As a 20-something, Anthony "Tony" Smith had fulfilled one dream: playing professional football for the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers. Next up, he thought, was law school. But a former mentor who had worked with him and other student-athletes at his alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley, intervened. "She said, 'I don't know why you don't this see, Tony. You're a teacher,'" recalls Smith, who used to help his Cal teammates with schoolwork.
Smith never became a classroom teacher, but his background in sports - where he learned the power of teamwork and high expectations - comes in handy as he leads the Oakland Unified School District, a long-troubled system in one of California's most impoverished, violent cities.
Smith took the helm of Oakland Unified in July 2009 as its first permanent, locally appointed leader in six years. The district had been under state control due to serious financial problems. "I never thought I was going to be a superintendent," says Smith, 44. "It was never a career aspiration. However, it's just an incredible opportunity to live the goals and values I have."
Oakland Unified has been losing students to the streets for years. The district's graduation rate is 61 percent overall and is even worse for black males (45 percent), according to data from 2008-2009, the most recent year available. Roughly seven of 10 students in the district come from low-income families.
For Smith, the work to improve Oakland's schools—and the city itself—is personal. He has spent most of his life in the area, and as a kid, the odds were against him, the son of teenage parents who split around the time he learned to walk. He believes all students, regardless of their upbringing, can achieve because he did. But he doesn't believe the solution lies in classrooms alone. Smith has strived for the last two years to start turning Oakland Unified into afull-service community school district, where schools, city agencies, businesses and nonprofits partner to address the physical, mental and overall well-being of students and their families.
"There's just no reason why every child in Oakland shouldn't graduate from high school," Smith says. "It's an awesome responsibility."
Searching for Stability
Oakland Unified's financial woes began in fall 2002 when then-Superintendent Dennis Chaconas made the surprise announcement that the district was millions of dollars in the hole because of overspending and accounting errors. The district was on the brink of missing payroll.
The state doled out an emergency loan of $100 million and, in June 2003, forced out Chaconas and took the rare step of appointing its own administrator.
State appointees had complete control over Oakland Unified until April 2008, when California's superintendent of public instruction at the time, Jack O'Connell, decided the district had made significant progress. He returned personnel power to the locally elected school board, which decided to hire an interim chief for a year.
When the board launched its search for a permanent superintendent, Smith emerged as an ideal candidate. At the time, he was a deputy superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District and previously had led the nearby Emery Unified School District, a tiny system located on the coast between Berkeley and Oakland. Emery Unified, like Oakland Unified, was coming out of state takeover when Smith took the helm there.
"His strength was he knew the area very well. He was a former superintendent," says Oakland Unified's governing board president, Gary Yee. "He's also very dynamic and charismatic."
Smith, like most of the students he serves, didn't have a Leave It to Beaver childhood. He moved often, living with various family members and friends from when he was around 2 years old. He went to numerous schools, some better than others. At El Dorado High School in Placerville, Calif., Smith recalls, a coach gave him focus, and he landed a football scholarship to Berkeley, becoming the team captain his senior year. He graduated in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in English.
After a stint in the National Football League, followed by a job at a law firm, Smith returned to Berkeley and, as his college mentor had suggested, studied education. He earned his master's in 1993 and then got his doctorate in 2002.
Smith has spent the last 14 years working to help children, starting out at education focused nonprofit groups and then taking on his first superintendent's job—with no direct district experience—in 2004.
"This is really personal for me," Smith says. "I just know for a fact what a huge difference people make. What you expect, you get. There were lots of people who dismissed me and saw what I presented as, which was sometimes a disaffected and upset kid. But there were plenty of other people who saw what I could be and supported me. There are so many young people that are craving that sense of connectedness."
Smith's work with schools began when he served as director of the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools from 1997 to 2001. The nonprofit, an outgrowth of Ted Sizer's reform group the Coalition of Essential Schools, provided technical assistance to districts to promote equity in education.
Smith then took a similar job with the Emeryville Citywide Initiative, working with the city and other partners to improve the Emery Unified School District.
As the state was preparing to relinquish control of Emery Unified in 2004, Smith was helping develop a profile for the district's next superintendent. "I was facilitating the process, and a community member said, 'If you believed in us, you would be our superintendent,'" Smith recalls. "I said all the reasons why that was not such a good idea. They really didn't buy that. I said, 'Well, I'll go home and talk to my wife.' And after a lot of soul searching, I put my hat in the ring.'" Smith landed the job in July 2004 and served three years.
In Emeryville, Smith honed his belief that student achievement couldn't be improved by focusing only on effective teaching. He formed a partnership with Merritt College so the university students studying nursing and social work could provide services to the district's children.
"If you only locate the fix in one place," Smith said, referring to a schools-only reform model, "then you're probably not going to accomplish much over the long haul that's sustainable."
