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VOL. 129 | NO. 169 | Friday, August 29, 2014

Mortarville to Memphis

Iraq veteran back home to change lives at Hickory Ridge Middle School

By Bill Dries

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On the walls of his office at Hickory Ridge Middle School, principal Cedric Smith has a poster of an Iraqi flag. It’s from the time his Army reserve unit was called up in 2009 and stationed on a base that soldiers nicknamed “Mortarville” for how often it was hit by enemy shells.

Cedric Smith, principal of Hickory Ridge Middle School, with students (from left) Andrea Pineda, James Crockett, Jasmine Yates, Bobby Griggs, Tierney Jones and Christian Jones. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“On Christmas Day, we got mortared 10 times,” Smith said of his job in an aviation unit.

But Smith was focused on something other than his survival while he was in Iraq – the middle school he left behind and which he would return to in late 2011.

“I would call in and talk to the kids over the intercom to encourage them,” he said.

Smith also talked with his assistant principal and teachers, and during a two-week leave toward the end of his tour, he visited the school and learned its status with the state had slipped. The school was in “priority” status – in the bottom 5 percent statewide in terms of student achievement.

When his tour was over in January 2011, Smith assembled the whole student body.

“You see kids over in Iraq – they can’t go to school, they are working in fields. If you are not wealthy, you can’t go to school,” Smith remembered. “And I said, ‘You come over here and see how you guys don’t take advantage of the opportunity you have.’ I said, ‘It motivated me to push you harder to be successful because you have no excuse not to be successful in life.’”

Smith added incentive programs like a chance for students in intervention programs to win tickets to a professional wrestling match at FedExForum. There are also trips to Magic Springs amusement park and a T-shirt and jeans exception to the uniform policy for students in the VIP – very intelligent people – group. The VIP program includes about half the student body and has been replicated in 15 other elementary and middle schools.

Smith has gone to a block schedule with longer class periods during the second semester to emphasize intervention during school hours.

“It’s hard to make kids stay after school – especially middle school kids,” Smith said. “It’s hard to get the good teachers to stay after. They’ve been teaching hard all day. To me it’s not beneficial to the school.”

But Smith is also aware that block scheduling demands more of teachers, who must hold the attention of middle schoolers for a longer class period.

Earlier this month, Hickory Ridge Middle School was among those schools that rose out of the bottom 5 percent.

Smith’s time in Mortarville is part of a longer journey he has taken in an unlikely path to middle school principal.

Cedric Smith, principal of Hickory Ridge Middle School, used the experience he gained in Iraq to help shape how he pushes students to achieve.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I was a bad kid. I was breaking into folks’ houses and cars, and I was looking at going to prison for four to eight years,” Smith said from behind the principal’s desk at Hickory Ridge.

A recruiter suggested enlisting. Smith did, and a judge agreed.

“I graduated Friday night, and that Saturday I was on a plane to Fort Sill, Okla.,” Smith said.

In the military, he found a sense of order. He also got some not-so-subtle advice from a drill sergeant that made his career possible while he was filling out the paperwork. Smith was going to check “no” on taking $100 a month out of his paycheck for GI Bill college benefits.

“I checked no and the drill sergeant – he went ballistic on me,” Smith said. “Thank God for that drill sergeant.”

After four years in the military, a hiring freeze in local law enforcement and quitting a factory job, a friend suggested he go to college and get a degree to teach.

Sharpe Elementary School was his first assignment.

“I was the only male in the school and I got all the bad kids that were in fourth grade, which were basically boys,” Smith said. “Every other week the principal would bring me a kid.”

Smith’s work with boys led him to a coach’s position at Ridgeway High School, where his principal suggested he go back to school to get his master’s in education administration.

After Ridgeway, Smith settled in for a longer stay at Ross Elementary, where he went from assistant principal to principal. Then he got the call to Hickory Ridge Middle School a decade ago.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t want to come over here,” he said of his first reaction to a very different Hickory Ridge campus, where attendance was less than 600 compared to the current 880 with a waiting list. He remembers the school being referred to as “Hickory Hood Middle School.”

“At first, you have to show people, and when people see the results you are getting, they buy into your plan,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to make sure we don’t get complacent.”

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