Full interview with new school superintendent

By Jeremy Morrison

Tim Smith, Inweekly Interview, September 2020

IN: First off, I guess, congratulations.

SMITH: Well, thank you. Very excited about the position. And very excited — my wife and I are both just thrilled and super excited to be coming to Pensacola and Escambia County.

IN: What attracted you to Escambia County? Why did you apply for this position?

SMITH: Well, I think one of the things that appealed was the size of the district and the diversity of the district. And, you know, the leadership that I’m looking to bring and feel called to do is to lead a district just like Escambia County, based on the characteristics and the qualities of the district. And Pensacola, the area, just with the water, it’s a really nice area. It’s an area that my wife and I have been in a couple of times. Her brother was in the Navy for many years and was stationed at NAS Pensacola a couple of different times. So, we had some familiarity with the area and see it as a great, great place in an array of different ways.

IN: What are the qualities of the district you speak of, beyond the size?

SMITH: Well, I think — there are many strong points — and what is very important in Escambia, I think, is good leadership. You’ve had a superintend in Mr. Thomas who’s been absolutely outstanding, was superintendent of the year a couple of years ago, a person who deeply cares about the children of Escambia County, he cares about our children and our community, and that’s really important.

The board is talented and dedicated and deep-rooted in the community, so I think there’s been a lot of good work that’s taken place by people who have a great heart for kids. And the district, from it’s operations side, which is very well managed, there’s just a very strong, structural foundation to this district. And where I see the district going is to the next level, is building upon these successes and seeing these great opportunities for increasing proficiency and learning levels for our students and positioning them for future opportunities.

All of that really adds to a district that has this strong structural base, this very strong foundation, and it gives the opportunity to all of us in Escambia County to take the district to higher and higher levels.

IN: During this superintendent search, and beyond that, it comes up in discussion in regards to the district how diverse it is and you have some students that have everything and are never going to want and then you have other students that start off from a disadvantaged point. How do bring some measure of equalization or equality to that scenario?

SMITH: Well, that’s a question of tremendous interest to me. There, in my mind, are two key terms here and one is the term equality and the other is equity. And the differentiation between the two, in my perspective, is — actually, I can’t say my perspective, some researchers have certainly contributed to that perspective and I’ve gained ideas from research about this— but equality I see as providing the same opportunities for all children. Equity is more, in my perspective, an end goal of equality, where all of our children have the opportunity to reach the end goal: high school graduation, opportunities, college and career. But how we get there is where equity begs our attention and I speak to that as we have to do different things for students in different situations.

So, some students, perhaps we have a struggling student, they need more resources, they need more support, when compared to a student who maybe is performing at a really high level and they’re just moving very fluidly and successfully through courses.
So, different students need different resources and different supports, and that’s where this notion of equity really comes into place.

So, when we look at a large district that’s educating the number of students, how are we doing that? That’s a good question to constantly ask ourselves. Are we providing opportunities that are individualized for our students for us to all reach those same goals of graduating and having great opportunities for the future in the college and career sectors. So, that then really speaks to what are we doing to intervene with students who are struggling? What are we doing to provide resources and support for those students who are struggling, who have great needs?

And with Escambia County, the free reduced lunch rate is — if I recall, I believe it’s 74.6 percent was the last one I recall seeing — and that’s a significant number of students who are in situations where there aren’t as much resources as, of course, some of our other students who are not in the free or reduced lunch sector, or category or grouping. So, that really is a big area of focus that we as a school district will look at. And I’m sure that has been looked at in the past and that there’ve been many steps. So, the question is what steps need to be taken in the future to maximize equity.

IN: Right. And what steps do need to be taken in the future?

SMITH: Well, I think one that’s really important is early childhood education. So, I was able to, when I was in Pensacola a couple of weeks ago, part of the process, we visited four schools. One of the schools was Weiss Elementary School. And I was absolutely thrilled to go into a classroom of 3-year-olds that the school had created these classrooms and had teachers for. You don’t see that very often. And I was very excited about that because I think that is a key.

