A principal described by his teachers as a "superlative" administrator was honored Friday as the Berkeley Public Education Foundation’s educator of the Year.
“He goes far beyond the job description of principal,” King Middle School drama teacher
Richard Silberg said of Principal Neil Smith during last week’s BPEF luncheon. “He’s the ‘prince’ in ‘principal.’”
In addition to honoring Smith as educator of the year, the Foundation presented UC Berkeley education professor Pedro Noguera with the “Rise to the Challenge” Special Award and gave the Distinguished Business Partners awards to Bruce Ackerman of Ackerman’s Volvo Service and Andrew and Sally Han of Elmwood Stationers.
Smith has been King School’s principal since 1989, after spending 10 years as vice principal of San Ramon Valley High School and principal of a small parochial middle school in San Francisco.
During his tenure, King has been recognized as a California Distinguished School, has integrated “ecoliteracy” into the curriculum through the Edible Schoolyard and has served as a model school for its English curriculum.
A small booklet distributed at Friday’s luncheon, held at H’s Lordships restaurant, included words of praises from teachers and from Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse and founder of the Edible Schoolyard.
A recurring comment from all the respondents was Smith’s willingness to listen to everyone – not just hear, but listen – and then provide honest feedback and search for ways to meet a need.
“This is what I love so much about Neil: Somehow he manages to be entirely honest and straightforward and, at the same time, deliberate, authoritative and judicious,” Waters writes. “He meets problems head-on, spontaneously, by dipping into his great well of understanding.”
In his acceptance comments, Smith emphasized the importance of building a strong team, which is the key to a successful school.
“My primary accomplishment at King has been attracting and recruiting highly talented teachers,” he said.
The other educator honored Friday was Noguera, a former school board member and a highly vocal critic of institutional racism in its various forms.
He’s been active in Berkeley since 1981, when he moved to town to pursue a graduate degree in sociology at UC Berkeley. He became executive assistant to Loni Hancock when she was elected mayor in 1984, and he served on the school board from 1990 to 1994. In 1990 he also joined the faculty of the Graduate School of Education at Cal.
In her introduction of Noguera, UC Berkeley Community Relations Director Irene Hegarty said that throughout her many interactions with her colleague – at the university, in the community, during their shared tenure on the school board – she has seen an unswerving dedication to improving public schools for all children.
“He has a sense of purpose about having a sense of commitment,” Hegarty said.
Noguera – who is leaving Berkeley for a professorship at Harvard University – told the audience Friday that administrators come and go, school board members come and go, even teachers come and go. The only constant in a community is the community itself, and that’s where true change begins.
“It’s so easy to get complacent, it’s so easy to accept the disparities (between students of different races) as being normal, and think that certain kids just can’t learn, and if we believe that, then we fail.”
Both businesses honored last week have participated in the Foundation’s “Berkeley Businesses Support Berkeley Public Schools” campaign.
Ackerman has been a longtime supporter of New Columbus Elementary School (now Rosa Parks Elementary School) in his neighborhood in West Berkeley. He also has been a core Foundation supporter. Throughout all of the year 2000, the business is giving customers the option of directing 5 percent of their service bill to the Berkeley Public Education Foundation.
A similar effort has been undertaken by Elmwood Stationers, which contributed 10 percent of all sales from the back-to-school months of August and September. The store gives a year-round discount to teachers, and offers a deeper discount in August and September. The business also is frequently involved in school raffles and other fund-raisers.
In his introductory comments on the two honored businesses, Cody’s Books owner Andy Ross noted that both are involved in giving back to their community.
“Community businesses are the goose that lays the golden egg,” he said.