To understand why Oakland's popular school superintendent suddenly announced this month, with two years left on his contract, that he's quitting, consider Tony Smith's roots.

Born to teenage parents, shuffled between relatives and friends growing up, frequently changing schools, Smith lacked a stable household. That's not what he wants for his own kids.

So when his father-in-law fell ill in Chicago, when he and his wife talked about her and their daughters, ages 8 and 10, moving there and Smith commuting back and forth, he realized that wouldn't work.

"My commitment is that my kids will experience a set of caring parents who make decisions that value family, ... that we will be connected and take care of each other. This is about something that I didn't have. It feels really important to me."

His challenging four-year tenure ends June 30. He closed schools and made tough cuts to eliminate a $40 million structural deficit. He also developed a holistic plan for integrating Oakland schools' academics with essential support, including health care, for students.

It's unconventional. There again, Smith was an unconventional choice to lead a 46,000-student district. Just 42 then, he had never been a classroom teacher and had only five years' school administration experience.

Instead, Smith brought vision, charisma, energy -- and a life story driving his education philosophy.

He was a big kid who felt he didn't fit in at his new schools. "I had been in some significant trouble," he recalls, avoiding discussing specifics. "I didn't always make the best choices. I had lots in common with a lot of kids that are not supervised well."


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Yet key individuals positively influenced his life.

In kindergarten, he couldn't read. Watching his maternal grandfather consume the newspaper, "I came to understand what literacy was." He became passionate. "That's kind of how I survived, reading a lot. Reading and writing was a big part of my life."

In eighth grade, he was already well beyond 6 feet tall and 200 pounds when he almost ran over a small church elder while horsing around with friends outside church.

"There was this moment where I became her size and she became mine. ... She said, 'you are a leader, you have to decide if you're going to lead people to heaven or hell. The choice is yours.' "

He sheepishly walked back into church. "There are these moments where you have to decide, and (since then) I just have held that there's a responsibility to service beyond self."

Uncle Daniel Bolster told him in middle school that he needed a plan. Smith figured one that wrapped around football. He determined when he would have to play varsity, and then make all-league and California's "Best of the West."

He landed a football scholarship to UC Berkeley, where he was team captain his final year. At Cal, three college roommates took him in. "I became part of the fabric of their families."

But Smith's pro-football ambitions were short-lived. Injured in a preseason practice scrimmage, he was released by the Green Bay Packers in 1990 and the San Francisco 49ers in 1991. He never played a game.

Thinking about becoming an attorney, he worked at a law firm and discovered the legal world wasn't for him. Then a mentor suggested education, setting him on a path toward a doctorate, work for education nonprofits and an administrative start as superintendent of Emeryville's financially troubled schools in 2004. In 2007, San Francisco recruited him as deputy superintendent. Two years later, he came to Oakland.

Just last summer he promised he wasn't leaving. It would be easy to criticize him for reneging. But, for what it's worth, he doesn't have another job lined up, nor know what he's going to do.

He needs income and health coverage for his family. He figures he'll work in education. He might be making a poor career choice. But one senses the Oakland job wasn't as much about the stature of being superintendent as about helping children. For Smith, that begins with his own.

"My kids matter more to me than I can put into words," he said. "It's not easy to be a kid growing up."

Contact columnist and editorial writer Daniel Borenstein at 925-943-8248 or dborenstein@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/borensteindan.