Academy principal sets sights on learning
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 13, 2009 2:00 AM
Brian Smith, right, new principal at Dillard Academy Charter School, watches as Asiana Smith, a first-grader in Timara McCollum's class, works on a computer lesson. Smith said he favors being a hands-on administrator at the school.
Brian Smith is not one to sit in his office for very long.
The new principal at Dillard Academy Charter School prefers to be walking the halls, visiting classrooms, talking to students as much as possible.
"It's fun going around every morning to see how the classes are doing, step in every once in a while and say, 'This is another way you can do it,'" he said. "I want to be the person who's in the classroom, who's there for the teachers, making sure that they ensure that the students are learning."
He is not so far removed from the teaching role himself. Two years ago, he was assistant principal at South Smithfield Elementary School, when he received the offer to work at Dillard. It brought him back into the classroom, working with third grade, while also serving as curriculum specialist.
"I was looking for an assistant principal job because I didn't want to drop down," he says now.
But there was something about the school that drew him in, he said.
"I knew nothing about the school, but when I left (after the interview) I thought, these people really do care, and they want to change the school," he said. "Also, when I got the chance to walk around the building, I saw there were some real needs here."
The leap of faith paid off.
"I had a terrific year," Smith said. "Students made at least a year gain and one made a year and a half gain. We met our AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), and I have to say it's a credit to that third-grade class.
"It really has been a good fit for me. It was flexible enough to let me do what I wanted to do, which was teach, and also gave me the authority to help out other teachers."
So when asked to become principal this year, Smith was confident in his response.
"I'm very impressed, especially with my new fourth grade and kindergarten. I think all the other grades are doing well as well," he said.
The K-4 school currently has 150 students, but aspires to increase to 160, the principal said. There are also eight teachers and eight assistants, including the school's music director.
While Dillard is a charter school, it is affiliated with Wayne County Public Schools and operates under the state's mandates, which means that it is not immune to things like budget cuts and the economy.
One of those cuts would have affected staffing at the school, Smith said.
"I confronted them at the beginning of the year and told them I had to fire two of our assistants," he said. "I was impressed with the staff. They said, 'So, how are we going to solve it?'
"We were able to offer them where they can have four days on, one day off. So we maintained our whole staff. We did not lose a member at all. They all wanted to stay, and we kept them."
They all took cash losses, Smith said, but they kept their benefits.
"They're riding buses, some are doing afternoon (duties), making sure that's maintained until the other members come in," he said.
The school has its own challenges -- a low socio-economic base that some would say contributes to challenges when it comes to test-taking time.
What makes the charter school different is that it can do "co-op" with a lot of different places and offer activities other schools might not -- like the school's garden out back or field trips.
"One thing I like about Dillard, we do have to accommodate to the (end-of-grade) test, but we actually put real world situations with things, such as taking trips," he said.
Despite potential drops to state funding, the principal maintains his school will find a way to offer as many opportunities as possible.
"We're still going to go," he said. "We might not make every trip that we made last year, but we're going to go out and experience that and offer that to our students."
The main thing he is concerned about, he said, is making sure each individual student grows. And not just as it's measured on some test score.
"It's not as much about the end-of-grade tests. My main focus is that each individual child has a chance to grow from their level," he said. "Not just from what the state has mandated."
Like any school launching into a new year, he has several goals for those in his care.
Parents who do support the school are "here as much as we need them," Smith said. More would be welcome, however.
He envisions a family reading night, where parents come in and read a book with their children.
And the school would certainly benefit from its own library, he added, but that might take a while.
"We're doing little things that hopefully will improve us," he said. "We did order some brand new textbooks. I am very happy. We were sharing at one point, so we have solved that problem."
And the school is also grateful for federal government funding that has provided great technology for its students.