As Dr. William Gretzula prepares to retire from his role as Pennsbury School District superintendent in June, an energetic leader is ready to “take on the torch.”
Last week, the Pennsbury community was introduced to Ewing, New Jersey native Dr. Thomas Smith, who emerged from 22 applicants as the top candidate. The Pennsbury school board unanimously approved Smith’s contract during its April 15 meeting, and he will officially begin his Pennsbury tenure on or around Aug. 1.
On the evening of April 14, the school board and Bucks County Intermediate Unit, who worked jointly on the superintendent search, hosted a socially distanced and livestreamed forum at Keller Hall. Smith was able to share his background and answer questions submitted by Pennsbury families through an online survey.
Smith, who currently serves as superintendent at Hopewell Valley Regional School District in Pennington, New Jersey, boasts experience as an administrator, coach and teacher. But he didn’t always envision a life in education. After earning his degree from Trenton State College in communications, with an emphasis in film and TV, Smith headed to the Big Apple.
“I got a job after that in New York City. I thought it was my dream job. I worked as a production assistant on TV commercials,” he said.
On weekends, he volunteered with a Special Olympics team. It was here that Smith had an epiphany. Not only was he enriching the students’ lives, they were enriching his. Smith went back to school and became a special education instructor in Trenton, New Jersey, where he met his wife on his first day of work. The father of three hasn’t looked back since. Education is his passion, and he’s ready for his next chapter at Pennsbury.
“I think Pennsbury is an awesome school district. It’s kind of a diamond in the rough and we can work together to polish it and move forward,” he said. “I think we all share a common vision of where we’d like the district to go.”
Mark Hoffman, director of the Bucks County Intermediate Unit, moderated the Q&A session with Smith. The first question focused on his entry plan and what he hopes to accomplish in his first year.
“My plan is really to become engaged in the community, to meet with key stakeholders during that time and meet with our administrative staff, to meet with our teachers as appropriate and make sure that I’m not redoing work that they’ve already done,” he said. “I know the first year is usually the ‘getting to know you’ part, but I don’t like to sit still.”
Regarding his academic vision for Pennsbury, Smith wants to operate it as a “district of schools rather than a school district” by ensuring a consistent education plan. When students return in the fall, he hopes their experience will be as “normal” as possible. Still, he acknowledged that some changes made during the pandemic were beneficial, including virtual parent-teacher conferences and a later start time for high school students.
“Why not take those things that work well and capitalize on them moving forward?” he asked.
When asked about his philosophy on the education of gifted students and those with IEPs, Smith said this area is “near and dear” to his heart. These learners don’t fit into the average confines of instruction, and so they should be “provided opportunities to be successful.” Touching on the subject of gifted students, Smith said many advanced classes simply give more work, which isn’t beneficial at all. Instead, they should receive “different” work that will allow them to excel.
A key topic of discussion was building trust and transparency, especially after several lawsuits were filed against the district and administration. According to Smith, his current district had 17 superintendents come and go over the span of 25 years prior to his arrival. He believes he was able to change that.
“If I can’t stand up in front of a crowded auditorium and justify why a decision was made, then it shouldn’t have been made. I’m not one to hide behind a letter,” he said. “I do put myself out there because I’m passionate about what I do. I believe in what I say, and it’s important for people to see that.”
He shared how, on snow days at his current district, he takes calls from angry parents. In his eyes, it’s not fair for his secretary to get yelled at for a decision he made.
Another key topic was equity. Smith stressed that this is of high importance for him and something he focused on at his previous district.
“One thing I put together that I was very proud of is, I brought in students from every high school in Mercer County, I called it the ‘Day of Dialogue,’ to talk about the challenges,” he said. “When you brought kids into a room and they talked about what they experienced in school, what opportunities there were, you see that there are differences. At its basic level, equity is ensuring that there’s opportunities for everyone and there’s supports for everyone to be successful.”
In his closing remarks, Smith said, “I am very excited to join the Pennsbury school community. Pennsbury has a strong reputation and from the comprehensive interview experience with the board, I know that we share the same vision of providing a world-class education for Pennsbury students. I look forward to working very hard for the community and partnering with the outstanding staff in Pennsbury to promote student achievement in academics, the arts, activities and athletics.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org