After twelve years as superintendent of TUFSD, Howard Smith will retire this June. On April 13, he will be honored for his work at a fundraising dinner at the DoubleTree hotel in Tarrytown hosted by the Foundation for the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns. For more information about the event in his honor and in support of local schools, email email@example.com or call 914-366-8457.
Twelve years ago, when a group of Tarrytown Union Free School District parents and faculty in search of a new school superintendent drove six hours north to the Canton Central School District in Canton, New York (population 6,300) near the Canadian border, they found modern and well-appointed school buildings resembling what they’d been dreaming about building in Tarrytown for over a decade.
And they met the man who had spearheaded the renovation project—school superintendent Howard Smith, Ph.D. Convinced Smith could do for Tarrytown what he’d done on a smaller scale upstate and what no TUFSD superintendent in recent history had been able to pull off, the district hired him and gave him the charge of finding a way to renovate aging schools, make more space and better use of existing space, and create a true middle school.
Smith got busy immediately, said Regina Mignogna, the first president of the Foundation for the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns and a member of the hiring committee that travelled to Canton. While his first semester as superintendent began just days before the September 11 attacks and shortly after U.S. President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, he stayed focused and utilized his superb listening skills along with his ability to analyze and frame information in a way that would build teams and community involvement, said Mignogna.
In 2004, voters passed a budget with plans to rebuild the schools, allowing him to oversee a $72 million building expansion and renovation project in the district, and watch as the last brick was laid in 2008. Already, 1,600 students have benefitted from changes in the middle and high school buildings. Now, just months before he is set to retire, he views renovation project with a mix of pride and modesty.
“It was certainly something I was hired for, and I feel good about completing,” said Smith. “We really benefitted from a lot of good input from the community and the school district and we were able to put together a building that took into account the space and design needs of each department.”
But his thumbprint on the district is not only in the brick and mortar of the buildings, according to school board member Paul Rode. Under Smith’s direction, the district finally created a true middle school model for sixth through eighth grade, developed a dual language program for a select group of kindergartners through fifth graders, expanded enrollment in AP courses and increased the number of AP courses to 17, placed smart boards in every single district classroom and underwent a consolidation leading to more rational and educationally appropriate grade distribution. The district has been nationally recognized for dropout prevention, and 93 percent of graduating students are being admitted to college and university.
“For the past 12 years, Dr. Smith has been an effective and influential educational leader for our community. Throughout his tenure in the Tarrytowns he has brought a balanced approach to his school activities; but always with an emphasis on what is best for our students,” said Joe Lillis, school board president. ”The district is well positioned to move forward as a consequence of his work.”
Smith modestly gives credit to others—including the Foundation for Public Schools of the Tarrytowns. “When I came in I was able to move forward quickly in terms of technology because of a lot of good groundwork by the Foundation," he said. “In the Foundation’s early years, technology had been their focus and reason for existence, and it was an area of interest of mine. The Foundation worked exactly the way it was intended, it would come in and get things off the ground and then pass the work back to the district so we were able to get the ball rolling. Our school board then made significant commitments in our regular budget to keep things moving forward.”
He said it is not an accident that anyone anywhere in the district can have fast access to the internet, and that teachers have embraced the use of technology in their teaching, and that even kindergartners have iPads in their classrooms.
“Dr. Smith understands the importance of the Foundation and has been huge supporter of it,” said Mary McBride, Foundation President. “He wants to raise the bar on academic programs and has reached out to the Foundation for seed money to get new and innovative programs off the ground. If the program was a success, he fought to get it on the district budget. If a program needed tweaking, he was not afraid to say so to make it just right for the teachers and students. In addition, he has been a wise and trusted colleague, and his advice to us has been invaluable. He is a true partner to this community.”
Smith complimented both the Foundation’s and the PTA’s as being strong supporters of the arts. “During tight financial times in recent years, both organizations have continued to provide the support which allowed us to keep some of our arts programs running,” he said, listing strands for visual arts, performing arts, dance and music. “Together, we have looked to provide a balance of opportunities for students to support the experience throughout their education.”
One of the programs, funded for the most part through the Foundation and PTA, is dramatic arts programs in the elementary and middle schools. Both of them are run through a unique partnership between the Tarrytown YMCA and the school district.
“Dr. Smith’s accessibility has been invaluable to the work of the Foundation,” said Shelly Colley, director of the foundation. “We’ve been productive and accomplished a lot together because his door has always been open, his answers and advice have been efficient and direct.”
Dr. Smith credits the talents of YMCA arts director, Peter Royston with bringing innovative dramatic arts programs to the district. Last year, Sleepy Hollow Middle School was one of a few schools in the country asked to perform an adaption of Disney’s Lion King and have it viewed by Disney representatives. Royston says that without Dr. Smith’s belief in the program, it could not have been successful.
“It's as true now as it has been for centuries: the theatre needs support, and Howard's support has always been a cornerstone of our theatre programs, for both the YMCA and the District,” said Royston. “He really believes in theatre as an educational tool and has gone above and beyond behind the scenes to keep these programs going and growing.”
Smith says the new auditorium, strategically placed near the music classrooms and noted for its acoustics, plus other new meeting facilities has given the school a reputation as for good arts programs —such as the fall jazz festival. It’s also space sought after for science fairs, robotics fairs, and Special Olympics.
According to Colley, Smith is in attendance at most district events held in these beautiful new facilities. “If there are five events in a week from the music concerts, to the honor assemblies to science nights, he is there,” said Colley. “I think that says so much about his dedication to the students and the teachers.”
Another testament to his dedication to students is his visits to kindergarten classrooms throughout the years to read to and be read to by over 200 kindergarten students, said school board vice president Mimi Godwin.
“Howard has always loved to find time to sit down with kindergartners and first graders and read to them,” said Godwin. “These visits are fun for him, but also show the little ones how importantreading would in their lives.”
For Smith, these visits to classrooms and walks through the hallways of the schools have made the time he spent in planning meetings, pouring over facts and figures, or listening to public comments duringschool board meetings worthwhile.
“If I’m ever down, I go out the door of the administration building and walk through the schools to see what teachers and kids are doing, and I promise you, you can’t come back from that in a bad mood,” said Smith. “I’m not implying we have a perfect environment—there will always be issues that we are working on in the district. But there are creative things going on, bonds being made between teachers and students, children who come from many different circumstances and backgrounds. The notion that diversity is tolerated, well, that’s just setting the bar too low for us. We actually embrace it here. We value diversity, and try as hard as we can to open doors and provide opportunities for all of our students. That’s an atmosphere I’ve been proud to be part of.”