The day I first visited The James Baldwin School, I met Nia, a confident young woman whose path to a high school diploma was not what we might call “traditional.”

Like so many other Baldwin students and alumni, Nia found a home at this small transfer high school, which is built on the principles of project-based learning, restorative justice and student-teacher trust.

In fact, her attachment is so strong that she still drops by all the time, even though she graduated a few years ago.

Where does Nia’s fierce devotion to the school come from?

When I peeled back the layers, all signs pointed to the principal’s office.

Brady Smith, Baldwin’s principal co-director, grew up in Seattle and spent his early adulthood “playing music and pounding nails” — not exactly who you might have imagined in a leadership role at a second-chance high school for New York City youth.

It turns out, though, that Smith has a lot in common with the students he now serves.

After high school, Smith enrolled at the University of Washington.

While “trying to manage a full class load, and in a full-time job in a restaurant, and paying my rent,” Smith dropped out “about halfway through the second term.

Eventually, he decided to go back to college — this time at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, which is an experimental school with interdisciplinary coursework.

Smith says at Baldwin there is a lot of discussion about “the purpose of education … we do engage in those conversations, and not every school does.”