Once upon a time, Queen’s Grant High School Principal Michael Smith wanted to be a professional football player. “I liked the Browns when I was a little boy,” says Smith. “That’s all I thought about. I played football in the backyard, I played football in the sandlots, I played junior high, high school, college.”
As Smith grew up and realized the NFL wouldn’t be calling, it only made sense for him to go into coaching. After graduating from Glenville State College with a degree in Health and Physical Education, Smith began teaching language arts and coaching football, basketball and track at Ravenswood High School in West Virginia.
As a young coach trying to move up the ladder, his resume grew quickly. Smith taught and coached for four years in West Virginia before moving to Western Michigan, where he coached college football and taught physical education.
At West Virginia State College, he rose to the rank of Associate Professor of Safety Education while also serving as defensive coordinator of the football team and head track coach. From 1981 to 1983, he was voted track coach of the year in West Virginia.
Over time, Smith developed a love for special education. “That became my forte,” says Smith. “As an educator, special education was my calling.” In 1994, Smith decided to get his doctorate and go into administration. Smith completed his doctoral work at the University of Sarasota, which allowed him to take classes during winter, spring and summer breaks.
While teaching special education, Smith “fast tracked” himself in this manner and completed all his doctoral coursework and dissertation in just two years, earning his diploma in June of 1996.
After earning his Doctorate of Education, Smith taught for a few more years and served as Academic Dean and Vice President at Oak Ridge Military Academy for two years. It was then that he learned of the charter school movement. “When I would read about it, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this thing about choice – it appealed to me,’” says Smith. “I thought that could be a big wave of the future.”
While perusing a new copy of Education Week in his office at Oak Ridge one day, Smith came across an article on a charter school management company called National Heritage Academies. He inquired with the company and learned they were planning to build a school in Greensboro. In 1999, Smith began working with NHA as the founding principal of Greensboro Academy.
Smith’s path to Queen’s Grant High school was a bit bumpier. Smith first met Queen’s Grant’s board of directors in 2001. Board Chairman and Mayor Ted Biggers was interested in opening a charter school in Mint Hill and brought a group to see Smith’s school, Greensboro Academy.
Biggers and his team liked what they saw and teamed up with NHA to open Queen’s Grant Community School, which serves grades K-8. At about the same time, Smith was promoted to Regional Director for NHA, which meant he was the person attending parent meetings for the K-8 school and remained as the liaison between NHA and the board when the K-8 opened.
“One day in 2006,” says Smith, “Mayor Biggers called me and said they’d like to open a high school. They got an amendment to their charter so that they could be a K-12, and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in being the principal. So, I accepted that, and I resigned from NHA effective at the end of the school year, and we were going to open Queen’s Grant High School in August 2006. We hired teachers; we had all kinds of stuff already done, and then we couldn’t find a place to go. So, the board tabled it to open in 2007.”
In the meantime, Smith accepted a job as a middle school principal in Winston Salem. Queen’s Grant High School opened in the fall of 2007 on the grounds of Garr Christian Academy and moved to its current location on Idlewild Road in 2009. In April of 2010, Biggers approached Smith about returning to Mint Hill to lead Queen’s Grant High School.
It was the board as well as Mint Hill’s passionate community that sparked Smith’s interest in Queen’s Grant High School in 2006 and that ultimately persuaded him to come here in 2010.
“The original board,” says Smith, “just wanted so badly to build something good for the town of Mint Hill. I could see their passion for it, how much they were interested. And then the parents down here – they wanted an option for their children, and they were so gung-ho. They would volunteer, they would do anything. So, I thought, “Man, Queen’s Grant – Mint Hill – is a special place, that’s a setting I’d like to be in.”
This marks Smith’s sixth year at Queen’s Grant High School. His favorite thing about working with high school students, are the great discussions he can have with them. “In high school you can sit down and have a real conversation with them and come to understand things,” says Smith.
Smith thinks the biggest challenge facing high school educators today is cell phones! “The cell phone, in my opinion, is to that age group as important as my left hand,” says Smith. “I think it gets in their way. You still need to engage in things, and they don’t engage like they need to.” Smith claims the number one reason students are tardy to class is because they are distracted by their phones during class changes. “Social media and everything that goes along with it too – it’s such a distraction,” says Smith.
In its tenth year, Queen’s Grant remains almost entirely in modular units, which poses unique challenges for the school. Enrollment continues to be a challenge year to year. “If you had a traditional-type building, you would probably have enough enrollment to not have to worry about it, you’d probably have a big waiting list,” says Smith. Queen’s Grant’s main source of advertising is word of mouth, but sometimes it remains difficult to “sell” both parents and students on the campus. “Some people just look at it and say, ‘There’s not any way,’ or maybe the parent likes what they hear but the kid says, ‘No way, I’m not going there.”
Despite these challenges, Queen’s Grant’s dedicated faculty and staff has helped the school to survive and thrive year to year with enrollments above 500.
Despite the challenges Queen’s Grant has faced, Smith remains stalwart in his goal for the school: “The goal here is for the staff to understand and work towards our slogan, our motto – ‘Nurturing the desire to learn.’” Smith challenges his teachers to “really grasp what it means and take hold of it.” He’s passionate about helping students to achieve success. “If you can help a student find a way to have some success – if they can taste that success – just human nature says they will want to taste that again,” says Smith.
Smith recalls a time when he was in the tenth grade and his JV football team was scrimmaging the varsity team. In a critical moment, Smith hesitated. He failed to make a play, and his coach fussed at him for it. The opposing team ran the same play again, and Smith’s coach – quite literally – pushed him into the right play. “To me, that was a defining moment,” says Smith. “That felt so good to make that play, then all of a sudden, I knew what I had to do.” Smith wants his teachers to help Queen’s Grant’s students experience that same success in the classroom. “We can’t make them do anything,” says Smith. “We have to find a way to get them to want to.”
“We say what we mean and mean what we say,” concludes Smith. “We really care about these kids. We want to do everything we can to help them be successful.”
This article is one in a series of profiles of Mint Hill-area principals. Make sure to pick up a copy of next week’s paper to learn more about our local school leadership!