Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

January 7, 2013

Column: THE CAREER PLANNING ACADEMY: Before she died, hard-boiled educator Dr. Edith Marie "Mimi" Pewitt raised troubled young minds and transformed the lives of many Fort Worth ISD students

Ben Tinsley
Jacksonville Daily Progress

FORT WORTH —

As an educator, Dr. Edith Pewitt elevated the minds of many high school teenagers teaching chemistry, biology, physics and physical science. But it was during her tenure as principal of the former Career Planning Academy that she literally transformed their lives.

Dr. Edith Marie "Mimi" Pewitt died Dec. 21 at the age of 86. There was a obituary about her published last month, but it did not mention the time she spent as the principal of the Career Planning Academy, a now-defunct Fort Worth alternative school.

It's a shame that it left out that part of Dr. Pewitt's life. She was brilliant, empathetic, and tough as nails. And she never — EVER — gave up on her students.

You wouldn't have been able to tell the impact this educator made by looking at her school in its heyday. CPA was located on 1.4 acres of property — 59,130 square feet of land — on East Vickory, off Vickory Boulevard and nearly adjacent to Interstate 30 in Fort Worth.

Let's clarify how small that is: Fort Worth's Paschal High School currently is 1,084,100 square feet of land on 24.8875 acres, according to the Tarrant County Appraisal District.

Despite its diminutive size, the school housed an auditorium, cafeteria, principal's office and several upstairs and downstairs classrooms. High schoolers of all ages and some middle schoolers were allowed to attend. There was a care center for disadvantaged kids that housed students and bussed them to the school. I met a good friend of mine, Danny, because he was a guest of that center.

Many students were assigned to CPA kind of a "last stop before the REALLY rough alternative school." (I forget the name of that particular Fort Worth ISD school.)

Contrary to its name, the Career Planning Academy was not a trade school — at least not while I was there. It was a basic high school and upper-level middle school, if very small.

And, as far as the student body was concerned, it was the original melting pot. There students from all races, religions, and creeds. Among them were African Americans, Caucasians, Latinos, and Asians. Some were straight and others gay. There were several different social classes at play.

Before the first class bell rang each morning, a few kids would sneak a smoke outside, while others would practice their break dancing moves inside by the cafeteria.

The Career Planning Academy admitted students with emotional, educational, and/or legal problems. I was one of the few students actually enrolled there by parents.

Dr. Pewitt made it a point to work closely with those who needed her the most — such as Johnny, a student in his 20s who had been forced by life's obstacles to drop out of school earlier.

When Johnny was accepted to the Career Planning Academy, it was a second chance to get his diploma and do something with his life. Dr. Pewitt helped him make the most of that chance. Johnny walked across the graduation stage with me in 1985 (at age 22!) and I know that was a huge point of pride, both for him and for Dr. Pewitt.

There was a lot of teaching to be done at CPA. One good friend of mine, for instance, could barely read when he first attended school there. The teachers there worked with him until those reading skills were up to par and he graduated.

Why was I there? My maternal grandfather Ray Miller, my PePa, had died on Christmas Day 1983. In his absence I was trapped in kind of an emotional tunnel.

I refused to return to a boarding school I had been attending and insisted on returning to school in Fort Worth. My Mom and Dad agreed to enroll me at a smaller, less-hectic Fort Worth school —  in this case, the Career Planning Academy.

Transitioning there wasn't easy. This tunnel I spoke about was a kind of trauma. I had trouble talking to people or even looking them in the eye when I first came to CPA.

I was pretty much a zombie during classes; during lunch I would sit in the front office rather than interact with the other students. This went on for quite awhile.

Then things started to change. One day in the front office, I noticed Dr. Pewitt in the hallway looking at me with a concerned expression on her face. She was standing next to our guidance counselor, talking to him. She nodded at him, he nodded at her, and the next thing I knew I was in the counselor's office being gently encouraged to make new friends.

Dr. Pewitt never talked to me directly about my solitude, but I always felt her presence.

One of the interesting aspects of this very, very small school is we would have occasional group sessions during which we would discuss our problems with a licensed counselor.

One day during one of those sessions, my counselor asked me point blank why I never came out of the office at lunch. I had no answer, but it was around that time I felt something inside me start to thaw. The staff here wasn't rushing me, but they were definitely starting to draw me out of my shell. And it was working.

