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The superintendent is responsible for day-to-day operations and the organization of our school system. I have the privilege of supporting over 3,500 scholars and 500 staff.

Disrupt, Dismantle, Collaborate 

An Interview By Talisa Caldwell

[Dr. Marion Smith, the first ever black Superintendent of Summit schools, daringly dives into creating a whole new foundation for public schools in the midst of COVID-19. ]

What is your role as superintendent of Summit Schools and what led you to this point in your career? 

The superintendent is responsible for day-to-day operations and the organization of our school system. I have the privilege of supporting over 3,500 scholars and 500 staff. This year, we have been learning to navigate through COVID-19 and create a whole new education system. 

In the past I taught Pre-K through 12th grade as an urban school educator. I like to define urban education as education within school districts that have predominantly Black and Latinx, and minority scholars. I began my career in my hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada in the 5th largest school district in the country, the Clark County School District. 

In the last 20 years, I have had the opportunity to have different positions at different levels of responsibility across a variety of school districts and educational communities. I have been able to serve diverse, linguistic, cultural, socio-economic communities in Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Washington state for the last decade. I have served in Colorado since July of 2020. 

What are some of the most valuable lessons you learned when becoming Superintendent? 

I would say that it is important as educators to be mindful, and to remember that we’re in the people business.  We must try to understand that all perspectives are valid, yet partial. We must find a way to create opportunities for all of those different, divergent voices and perspectives to be a part of the conversation.

As a superintendent, I’ve learned to create a longer table so that everyone can have a seat at it. It is critically important for me to understand the power of representation, being that I am the first black administrator ever in the Summit School District, as well as the first black superintendent. I try to remember the significance of that, not only for the community here, but also to others who may see me and aspire to be like me. Really, I want them to be better than me. 

I must determine how to create the infrastructure for those that come after me by disrupting and dismantling inequitable policies, practices, and procedures so that all of our scholars, families, community members, and staff can thrive.

What advice would you give young-minority students who are pursuing leadership roles? 

I appreciate that question. I would say that it is important to understand the national trends in data. If we look at public education, about 80 to 85 percent of the teaching force in public education is white and female. If we look at the demographics across the nation, there’s only a small percentage of superintendents of color.

I would advise young minority scholars to find a network of individuals that you can learn from, that could be your mentors, that can be your coaches, and that can be your confidants. Watch them, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Find opportunities to be physically around them as they’re engaging in your field of interest and reach outside your comfort zone.

You don’t even need to have those individuals in your immediate community because we’re now interconnected by technology. I encourage scholars to reach out to people in their field of interest via social media, because there are many people who may respond to your messages. 

How do you measure success in education? 

That’s a loaded question there. Education is often measured by quantitative data, but I think it is important to create a system that is equitable for everyone. I define equity as everyone in the system getting what they need in order to thrive, so I believe that we have to define success for ourselves.

When I talk with family members and scholars, I ask them directly what a successful school year would look like to them. I think it’s important to  understand our definition of what success means, and then being able to create the practices that will allow for us to be able to meet those standards. 

How important do you think family involvement is when it comes to student success? 

I believe that our family members are our first teachers. We only have our scholars in school  for a finite amount of time, and they may be involved in some after-school activities, but they always go back home. It’s critically important that we support our scholars as a community,  and develop authentic family communication and connection.

We may do that by bringing families into the school, or by paying a visit to the family’s home. Certain communities may have been marginalized or muted, so they don’t see themselves being a part of the work that’s happening in their school district. We must ensure that all families feel represented within the school district, and give authority to leaders that are able to seek those voices and perspectives that may not be a part of our everyday conversations. 

What are some ways that you are planning on closing the equity gap between the marginalized, under-privileged, minority students and the rest of the student population? 

National data shows that there are oftentimes three scholar groups that are within that gap: scholars that receive special education services, scholars that are receiving English language learning services,  and scholars that belong to a particular lower socioeconomic background. If we add race and ethnicity, we would also need to include our Black, Latinx, and Indeginous scholars as well.

