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For St. Thomas More principal, college and heaven are goals for his young scholars

In a June 2019 photo, Gerald Smith Jr., the principal of St. Thomas More Catholic Academy in Washington, D.C, greets students. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

One morning this past September, Gerald Smith Jr., the principal at St. Thomas More Catholic Academy in Washington, D.C., added some more brightly colored college pennants on a clothesline decorating a wall along the school’s main hallway. The more than 80 pennants included the names and mascots of many Catholic colleges and universities, Ivy League schools, other private and state universities, and historically black institutions of higher learning.

While he was adding to the display, a second grade girl walked up to him and proudly showed him the book that she was reading. Moments later, the principal held the front door open as students arrived, including a boy and girl who ran toward the door smiling.

When it came time for the school day to begin, Smith gathered in that same hallway with fifth through eighth graders, and after telling them that their teachers loved them, he said, “Our expectations are high for you. We have two goals  – college and heaven. The most important is heaven.”

He also challenged them to be kind to one another, to step up and be leaders and help build a culture of love at their school. Then he joined them in a morning prayer, where after students and teachers prayed the Our Father and Hail Mary together, they also prayed, “Let me stand firm… for what is right, today and every day, and look into the eyes of friend and foe alike and see the face of God.”

Smith, who is 32, is in his second year leading St. Thomas More Catholic Academy, which is one of four D.C. Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of Washington’s Consortium of Catholic Academies. The school serves 163 children in prekindergarten through the eighth grade. Most of its students are from the neighborhood and many are non-Catholic.

“It’s a beacon of hope,” Smith said. “It’s a lifeline for many. Also, it’s home.”

Describing the school and parish’s role in that neighborhood, Father Raymond Moore, St. Thomas More’s pastor, said, “Washington Highlands is a community where St. Thomas More is a bright light in our parish, school, food pantry and social outreach.”

The decorations in his office reflect Smith’s passion for education and his faith, and his fondness for Marvel superheroes. A coffee mug has the words, “What’s your superpower? I teach.” Along with an icon of St. Thomas More, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a photo of Pope Francis and children’s drawings, his office has posters and action figures of the Black Panther, Spider-Man and the Hulk. Near an old-fashioned school bell, a Slinky and Legos are on display.

Gerald Smith Jr., a graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans, is in his second year as principal of St. Thomas More Catholic Academy in Washington, D.C. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Instead of calling St. Thomas More’s children “students,” Smith prefers to call them “scholars… because they’re lifelong learners. They have to understand there are always opportunities to learn,” he said, adding that he wants them to know, “Every day we’re scholars, learning every day.” 

In 2016, Smith married his wife Krishaun at St. Augustine Church in Washington. That same year, he also became Catholic at that parish, receiving the sacraments of Communion and Confirmation. They knew each other as children in the Brookland neighborhood, reconnected with each other during their college years, and later both taught at St. Thomas More, where Krishaun was an art teacher and Smith was a science teacher. He noted that in the first week when they started dating, they went to Mass together, and he said he felt “connected to God.”

Smith, who was raised Baptist, grew up near The Catholic University of America, attended the now-closed Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian elementary school, and later earned a bachelor’s degree in biology with a focus in chemistry at Xavier University in New Orleans, which was founded for Black Catholics by St. Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

“It almost seems like I was born to be Catholic. My life was always around the Catholic faith,” he said.

Smith said he began attending Xavier for a week in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit that area.

“I saw the city get flooded and then watched the city rebuild itself,” he said. “Xavier was so rooted in its Catholic faith and identity, that I never felt a disaster had happened.”

He still keeps in touch with one of his favorite teachers there, Sister Grace Mary Flickinger, who taught embryology.

“They were hard core,” he said of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. “Everything was about Jesus. More importantly, they did not stand for mediocrity. Xavier always believed in making a more just and humane society. The sisters made sure that whoever went through Xavier would do just that. I always felt I had to do my best.”

Smith then earned a master’s degree in interdisciplinary health sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where he noted his apartment was right across from a Catholic church.

After graduate school, Smith planned to apply to medical school. “I always wanted to be a doctor,” he said.

But that summer, he taught science at St. Thomas More, teaching children about a range of topics including cells, chemical reactions and volcanoes and the Earth’s crust. He then applied for a job at the school, and began teaching there in the fall of 2011. During his five years teaching science there, he helped organize a science fair at the school, supported by community partners, and in 2014, he took 12 St. Thomas More scholars to Costa Rica, where they journeyed to rainforests and witnessed the plant and animal life there.

Gerald Smith walks down the hallway of St. Thomas More Academy with some of the young scholars there. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Speaking of his experiences as a St. Thomas More teacher, Smith said, “They became so invested in learning about science… When we give them the opportunity to work harder, they do. It was empowering to see them meet every expectation.”

