unbelievable what some of our students have to deal with as normal, daily occurrences. These kids are my motivation.
Q6: What is your wish for Justice in Schools in 5 years?
I would like to see our program implemented in most, if not all, of the Metro Kansas City area, and also replicable in other environments outside of our city.