Innovative academic chief earns praise in Richmond New Baltimore educator is eager for challenge

January 14, 1998|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. -- It may sound like a foolish lark for a highly paid school administrator to leave her secure job in Richmond to take a potentially short-term deal in Baltimore. But that doesn't bother Searetha Smith.

Her credos defy the careerist guardrails that hold others back: Be flexible. Do good work. Go forth. Don't worry.

Last night, the new Baltimore school board voted unanimously to let Smith put her philosophies to work for the city's children. On Jan. 26, Smith will leave her associate superintendent's post in Richmond to serve as chief academic officer in Baltimore.

Her initial contract is for six months -- less time than it could take to meet all the district's principals or visit all of its 183 schools. The board insisted on a short-term deal, because a permanent chief executive officer has not been hired and that person might want to hire his or her own chief academician.

But Smith, a 30-year educator who has left security behind before, is not worried about the uncertainty of a long-term future in Baltimore.

"Well, actually, I wonder if in urban education today, any job is truly permanent or secure," Smith, 53, said with a chuckle yesterday. "I guess six months isn't a lot of time, but it will be six months of me doing the best I can. I think after that, they'll have seen enough of me to want to extend that contract."

Intelligent and self-confident without being arrogant, Smith believes her experiences in Richmond and in the state of Washington -- where she grew up and built a career in education -- make her a perfect fit for the Baltimore job.

Teachers, principals and school board members in Richmond agree. They describe her as a visionary and a doer who has

helped restore a sense of urgency and hope to their troubled district.

Smith arrived in Richmond two years ago to find many of the same problems she will confront in Baltimore: low test scores, high dropout rates and a sense of discouragement among teachers and administrators.

She had left behind her career and much of her family in Washington state, but was looking forward to the challenge of righting a school system that seemed headed for disaster. Many in Richmond say she has been successful.

Smith and the superintendent who hired her, Patricia Conn, began with problems they knew they could fix.

To boost teacher morale and increase teacher performance, they began intensive teacher training exercises and rewrote the district's curriculum to match state goals. They targeted low-performing schools in particular for increased teacher training.

At Bellevue Elementary, a troubled school on Richmond's east side, Principal George Crockett said Smith's training and hands-on approach has helped his teachers immensely.

"The lady does it all," Crockett said yesterday. "She came to our parent meetings, she came to workshops. Whenever you called her, she was there for whatever you needed."

Smith also started the "teacher incentive grant" program in Richmond -- an innovative measure that allows any teacher or group of teachers to get up to $12,500 in extra money to pursue projects that help the schools meet their goals.

One project has Richmond students building an electric car. Another has high school students reading and writing poetry.

The idea, Smith said, is to free teachers to get the best out of their students.

"This program lets them use their imaginations to get children thinking critically and working in hands-on programs," she said.

Administrators in Richmond have also taken other steps to encourage critical thinking among students, including a volunteer drive to begin chess clubs in all Richmond elementary schools.

Despite all those efforts, Richmond schools are still troubled and the district ranks among the worst in Virginia. But many people involved with Richmond's schools credit Smith for her innovation and accomplishment.

Less than a year after Smith was hired by Conn, the Richmond superintendent, Conn was let go by the board. Typically when that happens, nearly all top-level administrators are also replaced.

But many people say Smith helped stabilize the school district after Conn was fired, and some board members took note and asked her to stay.

"We very purposely kept Searetha Smith after we terminated our contract with Patricia Conn," said Richmond school board President Melvin Law.

Not everyone has so positive an outlook on Smith. Roger Gray, president of the Richmond Education Association -- a professional association for teachers and other school employees -- said Smith was too removed from teachers during her tenure.

Gray added that the lack of results in Richmond make it difficult to say whether Smith's ideas would actually have worked.

"They were innovative, and they were new, but she wasn't here long enough to see a 10- or 15-point jump in test scores. It just didn't happen," he said.

Gray said some teachers in the district also had a hard time distinguishing Smith from Conn, whom many disliked.

Conn, who is setting up an alternative school system for at-risk children in Richmond, said it may have been difficult to separate her ideas from Smith's, but that's because they agreed on most issues.

"She is one of the top instruction experts in the country, and so am I," Conn said.

Even Gray agrees that Smith is a top-notch academic. "She is a very bright woman," Gray said. "Baltimore is getting a very, very bright woman."

Pub Date: 1/14/98

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