With a reputation for its ambitious foreign language instruction that is matched by the diversity of its student body, the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district did not take lightly the search for its new assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. The choice, announced Tuesday, September 27, after a hiring process that included multiple interviews and one meeting before the entire board of education, is Martin Smith, currently supervisor of World Languages and English as a Second Language in Edison.
Foreign language instruction is the cornerstone of Smith’s educational career. Beginning his career as a Spanish teacher, Smith spent eight years as president of the Foreign Language Educators of New Jersey and is active in the Northeast Conference for the Teaching of Foreign Language (NECTFL), where he served on the executive board for four years.
In 2007 Smith received the supervisor of the year award from the National Association of District Supervisors of Foreign Languages (NADSFL). He was recognized for outstanding contributions in foreign language education, including his efforts to establish a standards-based world languages program for students throughout New Jersey.
NADSFL acknowledged the unique cultural environment in which Smith operated. In its 2007 announcement NADSFL recognized Smith’s mission: “to enable Edison students to interact efficiently within the township, which has enormous cultural and linguistic diversity as over 80 different languages are spoken by area students, primarily Gujarati, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, and Spanish. In addition, he has found that language study prepares students for rigorous academic work after high school and for future careers.”
At the time Smith stated that The No Child Left Behind Act caused schools to place a heavy emphasis on math and language arts literacy, detracting from the efforts that second-language educators have. In the past Smith has said that students spend too little time in language courses. He believes a handful of years in high school is not enough to develop proficiency and he advocated for a “language and cultural learning experience throughout the average K-16 educational course,” which would engage students up to and through college.
Five years ago Smith was a part-time lecturer at Rutgers’ World Languages Institute, where he taught a course in assessment for language teachers. Smith has also presented on foreign language education at countless seminars and conferences across New Jersey and the globe. At the Committee on Teaching About the United Nations conference in 2010 at Rutgers, Smith presented a lecture on “Developing Globally Literate Students: 21st Century Skills, Emerging Technology and the United Nations.”
Smith speaks three languages: English, Spanish, and French. He did not start learning French until he was 35 but by age 40 he had earned a certificate in it, saying his French-speaking ability is OK.
The National Council for Languages and International Studies once recognized Smith for creating a video titled “Live Healthy,” which compared American and Spanish views on healthy living and was presented in Spanish only. Students in Smith’s class in Edison were expected to understand the Spanish dialog and the information in the video and then be able to communicate with their peers in Spanish on the subject of nutrition. He also had them create a new video public service announcement on staying healthy in Spanish.
Under Smith’s guidance Edison became just the third school district in the United States (behind Houston and Dallas) to offer Hindi to high school students. In early 2007 Edison Township adopted a foreign language assistance program (or FLAP). Smith became partly responsible for the implementation of the program in Edison schools.
As part of an exchange program, Smith traveled to India in 2009 and visited the International Study Center at the University of Pune to observe the Hindi curriculum for foreign students.
In addition to foreign languages Smith believes his experience in assessment will prove invaluable because of the direction in which the WW-P district is moving. Years ago he served on a national writing task force for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Smith’s job on that team was to develop a framework for the assessment test. At the time NAEP planned to develop a test to see where students’ progress was in languages on a national level.
Out of this experience, Smith’s interests in assessment developed to the point where, in 2000, he was asked to join the Academic Advisory Committee for world languages at the College Board. As chairman for the past three years, Smith has taken an active role as College Board level assessments are being overhauled. Smith said more objective standards that put a priority on thinking skills will be implemented.
Smith is most proud of his work on the CAPS project (Consortium for Assessing Performance Standards), for which he and his colleagues developed a new system for student assessment. Over a three-and-a-half year period Smith and his counterparts developed a set of assessments that, to this day, are observed nationally as a model.
While his work has taken him around the world, it also brought him back to his roots. Smith was born and raised in Edison, and he makes his home there now. Four generations of Smith’s family are under one roof as he lives with his parents, a nephew and his wife, and their young daughter. Smith is used to a full house, though, having grown up with four brothers.
Smith’s father was a machinist in a can company factory while his mother was a homemaker during his childhood. When Smith’s youngest brother was in middle school his mother worked in the school as a lunchroom aide. She later became a district secretary.
As an undergraduate at Rutgers Smith was a commuter, diligently working his way through his four years before attending graduate school at Temple in Philadelphia.
“Back then you could actually afford to work during the summer to pay tuition for your semester. I stayed at home for my four years but then I was fortunate enough to get a teaching assistantship and be able to attend Temple. I taught and also took courses to be able to get my master’s and do Ph.D coursework there,” he said.
Smith began at Rutgers with a double major in psychology and human communication theory. At Temple he earned a master’s in the latter and did coursework towards a Ph.D in the field, preparation for reaching his goal of becoming a university professor. He changed his mind after seeing what the future held.
“Two things happened. One, I discovered it was less about the teaching and classrooms and more about the research. The other was that I saw that I would need to move elsewhere to pursue that career, and I really have strong family ties to New Jersey and I could not see myself picking up and going anywhere,” he says.
Smith moved back home from Philadelphia and landed a long-term substitute position teaching Spanish. Afterwards he took a full-time position in a private school where certification is not necessary. Within a few years, though, Smith entered an alternate route certification program for public school teachers.
“At that point, 28 years ago, the Spanish teacher position became available in the Princeton Regional School District, and that’s when I moved into the public school system,” he said.
Smith was familiar with WW-P, having been in Princeton for nine years. He became familiar with the district at that point and specifically WW-P’s world languages supervisor, Irene Eckler. Smith’s professional relationship with her carried over to the current WW-P language supervisors — Mark Wise and Roseanne Zeppieri.
It was through Wise and Zeppieri that Smith first learned that the assistant superintendent position would be available. The lengthy interview process began with a phone screening with the superintendent. She and Smith had a 20-minute discussion about his background and his resume.
The next step was a face-to-face interview with 11 leaders from the district. For the third interview Smith was given focus questions and was asked to come prepared to talk about his initiatives and the type of work he would do to move those forward. That took another hour with the superintendent and two assistant superintendents.
The fourth round consisted of meeting with supervisors and teachers, including the head of the teachers’ union. The last interview was with the full board of education. The process informed Smith about the district, as well. “It’s hard work to be an educator, so I wanted to make sure the focus was in the right direction — on the students,” he said.
Once confirmed by the school board on September 27, Smith submitted his resignation in Edison. The district has the ability to keep him in his role there for a maximum of 60 days, and in the event that happens Smith will start his new job in West Windsor-Plainsboro the Monday after Thanksgiving.
When he does finally show up for work, he no doubt will feel somewhat at home. Edison is Middlesex County’s largest school district with 14,500 students. WW-P has roughly 5,000 fewer and Smith knows the reputation and expectations quite well.
“It’s a high-quality district and certainly one that has its beliefs focused on the right place — student achievement and their interest to learn,” he says.