Where do students in a neighborhood struggling with blight, drugs, and gangs turn?
If you're talking about students at Cody High School in Detroit, it’s to Coach Jimmie Knight.
“I’m not a counselor, but I’ve got a genuine heart,” Knight said. “That’s all I preach. Just listen to me, let me tell you what’s expected out of you, you get that, and then you move on.”
In her State of Opportunity documentary, airing today at 3 p.m. and again at 10 p.m. on Michigan Radio, Jennifer Guerra profiles Coach Knight and the students at Cody High School.
(You can also listen to the documentary here.)
Guerra describes Knight as a man from the Cody High School neighborhood, a man who understands the community in which Cody students live.
He works in the school as both a football coach and through Communities in Schools, an organization separate from the school district.
“I like to call him the King of Second Chances, because he gave his old neighborhood a second chance by moving back to Cody, he gave Cody a second chance by sending his kids there, and now he’s trying to give kids in the school a second chance, to try to keep them on track to graduate,” Guerra said.
Cody High School sits on Detroit’s west side. It used to be known as a “dropout factory.”
In 2009, however, the school turned a new page. They divided the large Cody High School into three smaller high schools.
“The idea being that, within these small schools, you can keep track of the kids. You’re more accountable to the kids,” Guerra said. “It’s supposed to be harder for students to fall through the cracks if you have a small-school model.”
Knight has had a personal investment in Cody High School’s "second chance."
When his daughters came of high school age, his wife agreed to send their daughters to Cody, provided that the girls receive proper supervision.
Having already been the football coach, as he still is today, Knight agreed to fill that role.
“And so he would walk around the halls and kind of keep an eye on his football players and keep an eye on his daughters at the same time, and make sure nobody got in trouble,” Guerra said. “And pretty soon, students who weren’t on the football team just started seeking him out and asking him for advice.”
Knight volunteered at Cody for about a year, without compensation.
Eventually, however, the principal of Cody suggested Knight apply for a job opening with Communities in Schools. Knight got the job, and he’s since been at Cody for around five years.
“So many students at Cody would say, ‘Coach Knight is my hero,’ or ‘Coach Knight is a superhero,’ ‘Coach Knight is my second dad,’ or ‘Coach Knight is the dad I didn’t have,’” Guerra said.
Knight has helped convince students that staying in school is the right thing to do. Students say they've heard that from a lot of people, but the message resonated with them when coming from Coach Knight.
“I think it’s because he’s relatable, and I think it’s because they understand that Coach Knight is from this neighborhood,” Guerra said. “He knows what they’re going through. He’s lived this life, and he empathizes.”