Dr. Will Smith walked into Jordan German’s sixth-grade math class at Utica Elementary and Middle School in the midst of a lesson. He paused for a moment to observe and listen as German instructed the students on their next steps.
“What are the kids doing?” Smith asked, watching the students scrutinize test data.
“Oh, I’ve just got them doing a SWOT analysis,” German replied. “You know how we do our overall school plan and analyze our data? I’m just letting the kids do it.”
Smith noticed that they were color-coding their strengths and placing their threats in red. As he moved about the room he overheard a conversation between two students.
“Well, what are you doing with a red?” a girl asked a boy sitting next to her. “Oh, you don’t know how to work that problem? Get over here, and let me show you how.”
Smith was taken aback that the students were taking ownership of their learning.
“I told (Mrs. German) that I needed her to train every teacher in the building on how to teach the kids to do this,” Smith said.
Identifying Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats
The SWOT analysis is what Smith used to create an action plan for the once-struggling school. He had teachers and department heads determine the school’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats—the four bases for the SWOT acronym. They then revisited those charts each term to see where progress had been made and which areas could still improve.
During Smith’s first year at the school, UEMS improved from a Mississippi Statewide Accountability System performance rating of a D to a C. The next year, the institution earned a B for the first time in school history. When COVID-19 halted testing in 2020, the school was on track to earn an A rating, Smith says. The educator credits his success in Utica to the dedication of teachers like German and community members to what he calls “The Promise of Utica.”
“(It) let people know that these children were the promise of our future and it starts right there within our community,” German, a Utica native, said in an interview. “It is a small-town school and a lot of people seemed to write off Utica Elementary Middle School. The ‘Promise of Utica’ let people know that the Utica community is promising, and promises are meant to be fulfilled.”
“When I talk about the promise, the promise is fulfilling the promise of every child,” Smith said. ”Whether you’re a cafeteria worker, whether you are a custodian worker, whether you are the superintendent, or whether you are the parent, everyone plays a role in delivering the promise.”
Smith, author of “The Promise of Change: Teaching & Learning From The Trenches,” assumed the position of principal at Utica Elementary School in 2017. He immediately went to work gaining buy-in from staff and Utica community members. He visited churches, who then helped cover the costs of field tips for students who improved their scores. He sat with the Utica police chief, Tim Myles, who became a regular visitor to the building. He also engaged with the parents, inviting them to have conversations with their children about their academic progress and struggles.
“It lets the children know that everyone is looking at these same things with you,” German, who was a first-year teacher at the time, said. “(The outreach expressed that) we understand everything that is going on in the classroom. We are all trying to build you up. It’s one thing coming from the teachers, but it is another coming from the principal, from the counselor and from other stakeholders.”
“A lot of times schools exist, but the outside community doesn’t know how to help,” Smith said. “The folks in the community—the mayor, the police department, the community college—everyone supported us, and everybody wanted to be a part of that promise.”
“I would let them know, ‘This is how you’re fulfilling the promise,’” he continued. “Whether you are the parent, whether you’re the brother, the mayor, a state representative, whether you are a church organization, everyone plays that role in supporting or fulfilling that promise. And that’s why we’ve been able to turn around the school and sustain it to be a high-performance school.”
Smith’s success at Utica has brought him state and national accolades. Most recently, the Mississippi Chamber of Commerce named him as its 2021 Best Principal in Mississippi and gave him the Key to the Community Leadership Award. Additionally, the Hinds County School District named Smith as its 2021 Administrator of the Year.
“When I got the job (in Utica), I said I wanted to be impactful on education,” Smith said. “I wanted people to see how it should be done because if we put the spotlight on the importance of education, you’re gonna be able to increase competition. You’re gonna be able to increase the level of morale and how people feel about education. I wanted to have a huge impact on education, and we were able to do that.”
WJTV News featured UEMS on a segment titled “Pandemic: One Year Later” and named it a Mississippi Cool School for Parental Engagement in 2020. Learning Forward Mississippi also gave UEMS a 2019 School SPOTLIGHT Award.
“I brought the promise to Utica,” Smith said. “I was very strategic in my actions and the teachers bought into it; the community and—most importantly—the students bought into it. They actually helped us bring the promise alive. (Now) the promise of Utica extends beyond just the school, beyond the community and in some cases beyond the state of Mississippi.”
The educator is also the founder and president of The Promise of Change Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works with schools, colleges and universities, community members, and business leaders to provide high-school students in areas with high poverty rates with scholarships, assistance in applying for college admissions and financial aid, and career-development guidance.
Educators: ‘Parents Away From Home’
Dr. Smith has spent his entire life exceeding expectations. At age 5, his mother moved Smith and his siblings to Lula, Miss., in the Delta’s Coahoma County. She had lost her hearing and eyesight and needed help from her parents. However, Smith’s grandparents could not read or write and soon the young Smith found himself responsible for the house’s business and finances.
