Golden Apple Spotlight: Jennifer Smith

Each year, thanks to a generous gift from the Mario and Alma Pastega Foundation, four outstanding Corvallis School District staff are honored with a Golden Apple Award. Highlighted here is one of this year’s recipients: Jennifer Smith

Job: Educational assistant, College Hill High School.

Family: Husband, Matt. Two adult sons, Nathan, 26, and Riley, 23. Two “doodle” dogs, Buddy and Remi.

In her spare time: She wants to do more traveling. And she wants to “spend as much time as I can with my sons.”

From the Golden Apple nomination: “Jenny believes that each and every student is capable of something incredible and that they are worthy of dignity, respect, and challenge. It is truly inspirational to walk through her classroom and hear her talking with students. I love it most when I hear her tell kids all the things they can accomplish in the future.”

One day just a couple of years ago at College Hill High School, Jennifer Smith was working with a student on his math lessons.
It’s one of many things Smith does at College Hill, but it’s one of her favorites – she likes those moments when students get it: “When you get a kid to say, ‘Oh my gosh, this isn’t that hard’ or ‘This is easy.’ I love that.”

On this particular day, though, the student wasn’t getting it. And his frustration was rising.

In a recent interview, Smith recalled the moment: “He said, ‘I’m done. I’m not doing this. I’m over.’” And he stormed out of the building.

Smith followed him outside.

“You can do this,” Smith told him. “I want you to come back tomorrow. We’ll try again. Don’t give up on us.”

This year, that student graduated.

It’s a moment that tells you why Smith was honored this year with a Golden Apple award from the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation. The award celebrates outstanding teachers and staff members in the Corvallis School District.

“You can do this:” It’s a message that Smith delivers again and again to the students at College Hill.

And, sooner or later, the message gets through. It’s not unusual, she said, for a student at College Hill to say something like this to her: “You guys believed in us when we didn’t believe in ourselves.”

A pattern in the past

It might seem that Smith took a bit of a winding route to get to College Hill, but if you look a little closer, a pattern emerges.

After graduating from Oregon State University, where she studied marketing and merchandising management, she worked as a store manager and in pharmaceutical sales. After having her two sons with her husband, Matt, she elected to become a stay-at-home mother – and eventually, like so many mothers, found herself tackling a bevy of volunteer posts.

“I volunteered pretty much everywhere,” she said. “It was like I had a full-time job while the kids were in school.”

Much of her volunteer work focused on children who were facing challenges in their lives. It included stints at CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocates, which looks out for the interests of children involved in court cases – and the Children’s Farm Home, which works with children and teenagers facing mental health challenges.

Now, at College Hill, she works with students who – for whatever reason – have struggled to fit in at one of the district’s other high schools.

And that one-on-one work with students – building their confidence, showing them alternatives, making them feel that they have allies for what could be the first time in their lives – has been satisfying.

“There’s something very rewarding about helping them achieve whatever their success is going to be,” she said. “Success is different for everybody. We have kids here who are going on to four-year colleges, we have kids who are going to community college, we have kids who are going straight to work, we have kids going into the trades. It’s all exciting.”

The College Hill job wasn’t her first assignment in the Corvallis School District. She worked as a volunteer at Adams Elementary, Linus Pauling, and Corvallis High School.

One day, she was attending a basketball game in which a son was playing when she was approached by Eric Wright, the principal at College Hill. Wright told her that he was looking for a couple of people to fill part-time positions at the school. Wright asked if she knew anybody who might be interested.

Smith thought about it.

As it turned out, she did know somebody who was interested in working at College Hill.

Today, in addition to her math work with students, Smith runs the school’s incentive snack store. She plans the school’s graduation ceremony. She organizes the holiday drive in which nearly 200 gift bags donated by community members, businesses, and school staff are given to students. She makes sure breakfast foods are available for hungry students before school starts. And she stays late to work with students.

And she makes sure College Hill students know she’s an ally.

“We feel like we’re right alongside with them,” she said of the school’s students. “We’re here for them every day to help them through this challenge. … That’s why I stay here.”