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The Surprising Mr. Smith: What Really Drove Him to Try to Transform Oakland Schools?

April 26, 2015
by Vicki Haddock
Tony Smith at a microphone

Update: On May 1, 2015, Tony Smith will become Illinois’ state superintendent of schools, due chiefly to the support of a Republican governor who insists the school system needs a “transformational” leader. The hire is controversial, but that, of course, is nothing new for Smith.

Tony Smith sports the physique of Buzz Lightyear yet speaks the vernacular of a psychotherapist. Throughout life, his exterior has simultaneously reflected and contradicted his interior self—the result being that people tend to typecast him, and then get taken by surprise.

“There’s what we seem to be at face value, and then there’s the complexity beneath that surface,” said the man who just ended a four-year stint as superintendent of Oakland Unified School District, perhaps the toughest school system in California. “That’s true of most of us. I don’t think I’m the exception.”

Oakland’s parents and teachers—whether they cheered or jeered their superintendent—saw a man brimming with credentials and confidence. When Smith, who holds a doctorate in education from UC Berkeley, pushed to create full-service community schools capable of meeting the vast needs of disadvantaged children, people presumed that “need” was an abstract concept for a man as privileged as he seemed. It was not. He was, in fact, born to 17-year-old parents in Stockton and then passed around like a hand-me-down—transferring among ten schools, boarding with assorted relatives and friends, and even living on his own in fifth grade, using food stamps and walking himself to school.

If appearances are deceiving now, that’s the way it’s always been for Tony Smith. In sixth grade he stood over six feet tall. By eighth grade he had a full beard, a boy trapped in a man’s body. He matured into an apparent jock, becoming a high school football star in Placerville, a Cal Bears football team captain, and an NFL lineman, all while inwardly obsessed with literature. As a lonely child, he had discovered how deeply Emily Dickinson’s 19th-century poetry about longing resonated within him, and he began a one-way correspondence with her that lasted for years and inspired his undergraduate thesis for Berkeley professor and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass.

So when Oakland’s school district hired Smith as superintendent in 2009, the white academic didn’t look like what central casting would have ordered for a district where minority students were the majority. And some people equated the position with masochism—the historically mismanaged district was just emerging from state receivership, its academics so anemic that two out of every five students failed to graduate, and its political divides as treacherous as earthquake fault lines. But again, there was more to Smith than met the eye, and he tackled the job with gusto.

During his tenure in Oakland, Smith drew accolades for much of what he accomplished. The area became California’s most improved urban school district, by statewide metrics. While tough choices earned him some enemies and disillusioned some supporters, local newspapers praised him for leading with professionalism and grace. Even The New York Times was impressed. National education experts began paying attention to Tony Smith, suggesting he someday could be as influential as Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

And then in April, Smith abruptly resigned. Of all the surprising things about him, perhaps nothing was more shocking than news that the superintendent, who had vowed to stay and raise his family in Oakland, had quit. His explanation: He and his wife and their two daughters needed to move to Chicago to care for his ill father-in-law. Smith’s last day would be June 30.

So now Tony Smith has become a paradox of another sort: The guy who grew up without a family is jettisoning his job, and almost everything else, for family.

I’m nobody! Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?

Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!

Emily Dickinson, who penned those lines, became the woman in Tony Smith’s life when he was 11. His mother had left him in Placerville and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a real estate license. He lived alone, depending on members of an Assemblies of God congregation to drop off food.

“So, only child, parents not together, on my own, a very big kid—I was ‘other’ in a lot of ways. That sense of belonging—or not—has always been something I’ve explored,” Smith recalled last October during a lunchtime interview in his office. “When I found Emily Dickinson, she had explored all those strong emotions, too. Loneliness. Need. Want. Feeling trapped.” No writer more artfully captured the ache of isolation. “Hold dear to your parents,” she advised, “for it is a scary and confusing world without them.”

Indeed it was often so for Tony, who was teased as the new kid or the “moocher.” But it was also a world of kindness. “I could easily have not made it, if it hadn’t been for caring people who helped me, people who could see what was good in me and challenged me to hold on to that,” he said. “I do believe deeply in linked fate. I’ve experienced that in receiving the care of others.”

Go­ing toe-to-toe with the gi­ant, gangly boy, the church elder ad­mon­ished, “You’re go­ing to lead people to heav­en or hell—you need to choose.”

That included boyhood friends who shared sandwiches; their parents who invited him to sleep over for nights or weeks; and teachers who fed his appetite for books—such as Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which he read over and over, relating to its tale of a Martian-born and -raised human who arrives on Earth as a young adult.

