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Melissa Smith leaves Central for a new position aimed at helping students across the county

There is arguably no bigger personality in Stanly County — let alone the school system — than Central Elementary principal Melissa Smith. Sources say her enthusiasm and energy for doing whatever possible to help her students is infectious to anyone that comes into contact with her.

She even has her own language she’s cultivated during her career, known to many Central staff and students as “Smithanese.” She speaks it whenever “I start getting excited about what I’m doing,” which happens quite a lot.

When around people not as familiar with her high-energy personality, Smith jokes that staff members often have to translate for her.

But after 14 years as principal of the school, Smith, 50, recently transitioned to a new position within the central office. She is now Stanly County Schools’ first director of community engagement and dropout prevention.

The position was created using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding, part of the federal CARES Act, to help with COVID-19-related issues impacting students’ education.

Her replacement at Central will be Dr. Erik Johnson, who was previously principal at East Albemarle Elementary, according to Hope Miller-Drye, administrative and board assistant. East Albemarle Assistant Principal Judith Wherritt will be promoted to principal.

Superintendent Dr. Jarrod Dennis and several other administrative officials visited Smith in February to ensure she was on her right career trajectory and, knowing she was getting her leadership doctoral degree from the University of Charlotte, inquired about her career goals. The gesture meant a lot to Smith.

“I thought that was so nurturing and reassuring that they were even concerned to hold conversations about me,” she said. “I never think about me, I only think about the children and others.”

After a few more meetings with Dennis, he brought up several jobs, including the new community engagement position. SCS staff, knowing her natural ability to connect with students, encouraged her to apply for them, Smith said, but she was reluctant to accept any new role since her identity was so connected with Central.

“I never had any intention of leaving Central, of course, because that just can’t happen,” she said. “My heart’s intertwined with this place. This is my harvest, my ministry.”

“Central has really given me the opportunity to learn more about who I am and how I can affect others,” she added.

Eventually, though, the appeal of a position where she could impact even more students set in and she applied for and later got the job. Her new role will involve coming up with strategies to boost community engagement which, she hopes, will then help decrease student drop out rates.

“After the interview process was completed, Mrs. Smith was chosen out of a diverse field of highly qualified candidates based on her qualifications and experience,” Dennis said in an email. “Her current presence in the community will also help her to be highly successful in her new role.”

She wants to function as a bridge, connecting struggling students and their families with the larger school community “to let them know that we see you, we hear you and we care.” And with her proactive personality, she plans to hit the ground running.

“I’m a woman of action,” she said. “I’m boots on the ground.”

Smith will specifically work “within communities to help remove obstacles that may impede the ability of the schools to provide for their student’s educational needs,” Dennis said.

While nervous about leaving what had been her home for more than a decade, she feels called to the new position.

“I’m looking at this season as a new chapter to do greater things at a bigger level,” she said.

And helping people has always been part of Smith’s DNA.

Growing up a servant leader

Born in Fort Myers, Florida, Smith comes from a family that emphasized helping others. Her mother owns a daycare, while her father, who initially worked as a garbage collector, eventually became supervisor of the city’s waste management department. They are also preachers at their church. Her seven siblings — six of which are girls — are also in professions that help others: two own daycare facilities, another is a psychologist and her brother is a manager with UPS.

Despite financial struggles and other hardships growing up, Smith had a loving, close-knit family that always made time to talk with each other and eat dinner each night.

“Even though there was a struggle, we thought we were the richest people on earth,” she said.

Smith’s parents, because of their lack of education (her father had a sixth grade education and her mother dropped out of high school), consistently emphasized the importance of knowledge and discipline, making sure each child completed their homework and carried out their chores.

She believes her background helps her to better relate with many students who might also come from lower-income families.

“We come from a family of educators, so I know that despite your hardship, despite the struggle, despite where you come from, you can make it,” she said.

Her background also taught Smith the dignity of work and that no profession is inherently more important than any other. Her father’s time spent working up the chain of command within waste management had a direct impact on Smith’s future: She was able to attend Florida State University thanks to a scholarship from the waste management company.

“I made it because he was a garbageman,” she said. “So yes, I’m going to be positive and treat the person standing at the door or picking up the trash just the same as the president of the United States because they are both contributing members of this world.”

Smith only stayed at FSU for about a semester — though she was around and met NFL legend Deion Sanders, another Fort Myers native — before eventually transitioning to the University of South Florida, where she graduated with a degree in elementary education.

Becoming a teacher and moving to Stanly County

Smith initially studied business in college, but was inspired by her older sister Joyce to change career paths.

“She would drag me along and I would have to help her with the bulletin boards and setting up the classroom,” she said.

Seeing the passion in her sister’s eyes while talking about her students and watching her interact with them clearly had an impact on Smith.

“She’s just proud and excited and so I got the excitement, it was contagious,” she said.

Even after more than 35 years of inspiring students and her little sister, Joyce is still in the teaching profession.

“We’re just teachers by nature in my family,” Smith said.

People might find it hard to believe now, but Smith was not always the gregarious, larger-than-life personality that she’s cultivated in Stanly County — in fact, growing up, she was the exact opposite. She was a shy introvert who was more comfortable observing others than interacting with them. Smith was also bullied at times and, like many young people, had confidence issues.

