Gorman: A second chance for Imani Christian
Harvey Smith says he was blindsided by Imani Christian Academy's renegade reputation, especially after he became the school's athletic director and football coach.
"It was something I was unaware of when I took the job," he said. "It became evident to me right away that it was something I was up against."
Smith is no stranger to such complaints, considering he heard them at Gateway while serving on the football staff of his brother, Terry.
The image that preceded Imani Christian's WPIAL membership was only enhanced when the small, East Hills school was suspended for failing to comply with PIAA rules.
There were whispers around Western Pennsylvania that Imani Christian had designs on developing into a football and basketball destination, fears throughout the City League that its top talent was being recruited by Imani.
"The perception coming in originally was of concern," WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley said. "Any time a nonpublic school becomes members, especially when it comes to basketball, there's concern over competitive balance."
Faster than you can say Lincoln Park, the charter school dominating WPIAL Class A basketball, Imani Christian came to be viewed as the next school playing by its own rules.
Then the WPIAL suspended Imani Christian, forcing the school to take a long look at its procedures.
Imani Christian restructured its administration, making Enos Scott interim headmaster, hiring former Penn Hills vice principal Ron Graham to run the school and giving Smith assistance in collecting transcripts of transfers and filling out forms for eligibility. It also parted ways with basketball coach Khayree Wilson.
Smith made an impassioned plea Thursday before the WPIAL Board of Control to allow Imani to play WPIAL football and basketball schedules.
"Our athletic department will fail, it will cease to exist. It's that significant," he said. "If we don't have a schedule, we're done."
Imani Christian had no complaints that its WPIAL reinstatement came with conditions. All the school wants is what it offers the predominantly black, underprivileged students Smith calls "castoffs."
A second chance.
"When the kids picked up the paper and saw we were back in, you would have thought it was Christmas," Smith said. "On the flip side, when the schedule was taken away, the morale was down. It was like a funeral around here. These kids always felt a detachment from society. They want to look forward to something."
Smith knows firsthand. He is the father of six students at Imani Christian, which counts ministry and a Black Male Initiative program as part of its curriculum. His son, Isaiah, is an eighth-grader who was bounced from Woodland Hills and Gateway because of behavioral issues.
"Imani was the final straw for him," Smith said. "I was just a desperate dad."
Smith said Isaiah has become an honors student, improving his grade-point average from 1.2 to where "if he gets a B, he's furious."
Smith calls Imani Christian, whose students wear uniforms, "the toughest school in the City of Pittsburgh." He stresses that character in the classroom comes before ability in the athletic arena, that at-risk students must show they can be functional and productive members of society.
The Saints will go from practicing on an asphalt lot to playing home games at Gateway, but only if they are following the rules.
"I would be lying if I said I didn't want to field competitive teams, but what I've said from Day 1 is it's about ministry, it's about character," Smith said. "If you don't show character, you won't be playing on Friday nights."
The WPIAL sent the same message to Imani Christian and its renegade reputation, reminding it to practice what it preaches.