You could say Dr. Justin Smith was destined for education.
With parents who met as teachers at the same boarding school — where they and their infant son lived during the earliest days of Smith’s life — and a brother who also became an educator, embarking on his first teaching job 24 years ago was something Smith had seemed to be working toward practically since birth.
The firsthand experience of being a teacher has shaped how the Evesham Township School District’s (ETSD’s) new superintendent approaches a role shaped by both professional experience and a little bit of that educator lineage, too.
“All of my experiences that I’ve accrued are part of who I am and how I think today, and I’m grateful for every one of those stops along the way,” Smith said. “If I were to write a book, I’d call it something like, ‘Everything I Need to Know About Being an Administrator, I Learned as a Teacher.’”
His pursuit of an education career has taken Smith from his local roots in Maple Shade and Cherry Hill, to his wife’s home state of Oregon, and then to Germany, before he and his family settled in South Jersey. A longtime Marlton resident himself and a former Cherokee High School employee, Smith’s own children were both ETSD and Cherokee students.
The home field advantage, he said, is significant.
“One thing that’s helped me a lot is that it’s not entirely a new district to me,” Smith added, “so I’m not starting from ground zero. From a personal standpoint, I care a lot about this town and have a lot of relationships here. From a professional standpoint, I have a lot of connections with Evesham schools’ staff members who I’ve worked with over the years.”
It helps, too, that Smith found himself welcomed by a team and board of education whose willingness to help him adapt to a new role both smoothly, speedily and successfully, lived up to their reputation.
“We have a tremendous team with our staff,” Smith noted. “I kind of knew going in that there was a great team in this district, but it’s one thing to know it and a whole other and even better thing to experience it.”
Evesham board President Joe Fisicaro had previously worked with Smith at Cherokee and was quick to cite the future superintendent’s reputation as reason enough to be pleased with his new role.
“When he taught at Cherokee, he was considered one of the smartest minds in that building,” Fisicaro said. “That has not wavered. He’s probably one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met.”
Given the long-term impact of hiring the most suitable candidate for the district’s leadership role, Fisicaro is confident Smith is the man for the job.
“Picking a superintendent is the most important thing a board has to do, and I thought Dr. Smith was a fantastic pick,” he said. “I was really excited when I found out he’ll be with us.”
It’s not just traditional intellect that Smith brings to his work; it’s emotional intelligence, too, according to the board president
“He’s incredibly thoughtful, incredibly empathetic — he really cares about not just our students, but how people are doing overall and how the district’s doing,” Fisicaro confirmed. I think we’re going to be very fortunate that, through hard times, he’s going to be guiding us.”
The board’s Vice President Trish Everhart agreed.
“He knows how we operate here, but it was really his vision that made him stand out,” she said. “He uses all of his experiences and what he knows about Evesham schools to shape his perspective, and he considers it all to look at how he wants us to move forward.”
And while interviewing for a new superintendent during the pandemic, Everhart said that watching candidates troubleshoot virtual hiccups in real time or pivot quickly in the face of technological bumps offered a deeper glimpse into their characters, much to Smith’s advantage.
“You find out a lot about a person’s adaptability and flexibility and the grace they show to others dealing with the same problems beyond what you can try to find out with interview questions,” Everhart said. “Dr. Smith’s whole aura didn’t just come through in every answer he gave us: It was in the way he carried himself through the whole interview process, too.”
As the district continues to navigate the new challenge of reopening schools amid a lingering global health crisis, Smith noted that teamwork is especially important to everyone’s success.
“The pandemic is completely unprecedented, but what helps us succeed in the planning is something we have had a lot of practice with: working collaboratively to plan ahead,” he explained. “This is such a dynamic situation, so our planning process has to be very nimble and account for a lot of backup plans for different scenarios.”
The silver linings, he noted, are how the pandemic’s “new normal” and unprecedented requests have highlighted the importance of education — and the people who both guide and provide it.
“I think people come to education wanting to be part of some greater whole that’s making a positive difference,” Smith said. “With the pandemic, there has never been a more important time for the work that we do.
“We’re in a position to help individual students, families and even the greater community around us more than ever.”
With essentially six weeks between the release of “The Road Back,” the state Department of Education’s exhaustive baseline plan for safely reopening school facilities in the fall, and the preliminary tenets of inherently flexible restart plans, the strength and accessibility of the existing Evesham school team was an asset for which Smith is grateful.
“I’ve gotten to meet people in many, many different roles, partly because we’re working on bringing kids back into schools safely during a pandemic,” he noted. “That meant listening to and talking with not just numerous committees but all of our staff, parents, the board and the larger community to develop the plan.”
In terms of balancing a quality education with stringent safety measures, and addressing the new concerns about COVID-19, Smith wants to ensure that students’ families can easily communicate their needs and concerns to the district, as well as have access to all the tools and data they need to make informed decisions.
“Trying to be communicative is something superintendents have always tried to do, and now it’s even more important,” he stated.
Above all, Smith wants the ETSD community to know he considers it an honor to accept a leadership role in a district that means so much to him.
“The schools are embedded in the town here, they’re not separate from it,” he said. “It’s a dream, honestly, to get to come and work in a town that has meant so much to my family and me, and to serve a community that I care a lot for.”