Expectations are high at Lowell Elementary School, and for new principal Nick Smith and his staff, that is both a blessing and a challenge.
When it came to Tuesday’s first day of school, Smith said he understood exactly how it feels to be the new kid.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit excited and nervous,” Smith said. “But it’s game time. Kids are in the classroom, teachers have started working and it’s all falling into place.”
For two years in a row, Lowell has been recognized as a four-star school under the state’s new five star rating system.
In 2012, the State Board of Education recognized Lowell as one of Idaho’s nine distinguished schools. The honor was based on making Adequate Yearly Progress in consecutive years, as well as grade level tests and reducing the gap among student groups or subgroups.
Smith, Lowell’s 16th principal, succeeds Paula Bell, who led the school since 2004. Reading specialist Kathy Jensen described Bell as “well-loved” by staff and students.
Lowell was built in Boise’s North End in 1913; the school’s staff, students, parents and alumni celebrated the 100th anniversary earlier this year.
Parents agree Lowell has a good track record and high expectations. On Monday Doug Dana and his family helped their first-grade son, Brannon, visit his classroom and meet teacher Kari Hammon.
For his part, Brannon said he was excited and a little bit nervous to begin the new school year, but was really looking forward to seeing his friends. Dana attended Lowell when he was in sixth grade in the 1980s, so he understands the school’s history and tradition.
“It’s top notch,” Dana said. “We couldn’t be more pleased.”
Implementing Idaho Core Standards
Smith has three or four big goals for the year. One is supporting teachers and the 360 students while implementing the new Idaho Core Standards, which are being used for the first time.
As Idaho’s version of Common Core State Standards, the new benchmarks are designed to increase rigor in math and English language arts. The standards place a greater focus on fluency and critical thinking, not just memorization or reading to summarize plot and vocabulary words.
There is pressure on elementary school staffs to excel under the standards, Smith said, because all the college- and career ready-goals are built up as a student progresses through school, beginning in kindergarten.
“All of that starts here,” Smith said. “If we’re not successful in implementing Common Core State Standards these things can’t happen at the high school level.”
Jensen served as the school’s Idaho Core representative during the 2012-13 school year, attending planning sessions and working with other teachers to develop curriculum and units.
Overall, Jensen said Lowell and other Boise schools are up to the challenge of the new standards. She said the standards will expose children to more complex tests and require them to compare a reading to multiple texts, demonstrate critical thinking and identify bias or points of view.
“If our students starting in kindergarten aren’t provided with the best reading instruction, it will be more difficult to them as they get to more critical reading at older grades.”
Meet the new principal
Earlier this year, Smith left his job as the State Department of Education’s chief deputy superintendent under Tom Luna to accept the Lowell job. Smith had worked at the department since 2006. Before that, he taught social studies, government and health at junior high school in Bliss before becoming an administrator.
Smith, 33, grew up in Fairfield and earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Idaho.
Although he dreamed of being a doctor or a soldier as a young boy, it didn’t take long for Smith to decide he wanted to go into education. His mother, aunts, cousins, grandfather and great grandparents were all educators.
“Our family reunion was like a teachers’ faculty lounge,” Smith said. “I grew up around classrooms, and helping my mom get her classroom ready.”
Smith is a father of two young boys, ages 3 and 10 months, and said he loves to spend his free time working on home improvement projects, cooking breakfast for his family and spending time with relatives.
Jensen said some of Lowell’s staff members were slightly curious about how Smith would make the transition from the state Education Department. But so far, Smith has impressed.
“He is the perfect choice for Lowell; his personality is so positive,” Jensen said. “Today a student said (about Smith), ‘You always have a smile on your face,’ and it’s true.”
Smith also believes his state experience gives him a unique perspective that supplements his classroom and administration experience.
“With my opportunity to work for the State Department of Education, it helped me see the big picture and have a broader perspective that I don’t think you get anywhere else,” Smith said.