And what happens very often is in kindergarten we have gaps already, we have gaps of readiness. And if we can get ahead of that and provide our youngest of students, our youngest children, opportunities where they have enrichment opportunities, where they learn to work with puzzles and crayons and books are read to them and they’re able to be exposed to different concepts, different visuals of different places, of mountains and oceans and deserts, just exposure to great, great knowledge, that helps them to not come into kindergarten behind already. So, I believe early childhood is really a critical component to the equation here.

IN: And at what age does the district start engaging children?

SMITH: Well, so, that’s a really important conversation to have. And I think that takes a whole community to look at that, because as soon as we start talking about that, there’s an essential question asked: how do we afford that? Right? I mean, where do the dollars come for that? So, that’s a question that we need to wrestle with. Quite frankly, we need to wrestle with it on a national level, on a state level, on a local level, because we have achievement gaps in Florida, but we have achievement gaps nationally, too.

You know, the research is quite clear that it’s very hard to close achievement gaps in our various subgroups when children are in elementary, it’s much harder in middle school and it’s extremely difficult at the high school level. So what that then leads us to is we have to address this issue early and we need to be very aggressive about it. So, you know, when you step back and think about it, a hundred years ago or so whenever we first started designing the system, why didn’t we take 11th and 12th grade to be a natural two grade levels? Why didn’t we take 4-year-olds and 3-year-olds?

It’s really positioning your resources. Now, I’m not saying we do away with 11th 12th grades, I’m not saying that. I’m just saying, hypothetically, why did we pick that and was that the right selection. Maybe we missed two additional grade levels that we should have had. Maybe we should have added something for 4-year-olds and 3-year-olds along with, you know, 11th and 12th grades. The point being is our kids are coming in at different levels and we have to address that and it’s going to, when you look at that on a national level, state level and a local level, it’s gonna take some real innovation to do that. It’s gonna take a really united group of people who want that to happen.

And it has to take some innovative and creative thinking. You know, we start with small steps and we saw it at Weiss Elementary, we saw 3-year-olds, so there’s a starting spot right there and, you know, you start, there’s possibilities to run pilot programs and to do some innovative ideas to see really what the payoff is, what the return of investment for those dollars that would be allocated, to see, really, how would this impact our young people? And I have a pretty strong feeling that it would be a significant impact. I think that’s one piece.

So, the other piece is instructional excellence. When we do receive our students at age five into the kindergarten and first grade years, we need to have absolutely stellar instruction, we need to have strong parent involvement. Those are other things that we need to continually look at, continue to grow them and make them as robust as possible. And that involves then professional development for our teachers. We’ve got hardworking teachers and we want them to have all the resources, but all the training too, so they’re on the cutting edge and they know the most recent research and they know the strategies that are most effective. Teaching is a very, very complex profession and so we need to equip our teachers as best we can. And that’s a continual process. I myself, the training I received in Orange County Public Schools as an executive area director, we had a really strong training program for our executives in the district last year, and I gained tremendous insight and knowledge from that training. So, it’s at all levels, training needs to be a continual emphasis.

So, those are some of the things. Early childhood, strong instruction, engagement of students where they’re thinking and being creative and exploring at those young levels, parent engagement. And in some cases we need to have wrap around services, that was one of the things that Weiss Elementary had, they had a really strong community school concept where they are providing some much needed resources for their students and families.

IN: And what about for higher performing students? What can the district do better to serve those students, beyond, you know, honors classes or dual enrollment, that kind of stuff?

SMITH: Well, I think one of the really critical points of emphasis for really all of our students, this helps all levels, is the notion of rigor, where our instruction is rigorous. You look at how our students learn — one of the critical phases of how our students learn is engaging kids, so point one is engagement with our students. But, we engage them in a higher level of thinking. And so we look at having lessons where students have to get into the levels of application and analysis and synthesis and evaluation, because when they are engaged in that type of higher-level thinking they’re processing the knowledge that has been presented to them, they’re manipulating the concepts, they’re developing their skills. And that then enables them to have a deeper level of learning. Helps them with recall. And it helps them then be able to build upon those now solidified concepts and those growing skills.

