CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)- Just bring up the subject of his imminent departure from Howard High School, and principal Paul Smith finds it hard to talk about. Pausing for a moment to fight back tears, Smith said, "When you've done this for so long and poured your heart into it from early every morning to late every night....its just hard to walk away."
Smith resigned last week, surprising many of his colleagues by taking a post in the new administration of recently elected Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. The fifteen-year educator is stepping outside his comfort zone, accepting the newly created position of Public Safety Coordinator for the city.
In six years, the 41-year-old Smith has overseen the changing of a culture at Howard. The school has transformed from chaos to a more orderly climate. Under Smith's leadership the school has almost doubled the graduation rate, and test scores are headed in the right direction. Early in his term, the state had threatened to take over the school, or even shut it down. Smith's number one fan is School Board member George Ricks, who visits the school each day. He calls Smith "a young man that I can look up to, a man among men."
"He didn't come in and say it's just my way, he said it's our way," Ricks said. He has sacrificed to make Howard what it is today."
But Smith admits the long hours and unending pressure of being an urban high school principal took its toll. When Chattanooga's new mayor offered him a position, he said the timing was right for a change.
"This is the toughest job I've ever loved," Smith said. "I knew coming in, this would be a tough one. But I feel like we've made a difference. There are some great adults in this building who are devoted to these kids. And I can leave knowing that we have some productive young people out there who hung in there and earned their diplomas. I will really miss the students."
As he prepares to pack up and say goodbye to the school he loves, Smith says he won't be leaving those students behind. Instead, he says his new job is an opportunity to help more young people, throughout the city.
"I'm fortunate to have two good leaders," Smith said. (Superintendent) Rick Smith has been good to me, and when I've gone to him with problems, he has always said the right thing, he's given me the right advice. And I believe in Mayor Berke. I'm honored that he has asked me to serve. He has a plan, and we're going to carry it out. We're going to help children and families. We're reaching out to them. This community has to work together, they have to show up and be a part of it."
Ricks said Smith "is leaving big shoes to fill" at Howard, but he's confident that the next principal, current East Ridge High principal Zac Brown will continue Howard's forward momentum. One of Smith's assistant principals, Mark Smith is also leaving for a principal job at Tyner Middle Academy. Another administrator, assistant principal Cynthia Dees, is reportedly staying at Howard.
Smith concluded, "This wasn't an easy decision, but you know when it's time to leave the desk, to leave the building. I've given everything I had, and I'm not ruling out coming back to education some day. But for now, I'm looking forward to working in city government, and I'm going to work hard to have a positive impact on all of our children and families."
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