New Summit superintendent aims to push students and educators to ‘learn, unlearn and relearn’
FRISCO — Marion Smith Jr.’s first few weeks as the superintendent of Summit School District have been far from normal.
The Las Vegas native has been thrown into a new district during an economic, social and medical crisis on a global scale. Smith likened the experience to being in the Super Bowl.
“It’s like, ‘Today’s your first day, and you’re in the Super Bowl tomorrow,’” he said. “You’ve never met your team before, and you’re the quarterback.”
Despite the challenges brought on by the new position and the pandemic, Smith said he and his team have been able to bring the community together and lead the way in reopening the district. On Monday and Tuesday, Smith and other district leaders held four town hall meetings to answer questions and inform the community on the district’s process for reopening.
“That came together after only four days of me having met my immediate district leader team,” he said.
The school board selected Smith on May 19 to succeed former Superintendent Kerry Buhler, who retired at the end of June. He moved to Summit County at the beginning of July and started working July 6.
School board President Kate Hudnut said Smith shows all of the qualities the board was looking for in a superintendent. She described working with Smith as “so far, so great.”
“We’ve had some pretty high-stressed situations right now, and (he’s) very even-keeled, very calm, very calming,” she said. “His decisions are thoughtful and data informed. He’s really pushing our team … to say, ‘OK, that may be what you’re hearing and that may be your gut feeling, but let’s look at the data.'”
Smith — who has a doctorate in educational leadership and change from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, — comes to Summit County from Seattle. There, he most recently served as chief operating and education officer for TechSmart, a company specializing in coding and computer-based software education.
His education experience doesn’t stop there. Smith has worked in nearly every role in education for the past 20 years, including as a teacher and administrator. He describes himself as an “urban educator,” meaning he has worked in school districts that predominately serve Black and Latino students.
“I always knew that I was going to go into education because I saw the power and the opportunity that education provided,” he said.
Smith is the first Black administrator and superintendent in Summit County schools. He said he is mindful that he was selected for the job during a pandemic, economic instability and a social justice movement.
“Bringing all of that together, I do believe that I’m the right person at the right time to do the right work that has been envisioned by the school board and the community to usher in a different type of conversation and a different type of leadership,” he said.
His education philosophy is to push students, or scholars as he refers to them, to “learn, unlearn and relearn.” He said he prefers the term scholars because it gives students the confidence to do the work required in education.
“Students are just individuals who go to a physical building and go to school,” he said. “A scholar is someone that has an affinity toward an ability to learn, unlearn and relearn.”
Ultimately, he wants to make Summit School District a place that treats all students equitably and values diversity. For now, he’s focused on getting the district settled into the realities of education during a pandemic.
As part of that, he’s focused on ensuring access to internet and computers for all students who don’t currently have it as well as providing resources that can be accessed only through school.
“We know that school provides more than just learning and teaching,” he said. “The conversations that we’ve been having have really been around how are we focusing on the social, emotional needs of our scholars?”
Smith said he and his team are working on ensuring that all staff members are trauma-informed and trauma-skilled to support students who have lost family members or experienced extreme stress because of the virus. He is also working to have more professional learning opportunities and resources for staff members.
“The pandemic has impacted all of us. It’s just impacted all of us in many different ways,” he said. “That’s the plan and the structure and the conversation we’ve been having so we can ensure everyone is getting what they need. That’s the concept of equity for me.”
Smith also prioritizes giving students a voice. Already, he gave students an opportunity to talk about their concerns with online learning at a town hall meeting Tuesday. He also plans to create a “scholars advisory board to the superintendent” made up of middle and high school students and hold regular meetings at elementary schools.
“That’s the purpose of schools,” he said. “That’s the purpose of what we do. I think it’s critically important that we speak to those individuals that are impacted the most by all of the decisions that we make.”
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