“I started at a very young age, probably at 9 or 10 taking care of responsibilities in the house,” he said. “My grandfather would come and check me out of school at the first of the month so I can go pay the bills or take my mom to the doctor’s office. (I was) reading the mail for my grandparents. (I would) go and get money orders to pay the bills and go to the grocery store with my food stamps book to get groceries.”
Smith’s teachers and principals who watched the young man carry the responsibilities of his home and take on a job at age 12 looked after him at school.
“The principal already knew that I was the person taking care of those things as a young child,” Smith said. “So when I got to high school, even though it was a different site, the teachers and principals really were my parents in a sense. They were the parents away from home who helped mold me into the person that I am today by giving me those responsibilities at the school level and understanding that I didn’t have a parent who could come to parent conferences. They had conversations with me. The Coahoma County School District really made me desire to become a teacher.”
Smith graduated from Coahoma County High School at 17 and returned to the school as a substitute, where he instructed the same students he had just sat next to the year before. He enrolled in Jackson State University, completing an undergraduate degree in social science in three years. He struggled to find a teaching position early on, to the point where he resorted to using the phone book to call principals at their homes in pursuit of openings and opportunities.
Just as Smith was ready to give up, he received the call that would begin a career in education spanning 16 years and six schools. Clinton Johnson, then principal of Callaway High School, hired the 20-year-old to teach social studies.
“He was very articulate and very intelligent,” Johnson told the Mississippi Free Presssaid. “My only concern was how the students would take this teacher who looked their age. After hiring him and him being there, that never became an issue. The students respected him from day one.”
While teaching social studies at the Jackson school, Smith also took on the role of coordinator for Callaway’s Freshman Academy. Callaway created the school-within-a-school to address the climbing dropout rate, improve attendance and increase the graduation rate. The program met immediate success.
“I just gave it to him, and he set it up and ran it,” Johnson said. “The students loved it, and the teachers loved it. He had a lot of great ideas. The academy caught on in the other schools, and it went great under Will’s leadership.”
Smith quickly garnered respect from his coworkers and staff. In fact, 30% of Smith’s teaching staff at Utica were former Callaway students. Another large percentage were former teachers that he had worked with at other schools.
“I saw him the first-year and how he was with the students, (plus) how much the staff respected him even though he was this young teacher; even the older staff respected him,” Johnson said. “The social studies department, which was about eight staff members, selected him as department chair his second year. I knew that being a superintendent was in the future for him.”
The success of Callaway’s ninth-grade academy prompted WJTV to air a news package featuring Smith. That news report elicited a call from the principal of Wingfield High School, who offered Smith his first assistant-principal position.
“That’s how I ended up getting into administration,” Smithhe said. “I had my start in JPS and had a wonderful experience. I’ve worked in a rural, urban and a suburban district.”
‘Bridging the Gap for Underserved Communities’
Since then, Dr. Smith has continued to work in administration, recently becoming the new superintendent of the West Bolivar Consolidated School District in Rosedale, Miss. In this role, Smith hopes to bring the “promise” he lives by to an entire school district right next door to the county in which he grew up. The district—consisting of an elementary school, high school, attendance center and vocational center—has consistently earned low school-accountability ratings. The district has also suffered a decline in enrollment.
“We’ve definitely got a lot of work to do here,” he said. “(We have) to make sure we build capacity with teachers. There is a lot of potential here. There’s a lot of promise here, but one of the things that I found is that they need that direction as far as, ‘How do I actually improve my school?’”
Smith has already met with the principals and directors and completed a SWOT analysis for the district, and he has instructed district staff to read his book to gain additional tactics to use in their respective offices and classrooms. Smith has finished hiring the district-level staff that he feels will move the district forward.
“I believe I’ve hired a good district leadership team to help me carry out what we need to do,” Smith said. “I’m just excited about the work that’s coming and that’s ahead of us so that we can get the right outside resources and also utilize the people that we have in the district already.”
Jordan German, who is now a consultant for Imagine Learning, is one of those outside resources—assigned to the West Bolivar Consolidated School District.
“She’s our professional-development coach for the Imagine Learning program,” Smith said. :. Having somebody that I’ve worked with coming in to work with my teachers feels amazing because she knows what I need as far as coaching teachers, and she’s gonna do a phenomenal job. She’s excited about it, and I’m excited about it.”
“I was excited when I saw that I would be working with him,” German said she was excited when she saw that she would be working with Smith..
“When it comes to bridging the gap for underserved communities or communities that people don’t shed a light on,” she said. “. He (did) that at Utica Elementary Middle School, and I know that he is going to do the same thing going forward with West Bolivar or in any other capacity that he is in for the betterment of our students and in our communities as well.”