Each time a teacher or staff member would ask — in a matter-of-fact manner — if I wanted to go outside with the other students at lunch, I would feel myself moving closer to the door to the school yard.

One day, I blinked and found myself outside. I was talking to students and making new friends.

That day, I became fast friends with a girl named Toby and her boyfriend, the aforementioned Danny. My friendship with the two of them meant a lot. I also started talking to Jana, a pretty redhead on whom I had a massive crush. (But, like Charlie Brown, I just didn't have any luck with redheads.)

Every now and then, when chatting with Toby and Danny outside during lunch, I would glance at the windows to the school and notice Dr. Pewitt right there carefully watching me. I think she winked at me one of those times. (I could be wrong.)

Don't misunderstand me: subtlety was NOT Dr. Pewitt's area. She could be as loud and bombastic as she needed to be to get her point across to the more belligerent students. There were many, many, many "tough guys" at my school who were terrified of her.

And they were right to be scared. I remember incurring her wrath one particular time. I had been foolish enough to join a group of students exiting a classroom in protest to the way one substitute was teaching.

The lot of us — full of ourselves — trotted down the stairs, only to find Dr. Pewitt waiting for us. She was not happy. We tried to explain what we were doing, but Dr. Pewitt proceeded to stop her feet, yell, wave her fists and general scare the attitude right out of us.

We RAN — not walked — back to the classroom.

The school in general generated more than a little drama.

Dr. Pewitt, by the way, was a larger lady, but you'd never know that by the way she moved during a crisis.

One day my senior year, a bloodcurdling scream came from the upstairs men's room. Dr. Pewitt seemingly defied gravity, bolting from her downstairs office, up the stairs to the men's room in seconds flat. She handled that situation, although my memory fails me as to how.

Even later that year, there was a media flutter when an alleged member of Paschal High School's "Legion Of Doom" student vigilante group was suspended from his home school, Paschal, and reassigned to the Career Planning Academy the very semester he was slated to graduate.

This student didn't really make any new friends at CPA, but Dr. Pewitt made sure he fit in safely and seamlessly and ultimately graduated without harassing anyone or being harassed.

It was while at CPA that I started really working on my writing. I wrote elaborate essays under the encouragement of my favorite CPA English teacher, Vivia Daniels.

I penned a one-act play for my drama class. I created poems for the literary magazine and news stories for the school paper.

At one point toward the end of my senior year, I made a decision to join the Texas Army National Guard immediately after graduation. My recruiter asked me to come by his office to sign some paperwork during a school day. I told Dr. Pewitt about it and she drove me to the National Guard armory herself.

Dr. Pewitt never, ever, gave up on me. I was behind on several subjects when I first came to her school, but she and my teachers worked with me regularly to make sure I would complete my classes and graduate on time in the spring of 1985.

The Career Planning Academy was known for its small graduations. Sometimes only one person would walk across the stage. Other times, a handful of students would cross the stage. My particular graduating class consisted of three. I'm pretty sure that made me valedictorian or salutatorian.

I was offered the opportunity to attend my home school graduation, which in this case was the aforementioned Paschal High School.

I thought about it, but ultimately opted to cross the stage only at CPA. As far as I was concerned, that was my school. My place. MY alma mater. Dr. Pewitt made the Career Planning Academy my school.

After graduation, I never saw Dr. Pewitt again. I tried to locate her late in 2012 to thank her for everything she had done for me. To my dismay, I learned she already passed away.

By reading her obituary, one might get the mistaken impression she only worked at Grapevine High School. But that is far from the truth.

I have not been able to determine how many years Dr. Pewitt was in charge at CPA, but I know for a fact it was long enough to change many, many lives.

Dr. Pewitt deserves so much more than to fade into obscurity following a small obituary. She deserves to have scholarships named after her. She deserves candlelight vigils held by her former students. Tears should be shed and the lessons she taught should be recounted.

There are quite a few alumni out there right now on the straight and narrow who might not have been so if not for this dogged, tenacious, educator — students she took under her wing after they found their way to her tiny little school off I-30.

 

Ben Tinsley, CPA Class of '85, has been a journalist over 20 years. He is a reporter for the Jacksonville Daily Progress.