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When Tony Smith became Oakland schools superintendent four years ago, he vaulted the struggling district into the national spotlight with his vision of creating a “community school district” that would vastly expand the role of schools in the lives of their students and the community as a whole.

Instead of just focusing on what goes on in the classroom, Smith argued, the schools should focus on serving the “whole child” by partnering with community organizations to offer a range of enrichment, health, social and other services for children and their families.

Now, Smith has stunned fellow educators by announcing that he will leave the district in June, raising questions about whether his community school initiative will be sustained after his departure.

Those concerns are not necessarily unfounded. The departure of an urban school superintendent, often after a relatively short tenure, can bring an abrupt end to one series of reforms and the introduction of another.

Smith himself says his departure is “bittersweet.”

“We’re right on the verge of some really important next level change,” said Smith, 46, who said his resignation was prompted by a need to move to Chicago to help care for his wife’s ailing parents.
Tony Smith, superintendent of Oakland Unified School District. Credit: OUSD

Tony Smith

So far, the district is in the “implementation stage” of the plan – the first cohort of 27 district schools have a dedicated community school coordinator working to develop a full service community school strategy at those campuses. At full roll-out, all of Oakland’s 87 schools, from the highest- to lowest-performing, are supposed to become full-service community schools.

Smith believes his departure will not derail the effort.

“This is really a movement,” he said. “It’s become about the community thinking that what we need is support and high-quality schools in every neighborhood. People are now expecting the district to behave this way, not just Tony Smith.”

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