Chamberlin Education Foundation: What was your initial reaction to the news that you had been selected for the first-ever Julie Wright Changemaker award?
Scottie Smith: I don’t like awards (laughs) but when I found out this was to honor Julie Wright, it made me feel very full inside. I liked Julie. I got to know Julie.
What did you find in her that you liked?
When we got started, now, it was a whole different look. She was telling me how she cared about educating kids and she wanted good schools, and that schools could be better. You know, I had my doubts. I told her “I agree, but, you know, people have said that before. People can talk a good game.”
As we grew closer and worked together on different issues, then I really came to understand that she was an authentic person. She was honest, she was straightforward, she wouldn’t, you know, ‘BS’ you or anything.
You were an education advocate in Maryland before coming to California. What got you involved in the work you do in West Contra Costa?
My oldest daughter, she’s learning disabled, and back at the time when she was born, schools didn’t have many services for special ed students. A large number, particularly students with severe disabilities, were sitting at home. So when my daughter was born, I wanted my daughter in school with typically-developing peers, so I had to go and start fighting.
In advocating for my own child, other parents were looking and saying, “Okay, how did you get this?” or “How did you get that?” And I would tell them, and then we came together as a group to advocate for implementation of the laws. But coming to California and seeing how bad off it was, it blew my mind.
What did you discover?
My kids went to Valley View Elementary. A great, nice school. Then I was reading the paper one day, and there was this article about the kids at Peres (Elementary). Their water, drinking water, was rusty. And that blew my mind. They didn’t have computers. We had a whole computer lab at Valley View. When I saw that, I thought, “This is ridiculous.”
So then, I just started. I got a group of like-minded parents at Valley View, and I said, “You know, we can’t just sit here and think about how great things are at Valley View. We have to look at this larger district.”
When I work with parents, I try to give them strategies to take over when people like myself are not there. Basically, I don’t think people like me should have to exist. If schools were doing their job, then there would be no need for advocates.
What are you proud to have accomplished in your work here that people may not really know about?
I walked in (to meet with teachers in the early 1990s) and said, ” Okay. What are you going to teach my kid? What are the standards that you’re going to use to teach my child?”
They had told us they followed the textbook. Whatever they had in the textbook was the end of it. So we started advocating for grade level expectations based upon a framework (from models in other districts).
We called a meeting and showed it to the district staff and said, “This is what we want. The teachers should have these things to know how to teach our kids, these standards.” They implemented those standards. They printed them out so every school would have them. Every parent could get a copy of them.
What is something today that you want students or teachers or parents to believe is possible from this point forward for students in our district?
Now, in my old age, I have a great deal of concern about what’s going to happen to a large majority of our kids when they graduate. Back then, I thought things would change. Because we had change-makers all around us. I am worried because the things that were good seem to have just fallen by the wayside. Everybody’s coming up with something, but it’s not student-centered.
So, today, if you and others are truly successful at advancing your vision, what would be different in five to ten years for students in the district?
You would have kids who, by the time they hit third grade, can read on grade level. Who would be thinkers, and who would think creatively. Who could write. Who would know
(that) if you can read, the other stuff becomes a little easier for you. Even math. And then you would have kids graduating from high school, able to go straight into the university system, and hold their own in terms of academics. That’s what I’d like to see.
I have a commitment that when I advocate for a child, I am going to do whatever is necessary to get the services for my children. I call them that. They’re not, you know. But I’m going to do what I have to do to make sure those children are served.
Many people remember Julie’s courage and commitment in advocating for West Contra Costa kids to be able to access a high-quality education. How has courage and commitment shown up in your work over the years?
It does take courage. You have to have that. When you’re saying something is wrong, and pointing out the wrongness of what is happening to children, people are gonna come at you a million ways, they always do. When you have to say to people that they are doing something wrong, then you’re gonna have to be ready to take the blowback. Julie was always ready to take the blowback. She could be honest, and she was gonna tell you even if she thought it hurt you. And that’s courage.
If you were going to tell a younger person who was getting involved in education advocacy about Julie, what would you want them to know most about her?
She had a vision in terms of education, a vision that was, to use an old phrase: All children can learn. Teachers can be better. And you just have to stand up and say what you want, and support those ideas that you know will help make it better.
About the Chamberlin Education Foundation
The Chamberlin Education Foundation supports initiatives that advance education equity and academic excellence in West Contra Costa public schools. CEF’s grants and programs support effective education leadership, high-quality curriculum and instruction, restorative student interventions, and help create and sustain a student-centered public education ecosystem.
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