Ardis Smith grew up watching her grandfather and mother make a difference in children’s lives as educators on the Warm Springs Reservation. After high school, she worked as a special education assistant before attending Southern Oregon University on an Oregon Indian Educator Grant.
“I wanted to carry on the work my mom and grandfather started,” Smith says. “I knew those were big shoes to fill. I also knew the equity challenges this community faces and what needs to be done here.”
The journey wasn’t easy or smooth. At one point she flunked out of college due to poor grades before “getting my act together” and earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in education. By then she was ready to fulfill what she had come to consider her calling and start a career as a teacher.
Smith’s first job was in Madras. After four years of teaching there she jumped at the chance to return home to teach at Warm Springs Elementary, where her mother was the longtime principal.
In her time at Warm Springs, Smith has already proven herself to be a teacher-leader by being an outspoken voice for Native American students at her school and on the Warm Springs Education Council. Now Smith is preparing to take the next career step by becoming an administrator through the Aspiring Leaders program at Portland State University, part of Chalkboard’s Leading for Learning initiative.
She understands the value of cultural connection. Her deep-rooted experience on the reservation gives her insights into the needs of her tribal youngsters. As a Warm Spring tribal member herself, she can relate to the challenges—cultural, economic, academic—they face as they find their way in society.
“The biggest need here is communication,” she says. “It is so important to understand the unique needs of this community if you want to be an effective advocate. You have to know what is best for the kids.”
Although Smith is the only participant with a Native American background, her time in the Aspiring Leaders program has introduced her to educators who share similar values and aspirations.
“I like that it’s a diverse group, with people from all over the state, from many different backgrounds, who are all seeing the same struggles,” she says. “We all understand that different kids have different needs.”
The program’s emphasis on practicum experience, giving teachers a half-time release to work alongside administrator/mentors, means she’s getting the skills she needs to take the next step, though she admits she sometimes phones her mother, now retired as an educator, to seek advice on tough work issues.
Smith’s goal is to give back to her community by becoming the principal of Warm Springs Elementary.
“This program is giving me the tools to be successful,” she says. “I know there are plenty of areas I still need to develop, but I’m excited to be wrapping my head around the bigger issues.”
Note: The Aspiring Leaders Program is a partnership between Chalkboard Project, the Oregon Department of Education, and two preliminary administrative licensure programs, Portland State University and COSA Leads. Ardis Smith is a participant in the program at Portland State University.
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