So, the notion of rigor really comes down to two variables. It’s student engagement, and student engagement in higher levels of thinking. So, rigor, embedding rigor in our lessons, must be a priority, that’s key.

The other piece is making sure our curriculum is standards based. So, let’s take an honors class or an AP class or an International Baccalaureate class, are our lessons hitting the standards? Are we actually teaching in the classrooms? At the end of that lesson have our students learned the standards of the course? The standards on an AP course are going to be at a challenging level. Standards on an IB course, they’re going to be challenging. Standards at an honors level, and so forth. So we want to make sure that we’re hitting the standards appropriately in our lesson design, but then we also have to monitor that learning, we have to know if our students are learning in the lesson. And then if they’re not learning, what interventions are we going to take to bring around those misconceptions and make them now into accurate conceptions where the students are learning and we’ve made the learning clear and comprehensible and that the students walk out of that classroom, out of that lesson with the correct conceptualization.

So, earlier I said teaching was a complex job and that really speaks to it, all those dynamics that a teacher is juggling and doing. But, those important — if we’re planning great lessons and delivering great lessons and we’re seeing the learning take place, then great things are going to happen for our kids, they’re going to learn the standards of those classrooms and then they’re going to be able to stretch further, too. With success we can stretch further, our concepts get stronger, our skills get stronger and then we can just — things can really soar.

IN: How important do you think the district focusing on trade schools and tech schools and something that directs a student straight towards a career, how important is that?

SMITH: Well, I think it’s important that we position our students to where they have choices. And when they’re successful in their coursework and they are learning various subjects, I think that prepares them for college and career opportunities. And for me that’s ideal, where a student leaves high school, if they want to start taking college courses, if they want to start learning a more in depth trade, that they have the ability to do either, or in some cases do both. But, exposure is really an important aspect.

So, in the middle schools, in our middle schools in Escambia, there’s a very vibrant set of courses in the academies where students are being exposed to different elective courses and academy courses where they’re learning just an array of different course works and topics.

And some of those, like when we get into veterinary science, or we get into healthcare courses, or we get into engineering courses at the high school level — could be be middle, could be high school, could be at the George Stone technical center — we’re looking at those courses. There are applied courses where students are walking into a classroom and they’re learning a course where they can directly apply that to a career or a field of study.

Those are powerful experiences when they’re done very well and students are successful and they’re earning industry certifications that say ‘hey, you can go get a job with this industry certification.’ I think that’s really empowering to a young person. And what’s even more is when a student has done well in their coursework, they’ve learned some career technical ed courses, it just gives them all kind of choice. And that is a winning scenario and that is what we hope for every one of our students, is that when they do graduate they just have choices, they have opportunities to follow where they feel called to be and to contribute to society. So, I think those career, and technical ed courses and academies are huge. I think they’re vastly, vastly important for our students to get a great, great educational experience.

IN: In the past, Escambia has faced some criticism for charges of discriminatory discipline actions, where particularly minority students would find themselves not just in trouble at school but all the sudden it would cross over into you’re in trouble with an actual law enforcement officer who was either called to the school or stationed at the school and this leading to the student being introduced into what they call, I’m sure you’re familiar with the term, the school-to-prison-pipeline — what are your thoughts on this topic and how could the district avoid any kind of issues with that?

SMITH: Well, it’s a challenging issue and it’s one that when we see a student enter into difficult waters and they’re becoming engaged with law enforcement because of choices and behavior and just whatever the difficulties or circumstances that they’re facing with the judicial system, we don’t want that for our students. We want to provide them opportunities for them not to get engaged with those types of behavior, because, you know, what we don’t want is for them even getting close to that, to where there’s a need for them to be apprehended or incarcerated. That’s just a really, really sad situation when it happens, but it does happen and we have to have a safe community and we have to have our residents safe, so those are necessary systems in our communities. The key is, when I say we don’t want that to happen, we don’t want kids to even be getting close to those types of scenarios and situations. You know, to get there I think one of the keys is really continue doing our very best to have students experiencing success. When you look at the research you can look at some statistics that are strong correlations, and students who struggle in school and have a negative experience in school are, as adults, getting into these at-risk indicators, these at-risk metrics, there is a correlation there. And where our school system can be of health is everyday that that the student is coming to school is building them up and helping them to learn and be successful. We have that effort everyday in Escambia schools. That’s happening.