It included church elder Marietta Wolfe, a petite woman who stopped Tony from horsing around in church one day. Going toe-to-toe with the giant, gangly boy, she admonished, “You’re going to lead people to heaven or hell—you need to choose.”

It included the uncle who told him, at age 13, “Tony, you need a plan”—bracing advice that prompted Tony to map out each step of his path to become an All-State football star, garner a gridiron scholarship to a Division 1 school, and get drafted into the NFL.

And it included his El Dorado High School coach, Mike Coulson. “Tony came in as a freshman about 6’1″ and 220 pounds—already towering over his coaches. And over the next three years he just kept getting bigger,” Coulson recalled. “A lot of adults wanted him to act like an adult, to lead everyone in the right direction. I would have to remind them that he was just a kid.”

Smith relished the field—the rules, the boundaries. “There was an absence of consistency elsewhere, but the world on the field completely made sense to me,” he said. “To belong there? And to know how to be really good there? It tethered me.”

But he also had the spirit of a scholar. He graduated from high school in 1985 as English student of the year.

Tony Smith playing football

“Placerville in those days was a rural town, a blue-collar place where a lot of folks worked in the lumber mills. College was kind of an afterthought. But not for Tony,” said Coulson. “He set the foundation for players who came after him by setting high goals for himself.”

Recruited by many universities, Smith chose Cal and eventually captained the Bears. “We had this whole culture of showing up at 4:30, 5 in the morning. We’d party all night, then go in and train, and then go home and sleep until practice,” he once recalled as a contributor to the book Out of Bounds: When Scholarship Athletes Become Academic Scholars. His college experience was “five years of lifting weights, partying, playing football, and staying eligible.”

The campus and the team gave him a place to belong and contribute: He often tutored teammates struggling through English assignments. “He was seen by outsiders as just another dumb jock, but on the inside, with his teammates, he was being a leader,” said Derek Van Rheenen, the Out of Bounds book’s co-author, a former pro soccer player, and now coordinator of Berkeley’s Cultural Studies of Sport in Education program. “Inside, he’s always been an intellectual, thoughtful guy. Like a lot of athletes, they are steered toward the field, but their intellect is undermined.”

But after three sur­ger­ies in 14 months, it sank in. “OK, so this is maybe not hap­pen­ing. It was a really ter­rible mo­ment. A lot of things fell apart and un­wound.”

Eventually, the commoditization of his body would exact a heavy toll. After graduating with a bachelor’s in English in 1992, he turned pro; then he blew out his shoulder in pre-season of his first year with the Green Bay Packers and required surgical reconstruction. Traded to the San Francisco 49ers, he then needed surgery to rebuild an injured hand. Desperate to get more tryouts, he wound up injuring his other shoulder.

He was only 24. But after three surgeries in 14 months, it sank in.

“I was like, OK, so this is maybe not happening,” Smith said. “It was a really terrible moment. A lot of things fell apart and unwound.”

How quickly would he bounce back?

“Ah, you assume that I have,” he said, groaning and grinning. “More than not playing in the NFL, it was like ‘How do I live now?’ That moment for me—that vertigo? I was low. I was hurt physically and I was fractured, shattered.”

A wounded deer leaps highest
—Emily Dickinson

It was only after the carefully constructed scaffolding of his future collapsed, that Smith had a fateful conversation with Cal’s Athletic Studies Center head, Jo Baker. Smith told her he was lost about what to do next. “Tony,” he recalled Baker saying, “remember how you helped your teammates? I don’t know why you don’t see this: You’re an educator.”

So he returned to Berkeley, where he and Van Rheenen collaborated to create a class drawn from their experiences as athlete scholars. Called Introduction to Sport and Society (now Education 75), it was the first class either knew of to critically analyze how sports provide a vehicle for social mobility but also reproduce stereotypes and structural inequality. Their goal: to help other student athletes better navigate the challenges.

After obtaining his doctorate from the Graduate School of Education in 2002, Smith went to work for the nonprofit Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, where he met his wife, Kathleen Osta. (He describes her as “extraordinary and amazing”—a Phi Beta Kappa, Academic All-American field hockey player with a double master’s from the University of Chicago in social work and school reform.) From there he consulted with Emeryville’s embattled school district. Emery United offered him his first job in a school district, as superintendent; he accepted without ever having been a classroom teacher.

