Even before he was elected president of the District school board last week, Conrad P. Smith had a brief taste of controversy. Just before the vote, Frank Shaffer-Corona, a new board member, charged that Smith was opposed to "community-control" of school by elected local boards.
But Smith said nothing until after the balloting in which he defeated at-large member Barbara Lett Simmons, 6-5. Then he moved into the president's chair and declared: "There are just a couple of things that must go on in our school - teaching and learning - to the exclusion of every other thing. The issue in this city is not community-control, but how well we educate our students. Any issue of politics pales before that."
Smith, a 45-year-old lawyer, is no stranger to politics.
Several years ago he headed the Ward One (center city) Democratic organization. In 1974, he ran in the Democratic primary for the Ward One seat on the city council but wound up fourth in a field of ten candidates. A year later, though, he was elected as the ward's representative on the school board.
In contrast to his predecessor, Therman Evans, who was unfailingly mild and non-controversial, Smith speaks bluntly about what he wants to see happen in the school and what worries the system now. Like Evans, however, Smith is a strong supporter of Superintendent Vincent Reed.
"The main issue we have now is the performance of our students," Smith said recently. "it has to be upgraded. Too many of our students are graduating without the level of competency they must have. What we want is for the products of our school system to be as good and as capable as anyone in the country."
To raise academic achievement, Smith says he supports Reed's competency-hased curriculum, which calls for establishing uniform, step-by-step methods of teaching and testing students in all city schools. If it is successful, Smith said he wants the curriculum used throughout the city.
He said he also approves of the nationally standardized tests that will be given this year to students in the third, sixth and ninth grades. For the first time since 1972 the system plans to release average scores for individual schools.
"We want to know how our students compare to others around the country," Smith said. "There is no reason why they shouldn't be at the national averages."
Smith said he strongly rejects charges that the standardized tests discriminate against black children.
Last spring Smith criticized the quality of many Washington teachers and said the teaching staff should be upgraded by requiring all teachers to pass "a rigorous literacy test."
He said he has met many teachers who use poor grammar, and has often found spelling and syntax errors on their blackboards.
"All too often we have teachers who haven't reached the level of literacy that we need." Smith said, "and we have to do something about it."
Smith said the quality of teaching has worsened since the city stopped giving examinations to new teachers in 1969. He proposed that all teachers be required to pass a written exam before they are hire. Teachers currently working in the system should also be required to take a similar exam every five years, he said, and those who don't pass should be fired.
Smith said school administrators still are trying to prepare such an exam, which he would like to be presented soon for school board approval.
Smith's criticisms last spring brought a rebuke from the Washington Teachers' Union. However, after his election as school board president, union president William H. Simons declined to repeat the criticism.
"I wish him well," Simons said. "I think we can all work cooperatively."
Smith was born in Detroit during the Depression, the second child in a family of eight children. His father was Baptist minister.
After he was graduated from high school, he joined the Army for seven years, moving from private to sergeant. He used his GI Bill benefits to attend Howard University and Howard Law School, but said he also worked as a salesman, selling cook-ware door-to-door, to support his wife and two children.
At 37, he was graduated from law school and became an assistant general counsel for the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, dealing with discrimination cases throughout the country.
In 1972 Smith set up his own law practice, and now has an office on Kennedy Street NW. He said he still deals with many discrimination cases, often representing federal workers.
His daughter, Judy, 19, is a student at the University of Chicago. After she attended District elementary schools, Smith said, his daughter, who is Catholic, chose to attend Catholic schools for junior and senior high.
His son, Conrad Jr., 12, is a sixth grader at Bunker Hill Elementary School in Northeast Washington, even though the family lives on Fairmont Street NW, in the Cardozo attendance area. Smith said Conrad has been at Bunker Hill since first grade. He said his son received permission to continue attending Bunker Hill because his sitter, who has looked after him since before he entered school, lives a block away from Bunker Hill.
During the next few months, Smith said, one of the main tasks facing the school board will be decisions on closing schools that are under-utlizied because of declining enrollments.
He said he expects superintendent Reed to recommend in mid-February which schools should be closed and promised that the board would make its decision by spring.
Even though neighborhood opposition is expected in many areas, Smith said, the board will have to close any school buildings that are "economically unfeasible to operate."
On community-controlled schools whose charters come up for renewal this year, Smith said he is opposed to continuing the local board at the Reed (formerly Morgan) Schhol at 18th Street and Florida Avenue NW because its student achievement is far below the citywide average. The school, which has received extensive federal financing for programs, has had a local board for the past ten years.
Smith said he favored contuining the local board at Adams School just a few board away from Morgan, because achievement there was relatively high.
"The issue should not be community control," he said, "but how well are children being educated. Where children in community-controlled schools are doing well, I'll support them, but if the children are not doing well, I'm against continuing them. The schools are for the children, not for the parents or the politicans. After all, the business we are about is education."