Honors alumnus John “Trey” Smith is making a difference, one student at a time.
Smith, who was one of the founders of the Honors College organization FOCUS (Focusing on College and Unlimited Success), was recently named the 2011— 2012 Outstanding Science Teacher for the city of Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia chapter of the Pennsylvania Society of Professional Engineers honors a science teacher and a math teacher each year with the award, based on nominations from school principals, students, and peers.
“It’s incredibly exciting for me and my school,” said Smith of receiving the prestigious honor. “For me, it’s really rewarding because my school has provided me with that opportunity to make decisions about curriculum and create a vision for what science learning looks like inside and outside the classroom.”
Smith, who joined Teach For America upon graduating from LSU in ’06, has been teaching science in Philadelphia public schools for the past five years. He earned his M.S.Ed from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 and currently serves as the Science Department Chair at Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School — a public college preparatory high school that serves qualified young men from low-income neighborhoods.
During his time at Philadelphia Charter School, Smith has designed an innovative integrated biology and chemistry science curriculum that stresses hands-on exploration, created a monthly science speaker series to connect students with science professionals, managed the school’s first competitive robotics team, and created a class website as a resource for his students.
For Smith, however, receiving recognition for his accomplishments is somewhat bittersweet.
“It’s a good feeling, and on the other hand, it’s frustrating to know great science teachers in the city who aren’t receiving similar praise,” he said. “I think there are a lot of excellent teachers here who don’t get enough recognition. I got this award because my principal nominated me — I wonder who else could have gotten it if they had been nominated.”
Despite the fact that Smith’s entire life currently revolves around teaching, he did not always know he wanted to be an educator. As an undergraduate, he majored in political science and had plans to become a lawyer. It wasn’t until Smith and his friends Megan Scelfo and Lea Witkowski came up with the idea to start the FOCUS program in 2004 that he realized his true career aspirations.
“We’d all hang out in Highland Coffees and talk about the arts — Megan was a dancer, I was a musician, and Leah was a studio artist — and how those things got us through high school,” he said. “And so we came up with the idea for FOCUS program as a way to provide opportunities in arts that were probably missing for students in low-income schools.”
With FOCUS going into its seventh year, Smith said he is proud to have played a role in helping to build a solid foundation for the entirely student-run organization.
“It’s an amazing feeling to know that the program is strong, and that it isn’t dependent on one leader or one person to keep it going,” he said. “It’s bigger than a person or a group of people. That’s just a really humbling thing to think about.
Just as FOCUS has grown and flourished thanks to Smith’s early efforts, so too has Smith grown into the person he is today as a result of what he learned from his first teaching experiences at FOCUS.
“Even though we weren’t exactly sure what we were doing the first year of FOCUS, the kids really pulled through. We had a student write her own song and play it on the piano — those were things we weren’t expecting to happen, but when you create a space for that, students can thrive,” he said. “That’s something that lives on in my classroom right now. I’m always asking, ‘How do I create a space where students are the creators?’ If I can just provide a space for them to continue to create, to explore, and to be confident enough to go forward, I think that would make me feel successful.”
Story by Elizabeth Clausen, LSU Honors College
For more information, contact the Honors College at 225-578-8831.