Emeryville’s district was tiny, with just two schools and less than a thousand students, but it was reeling from blunders. In the late 1980s, the school board censured one of its own members for threatening to hire a hit man to kill the superintendent, and a witch to hex him. A decade later, the district went bankrupt and the state took it over.

When Emeryville United regained local control in 2004, Smith instituted the holistic approach that would become his trademark. He enlisted Merritt College nursing and social-work students to provide services to Emeryville kids, and he engaged corporate powerhouses including Chiron and Pixar to offer support, internships, and jobs to students. Test scores rose, the budget was balanced, and news reporters started writing about Smith as a politically savvy guy who not only cared about needy kids but persuaded people with money to care, too.

Smith credited Emeryville’s then-city manager John Flores with teaching him that a social progressive must be fiscally conservative. “Because the very folks that you want most to serve, the people who in fact need those services the most? If that funding goes away, they will suffer the most,” Smith said. “If you don’t [create] a durable funding stream for your socially progressive agenda, shame on you. Then you walk away patting yourself on the back, you go have your glass of wine, and those people don’t have any services.”

Most people had passed the point of ex­as­per­a­tion and giv­en up on a lot of the 36,000 stu­dents strug­gling through Oak­land’s pub­lic schools. But he knew what it was like to be giv­en up on.

If Emeryville was like riding with training wheels, his next superintendent job would require the balance of a unicyclist. Smith knew the Oakland post would be tough but felt his skill set would be a good fit. Yes, most people had passed the point of exasperation and given up on a lot of the 36,000 students struggling through Oakland’s public schools, kids seemingly confined by the circumstances of their birth. But he knew what it was like to be confined by circumstance, to be given up on. And wasn’t he proof that just a few concerned adults could make a transformative difference?

When he interviewed for the Oakland job, Smith had a year and a half of experience working for a metropolitan district, having left Emeryville for a turn as a deputy superintendent in San Francisco.

“I think when he told us about his background, his personal narrative did give him initial credibility, certainly with people on the board,” said Oakland school board president David Kakishiba. “He’s not a silver-spooner. I personally think that life experience is in many ways more important than having a Ph.D. in education.”

Oakland is a city where life expectancy correlates to zip code: Children born in the flatlands are far more likely than children in the hills to suffer from poor nutrition, be victimized by violence, and lack decent health care. An African-American child born in West Oakland is likely to die 15 years sooner than a white child of the Oakland hills.

It is an exacting crucible for any reformer. “Tony Smith stands head and shoulders above anyone I know in terms of his commitment,” said David Plank of Stanford, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education. But he added that Oakland’s problems date back decades. “And once you step into the job, you own the problem. It’s your problem. You do what you can…. But even so, people are naturally impatient.”

In 2011, Smith rolled out a sweeping plan for “full-service community schools” by 2016. Each one would serve as an anti-poverty nucleus around which families could get information and services from the local health department, housing department, recreation programs, etc. Progress already is evident, with a growing number of schools, for example, offering health clinics where students can get checkups, mental health services, dental care, and eye glasses. Cafeterias increasingly are replacing some prepackaged microwaveable meals with lunches freshly prepared from local ingredients, and schools are hosting community gardens and farmers’ markets.

To skeptics who argue that public schools should concentrate on academics, Smith urges seeing not just test scores but the whole child—even if that means giving needy children free breakfasts, lunches, snacks, and even dinners to help them be able to focus on their studies. “I get why this is important,” said Smith, recalling his own childhood humiliation of standing in a separate school line to get a free lunch branded with a large F—and still feeling gnawing hunger after he wolfed it down.

Smith congratulating a graduate
Superintendent Smith congratulates grad from Castlemont High School.

The district also has revamped its discipline policy, heading off a federal civil rights investigation for discriminatory disciplinary policies. Last year, one of every five African-American boys was suspended—six times the rate for white boys. But now the district, rather than banishing offenders and guaranteeing that they fall further behind, employs a “restorative justice” approach that emphasizes having the students make amends.

Smith’s supporters note that he managed to establish these programs without breaking the bank. In fact, when he took over, the Oakland district had a $40 million structural deficit and outstanding loans. Today that deficit has been virtually eliminated.

Oakland being Oakland, not everyone was a Smith fan. Some distrusted his successful solicitations to get business and foundation donations and grants to help fund part of his ambitious agenda. Others blanched at his willingness to support more charter schools in a district that already has a disproportionate number. They saw both moves as the encroaching privatization of public education. And they bristled at Smith’s base salary of $265,000—roughly five times that of an average teacher—particularly when he took what they deemed high-handed steps to undercut tenure and close some schools.

