Transporting 14,000 students each day via the yellow school bus literally requires a lot of moving parts, as Jeffery O. Smith knows well.
He has been superintendent of Hampton City Schools, the 14th largest district in the Commonwealth of Virginia, for just under five years. He previously served as the superintendent of the Town of West Point Public Schools, located at the fork of the York River.
Under his leadership as superintendent with Hampton, the district achieved accreditation for the first time at all 29 school sites, and the on-time graduation rate increased nearly five points to almost 93 percent.
Meanwhile, the district operates 150 to 160 buses daily, transporting about 70 percent of the total student population students across some 15,000 miles each day.
“The toughest challenge about being a superintendent of schools is that there are many moving parts and organizational components,” and as the chief executive officer, says Dr. Smith, “It is important to ensure each aspect is working toward the overall mission of the school division. It is equally important to have a system approach directly aligned to the core business of teaching and learning with expected student achievement.”
For his efforts in leading the improvements, Smith was recognized last May as Virginia’s Superintendent of the Year. He next heads to San Diego and the National Conference on Education. There he will face-off with three other finalists for the coveted National Superintendent of the Year award, which is co-sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators, First Student and AIG Retirement Services.
Leadership, Support for Students and Teachers
If he had his way and the budget to go with it, Dr. Smith said he would expedite several key initiatives for his district: competitive compensation, early literacy, and the Academies of Hampton as pathways to graduation, followed by a smooth transition to a post-secondary college or career field.
Under Dr. Smith’s leadership, a transportation system was carefully mapped out to accommodate those who would be traveling to an academy location, sometimes far from their normal school zone. Students attending the academies will take their assigned “zone” bus to their assigned school, at which time they would transfer to a shuttle bus to their academy.
At the end of the day, they are shuttled back to their assigned school and enter the study hall, until their zone bus arrives to transport them back home. It’s part of the support network that was established to enable the full operation of the Academies.
Providing such support for students is akin to his overall dedication to educators.
“The national teacher shortage is a reality,” observed Dr. Smith. “Yet we know teachers and support staff, including school bus drivers, who are competent, caring and committed to the mission of the profession, are the most important aspect of education. There is no substitute for exceptional teachers in the profession. They, along with other staff members, make a difference. As the economy is currently thriving, pre-K-12 public education compensation continues to lag behind, which makes it even more difficult to attract, develop and retain exceptional staff.”
Civic Engagement and Transparency
Dr. Smith places a high value on civic engagement. Strong schools emerge from strong community partnerships. The superintendent is a board member of many community organizations, such as Sentara Healthcare, Smart Beginnings of the Virginia Peninsula, Virginia Air and Space Center, VersAbility Resources, as well as the past-president of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS) from May 2018 to May 2019, superintendent-in-charge for New Horizons Regional Education Centers from July 2017 to June 2019, and a 2017-2018 graduate of the Civic Leadership Institute.
Shortly after his arrival at his current post, Dr. Smith engaged in a “look, listen and learn” tour of his district to hear from all of his stakeholders—internal and external. Those included staff, teachers, students, business community members and others.
“It’s important to hear from the community,” he noted in a local community broadcast interview. He used the school district’s strategic plan, as well as four guiding questions, to frame the discussions on his listening tour: what would the stakeholders like to achieve in three years, what are some challenges to get there, how would each stakeholder could participate in that journey, and what existing assets they have to achieve such goals.
As an education leader, he highlights the importance of transparency. Dr. Smith begins and ends his day with an open-door policy. “I look forward to opportunities of thoughtful exchange of ideas and dialogue,” said Smith. “I want the community and all our staff to know that I have an open-door policy, and I look forward to such.”
His leadership style melds well with students, the classroom, staff, and all of the necessary infrastructure to build a learning environment that fosters success. All combined, he said a better learning environment, and fairly compensated teachers and support staff, create a positive culture and school experience. They become baseline ingredients that nurture talent and boost student success.
He said that in order to prepare students for the high-demand and high-wage jobs of the future, it is necessary to transform teaching and learning, student experiences, and civic and business engagement. Transporting them each day to a place where a positive educational culture thrives is the beginning of their daily journey and integral to their educational journey.
This includes the role that is played by the school bus in transporting them to class, as well as continuing the educational experience.
“We must also transform classroom spaces to ensure young people have the authentic experiences that will prepare them to be college, career and life-ready,” he concluded.