D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray on Thursday named Abigail Smith, a former Teach for America executive with leadership experience in both traditional D.C. schools and charters, as the city’s next deputy mayor for education.
If confirmed by the D.C. Council, Smith will replace De’Shawn Wright, who resigned in the fall to take a job in his native New York. Wright’s chief of staff, Jennifer Leonard, has been serving in an interim capacity.
“Abigail has devoted her entire career to working with families, teachers and schools to deliver on the promise of a great public education for all children,” Gray (D) said in a statement. “She’s extremely well qualified to steer my administration’s efforts to ensure that every child in the District has access to a top-quality education.”
The deputy mayor is responsible for coordinating the District’s many education-oriented agencies. It is a key position in Gray’s effort to develop a comprehensive plan for the coexistence of traditional public schools and public charter schools — two sectors that compete for students and resources and operate independently.
Smith, a well-known figure in D.C. education circles, has worked in both sectors. But she said she sees the city’s challenges from the perspective of a mother of two children.
“I really believe that at the end of the day, what parents care about is great schools for their kids,” she said. “I want every parent to have good information about their choices . . . and to be able to access those in ways that are true to the notion of a public education system.”
This is not Smith’s first stint in city government. When Mayor Adrian Fenty took over city schools in 2007, Smith aided the transition to mayoral control as an employee in the office of the deputy mayor for education.
She then moved to D.C. Public Schools, where she worked under former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and current Chancellor Kaya Henderson as chief of transformation management from 2008 to 2011.
“Abby’s deep knowledge and experience in both traditional DCPS schools and in DC charter schools makes her especially qualified to help us improve collaboration and coordination to ensure that we really are one city where every student can succeed,” Henderson said in a statement.
Smith has been an independent consultant for the past year, working most recently with the D.C. Public Charter School Board to establish a common application deadline and lottery date for charter schools.
“We’re thrilled. We think it’s an inspired choice,” said Scott Pearson, executive director of the charter board.
Smith began her career with Teach for America in a first-grade classroom in rural North Carolina. She continued with the organization in a number of roles, including as executive director of its D.C. office.
She is the chairman of the board of her children’s school, E.L. Haynes, one of the city’s best-performing charters. She plans to leave that position to take on her new job, which begins April 10.
The new deputy mayor has a tough task ahead in building trust among activists and parents, said Daniel del Pielago, of the community group Empower DC.
“If they’re saying they’re going to include the community, I want to see real clear plans,” del Pielago said.
Last year, Wright, the deputy mayor, released a controversial study that recommended opening more high-performing charters and turning around or closing dozens of low-performing traditional public schools.
Wright’s staff then held a series of community meetings that drew hundreds of attendees, many of whom were fiercely critical of the study and of the direction of education reform in the city.
The nonprofit entity that ran the meetings, Public Agenda, produced a report in the fall summarizing that feedback. The report still has not been released directly by city officials.
“The community was betrayed in this process,” activist Virginia Spatz told the mayor and Leonard, the interim deputy mayor, at a recent town hall meeting. “What citizens experienced through those conversations was the opposite of engagement.”
Leonard said Thursday that she will not return to her position as chief of staff and will seek opportunities elsewhere.