Ray Huard…Charlene Smith never imagined herself becoming a school principal, but the former accountant’s assistant, who doesn’t like attention, was named elementary school principal of the year by a group of her fellow educators.
“I feel good for my team, because I feel like they’re getting the recognition they deserve as well,” said Smith, who was singled out as a top administrator by the Association of California School Administrators Region 18, which covers San Diego and Imperial counties.
Since December 2011, Smith has been principal of Monte Vista Elementary School in the Vista Unified School District.
It’s a job she never sought, but is happy she was chosen for it.
“I believe I’m here to serve the community, and I take great pleasure in creating opportunities for the students and their families that might otherwise not happen,” Smith said. “It can’t be about you. It’s about serving others.”
She’s been a teacher, an elementary school reading specialist and an instructional coach in Vista Unified at Casita Center for Technology & Math and Monte Vista.
When Monte Vista’s principal left at mid-year, “I was asked to fill in as an interim principal for the rest of the year,” Smith said. “It was quite an honor, so I took it. The rest is history.”
Smith’s colleagues said that the history she’s made at Monte Vista has been remarkable.
“Charlene has completely transformed Monte Vista in her six years as principal,” Monte Vista Assistant Principal Sheryl Schmidt wrote in nominating Smith for principal of the year.
“She has offered the hope of college to students and families who never dreamed it would be possible,” Schmidt wrote. “She is the epitome of professionalism and efficiency, while also being the most nurturing and compassionate leader one could meet.”
Under Smith’s direction, Monte Vista in 2015 earned membership in the No Excuses University Network of Schools, a nationwide organization that promotes the notion that higher education should be an option for everyone.
As part of that, flags from colleges and universities across the country hang outside the doorway of every classroom and each class adopts a college or university as their own, learning about the schools.
“Students whose lower economic status might have made college seem foreign and unattainable before, now proudly chant their class’s adopted college fight songs and wave their college flags proudly,” Schmidt wrote. “Parents whose educational careers stopped in high school, are now able to understand college application processes and scholarship possibilities for their children.”
In October, Monte Vista hosted a career fair open to students from throughout the school district to inspire students to think about what careers they might want to pursue.
During the career fair, students posed for photographs of themselves dressed in cap and gown, holding a frame that said what year they would graduate from college.
“These photos inspire students and their families to become lifelong learners who believe in themselves, and stop at nothing to achieve their goals,” Schmidt wrote.
Assistant Superintendent Matthew Doyle, in writing to support Smith’s nomination as principal of the year, said that she “is highly respected among teachers and administrators across the district and county.”
“She is known not only for her knowledge and expertise as an educational leader, but loved by all for her cheerful, respectful personality,” Doyle wrote.
Sharmila Kraft, district executive director for elementary schools, wrote in support of Smith’s nomination, that she is “a hands-on principal who makes a difference at Monte Vista Elementary.”
“As a principal, it is not always what you know, but how you deal with people,” Kraft wrote. “Charlene is effective in building relationships. Teachers truly respect her opinions and appreciate her open door policy. Parents feel their children are treated fairly and respectfully and with the best interest of their child in mind. Students know she is an advocate.”
Growing up in Ohio, Smith initially thought that she might go into teaching, “Then, as I got older, starting in high school, I wanted to be an accountant,” Smith said.
Working for a certified public accountant changed her mind, adding, “I learned that sitting behind a desk was not for me.”
Moving to California 24 years ago, Smith got a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and her teaching credential from California State University. She became a teacher at Casita in 1995.
“The only two schools I ever worked at were Casita and Monte Vista,” Smith said.
As much as she loved teaching, Smith said that the principal’s role suits her.
“When I was a classroom teacher, I could impact the students in my class, but now, I can impact so many more students,” Smith said. “One of the great things about Monte Vista is, we are like a big family. It’s very rewarding,”
Smith starts her school day greeting every student as they come to school, giving hugs, high-fives and smiles.
“I want them to feel love when they walk onto this campus, and I want them to feel safe,” Smith said.