 We must ask ourselves what the root causes of these particular opportunity gaps are. I’d like to say that intellect is abundant, but we know that opportunity isn’t. We must develop ways to create equal opportunities within all of our schools, and reach the specific needs of all our scholars. 

For example, we recognize our second language learners as bilingual learners, not as a deficit. One way we may build upon a bilingual learner’s needs is by teaching half of the day in English, and half of the day in Spanish. Not only can these scholars learn another language, but they can be in a space where they’re learning something brand-new and they’re on equal footing with all other students, closing that opportunity gap. 

What are some of the teaching practices that parents can expect to see this year in regards to COVID-19? 

This year, we’d like to have an emphasis on social-emotional learning, and bring in  trauma-informed practices. I feel that it is safe to say that each of us have been impacted by COVID-19 in different ways, be it financially, socially or emotionally. We’re looking into what pandemic pedagogy looks, and figuring out ways to shift our learning and teaching practices to address what learning is during a crisis. 

We are striving to create community spaces, and develop relationships between staff and scholars so that we can really focus on the trauma that most of our scholars have experienced, and continue to experience in the midst of the pandemic. I’m sure it’s not hard to imagine the toll that it’s taken on some of our families, scholars, and educators.  

What do you love the most about your role as an educator? 

I love having the opportunity each and every day to do great things for other people. I genuinely love to bring people together, who may have different perspectives, and talk about new possibilities to better our education system.

I am specifically excited about the way things are moving this year. COVID-19 has turned national conversation to education. If you turn on the news, read a news article, or look at your social media feed, it seems like education is always highlighted. 

I have been given the opportunity to collaborate with our scholars, family members, community members and staff to fundamentally rethink education. COVID-19 has made it so that we cannot do some of the things that we did before. It requires us to be innovative in our thinking. We have to be able to learn, unlearn, and relearn some things in order for us to be able to move forward.

I have the pleasure and the privilege of being able to serve a school district as we’re going through this transformative journey together. It’s exciting to think about what this year will yield for us as a community. There will certainly be challenges that we face this year, but one certainty is that school before COVID-19 wasn’t working for all of our scholars. They have the data that supports that, and now we have the opportunity to fundamentally rethink our school system and our teaching practices. We must now pause and ask ourselves, what do we do, why do we do it, and how do we do it? How can we begin to create new systems, structures, and practices to meet the diverse needs of all of our learners? 

What advice do you have for future generations? 

First I’d like to say that it’s going to be hard. However, just because it’s hard and challenging doesn’t mean that we should stop. Your voice is critically important in this work. What you do and who you are matters. Your perspective is critical and essential to the conversations. 

You may be the only person of color in a space, or the only person who’s boys voicing a perspective. It is important to stand firm in what you believe, and know that by doing that, you are pushing the conversation forward. What you want may not happen in the timeline that you envisioned, but your mere presence may be a serious threat to the status quo. 

Stand firm in who you are, knowing that the challenges will be there, but that your voice is needed. Your perspective is needed and it’s all about challenging the process. Don’t just accept things because it is the way they’ve always done it. I would not be the superintendent of Summit Schools if I believed in that narrative.

What do you want  to leave as your legacy? 

I want to be known as someone whose words matched their action. I want to be remembered as someone who was able to disrupt and dismantle inequitable policies, practices, systems and structures so that everyone in the system could thrive. 

I want to be remembered as someone who interrogated the norm, meaning that I challenged the ideals we accepted as a society. I want to be remembered for someone that was unapologetic when it comes to establishing equity in our systems.

I want to be known as someone collaborated with the community, brought people together, and took action. At the end of the day, it is about paving the road to success for each child and eliminating the opportunity gap by leading with equity. I’d like those things to be the final reminder of the work of Dr. Smith. 

[ Dr. Smith continues to uplift the voices of the community, subvert outdated policies and systems, and push for equal opportunity within schools in order to create a better tomorrow for our future scholars. ]

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