Union president Trish Gorham said she didn’t doubt his sincerity or good intentions. “I know people who do question that, but I believe the superintendent believes what he believes,” she said. Nonetheless, she said his openness to privately run charters, and his faith in market forces and school choice to help determine which schools thrive, mean that “some are going to get a Whole Foods education, and some are going to get a Pak N Save version.”

The most controversial of Smith’s moves in Oakland was to help balance the budget by consolidating and closing 18 schools to date. The district previously had followed the trend of breaking up big schools into smaller ones, but at the same time, enrollment had dropped by at least 10,000 students in 10 years. That had left Oakland with more than 100 public schools, each with its own administration. Smith reasoned that eliminating such duplication would allow more money to be spent directly on pupils.

Whatever financial sense they make, school closures can perpetuate a downward cycle of declining enrollment. They also can rip the heart out of a community that doesn’t have much else to rally around. Opposition to Smith reached a crescendo last summer, when the district shut down Lakeview Elementary School near the city’s iconic Grand Lake Theater. Parents, teachers, and children, imbued with the Occupy spirit sweeping the nation, pitched tents and occupied the school. When police evicted them after nearly three weeks, 150 demonstrators marched to Smith’s neighborhood, planting signs on his lawn and over his windows, and chanting “Tony Smith—reopen or resign!”

“How does it feel when people show up at your home … with children, with parents, with teachers, doing it the right way?” asked Lakeview parent Joel Velasquez through a microphone. Denouncing Smith for shutting down the school to make way for administrators, he said “We’re not gonna stop coming to your home until something changes.”

Opponents of Oakland school closures took their protest to Smith’s front door.

The Smith family was not home at the time, and the protestors did not return. Still, months later Smith balked at a question about the picketers. “More than picketers,” he said quietly, his jaw stiffening. “They marched on my house, threatened my family, pushed notes through the [mail] box that they were going to drag my family out, that they would come in the middle of the night, that I didn’t deserve to live in Oakland and maybe I didn’t deserve to live, period…. Those people terrorized my family under the guise of ‘We have a right to do that.’ That is deeply unacceptable. And that behavior passes for activism in Oakland,” he said. He offered more examples, of attending soccer games with his daughters, ages 10 and 8, and being confronted by critics unleashing an “intensive, expletive-ridden assault.” Yet he attributed the conflict to “people’s desperation to make something better and then not always knowing how, but knowing that something has to get better and it can’t happen fast enough … and if you’re not doing everything that I want you to do, then you’re not doing enough.”

But by winter, Smith said he increasingly felt the pull of family as his father-in-law’s health deteriorated. He and his wife discussed how to balance their time between Oakland and Chicago. On April 2, she told him “I really need to be there.” And he said his response was “Then that’s the answer—we’re going.”

The Oakland school board has publicly committed to continue Smith’s strategic plan and vision, and there are promising signs. Just as California voters in November approved a sales and income tax increase for education, Oakland’s voters approved a $475 million bond measure for its own schools. Governor Jerry Brown is trying to re-jigger the state’s formula to shift more aid into poorer districts, noting that Oakland students have more profound needs than those in Orinda or Beverly Hills. And Oakland’s dropout rate, while still exceeding the state average, has fallen to 25.5 percent, an improvement of more than 2 percentage points over last year. And although the percentage of African-American boys graduating is only about half, that marks a 4 percent improvement over the preceding year.

Smith maintains that his trials in Oakland had nothing to do with his resignation, and that although traumatized urban school districts are particularly challenging, “that’s where the need is.” In a mid-May interview, he also acknowledged that “I don’t have a new job yet, which starts to be a little scary.”

Colleagues hesitate to predict where he will be in ten years. “He’s the type of individual who could easily surprise you,” said Van Rheenen. “He might be teaching ten kids in a small one-room schoolhouse somewhere. Or he could be the U.S. Secretary of Education.”

“This guy seems full of surprises. He knows what it’s like to struggle,” said Bruce Cooper, professor of educational leadership at Fordham University. “He was a football player, a man’s man. I’m intrigued. He’s somebody to watch.”

Smith himself will only say that he expects to stay in education. In a final paradox, the guy who charted his career from the age of 13 now insists he has no career plan. Emily Dickinson might nonetheless approve, having written:

“Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.”

Vicki Haddock is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to California. Her piece “Splitsville” in the Summer 2012 issue explored the many times Northern and Southern California have tried to divorce.
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