Shawn Smith: School leadership forged by tragedy

By David McGuire

Superintendents are their district’s instructional leader, financial decision maker, community figure, and in some cases, political leader. The impact they will have is one that will be felt for many years to come. They can change the lives not just of the students in their districts, but of budding educators like myself, who dream to do the same remarkable work. Fortunately, here in Indianapolis we have five black individuals serving in public school districts as superintendents.

In the third installment of this five-part series I want to shine a spotlight on Shawn Smith, superintendent of the Lawrence Township School District.

They say when you make it to the top that you should send the elevator back down to bring others up behind you. The superintendents in this series are ensuring through their examples of fine leadership that another generation will follow in their footsteps, working toward fair and equal education for all students.

Dr. Shawn Smith had to face a distinct challenge to his fitness for leadership early in his career as a superintendent, when he and Lawrence Township faced a terrible tragedy. In January, only two years into his role as superintendent, the principal at an elementary school in his district was killed when a school bus jumped the curb during pick-up after school and plowed into the crowd.

Smith is homegrown talent. An Indianapolis native, he attended public schools there and won his advanced degrees at Indiana universities. But nothing could have prepared him for the trauma surrounding a random accident involving a rogue school bus. 

Needless to say, the school community was thrown into complete turmoil in the moments following the accident, as children, parents, and teachers tried to figure out what had happened and who had been hurt. It turned out that the bus driver had failed to engage the emergency brake and gotten out of her seat when the bus began moving forward, trapping children underneath. The principal, Susan Jordan, saw the disaster unfolding and managed to push children to safety before being run over herself.

The turmoil continued as the news of the principal’s death filtered into the community and hit the news that night. Smith told reporters, “As superintendent of schools, representative of the entire school community, we lost a great educator today…We are talking about a legend [and] this loss is going to ripple across our district of 15,000 students.”

I met Shawn Smith for the first time when I was junior and he took over as the first principal of Pike’s Freshman Center. As the years went on he was always someone that I admired.

His leadership and mentoring really flourished six years later when I graduated from college and came home and began working in Pike Township. This time Dr. Smith was the assistant superintendent. As I began to embark on my journey as an educator Dr. Smith was there for words of wisdom and guidance.

Brandon Brooks, a teacher in Lawrence Township, first met Dr. Smith when he started mid year as one of two assistant principals at Eastwood Middle School back in the late ‘90s. Smith became one of the African American Scholars advisors as well.

“I always admired Dr. Smith from afar, and in many ways I still do,” Brooks said. “Although I have not had the privilege to work with him personally yet, I am personally feeling the effects of his work as a teacher in Lawrence Township. As an African American male, rarely do you see African American males in roles of authority, in school. However, to see him as an administrator was important to my formation as a man and is important to me as African American male teacher today.”

Dr. Smith’s leadership by action has helped many African American men–including myself and Brandon Brooks–follow in his footsteps and leave an impact on the next generation, just as he has left an impact on us.

Photo courtesy of the Indy Star