I’ll go back to Weis Elementary School. What they’re doing there, the services they’re providing children and families is incredible, it’s impressive, it’s heartwarming to see how much they care about their kids. And they’re symbolic or the district. So, you know, when you have people that care so much, then that becomes a matter of how can we best support kids and families and have kids build their confidence and feel successful and build their self esteem. And that goes back to, in some cases, if we can provide wrap-around services, if we have students who are coming to school, who are coming from very difficult situations and they might be coming from just extreme poverty and they need support and they need help, as much as we can take that student and support that student and provide as much support for their needs as we can, that’s really, really helpful.

The concept of community-service schools is big and, in fact, one of the early ones was in my district that I currently work for and have for years, Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, we have a high school that I’ve worked with that has a community-service school and that has been a big initiative at the University of Central Florida and spreading throughout the state and I was really happy to hear that at Weiss that they’ve embraced that concept. Because it’s a heavy lift to really provide all that’s needed. But I think that is key, when we have a student that is happy and that is feeling successful and has confidence, the likelihood of them getting involved in that whole law enforcement side diminishes greatly. So, I think that’s where we as a school system can continue to work and pull creative ideas together, but have an intense focus that continues to drive the good work that’s been done, to take that to new and high levels to try to help our kids as much as we can.

IN: The governor set a goal for teacher salaries and teachers here are still well below that. Can I get your thoughts on this?

SMITH: Well, when we talk about our school and we talk about great instruction, the people who make that happen are teachers. And I’m continually inspired when I see teachers that give so much to their students and they’re so dedicated. So, it’s great to be able to provide teachers more pay. That’s an exciting notion and one we want to do. I’m sure that’s a concept that resonates with the community. What becomes complicated is, we have to have the dollars to do that. So, what we want to do is, where we can, we want to try to increase that pay. Where we can and where we can afford to do that. I believe Escambia County has been fairly consistent with trying to provide an increase each year and that’s certainly an important thing to do.

You know, teaching is a career where we’ve had a shortage of teachers. And when we look at some of the universities, big state universities, they don’t have as many students in our elementary ed programs and our secondary subject programs for education. So, that’s a very, very concerning situation that has emerged in the past couple of years. We have to turn that around and one way to do that is to increase salaries for sure. Another way to do that, where teachers, I think, where they’re working so hard and they’re dedicated, I think the support of teachers is key because we want our teachers fulfilled. When they work so hard they need to have a sense of reward. And sometimes in education that doesn’t come right away, sometimes that’s due to who says ‘you know, you made a huge difference in my life.’

Sometimes working with young people, with kids, they’ll realize that a couple of years down the road and then come back and say something to a teacher. That means the world to a teacher. But sometimes in teaching you see the fruits of your labor down the road, so where we can celebrate teachers, where we can support teachers, where we can help them embrace the continual growth that they want to embrace, you know, those are important factors too, but we certainly want to pay teachers as competitive salary as we can give. And to attract people to go into teaching we want to do that. And I think that’s what the state level pay increase, really the genesis of that was to do that, to attract teachers to the profession. But we want them to have a decent living wage as well, that’s important and we want to pay them a good salary.

So, those are all important goals and it’s something that we want to do. And I think, I was excited when the governor signed that this past summer. And in the midst of COVID, that was impressive that initiative was carried forward. And so the goal is to embrace that and to do the very best that we can. We have to work with the finances to do what we can to make that happen and then continue to have good salaries for our teachers.

IN: You’re entering this job at kind of a strange period with the coronavirus. I just wanted to get your thoughts on the act of educating students in this environment.

