When she interviewed for a teaching position at Amistad Academy in 2000, Shanta Morrison Smith ’99 required no introduction to the educational challenges of growing up in the desperate landscape of New Haven, Conn. She lived it.

“My memories of it were that you had a lot of teachers who were working hard, but they were drained,” Smith said. “They tried to give me what I needed, but they had to deal with so many behavior issues, issues of poverty that came into play, that they didn’t have much left after that.”

So when Doug McCurry ’94, who heads teacher recruitment for Amistad, called to talk to her about leaving her teaching position in Washington, D.C., public schools, to come back to her hometown, she couldn’t believe her ears. You insist on good behavior? You expect college-track work? You’re outperforming the suburbs? “I said, ‘Wait. Does this school actually exist in New Haven?’ It was a noticeable difference from the D.C. schools in attitude, and I could tell it just from the phone call.”

And when, while touring the school with then-principal Dacia Toll ’94, Smith discovered that Toll not only knew every child’s name but could have a personal conversation with them, Smith was sold.

Likewise were Toll and McCurry, who call Smith one of their “star teachers.” Smith not only goes the extra mile – giving one-on-one instruction between classes and holding four-hour tutoring sessions on Saturdays – but she also is able to see in her seventh-graders the same struggles she and her peers once faced, and she uses those lessons to help guide them.

One young woman entered her class in the fall with a propensity to talk back each time Smith gave a directive, to refuse to participate in lessons, to sit and glare at the instructor. But by January, she had become the first to raise her hand, the first to pick up dropped papers or pencils, the most likely to tell wavering peers to get back on task.

“It was just a total turnaround,” Smith said. “It came not only from me telling her stories of my own experiences, but her really starting to see the difference in herself and embracing that difference.”

Smith says that, when she was in school, she lacked that kind of teacher guidance and only wound up at Chapel Hill thanks to a caring mother who juggled school assignments so her daughter would be tracked in honor classes and distinguished scholar programs. She was valedictorian of her high school class but still struggled mightily with English classes at Carolina, spending much of her time at the campus Writing Center.

“Academically, I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been,” Smith said. “New Haven schools weren’t a totally negative experience, but it wasn’t one that our kids are getting here at Amistad. I remember my middle school teachers, but did they know me as well as I know my students, or as well as my colleagues do? No. And that’s what’s needed at the middle school level, especially with all the challenges kids have today at that age. It’s a really critical time. It’s when tides can turn.”

Smith doesn’t mind the long hours teachers at Amistad put in, or the one-year contracts. All staff – including Toll and McCurry, who, like all administrators, also teach – are evaluated annually, subject to excellent student performance and classroom culture. (About one teacher per school is let go each year.) Despite the fact that teachers’ unions often are the strongest opponents of charter schools, she says she doesn’t miss the automatic union membership that came with her D.C. job. In fact, Amistad pays a little more than its district counterparts, provides benefits and offers Smith a flexible schedule that allows her to make time for her husband and two small children.

“Ultimately, I have more time to connect with my students,” she says. “We’re teaching them to be great people.”

Copyright 2006 UNC General Alumni Association

From the Carolina Alumni Review September/October 2006 issue.

(Sidebar to “Great Expectations“)