Conwell principal is there ‘for the long haul’

Conwell Middle Magnet School Principal Dr. Tamara Thomas-Smith believes that all of the students at Conwell should have the option of going to college. “That should be their choice,” she said. “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.” — PHOTO/ABDUL SULAYMAN, TRIBUNE CHIEF PHOTOGRAPHER

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.

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