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Helmut Schmidt, Published August 18 2012

Smith looking to improve, expand John Paul II Catholic schools

FARGO – Michael Smith has spent much of his professional life abroad: working in the Peace Corps in Honduras, and running schools in Berlin and Saudi Arabia.

The new superintendent of the John Paul II Catholic Schools Network now hopes what he’s learned overseas helps him energize local Catholics to expand and improve the Fargo-based network.

High on the agenda: the start-up of another elementary school to serve West Fargo and southwest Fargo, the 40-year-old said.

“It has our full attention at the district level. It’s a priority,” he said. “We feel Catholic education is critical to the Catholic Church as a whole.”

Smith said as Fargo changes, “we need to change.”

And he wants to create a support system for young teachers.

“We want to have a mentor program so they are not done learning,” Smith said. “Mentoring of new people is really critical.”

All of that will be done as part of revamping the network’s strategic plan and its components: finances and sustainability, governance, teaching and learning, and mission and vision.

“It takes real strength to say we’re good, we want to be excellent,” Smith said.

Smith officially started Aug. 1, but since early July he’s been in the office, “getting to know the lay of the land” in preparation for Thursday’s first day of school.

Smith grew up in the Twin Cities suburb of Spring Lake Park. He graduated from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., with degrees in Spanish and elementary education.

He later earned master’s and doctorate degrees from St. Mary’s University in Minneapolis.

After getting his bachelor’s degree, Smith served in the Peace Corps in Honduras. He learned some powerful lessons, particularly to approach life “not knowing everything but as a student,” he said.

Smith later taught in a Shakopee, Minn., public elementary school before spending a year as principal of Canby (Minn.) Elementary and four years running a Grantsburg, Wis., elementary, preschool and kindergarten center.

Then it was back overseas, with two years as principal at the John F. Kennedy School in Berlin.

While there, Smith was approached by the superintendent of a school run by the Saudi Arabian national oil company, Saudi Aramco. It resulted in a six-year gig running a 1,000-student school in Saudi Arabia.

Children from 41 nations attended the school. Eighty percent of its kindergarteners were English Language Learners, but by third grade, about three quarters of the students were reading at or near grade level, he said.

“No regrets about going there. It was an absolutely wonderful experience,” Smith said.

Academic excellence is a hallmark of local Catholic schools, but teaching the importance of service to the community is also important, he said.

It’s vital to add value to society. “Not just taking, taking, taking,” Smith said.

“When kids leave high school, if they go out into the world with some of that,” then you’ve done something right, he said.

Taking part in extracurricular activities, which 90 percent of students at Shanley High School do, is also a needed ingredient for a healthy life, he said.

“It’s just a winning recipe. That’s what I want the people in our area to understand: what we represent.”

Smith is married to Katie (Breen), a Hillsboro native. They have three children in grades five, seven and nine.

He’s glad he’s back in the U.S., particularly North Dakota, where he can talk freely about being a Christian.

While he’s always tried to model what it means to be a Christian, in North Dakota “you live it,” Smith said.

“Just being back in the States is a real nice thing. It’s a great country and good to be back home.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583