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King’s principal takes key school district post

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Saturday June 15, 2002

Neil Smith, the widely-respected principal of Martin Luther King Middle School, has been named director of curriculum, instruction and staff development for the district, effective July 1. 

The position is a new one, approved by the Board of Education in February during a reorganization of the central office. Superintendent Michele Lawrence said Smith’s primary tasks will be to develop a coherent staff development plan and create a consistent curriculum for the district. 

“He’s going to have a tough job, but I’m so very confident,” Lawrence said. 

Parents and officials across the district praised the move, but said Smith will be difficult to replace. Smith served as principal for 13 years, and helped turn the school into an award-winning institution. 

“This is a really sad and scary day and a really fabulous day at the same time,” said Nancy Riddle, a school board candidate whose daughter just completed seventh grade at King. “Neil is the greatest leader I have met in the Berkeley schools.” 

Lawrence said the district will convene a principal search committee “very shortly” and is hoping to have a new leader at King by September. 

“If we don’t (find a new principal by September), there are some very, very capable assistant principals at that school (who could fill in),” Lawrence said. 

School board president Shirley Issel said Smith’s challenge is to improve staff development, which is vital to the district’s success. 

“All the studies indicate that the key to educating students is effective teaching,” she said. “Neil has a reputation for growing effective teachers.” 

Lawrence said the district needs to focus its staff development in a few key areas – such as literacy, a consistent writing program beginning in the early grades and a tightening of mathematics instruction – in order to be more effective. 

“There’s a lot of good teacher training that’s going on in the organization, but my belief is we need to identify key components for all teachers,” she said. 

Lawrence said she will also ask Smith to develop a more consistent, system-wide curriculum that allows the board a larger role in oversight. She said she expects Smith to consult teachers heavily in curriculum development. 

Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Barry Fike said Smith has a strong reputation for involving teachers. 

“He’s so well-respected among the teachers at his site and throughout the district,” Fike said. “We’re really going to benefit from his expertise.” 

Fike said the district already has some “good building blocks” in place for staff development, including a peer review program built into the teachers’ contract. He is hoping that Smith will help pull together existing elements and provide a unifying vision. 

Lawrence said the district will announce shortly several other key personnel moves. 


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