Justin Smith’s international education journey leads back home

After more than two decades of working in education places ranging from Germany and Oregon, Smith was hired as Cherry Hill’s Assistant Superintendent for K-12 in November.

Cherry Hill Assistant Superintendent for K-12 Justin Smith looks at his computer in his office at the Malberg Administration Building. Smith was hired as assistant superintendent in November more than 25 years after graduating from Cherry Hill High School West in 1991.

Cherry Hill Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Justin Smith’s education career has taken him to places near and far.

From spending time teaching high school students in Germany to his first full-time job in Oregon, Smith has had a myriad of experiences in more than two decades as a teacher.

In November, Smith decided the next step in his career would be much closer to home. Smith was hired as Cherry Hill’s assistant superintendent for K-12, bringing him back to the same school district Smith attended as a kid.

Smith’s family moved to Cherry Hill in the mid-1980s prior to him starting fifth grade. Smith would first attend Thomas Paine Elementary School for fifth and sixth grade, then later moved on to Brainerd Junior High School, now named Carusi Middle School, for seventh and eighth grade. Smith’s last stop was Cherry Hill High School West.

“I thank my parents,” Smith said. “They made a conscious decision to move to Cherry Hill for the school system. When you’re in fifth grade, you’re riding your bike, you’re playing soccer, you don’t think about that kind of stuff. But as time went on and I got that 20,000-foot perspective, I realized it put me in contact with opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

The seeds for a career in education began to be planted during Smith’s time in middle and high school. Smith can still recall a number of specific teachers who had a major influence on him. He also cited former West principal Joan Katz and assistant principal Harold Melleby as being major influences.

Smith would go to undergraduate school at Williams College in Massachusetts. After graduating from Williams, Smith went across the country to the University of Oregon for graduate school. There he would work his first paid education job teaching undergraduate German at the college.

“I had a professor at Williams who had gotten his master’s at the University of Oregon and said they have a fantastic Germanics program,” Smith said about his decision to move out west.

After two years in Oregon, Smith decided to gain more experience and take a teaching assistantship in Germany. Smith made a lot of memories during that time and cites the experience as a major factor in becoming a secondary school teacher.

“It was a potpourri of different teaching experiences,” Smith said. “I taught English to people in the restaurant industry and different things. But the main role was working at the high school.”

Upon returning to Oregon, Smith got his certification for teaching middle and secondary school. He would then land his first public school teaching job at a middle school in Oregon, teaching English and social studies in seventh grade. There, Smith explored project-based learning where he could empower his students to explore certain topics in a creative way.

“When we were doing the Roman Empire, we would put the Roman Empire on trial,” Smith said about one of the projects he did with his students. “All of the kids had roles. They would call witnesses, we would have lawyers come and be consultants for the teams and be judges. We would set it up in a real courtroom.”

During his time in Oregon, Smith met his wife, Elissa, and the couple had their first child when, in 2002, they moved to New Jersey. Upon returning to South Jersey, Smith was hired as an English and German teacher at Cherokee High School and would remain with the school district until leaving to take the assistant superintendent position in Cherry Hill.

“When I went in (to Cherokee) in ’02, I thought of myself as making a difference in the classroom,” he said. “As I was a teacher, I gradually had more and more teacher leadership roles and I began to think a little bit beyond the classroom and then, within the department.”

After eight years, Smith was promoted to assistant principal at Cherokee. After five years in that position, Smith moved to the administration office as the district’s assessment, accountability and planning coordinator.

“It was some curriculum, some technology, data, state reporting, school-based improvement plans,” Smith said in describing his administration job with Lenape Regional High School District. “In a lot of ways, it was a great preparation for this role.”

When the assistant superintendent position opened up in Cherry Hill, Smith was attracted to it for a few reasons. He was interested in moving to a larger district as well as a K-12 district where he could have an impact on younger students. Smith said he ultimately wanted to make “the biggest difference possible” on students in the township.

Smith has only been in the Cherry Hill district since mid-November, but he said he’s never been happier as an administrator as he is now.

“There’s fantastic people here, for one thing,” Smith said about Cherry Hill. “That’s the greatest resource we’ve got. Not just staff, but students I’ve encountered and really passionate, committed community groups.”

“That sense of it being a vibrant, bustling community is invigorating,” Smith added.

Smith also believes the community is unique in Cherry Hill, calling it very democratic.

“It’s a Cherry Hill theme,” Smith said. “Our committee meetings are open to the public. We have a lot of community input at board meetings. We have different committees of teachers at each school.”

Smith said gathering input from stakeholders is the most important thing he’s learned since joining the school district. He believes it takes an entire community to put students on the path to success.