Urban Principal Holds the Line

Edith Smith prods students, teachers, and parents to excel at Washington elementary school

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.''

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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.''

IF a child isn't doing well on tests, it may be more a function of the teacher's style or a child's style of learning, Smith says.

``What interests the child? What turns him on? If tests gave that kind of gauge, if they measured how it is that learning would most likely occur in a child, you'd be measuring for success and not for failure.''

Smith doesn't look to test scores or to adherence to teaching theory as a gauge of a teacher's success.

``I value knowledge and comprehension, but analysis and synthesis and evaluation are the higher-level thinking skills. ... I want to know what the students can do as a result of what they have been taught.'' That means students present projects to show what they can do as a result of the teacher's work.

Smith says that her own professional successes have been rooted in the fact that she was an ``activist parent'' before she started working in the D.C. school system in 1966.

She knows firsthand the difficulties today's working and single-parent families experience in trying to keep a hand in their children's education.

Because black women were not admitted to universities in Maryland, where she lived with her physician husband and young daughters in 1949, Smith had to leave them for a year in order to get her teaching degree at Columbia University Teachers College in New York City. During her 21-year marriage to a Baltimore doctor, she was the first black woman in that city to become a stockbroker's representative, selling mutual funds to the black community. After her divorce, she returned to Washington and faced the problems of single-parent families. She sent all three daughters to college. One was the first black woman to earn a PhD in science at the University of North Carolina.

She places the burden of a child's success squarely on parents' shoulders.

``You don't have to have a formal education to recognize what children need, or to subsidize it,'' she asserts. Though her own parents were not educated beyond the sixth grade, they squeezed a decent lifestyle from their lunch-counter business, and she says, ``I cannot say I was a poor child either in money or in quality of lifestyle because of where my parents values were.''

``Modeling is important. And I don't mean saying what is important, but the modeling of what is important,'' she says. ``Children are being held to task for a set of priorities based on what they see [their parents do] ... and that's the bottom line as to why there is a diminishing of the quality of education in America.''

Smith targets television as one of the prime problems in parents' relationships with their children, although she acknowledges her own weakness for the game show ``Jeopardy.''

``You would be surprised at the many little ones who come in who are just not ready to function as a learner. The reason a five-year-old is not ready for school is television. ... It dumbs down a person, it stupefies. We are getting a television child rather than a child who has been involved in outdoor playing and socializing.

``Many children we're getting are different and to the degree that television is more and more the baby sitter, the child is different when he comes to school.

``The pre-television child came with more knowledge of self. He was tuned into himself more than what was happening on television. ... Discussions with his parents made him aware of his value.''

She asks how often anyone sees a child playing on the street anymore and follows with the assertion that if youngsters aren't watching television they're more than likely with their parents, shopping at a mall.

Among her suggestions for making children better students is for parents to read to them - or at least read near them as a model - and go back to the pre-television family togetherness, where a parent and child talk while they prepare the dinner ``stringing the beans, popping them, and throwing them in the pot.''

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