But after graduating from USF and getting her first experience of teaching young people, everything changed and Smith’s extroverted, passionate personality blossomed.

“Teaching is dramatic for me,” she said. “It is your own stage. It’s not about you. You’re trying to engage your audience and I learned that through the teaching process.”

Smith taught K-5 for about 10 years in Florida (she also taught English to immigrants at an adult learning center) before she happened to meet a man via an online Christian dating site. After about eight months of talking, the two finally met in person in Macon, Georgia.

While they were engaged, Smith received her master’s in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University.

About two years after first meeting, she married Tim Smith, who worked at Michelin and also happened to be from Stanly County. Having already secured a job with the school system, she moved to the county in June 2003 and a month later, began work as a fourth grade teacher at North Albemarle Elementary.

“My healing came in helping others”

While working at the clothing store Cato’s during her time at North Albemarle, opportunity knocked in the form of a phone call from Dave Bright, principal at Albemarle High School. He asked to meet with her.

Aware of her degree in educational leadership, Bright encouraged her to apply for the position of assistant principal. She did, ultimately got the job and was assistant principal for about three years.

She called Bright her “unsung hero” for giving her the opportunity to learn and grow under his watch.

“He told me there is no script or manual for leadership and he allowed me to make mistakes as often as needed to hone my leadership,” she said.

Smith recalls talking with students in the cafeteria around 2007 when Superintendent Dr. Samuel DePaul approached her.

“Are you ready to spread your wings?” he asked her.

“And I said, ‘Yes sir, how far?’ ” Smith recalled, with a chuckle.

DePaul wanted her to apply for several key administrative positions that were available, including principal at Central. She remembers the interview process was quite daunting.

“They had about 18 people around that table interviewing us,” she said, including representatives from each school and school board members.

Smith became principal at the old Central Elementary. Her tenure there didn’t last but a few months before Smith, her staff and the hundreds of students moved to the school’s current location.

“We picked up every piece of furniture, the kids held books, and we did a parade,” Smith said.

The move was a celebratory, communal affair, Smith recalls, with a police car leading the way and groups of people coming out to wave them along.

“They were here and we were one,” she said. “Altogether, we were shining.”

Melissa Smith looks at a picture of the first group of Central students who moved into the current building in 2007.

Over the past 14 years, Central has not just been a home for Smith; it’s been her refuge and her “healing place.” In a span of only a few years, Smith suffered four successive miscarriages — one occurred during her time at Albemarle High, while the other three occurred while she was principal at Central.

While she and her husband took the necessary time to properly grieve, she never missed extended time away from school because part of her recovery involved helping her students.

“My relief came in taking care of other children and as I did that, my stuff was healed,” she said. “My healing came in helping others.”

Smith does not have any biological children, but she is a proud mother to thousands of surrogates during her almost 30 years in education.

“They are mine,” she said. “I have to do right by them. The Lord requires it. He’s put them in my hands and I take it to heart.”

Melissa Smith reads to a group of students. Photo courtesy of Melissa Smith.

Smith’s many personal heartaches have steeled her, helping to create a strong and joyous resiliency which is fueled by the need to create a positive impact in the lives of as many young people as possible.

Through her losses, she has also gained valuable insight that she has applied to her life.

“You don’t let your obstacles break you, they’re stepping stones of growth,” she said. “It makes you greater if you go through it right.”

“Yes, I miss my babies,” she added. “Yes, I feel bad about that, but you know what, that is not the end of the story, there’s more.”

“It’s been like family”

Smith’s absence — and what she’s meant to her students and staff — will be a tough void to fill.

Many of her teachers and staff have sent her heartfelt texts and emails in recent weeks, expressing how much she’s meant to them and how much they’ll miss her.

Her second-in-command, assistant principal Lindsay Merritt, thanked Smith in a letter for her “constant ‘pouring’ into me as not only a leader, but as a woman of God.”

“I am heartbroken but happy for you at the same time!” Deborah Weddington, a second grade teacher at the school, texted Smith. “You are the best principal I have ever worked with and I love you very much.”

Another teacher, Leigh Whitley, who’s taught at Central for 18 years, said “it’s been like family” working with Smith.

Even teachers who don’t work at Central but have come to know Smith have been impacted by her. Danielle Boone, a first-year fifth grade teacher at East Albemarle Elementary, got to know Smith last year while she taught at Albemarle Middle School. Each day, Smith would visit all of the fifth grades classes stationed at the school.

“I felt like I had someone always in my corner,” Boone said about Smith. “She’s always so encouraging, so personable, and would always bring a smile to your face.”

But while her time at Central has come to an end, Smith is eager to tackle her next big challenge.

“What can I do to make sure that you’re okay in school?”

In her new role, Smith wants to spend much of her time getting to know certain students and their families in order to hopefully diagnose the reasons why they might be struggling.

“That’s why I got to get into their life because … I need to know the root cause of this,” she said. “Some things are good and some things need to be broken.”

She’s already visited Albemarle Middle, where hundreds of middle and high school students are enrolled in the summer learning program, to start forging those connections.

Her main goal — through any means necessary — is to make sure students across the county feel comfortable attending school.

“When you’re not in school, Ms. Smith is coming,” she said. “I’m knocking on your door, I’m calling, I’m building relationships,” which are all centered around the key question, “What can I do to make sure that you’re okay in school?”

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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