Dr. Wood Smethurst (1933 – 2015): an education pioneer in Atlanta

By Maria Saporta

A giant oak in Atlanta’s education forest has fallen.

Dr. Wood Smethurst, co-founder of the Ben Franklin Academy – and its headmaster until July 1, passed away Tuesday morning of pneumonia.

Smethurst was a quiet yet powerful force in Atlanta’s education circles – pushing the envelope in ways to teach students who may have faced a myriad of challenges in their lives.

Smethurst, 82, was lovingly called “Doc” by some of his closest friends and associates. Given his warmth and humility, few people realized that he was one of the most innovative and progressive education leaders in Atlanta over a span of several decades.

“He was an education visionary,” said Martha Burdette, who worked with Smethurst beginning in 1984 and was a fellow co-founder of the Ben Franklin Academy in 1987. “He had a sense of humanity – everybody makes mistakes, nobody is perfect. He recognized everybody had gifts. His work with the poor and disenfranchised was legendary.”

Dr. Wood Smethurst

Dr. Wood Smethurst (Special: Ben Franklin Academy)

Burdette, who had just been named Smethurst’s successor on July 1, called it a gift to have worked by his side for more than three decades.

“He was my mentor,” she said. “He wanted to work for as long as he could. It’s just a blessing we had him for as long as we did.”

She remembered when they opened Ben Franklin and how Smethurst knew what kind of a place a school should be. It should have flowers, a garden, trees, comfortable rooms, warm paint.

“Everything was thought through on what would make a school a comfortable place to be – to make learning easy for students,” Burdette said. “There was that whimsy about him.”

As a parent of a Ben Franklin graduate, I can vouch for Smethurst’s special bond that he made with students and the magic formula he had perfected in the field of “Mastery Learning.”

After having been away for more than a year, my daughter, Carmen, wasn’t sure where she wanted to complete her high school education. We visited several different schools – including Grady High School – across the street from our house. No place felt quite right for Carmen – until we visited Ben Franklin.

First, it did not look like a school. It felt more like a sprawling cluster of homes where there were learning spaces in various corners.

But it was the sign displaying the rules that applied to everyone – from the board president on down.

* Do your own work and avoid interfering with the work of others. Be gentle with the equipment, furnishings, and animals. Be sensitive to the needs, concerns, property, and feelings of the rest of us.

* Do what teachers tell you.

* No fighting, no hate speech, or threats. No weapons, illegal drugs, tobacco or tobacco-related products, and no alcohol on school property.

* Don’t let the cats out.

When Carmen read the last rule, she knew she wanted to go to Ben Franklin. She loved the idea of being able to go to school with cats around.

And then she met Doc.

The minute we sat down with Smethurst, I became invisible. Carmen, then a bit reserved around adults, immediately opened up with – and the two began chatting as though they had been close friends for years.

Wood Smethurst Martha Burette

Wood Smethurst and Martha Burette (Special: Ben Franklin Academy)

Somewhere along the way, Carmen told him she was a night owl and often was awake when the rest of the world was sleeping. Me too, Smethurst told her. He then gave her his cell phone, and told her she could call him in the middle of night if she ever wanted to talk.

As we left our introductory visit, Smethurst gently reassured me: “Carmen is part of the solution; she’s not part of the problem.”

Smethurst’s warmth was felt in the way students learned.

At Ben Franklin, no student can advance from one level to another until he or she has mastered the subject. Class ratios can be as small as one teacher to two students – making sure students get hands-on instruction until they fully grasp the topic. It also means that everyone graduates with all A’s because no one advances from one class until they have earned an A.

Because they get such individualized instruction, students can fit a full school day into half the time. So everyone is required to have a job when they’re not in school. Ben Franklin is perfect for a student athlete training for the Olympics or someone undergoing medical treatments that would prevent them from being in school during regular hours.

The formula worked so well that Smethurst and Ben Franklin offered ways to pilot the concept with a couple of public school systems.

Smethurst was born in Raleigh, N.C. on March 1, 1933 – attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He went on to serve as an officer in the U.S. Navy. After a brief stint in the insurance field, he decided to seek a higher calling – to become a teacher.

He enrolled at Emory University, and then he won a scholarship to Harvard University where he received his education degree in Reading and Curriculum.

Smethurst began his teaching career at Harvard in the Harvard University Reading Clinic and the Harvard Bureau of Study Council. He returned to Atlanta to work with his mentor, Elliott Galloway – with both of them teaching together during the early days of Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School.

Smethurst then helped Galloway establish the Galloway School – serving as vice president of the board and curriculum planner. He then worked with a group of parents to help start the Paideia School, serving as acting board chairman and lead teacher. During this time he was Senior Author for the Houghton-Mifflin Primary Reading Series.

In 1975, Dr. Smethurst became director of the Emory University Reading Center with joint appointments in Educational Studies and the Institute of Liberal Arts at Emory University.

In addition to their teaching experience at the Emory Reading Center and Catch-Up School, Smethurst and Burdette both had taught at Lovett School, as well as in college and at several independent schools in Georgia and Texas.

They helped to create the Emory/Oxford Prep Program, the Emory Medical School’s Minority MCAT Program, and the Medical School’s Board Review Program. Interestingly, besides their work with older students, both Burdette and Smethurst had preschool teaching experience and both had been involved with Montessori schools.

Smethurst’s volunteer service was legendary, assuming leadership roles in Literacy Action, the American Business Council for Effective Literacy, the Georgia Governor’s Education Review Commission, the Georgia Conservancy, the Orton Dyslexia Society, the Council for Basic Education, and the Board of Advisors of Schenck School, among others. He gave generously of his time in pro bono work with students of all ages who needed help with study skills and reading.

Smethurst received many commendations for his pioneering work in individualized teaching and Mastery Learning.

The greatest loves of his life, however, were his two sons-Frank and William. He considered them his greatest gifts – fostering in them a love and respect for all living creatures and plants. He encouraged them to love all of God’s children and to pursue their dreams and interests with passion and dedication.

He is survived by his two sons and their families: Frank Powell Smethurst, wife Dr. Carol Conzelman and daughter Mallie Smethurst of Boulder, Colorado; and William Cabot Smethurst, wife Shannon Smethurst, their daughters Alaina and Emma Smethurst, and their son Trevor Kuboske of Montrose, Colorado.

A celebration of his life will be held at the Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church on the Emory University campus at 11:00 AM on Saturday, July 18. The visitation at 10:00 AM will precede the service, and a reception will follow at the Reception Hall of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Wood Smethurst Scholarship Fund of the Ben Franklin Academy, 1585 Clifton Road, NE, Atlanta, Georgia, 30329.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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