New Arundel schools chief known for `energizing' style

Smith brings good record, no-nonsense attitude to job he begins today

July 01, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The numbers were confounding. Black students in Charlotte continued to score well below whites on the SAT.

Superintendent Eric J. Smith knew this shouldn't be. He had made classes tougher, reformed the curriculum and put in place programs to help minority students succeed. He asked his number crunchers to investigate.

A month into last school year, they found the culprit. In middle school, teachers were putting black pupils in regular and remedial classes to avoid failure. In advanced classes, whites outnumbered blacks by 3 to 1. Smith was outraged, and he tore up the schedules of 8,000 children and reassigned them.

It was a tumultuous, hugely disruptive event for Charlotte's middle schools. It was also classic Eric Smith - bold, aggressive and urgent.

"Each year is another child's life," he said. "The kids are here. They're going to show up. We had a moral obligation to correct it."

This hard-charging, fast-moving style marked Smith's tenure in Charlotte and Newport News, Va., where he turned around troubled school systems and built a reputation as a national leader in urban education.

Now Smith is bringing that drive to Maryland. Today he starts work as superintendent of the 75,000-student Anne Arundel County school system. The state's fifth-largest system isn't as volatile as Smith's other assignments, but it's been unable to move its mediocre state test scores to the top ranks.

Smith said Anne Arundel is appealing because its stability will allow him to focus on curriculum and instruction - his true love. He will receive a salary and benefits package worth $300,000 a year.

"Hold on to your seats," said Nora Carr, Smith's former spokeswoman in Charlotte. Smith, she says, expects his staff to work hard and fast, like he does.

"Results matter," Carr said. "You either find that incredibly energizing or very intimidating."

Smith was a high school principal by the time he was 30 and a superintendent by the time he was 40. He is now 52, and he is coming to Anne Arundel to prove that suburban schools can be much better than they are.

"There's some complacency in America that we're doing OK in suburban education," Smith said over coffee at a Charlotte hotel last week. "My sense is that students in fact can be brought to a higher level. And Anne Arundel County could serve as a model of one of the top suburban systems. It has a great opportunity to demonstrate what public education can do."

Smith is soft-spoken and, colleagues say, a natural introvert. But he has overcome that tendency in order to fight for what's needed to help children learn. He does not abide excuses or failure.

"We're paid to educate, so there is an urgency about it," he said. "How can you tolerate it when a kid is not reading? How can you tolerate it?"

Life-changing course

Although his father was a college professor and his grandmother a teacher, Smith never saw himself in that role. A native of Madison, Wis., he majored in microbiology at Colorado State University and envisioned a career spent alone in a laboratory.

"Then I decided to take an elective that wouldn't be quite so demanding," he said, "so I took an education course."

Part of the requirement was to teach in a local elementary school, and Smith found that he loved it. He quickly changed majors and got a job at a junior high school in Orlando, Fla., after graduation.

For seven years, he taught math and science, and coached basketball and track. His ascension up the administrative ranks in Orlando and Daytona Beach was swift. At age 39, he was hired as the superintendent of the Danville, Va., school system.

After two years in a town where people knocked on his back door when they had a problem, he moved on to bigger places - Newport News, then Charlotte. During his tenure in the 109,000-student Charlotte system, the number of black fifth-graders reading at or above grade level has doubled, to 70 percent. The number of low-income students reading at grade level also doubled. And the number of students taking - and passing - advanced placement exams has almost tripled.

Meanwhile, he reduced the number of state-designated low-performing schools in Charlotte from 22 to 0. These results won him national recognition - he was one of four finalists for Superintendent of the Year this year and was named Urban Educator of the Year by the Council of Great City Schools in 2000.

But his unwavering focus on test scores and top-down management style have riled teachers who feel that they've lost control over their classrooms. Smith favored a uniform curriculum across all 148 schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, with little room for schools to do their own thing.

"The teachers have felt like pawns, like he's not listening to them, like things are being dictated to them," said Stan Frazier, principal of Charlotte's Merry Oaks Elementary and head of the county principals' association. "The pressure is on teachers to perform."

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