Thursday, January 20, 2005

City Superintendent Retiring


Judy Smith has spent 30 years in education, 20 of those in Holly Springs, and she has learned right along with the children.

“I have no regrets about any job,” Smith said. “I’ve enjoyed them all. I learned from every experience – good and bad. I’ve had wonderful experiences, and I’ve had bad experiences. They’re all experiences that gave me a lesson in life.”

On Tuesday night of last week, the city superintendent of education informed the school board she will retire at the end of June.

Her career has taken her from teacher, to director of various educational programs, to principal to assistant superintendent and to superintendent. She was the first female principal at both Holly Springs Intermediate School and Holly Springs High School and then the first female superintendent to guide the city district.

“I had some really tough times – being the first female in those roles,” said Smith, 54. “It was a lot of having to be tough and say ‘this is the way it is.’

“People go at you in a lot of different ways to break your spirits. You learn a lot of coping skills. You learn not to take a lot of things personally.”

The Clarksdale native graduated from Delta State University in 1972 with a degree in speech therapy. Her first teaching job was in Greenwood. She later earned a master’s degree from DSU in special education. Her second job was in Quitman County as special education teacher and director of a federal program.

She came to Holly Springs in 1979 as director of special services for Head Start.

“I decided I wanted a taste of administration,” Smith said. “I heard about the job in Holly Springs and interviewed and got it.”

She later worked for the Marshall County School District before starting her long tenure with the Holly Springs School District in 1984 as director of special education. During this time, she received her certification in education administration at Ole Miss.

She was then principal at the intermediate school five years and at the high school two years. She moved to the central office in 1995 as special projects and testing coordinator. She was next named assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. Smith is in her fifth year as superintendent.

“The intermediate school advertised for a principal and a man accepted and then turned it down in June. The superintendent then gave the board seven options of how to fill it with people in the district. I was option number seven,” she said, laughing, “and I got it.

“I was not really ready. Things moved so fast. I got into the school and thoroughly enjoyed it.”

That enjoyment was sparked by a deep love for the children she was around each school day.

“That’s the good thing,” she said with a big smile, “impacting the lives of children. That’s really what it is all about. My first fourth grade class at the intermediate school was in the ninth grade when I went to the high school.

“We have compassion for one another. When you’re firm, the children understand the compassion behind it.”

Her five-year tenure has been successful yet rocky at times.

“First and foremost, we’ve improved the curriculum,” Smith said. “We have a curriculum we can assess and connect to not only the state assessment but others like the ACT. But it’s not just to satisfy state testing – it’s the rigor.”

State test scores have improved in Smith’s tenure. In the first year of the accountability model, two of the city’s schools were a Level 1 (the lowest). The second year all three were a Level 2, showing improvement. This past year the high school was extremely close to a Level 3.

“The schools need improvement,” she said. “I talked to the children and asked ‘where do you want to be?’ I explained to them that Level 1 is an ‘F’ and Level 5 is an ‘A.’”

Smith hopes when schools are tested this spring, they will take the next step to a Level 3.

“We have so many students who have excelled and gone on to great things,” she said. “Kids come back here from college with high academic averages and they’re so excited and they want to talk to our students. These are the kind of things as a community we need to talk up – the importance of an education. It can change their quality of life.”

Technology in the schools has also been greatly improved.

“Five years ago we had one computer for every 40 students,” Smith said. “Today, we have one computer for every five students.”

There has also been an outstanding integration of technology by the school district staff.

“Grade books are on computer,” she said. “I can sit at my desk and look at lesson plans. I can pull grade books up; teachers can pull grade books up at home. I can sit at my desk and pull any child’s record up.”

Smith said teaching materials are up to date for classrooms, all the school bus fleet is current, buildings are in good shape overall and the district’s financial status is sound.

“We have a really great staff in the city schools,” she said. “The majority of the people are committed to improving and learning, and they have a wealth of materials.”

And with all those pluses have come a few minuses – things Smith didn’t enjoy as superintendent.

“I had never stayed in a job over five years, and I told the board that then and they gave me a five-year contract,” she said. “I thought I would maybe stay another year and then some things started to happen I didn’t particularly like.”

Some of those included threatening telephone calls to her home.

At another time, a five-gallon bucket of dead fish was left in her parking place at the administration building, and then someone removed the emblem from the front hood of her car.

“They tried to tear the tag off, too,” Smith said. “I don’t know when it happened, but it unnerved me. People get so vicious.”

She said she has also been verbally attacked by men during school board meetings.

“These people can get so close to me in this small board room and point their fingers,” she said. “I’ve had some horrible things said to me. I really don’t know what the attacks are about. It’s apparent that these men have a problem with women in authority.

“When you’re in a public position like superintendent, you have to expect criticism of a program or a district decision – that’s part of the job. But in the past few months, the attacks have grown increasingly pointed and personal. That’s not acceptable for me. I’ve urged the board to use the gavel and not let these things happen. Nothing has abated, though, and I can’t be a part of condoning what are essentially terrorist tactics.”

She said the school board was scheduled to meet on Tuesday of this week to determine its method of searching for her replacement. Smith said she is the sixth superintendent of the school district in the past 20 years.

Dorsey Patterson has also announced his retirement from his principal position at the high school at the end of this school year. That job is being advertised, Smith said, with little response.

Smith plans to enjoy retirement. She has 12 brothers and sisters – 10 living with the oldest being 77. She hopes to travel, visit them and enjoy her home in Holly Springs. Her husband, Howard, works for the railroad.

“I have an excellent retirement and plan to manage on that,” she said. “Right now, I’m just tired and emotionally drained.”

She doesn’t rule out getting back into education, but “not in the public schools.” However, she insists that she will always be an advocate for public education.

“I really like this community,” Smith said. “It’s a diamond in the rough. The children here and the community have a tremendous opportunity. We just have to be more positive.”

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