“Deeply committed” MCPS superintendent retires after 40 years in education

MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith is retiring this spring. His colleagues described the lifelong educator as absolutely brilliant and deeply committed.

MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith is retiring this spring. His colleagues described the lifelong educator as “absolutely brilliant” and “deeply committed.”

By Lily Freeman

Dr. Jack Smith is many things, according to Board of Education member Patricia O’Neill. He’s a loyal friend, a voracious reader, a devoted grandfather, an advocate for equality and “a workhorse, not a show horse.” He’s someone who’s worn all sorts of hats in the American educational system, from teacher to principal to treasurer of the Maryland State Board of Education.

Smith is something else, too: a soon-to-be retiree.

The MCPS superintendent, who has worked in education for over 40 years — five of which have been in MCPS — surprised the school district when he announced his plans to retire this spring. In a video message to the community, Smith described his decision as “bittersweet,” yet one that he had to make. 

Smith’s two-year-old grandson has recently been suffering from health issues, and Smith’s wife, Gayle, has been helping to take care of the child in Maine since mid-2019. The superintendent said he couldn’t bear to stay away from his loved ones any longer.

“My family needs to be together,” Smith said.

Even in the face of familial challenges and a global pandemic, Smith continues to lead MCPS’ roughly 160,000 students with dedication, compassion and unparalleled intelligence, according to those who worked with him.

In hopes of fostering a constructive workplace environment, Smith often reminds his colleagues that “you don’t have to be sick to get better,” according to BoE President Brenda Wolff. This attitude is resonant of Smith’s hallmark message throughout his time in MCPS of “all means all,” said Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations President Cynthia Simonson.

“He always said that MCPS works really well for some students, but it’s not working really well for all students,” Simonson said about the meaning of his classic phrase.

Simonson highlighted Smith’s work on a number of MCPS’ equity-based initiatives, including the Equity Accountability Model and the anti-racism audit. The Equity Accountability Model, which the school district released two years ago, revealed that Black and Hispanic students at socioeconomic disadvantages performed academically worse than their counterparts. The anti-racism audit is an ongoing examination of school system-wide racial discrimination, intended to identify and subsequently eliminate hate-based issues. Smith’s leadership was central to both efforts, Simonson said.

Smith has also furthered MCPS’ involvement in the nationwide Equal Opportunity Schools initiative, which aims to help minority students get involved in AP coursework, said Chief of Teaching, Learning and Schools Dr. Janet Wilson. Smith led the charge to implement the plan in a majority of MCPS’ target high schools.

“It’s just one example of being very intentional about the work we do for students,” Wilson said. “I think that’s a really good word to describe Dr. Smith, with the work that he’s done on behalf of students, that intentionality.”

Smith has had a plethora of experiences that have helped him develop his signature purposefulness. Smith began teaching in 1980, working in the Washington state’s Richland School District for over a decade before crossing the Pacific to serve as a school principal in Tokyo. After six years in Japan, Smith returned to the U.S. to work as a middle school principal in Maryland’s Calvert County. At one point, he took a yearlong leave of absence to facilitate the launch of a boarding school in Thailand. 

Smith became the Calvert County superintendent in 2006 and was named Maryland Superintendent of the Year in 2013. He joined the Maryland State Department of Education that year and served as interim state superintendent from 2015 to 2016, before the BoE selected him as MCPS superintendent in February 2016.

“He’s the best in the business,” said former Student Member of the Board of Education Eric Guerci, who was on the BoE committee that picked Smith. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a better public school leader in America.”

Guerci, now a senior at Princeton, remains close with Smith. The two talk regularly over the phone — “about family, about life, about all sorts of things,” Guerci said.

Smith and Guerci worked together for a full year after MCPS reelected Guerci as SMOB, and the two developed a “special connection,” Guerci said. Smith’s abilities to push an agenda forward and send a clear message consistently impressed Guerci, he said — but the qualities that stood out the most to Guerci were showcased at one particularly memorable B–CC end-of-year event.

During a student awards ceremony, shortly before Guerci graduated in 2017, the then-SMOB sat in the audience unaware that he was a recipient of a schoolwide commendation. What stunned him when the principal called his name, however, wasn’t the accolade, but the identity of the presenter. The other winners received their honors from B–CC teachers, but there, awaiting a moved Guerci, was Smith.

“He had just taken the time out of his incredibly grueling schedule — he was working practically 24/7 — to drive down and present me with this award,” Guerci said. “To be there for me meant a whole, whole lot to me. It showed what kind of a person he is.”

Even after his first SMOB graduated from MCPS, Smith continued to develop meaningful connections with students. 

Back when the Montgomery County Regional student government was able to host in-person meetings, Smith routinely popped into the MCPS cafeteria where the members worked, greeting students and chatting with them about their efforts.

“With some adults, you feel that big gap between you,” said MCR Community Relations Director Sonya Rashkovan, a sophomore. “You didn’t feel that gap with him.”

Smith’s wealth of knowledge is obvious; still, he comes across as modest and eager to learn, Wilson said.

“He can laugh and stop and pause,” she said. “He’s just an ordinary human being who has a huge commitment in his heart and head for kids.”

O’Neill noted that Smith’s challenges this year have been far from insignificant.

“Right before MCPS shut down, I remember saying to him that I’d heard on the news that you’re supposed to have two weeks worth of groceries in the house,” O’Neill said. “He said, ‘I don’t even have two hours worth of groceries,’ because prior to that his wife had gone up to Maine. It’s been an incredible sacrifice for him this past year.”

Even through his difficulties, Smith has remained resilient and has gone about his duties with as much diligence and acumen as when he first joined MCPS, O’Neill said.

Smith is “absolutely brilliant,” Guerci said. Simonson described him as “remarkably smart.”

But above all, they said, Smith is a superintendent who’s been truly dedicated to his school district.

“I am confident that MCPS will continue to do great work on behalf of our 160,000 students — it always has,” Smith wrote in his farewell letter. “I wish only the very best for Montgomery County Public Schools going forward.”