SMITH: Well, I can’t tell you the degree of relevance of that question. This very day, in fact, that discussion has been had. We are constantly having discussions and thinking about that. We recently, in Orange, we had a couple of classes, video tapes of exemplar teachers, who seem to have really embraced the platform of teaching students who are in the classroom and teaching kids online at the same time. That is an extremely challenging thing to do. However, we need to take those steps to ensure that people are safe, that people are comfortable in whatever of the frameworks they have chosen.

So, the issue really becomes back into some of the concepts I was speaking about earlier, such as monitoring. How do we know if our students — if we have 10 students in the classroom and, you know, 12 students online — how do we know what all of our students are learning. How are they are doing with this particular concept, this lesson? Our norm, is to do that in the classroom and we have strategies and ways to do that. It just becomes more challenging when you have students in class and students online. Being able to read a student’s paper when they’re writing a paragraph, that becomes really hard with this dual platform.

So, it comes down to really, I think, acknowledging to teachers, first of all, this is an extremely challenging assignment, so we just all need to be on the same page there, that we know this is hard. And we know it can be sometimes frustrating, because a teacher is use to doing certain things and employing different strategies and now there will have to be some changes there. And then it’s beginning that step one, how does this all work? That’s where a really important piece comes into play, though, and it’s where the collaboration amongst teachers — when we put people who are dedicated and who have just great minds and ideas together and they start sharing and say, ‘you have to come look what I have set up in my classroom. I’ve got these two monitors going off these two laptops and it’s working for me, I’m able to increase the engagement.’

One of the videos I referred to earlier in this conversation was an exemplar of a teacher who just had really enriched dialogue going on and it was about a story. It was in an English II classroom. So, we were very excited to see that, because we could take that and share that and say, ‘here are some ways to do this.’ Because there’s so much new with the instructional approach. But I have to hand it to the teachers. Once again, very inspiring, because they are digging in and they are doing what they can to help their kids the best they can.

You know, it’s plugging ahead. Keep sharing those ideas. And keeping our spirits up too is an important thing that we know. This is out of the box and it’s hard and it’s really hard, so let’s be united, let’s work together, let’s do the very best we can for our students, knowing that there are some really unusual circumstances.

IN: That’s about all I had, man. You go anything else you want to throw in here?

SMITH: Well, I thank you — Jeremy, I really appreciate you reaching out, because I’m happy to really share some of the excitement that I have and some of the vision that I have for Escambia County School District. And one of the things that I have really been excited about with the district is people care, people really care about the school system. The people I’ve met who work in the district, they care. When I was at the four schools, it was just great to see people are just really, really committed to their work and to all of our kids learning and growing and being successful.

In my vision for where we are going, it’s being as unified as we possibly can. And being unified with our really talented and dedicated board members and with the entire district, you know, being united and being together. Being united with our community, where residents feel a part of the school district, where they feel the district is a vibrant, exciting organization for our kids to learn. So, working with this board for our kids to learn, that is at the core of the vision. Unity is at the core of the vision. And having an environment where our diversity is celebrated and our diversity is a strong part of our character and where what we spoke about earlier, equity, is occurring and becoming, just building upon the successes of the past and becoming one of the most elite districts and being innovative and on the cutting edge, raising proficiency.

And really it all comes down to doing our work to reach every single child. Every single child that is in our school district is precious, is important, is just vital. And so we want to do our best for every student, every child to learn, to grow, reach their potential and have great, great choice and opportunity when they finish the 11th and 12th grade. And so I’m excited, I’m just so excited about this district and about the future of this district and I can’t begin to tell you, Jeremy, how honored I am to be coming into this position. And how excited I am about Escambia County.

And I will add, too, there’s somebody else that’s super excited and that’s my wife, Kim. And so we’re just elated and really, really honored about this position. So, I really thank you for reaching out, because I really am excited about sharing all these thoughts and ideas and these future goals and the vision. So, thank you so much for the opportunity. I really appreciate it.

IN: Oh, no problem. Thanks for taking the time with us. And welcome to town and good luck.