Tony Smith, the new superintendent of Oakland's public schools, scanned the play yard at Glenview Elementary during a tour of its summer program. A black business suit draped over his tall, broad-shouldered frame, he walked up to a group of children sitting on the asphalt and lowered himself to the ground.
Dietra Atkins, the school principal, smiled as though suppressing a chuckle. She had just met Smith.
"I like to be around people who are natural, who are themselves," Atkins said, glancing sideways at her new boss as he chatted with her students. "Even though they have a position, they show their humanness."
Smith's sincere, approachable persona might give him the leverage, or at least the opening, he needs to be effective in a school district that has grown wary of outsiders and weary of change. The 42-year-old Oakland resident is the district's first permanent superintendent in six years, and the fifth schools chief since Dennis Chaconas was ousted in June 2003, after the district's multimillion-dollar budget deficit led to a state takeover.
Smith, a former football player at UC Berkeley, was superintendent of the 800-student Emery school district and the deputy superintendent for instruction, innovation and social justice for the San Francisco schools before coming to the Oakland district. He worked in a number of Oakland schools through a nonprofit before becoming an administrator.
As a candidate for the Oakland superintendency, Smith received strong backing from Oakland Community Organizations, the grass-roots group that started a movement to open small, redesigned schools in the city's low-income areas. He has also voiced support for independently run charter schools, a politically contentious issue.
Still, Smith says he wants to move beyond the political ideology that divides the district, and he insists that he has not come to Oakland with an agenda. He says he doesn't care who or where an idea comes from, only whether it makes the system better for kids.
Truancy is at the top of his list of problems to tackle.
"We need a shared responsibility," Smith said. "I'm not trying to get anybody to buy into a program."
From now until the first day of school, Aug. 31, the new superintendent's schedule is jammed with visits to schools, churches and community groups, one-on-one meetings with key staff members and education leaders and media interviews.
He says he has asked members of his Cabinet: "Why are you here? Why is this the right place for you to be at this time? What are you excited about? What's the thing they want to see fixed?"
On July 9, during his first full week on the job, Smith visited four schools with summer programs. As he strolled the invariably gleaming halls — his visits were scheduled in advance — he occasionally laughed and joked with the people he met, but he otherwise skipped the small talk. He wanted to know what made each school tick — how a parent education program at Franklin Elementary supported the school's reading goals, whether Roosevelt Middle School's algebra teachers coordinated their curriculum with the math department at the nearby high school, and whether the security cameras he spotted on the ceiling had much effect.
"How's the bullying here?" Smith asked Frick Middle School Principal Jerome Gourdine, shortly after arriving on campus.
"It's very minimal," Gourdine responded.
After shaking hands with Frick's school secretary, Smith cut to the chase with a question about Gourdine, who stood a few feet away. "I hear he's one of the best principals in the district," he said. "What can we do to support him better?"
At the end of the tour, as the new superintendent talked with some of the school staff members, Gourdine said he was impressed. "I love him," he said. "The thing I like about him is that he's truly about the whole child."
Smith's mission to bring together the labor unions, families, community groups and businesses in pursuit of a stronger school system is a challenge during robust economic times. In the context of an increasingly uncertain and shrinking budget, it's even tougher.
The Oakland school district has trimmed about $40 million from its budget since 2008, mostly in response to the state's fiscal crisis. Its chief financial officer says another $18 million will need to be cut next year — even without further cutbacks in state education spending — and possibly much more.
Smith's administration will face unpopular choices: whether to close schools with very low enrollments, pack more students into classrooms, or use funds formerly earmarked for programs such as adult education. He also inherits tense labor relations with Oakland's teachers union, which has been asked to take a 3 percent pay cut. Days before Smith started his new job, the state administration declared an impasse in negotiations.
The superintendent's status as an Oakland public school parent — his oldest daughter will be a first-grader at Crocker Highlands Elementary School in the fall — might give him a credibility boost. He drives a Honda with a pink car seat in the back. When he visited a Glenview music class, a friend of his daughter's darted out of her row and threw her arms around him.
Smith's people skills could come to his aid, as well. He nods when people speak to him. He looks them in the eye, occasionally interjecting with "that's right," or "yep" or "got it."
Carlos Garcia, the superintendent of San Francisco schools, noted that Oakland's new leader has an "unorthodox background," since Smith didn't rise through the ranks of classroom teacher or principal. But he said that Smith's fresh perspective proved helpful, and that Smith "was never a know-it-all."
Garcia added, "I think teachers, eventually, once they get to know him, really respect his intelligence. I just think he's a real people person, and he doesn't play games. What you see is what you get."
Betty Olson-Jones, the teachers union president, said she was encouraged by her meetings with Smith. "He said a lot of things that I agree with," Olson-Jones said, noting that they talked about improving teacher working conditions, smaller class sizes and the importance of collaboration and mentoring. She added, "I will remain optimistic as long as he continues to reach out and truly listen to the different constituencies in the district — as long as it's not just talk."
Reach Katy Murphy at 510-208-6424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laura A. Oda/Staff photos
New Oakland schools superintendent Tony Smith, center, walks with district spokesman Troy Flint, left, and Frick Middle School Principal Jerome Gourdine through the halls of the school Thursday. Smith toured four schools July 9, including Franklin Elementary, top and below, where he met with principals, staff members and summer school students.