In nearby San Francisco, Superintendent Carlos Garcia was searching for a second-in-command. He had heard about Smith's comprehensive reform efforts and his passion for giving all students equal opportunities. Smith, happy in Emeryville, initially turned down the job off er, but the two finally came up with a title Smith could accept: deputy superintendent for instruction, innovation and social justice.
In October 2007, Smith started the new position and was the architect of San Francisco Unified's strategic plan, coining the phrase "the predictive power of demographics," Garcia recalls. Garcia explains that he and Smith agreed that closing the achievement gap hinged on overcoming institutional racism and classism that continued to plague poor, black and Latino students. "He's a gentle giant," Garcia says of his 6-foot 3-inch friend, adding that Smith, was able to win over minority families. "He's got a very friendly personality. They really respect him because you can see from Tony that he's being real. That's part of his soul. That's his spirit."
A Strike and Achievement Struggles
Smith became superintendent of Oakland Unified in July 2009 during a time of transition. While the state had handed most powers back to the local school board, the teachers' union and the district were at an impasse in contract negotiations, particularly over salaries.
Within nine months of Smith's hiring, the school board imposed a contract on the union, with no raises, and teachers held a one-day strike. Despite the initial tension with Smith, the president of the Oakland Education Association, Betty Olson-Jones, praises his focus on students' overall wellbeing, not simply their test scores.
"On the positive side, he's come with a really strong vision that goes way beyond a lot of the garbage we've been hearing for years under state administration, which was focused on standardized testing and socalled school reform," she says. "He's taken a strong stand around the importance of social, emotional and physical health. In terms of vision, he is a breath of fresh air. The jury is still out on whether that will be something that comes to fruition."
Smith has spent his first two years focused on developing a five-year strategic plan, which the school board approved in June. The plan articulates their commitment to building a full-service community school district. As their newly adopted "vision" states, "The emphasis is on educating and caring for the whole child. Social and human services are not seen as extra or add-ons in these schools." No price tag is attached, but Smith says the district will prioritize its spending and partnerships according to the plan's goals.
To that end, Smith says, Oakland Unified will have primary-care health clinics in 15 middle and high schools by December, with the funding coming mostly from pri- Smith Tackles Oakland Unified vate grants, federal Medicaid reimbursement and the county. The district also is working with the local probation department to ensure that students who exit juvenile hall have a smooth transition back into the school system, Smith says, noting that about 300 students a year have to go through the process.
In addition, the district has partnered with the city's housing authority to coordinate efforts to help the 6,000 or so students living in public housing, many of whom are struggling academically. The agency has hired a director of education, and the two entities will coordinate services such as tutoring and mentoring and, most important, will make sure the students don't skip class.
To understand the environment where his students live, Smith points to a jawdropping statistic: Last year, 13 students were murdered while not at school, he says. In his first year, 16 were killed.
"That's agony," Smith says. "And that's not even talking about the kids who were shot and who didn't die. Kids are safest when they're in school."
Academically, Oakland is California's most improved urban district over the last six years based on the state's performance index, according to the district. Oakland Unified's Academic Performance Index, California's metric for evaluating student achievement, grew 26 points based on data from the 2009-2010 school year, two times the average statewide growth.
But the gap in performance among Oakland's racial and ethnic groups is wide. White and Asian students score in the 900 range (out of a total of 1,000) on the state's academic index, while black students score in the mid-600s and Latinos score closer to 700. The state's goal is for schools to hit the 800 level.
"That's an unconscionable gap that's just predicted by race. This isn't causal," Smith said in an interview with the Oakland North Web site shortly after he was hired. "Having worked with many African- American children who are completely gifted, wonderful and high-performing, I know the gap is not racially predicted-and yet performance in the aggregate is. For me, that says that we have significant structural issues." One of Smith's first moves was to create a high-level administrative position focused on the students struggling most— African-American males.
Committed to a Cause
Smith was able to pass a balanced $473 million operating budget in June. But over the last two years, thanks largely to the state of California's financial crisis, the district has had to cut roughly $140 million from its budget, and more than 500 employees have lost their jobs. And the financial problems will sting for years to come, with Oakland Unified still owing $74 million on its state bailout loan.
In June, the Oakland school board, trying to regain the public's trust since the state takeover, extended Smith's contract through 2015. "Everything we do is trying to communicate to the community that we are stable," said Gary Yee, the board's president.
Smith says he and his family—his wife and their two children, ages 6 and 8—are devoted to the school district for the long haul. His wife, Kathleen Osta, is a community activist and social worker, though she recently resigned her role with the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, where Smith used to work. Oakland Unified's legal counsel ruled that Osta's role with the coalition, which does work with the school district, could be perceived as a conflict of interest.
Smith says some observers are surprised by his long-term outlook for improving the district, noting that he's trying to end quick-fix "microwave reform." "I'm an Oakland resident," Smith explains. "My daughter's in school here. It just really, really matters to me."