Then he taught at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, for two years, before coming back to St. Thomas More in 2018 as the new principal. “It completed the puzzle,” he said about his return to the school. “I enjoyed everything I did here. I was able to be creative.”

One highlight of his first year as principal was having St. Thomas More Catholic Academy host a U.S. Senate hearing on reauthorizing the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which Congress eventually did this past December. Children from his school, and from other Catholic schools in the city, testified about the program’s importance.

“They were not coached,” Smith said, adding, “they were so respectful, so scholarly. One of the things I want them to understand is the world affects them, too. They have a voice, and they showed that that day.”

A bittersweet experience for the new principal was presiding at the graduation of the 15 eighth graders in St. Thomas More’s class of 2019, with most going to Catholic high schools throughout the archdiocese. Smith said he hopes those students graduated knowing “that no matter what their circumstances are, they should proceed as if success is inevitable.”

Smith said he also wants his scholars there to have their faith formed at the school, and to know “that God is real and God answers prayers, and God loves those who love one another.”

He said he has learned patience from his young scholars at St. Thomas More School, and they have reinforced in his mind what an important role their Catholic school plays in that community. “The kids have taught me every single day, we’re living God’s purpose,” he said.

St. Thomas More principal Gerald Smith views a student's work in a classroom at the Catholic elementary school in the nation's capital. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Along the way, in his work as principal Smith has earned high marks from his colleagues, from parents and from the scholars themselves.

Father Moore noted, “Gerald Smith possesses a passion for his faith and Catholic education that is energetic, enthusiastic and exciting. He has a charismatic style that creates a great atmosphere where our scholars and educators experience success and satisfaction.”

That praise was echoed by Vincent Spadoni, president of the Consortium of Catholic Academies, who said, “I admire the innovation he’s brought to the school since he arrived that has sparked such enthusiasm in teachers and students. His love for the school is evident in all that he does, and it’s contagious.”

Kristen Weinman, a pre-kindergarten teacher at St. Thomas More, praised the principal as a leader who is “open to trying new things… He lives out his faith. He asks them to work hard, and he works just as hard to accomplish any goal he sets.”

Virginia Holley, a third grade teacher there, said the young scholars look up to their principal “as an extra role model, because he’s young and he’s willing to meet them on their level.”

Nancy Taylor Williams, the academic dean at St. Thomas More Catholic Academy, noted that she was a math teacher when Smith taught science there, and they did a lot of cross-teaching, using the example of the X-men superheroes to teach about genetics, and showing how in physics, concepts like buoyancy and force are based on math. In its curriculum, the school is now drawing on the Project Zero framework from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, emphasizing creative thinking, hands-on learning and problem solving.

“That’s really what defines them is their ability to think and solve problems and be creative. That’s how they’ll eventually be able to change the world,” she said.

And of her former teaching colleague who is now leading St. Thomas More Catholic Academy, she said, “His expectations are high… It’s always in a loving manner. He just wants the best for all of them.”

That morning in a nearby classroom where middle schoolers were taking a STEM robotics class, eighth grader Amare Fields noted, “I like that I get to explore new things.” He praised the example set by his principal, noting, “When someone is doing something wrong, he talks to them and gets them on the right path.”

After a Grandparents’ Day celebration, Donise Yeager, the mother of two St. Thomas More scholars, said she appreciates how Smith “knows all the children by name. It reminds me of when I went to school.”

She added, “Because he’s young, he can relate to the kids,” and she noted that at the school, “Christ comes first.”

Principal Gerald Smith Jr. talks with St. Thomas More students at the parish's church, which is connected to the school. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Smith said he recognizes the importance of serving as a role model for his scholars at St. Thomas More.

“I think it’s really crucial. For many of them, I’m the first person of color they’ve seen in leadership, especially male. To some of them, I’m a father figure for those who don’t have it at home,” he said.

As children arrive for school, attend classes and activities throughout the school day and then when they depart, Smith said, “We watch them. We keep them safe here.”

He noted how a child once stood up and said, “This school saved my life.” The youngster explained, “The streets almost swallowed me up, and this school saved my life.”

When asked about the greatest blessing of his work, Smith noted a photo in his office, of him with four students in red caps and gowns on their graduation day as eighth graders at St. Thomas More Catholic Academy. He later tried to attend each young man’s graduation from high school, and he noted that three are now in college and one is training to be a firefighter.

“The greatest blessing is you get to see the fruits of your work,” Smith said. “That’s the greatest blessing, to know you’re doing good work.”

And the principal pointed out, “St. Thomas More is a place where your story and your circumstances can change. It’s because God is here.”

Smith, who once dreamed of becoming a doctor, smiled and said, “God had better plans. Medical school was a great plan, but God’s is better. I won’t go back.”