Urban Principal Holds the Line
Edith Smith prods students, teachers, and parents to excel at Washington elementary school
AT a time when urban schools have the reputation of war zones, Shepherd Park Elementary School is an educational demilitarized zone. Much of the credit for that goes to principal Edith Smith, who has the no-nonsense air of a woman who wouldn't stand for it any other way. In the northernmost corner of the District of Columbia, where urban blight begins to give way to the clipped lawns of the black middle class, Mrs. Smith is known for prodding and inspiring the best from students as well as from teachers and parents.Skip to next paragraph
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The school's distinctions under her guidance, say school-system officials and parents, include: Improving test scores where district-wide scores are dropping; faculty nationally recognized for their innovative teaching, including one of the first winners of the United States Department of Education's prestigious Christa McAuliffe fellowships; unusually strong parent support; and no known incidents of drug abuse among students whose school is close to the Georgia Avenue strip where drug pushers have begun to pioneer a middle-class market.
``This is one of the few schools here that do not adhere to the stereotype of the inner-city school,'' says Priscilla Gay, who was Shepherd's Parent Teacher Association president for the past two years and has had children in D.C. schools for 11 years. ``That can only come from leadership like Smith's.''
Smith's role at Shepherd began with a three-month appointment as substitute principal, but grew to a 13-year assignment.
Mrs. Gay attributes much of the school's success to Smith's persistence in trying to involve the community and points out that the principal was a key player in getting the city to build a new branch library in the spot where a Burger King was planned.
As able to respond with hugs to the tug of a tiny hand on her billowy skirt as she is to react sharply to what needs correcting in the classroom or the community, Smith is like a ``grandmother to the kids and a coach to the teachers,'' observes Marion Thomas, president of a Washington-based engineering company and the father of a former Shepherd student.
Impressed with Smith's efforts at creating educational activity beyond the basics, Mr. Thomas says he decided to award annual college scholarship funds to graduating sixth graders who excel in math and science. And this year, he rewarded Smith's efforts with free round-trip air fare to any place she chooses.
Preparing to leave Shepherd's hallways of musty Crayola smell and thunderous little feet for retirement this month, Smith distilled some of her perspectives from 24 years on the educational front lines.
Much of the diverse curricula - from Arabic language classes to Socratic seminars - that Smith has promoted at Shepherd seems to stem from her own cultured and dignified manner.
A Washington native who revered teachers, skated to the library for all the books she could carry home, started early with her 25-cent piano lessons, and attended every musical event she could, Smith's expectations come from an older, richer school of educational thought.
At times wheeling her desk chair forward to get that riveting nose-to-nose stare schoolteachers perfect, Smith drove home the lessons she's learned:
Don't flunk students.
Test for success, not failure.
Make sure students know how to use what they learn.
Beware of television.
Parents should be aware that they are models - good or bad - for their children.
Grading should only be a measure of a child's learning, not a scarlet letter, Smith says.
``Once you tell a child he has failed and you take an action based on that, the child believes he's a failure ... not just on tests but in grade [levels],'' she says, noting that she prefers non-graded groupings for young children until they develop age-appropriate skills.
``Failure makes you feel badly about yourself, it makes you doubt and it influences the way you feel about school. Anything that makes a child turn off to school is a losing situation,'' she says, asking why students would opt to go to school if they didn't feel comfortable there. ``I don't see children dropping out who are happy in school.''