Dr. Tamara Thomas-Smith not only became a new mother again this past summer, but she was appointed to replace Edward Hoffman as principal of Russell H. Conwell Middle Magnet School.
He served in the capacity for many years, and under his leadership, Conwell became the number one middle school in Philadelphia.
Smith acknowledged that she was following after a legend, but said she was more than ready to begin her imprint on the school. She first had to tackle the budget cuts, which greatly affected schools across the city.
“I worry about the stuff I can change. I can’t change the budget cuts,” Smith said. “But the stuff I can change, that’s what I put most of my energy to.”
Her focus has been to make sure the school and its students do not rest on their laurels.
“I feel when I walk through the doors every day that I have to work just as hard and put just as much effort and actually request the same of my staff, because every parent has at least one kid in this school who’s special to them, and if that one kid isn’t in that group that’s proficient or advanced, there’s work to be done,” she said. “All of our children should have the option of going to college. That should be their choice. If they don’t go, it should be because they chose not to go, not because they’re not qualified or prepared to do so.”
Smith feels strongly that the students should not get comfortable, but should reach beyond the standard of excellence that Conwell is known for.
“We don’t want our students to get to a ceiling where they stop. We want them to excel,” she said. “I know it’s easy once students get to that point where they’re advanced or proficient to just say they’re independent learners and they can go on. They still need our encouragement.
We still need to make certain that they get just as much attention as the students who may still be struggling.”
Smith rose through the ranks of the School District of Philadelphia as a substitute teacher, expressive arts teacher, dean of students, athletic director and basketball coach. “I think all of those different jobs in the past have prepared me to take on this challenge,” she said. “You have to be willing to do what you’re asking the others to do. Or at least have done it.”
The mother of four has already received honors from the faculty.
“I like her a lot. She really has an open-door policy. She’s there when you need her,” said Michael Rocco, a seventh-grade social studies teacher.
“I think she’s really brought the staff together in the transition. A lot of us were really loyal to Mr. Hoffman, but really … it’s the building itself where you need to be, and the job itself, and she’s continuing that. She’s pushing us forward.”
Erica M. Green, the assistant principal, shared her admiration.
“Dr. Smith and I have a great partnership, which makes it really good. She is really focused, has a clear vision and she makes sure what the vision is,” Green said. “She’s somebody who knows what’s on the cutting edge of education.”
Green elaborated on Smith’s commitment to upholding Conwell’s reputation as a top-notch school.
“We’re celebrating the Conwell spirit, which consists of stellar students. It consists of the committed staff members. Our young people here have a certain je ne sais quoi,” Green said.
“They have a certain charisma to them. There’s something about them, that they have their own leadership qualities that set them apart.”
Nicole Leone, who teaches seventh-grade reading, added her view.
“I think she’s come in with a lot of different ideas. It’s a new leadership style, definitely, that she has, but I like the way things seem to be going,” Leone said. “I think it’s a good school with a lot of hard-working teachers who really care about the students and try to really help them to be successful.”
Smith pledged to be with Conwell for the long haul to help extend its success.
“I’ll go for as long as they’ll have me,” she said.
The Russell H. Conwell Magnet Middle School, named after the founder of Temple University, has started off the school year with even loftier expectations and the desire to go above and beyond its legacy.
Tamara Thomas-Smith, who has a doctorate in educational leadership from St. Joseph’s University, just completed her first full week as principal at Conwell. She was on maternity leave from August until the latter part of October. Even though she was not physically in the office, Smith made her presence felt through e-mail and other means of correspondence with her staff. “I think one of the biggest jobs that I have is trying to implement different programs and implement new things, but keep the heart of Conwell what it is historically,” Smith said. “It’s been a magnet school for years. It’s been performing well for years. (I hope) to keep that, but add a little different flavor to it as well.”
Smith took over her position as principal from Edward Hoffman, who was with the school for more than 30 years. “It’s difficult to follow a legend, but I’m keeping the best of what he had in place here,” she said. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel if things are working, but I’m also trying to bring some of my style of leadership to the school.”
Smith outlined what she and her administration have prioritized at Conwell. “We have 86, 87 percent roughly of our students who are proficient and advanced, but what I always tell my staff is that until we get to 100 percent, there’s always work to do,” she said. “I feel just as much pressure as those other principals. Not just to make AYP (adequate yearly progress), … if one kid in this school isn’t at the highest level of achievement, then there’s still work to be done.”
Smith has been given assistance by Conwell’s new assistant principal, Erica M. Green, who started her tenure at the magnet school this year also. “Conwell has lots of traditions. What makes us a unique school is it is a magnet middle school. So that means young people have to apply to come here, and that means your grades have to be good. You have to be a stellar student,” Green said. “You have to have good attendance and in some cases, you have to be willing to travel. We are located in this neighborhood, but it’s not a neighborhood school; our young people come from all over the city.”
Conwell is at 1849 E. Clearfield St. in Northeast Philadelphia.
Green takes pride in how well rounded the students at Conwell are. “They’re interested in academics. They have a zest for learning, and it’s a school where the students really want to do their best. They also have a sense of giving. Recently, we did a pink and denim day for breast cancer awareness and raised a good amount of funds for the cause,” she said. “It just shows you that the kids want to do well academically, but yet they want to have a pulse on the people. They want to have a pulse on doing something good in the community and really making a difference.”
Nicole Leone teaches social studies at Conwell and shared her perspective. “It’s been a good experience. It’s a lot different from what I’m used to, because I was at an empowerment school, and since this is a non-empowerment school, there’s a lot of difference in allowing the students to do more with the curriculum,” she said.
Peter Koller, who primarily teaches art, just started at Conwell and has been finding his footing.
“The students work at a very high level. A lot of them, their scores are high, and so their capacity for learning is that much higher,” he said. “The students are really easy to engage and they’re really interested in the lessons.”
Michael Rocco is a seventh-grade teacher who has taught at Conwell for five years.
He commutes from his Quakertown home to be a part of the school’s continuing achievements.
“Our kids, we can do so much more with them,” Rocco said. “This being a magnet school, they have much more ability than your neighborhood school.”
He spoke about how their high grades vouched for him as a teacher.
“As a teacher, how they do on different tests is a reflection of you. So, when I give a quiz and the kids do poorly, that’s a reflection on me,” he said. “So, here it’s almost a validation for what I do as a teacher. They’re doing well, which means that I’m doing something well, and from there, can do different things and explore.”
Cassidy Fantuzzo, an eighth-grade science teacher, is in her fifth year of teaching. She shared some details of how she keeps her classroom interesting for the students.
“I teach a variety of kids. This school is very, very diverse and so we get a chance to teach kids from all over the city, which is pretty unique — a lot of different backgrounds — a lot of different abilities and skills,” she said. “We do a lot of labs and projects. We do a lot of demonstrations, and because it’s so interactive, it makes the kids more engaged. We do a lot of group projects. They learn a lot off each other.”
Smith says she wants all of the students to continue learning from all that is around them and use it as a valuable lesson beyond school hours.
“It’s nice to have the academics, to have that piece, but also in middle school, this is a big year for transitions; in terms of social transition and emotional transition; being a mom, I have a set of twins that are 16. I’ve been through it with the males,” she said. “I’ve been through it with the female and I know that this is a very tough time being in this age group — and I think it’s more than just test scores.”
Smith reinforced the school’s declaration that the students and staff abide by.
“The motto for our staff here is ‘Every child, every chance, every day.’”