Academic chief hired by board Baltimore schools set to appoint No. 2 official in Richmond

'One classy individual'

Educator takes over daunting challenges on 6-month contract

January 13, 1998|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

The new Baltimore City school board will turn to a veteran educator from the Richmond, Va., school district to take charge of curriculum, assessment and instruction for this city's 183 schools and 108,000 students.

Searetha Smith, 53, is expected to be formally named chief academic officer during a regularly scheduled board meeting tonight.

Smith is associate superintendent for instruction and accountability in Richmond, where she has made headlines for trying to boost low standardized test scores and for suggesting that every elementary school start a chess club to "help students hone skills that may improve classroom learning."

The holder of a doctorate in education from the University of Washington in Seattle, she previously held administrative positions in several Washington state school districts.

Smith has never been an administrator in a district as large as Baltimore -- Richmond has 27,500 students and 60 schools -- and it is somewhat surprising that board members would turn to someone who occupies the No. 2 position in a small locale to fill one of the top jobs here.

But city school officials are excited about their choice, and confident that Smith will hold her own in Baltimore.

"She comes with the highest recommendations," said Ed Brody, who chairs the school board's personnel committee. "She has been a teacher, an assistant principal, a principal and a curriculum specialist, before she was a high-level administrator. We look forward to her coming here, and providing her leadership to improve the academic situation for children in this district."

Smith, who came to Richmond two years ago, could not be reached for comment yesterday. She is expected to begin work in Baltimore on Jan. 26, and will labor initially under a six-month contract that the board has an option to extend for another six months. The contract is not long-term because board members have yet to hire a permanent chief executive officer, who may want to hire his or her own chief academic officer. Smith will be paid $58,500 for each of the six-month terms.

Smith's hiring fills -- at least for the time being -- the second of three top administrative jobs created when the General Assembly reorganized city schools. Roger Reese was hired late last year as chief financial officer. The search for a permanent chief executive officer -- who will oversee the other two posts -- is continuing, with a deadline looming at the end of March.

Interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller, who was instrumental in bringing Smith to the board's attention, said the new administrator brings a set of experiences to Baltimore that will serve her well.

In Richmond, Smith and other administrators tackled many of the same issues that dog Baltimore.

To boost standardized test scores among Richmond's majority-black student population, they unveiled a plan to align Richmond schools' curriculum with Virginia state standards in all academic areas, and instituted a Parent Report Card designed to get parents more involved in their children's education.

Smith also seized on a good program at one elementary school. After a report on a successful chess club at one school, she started a volunteer drive to get clubs started in all Richmond schools.

"Chess involves critical thinking counting, reasoning and problem-solving," Smith told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "It requires discipline, patience, focus -- the kind of skills we'd like students to master."

Schiller said Smith's track record and references suggest she is a nimble administrator who will be able to adjust to a much larger district, with problems on a much larger scale.

"She wants the challenge, and she is willing to come here to prove herself," Schiller said. "We have in her one classy individual who has a great deal of self-confidence and is extremely articulate. Most importantly, we believe she will be able to come here and hit the ground running, without a long period of acclimation."

As the district's top academician, Smith will be responsible for making curriculum decisions; managing the district's teachers, principals, academic administrators and its unwieldy special education programs; and setting standards by which those employees will be held accountable for the jobs they do.

She will take charge of the initiatives put in place by the new school board -- yearly diagnostic tests of elementary students; targeted staff development; and after-school academies to help young students with reading and math.

She will be expected to develop her own reforms. She will be instrumental in helping to form the district's master plan, its long-term reform blueprint that will be due just a month-and-a-half after Smith arrives.

She will be responsible for resurrecting an educational structure Schiller described as "academically bankrupt" when he arrived last year.

"This will be a tough job, but she's up to it," Schiller said.

Pub Date: 1/13/98

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