In 1995, Curtis Smith was a basketball-loving freshman at Paul Robeson High School, a Brooklyn school with a reputation for roughness. Two decades later, he’s back in the building as the parent coordinator for P-TECH, an innovative high school featured in TIME—and working with families from his old neighborhood to help students succeed in high school, college, and beyond.
Tell me a little bit about what it was like growing up here, and what role school and education played for you and your family.
My family was always big on education. God rest my father’s soul, he was president of the PTA at pretty much every school I went to—PS 44 on Monroe and Throop, and then at my middle school. As a single parent later on, my mother filled that role. They never missed a PTA meeting or a parent-teacher conference, no matter how busy their work schedules were. They were always involved, and just knowing that your parents were in the building had a big effect.
I graduated from this school when it was still Paul Robeson. Back then, you had to get your education or you were going to work, so I went to junior college to get my associate’s and went on to SUNY Plattsburgh. I played and coached basketball there and played some semi-pro ball, too, but then I had my son at the age of 20.
Having my son really changed me—I had to grow a little quicker, but I thank God I had a solid core of family in the process. Some young parents can’t fulfill their dreams because they don’t have that kind of circle around them, but my mother, my stepfather, and my older sisters helped me out. They gave me the opportunity to finish my degree. My path was a little different, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
And now you work in the same building where you went to school. How did you make your way back here?
Even when I was in college, I always came back to my alma mater, just to visit. A lot of people get rich and leave the neighborhood. For me, the richness is in coming back. I call that the heartbeat of Bed-Stuy—it’s what raised me, helped me become the man I am today. When you grow up in a certain area, sometimes you just have a rougher, tougher skin. It changes how you see everyday life and situations, and I don’t take it for granted.
My first job here was as the assistant coach for the girls’ track team, and it was actually another Robeson alumni, Coach Williams, who told me about the opening. It took me a little while to decide, since this was the track team and I’m a basketball guy—I was co-captain of the team at Robeson—but I thought about it, prayed on it, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.
Of course when my boy said, “I want you to teach shot put” I had to learn how to shot put first, but it’s like I tell people: Just because you haven’t done something before doesn’t mean you can’t be successful at it. We went from one girl to fifty and became nationally ranked. And that was my first start at P-TECH.
As you mentioned, P-TECH didn’t open until after you graduated—it’s only been here since 2011. How has the school changed over the years?
I first walked in these doors in ‘95, and things were bad. There were a couple of stabbings and shootings in the early ‘90s—that’s when we got our metal detectors—and a lot of people didn’t want to go here. But I’ve seen the progress of this building through the ups and downs, through the protests when Robeson was phased out. People will disagree, but as I see it today, I think it had to be phased out. If you don’t have a school in the community that’s doing well, the community won’t do well.
Now we’re home to P-TECH and the Academy for Health Careers. I had the opportunity to be here when President Obama came to visit, and for him to mention us in his State of the Union address and then come speak in the gym—I was sitting third row, and it felt like it helped us get over the threshold, like we were really in a new era. I was just in awe that day. Thinking about it still gives me shivers.
Now I tell people, Obama’s gone, but what’s going on in this building is still amazing. We’re in our sixth year now, and we just had our first kid go to an Ivy League school, Cornell. And from this neighborhood! There are projects across the street and shelters around the corner, but we have our kids. That’s why we’re big on family here. It’s going to take a village to protect them and make sure they get everything while they’re in the building.
A lot of people get rich and leave the neighborhood. For me, the richness is in coming back.
How do you encourage that sense of community at P-TECH?
We try to understand where our kids are coming from. Sometimes Mom and Pops work a lot, so they might not have that kind of connection at home. The fact that we’re an early college high school also means that kids can be here all the way up to 7:30 at night. We know it’s stressful; it can be a lot of pressure. And every household is different, so I always tell the kids that you never know what the student passing by you in the hallway is going through.
If a kid’s having a bad day, they can come into my office to calm down. I’ll ask them what’s going on, and they might say, well, something’s going on at home, but I have to make sure I come to school to get good grades. Sometimes, you can just see the kid wearing. You know, they’re children. Even adults get overwhelmed sometimes.
So we’ll sit down, we’ll talk about it, and we’ll try to map something out. When kids come into the building, I treat them like they’re my son and daughters. As a parent, what I want for my kids at their schools is for there to be somebody they can go to. At the end of the day, they’re at school more than they’re at home, so how do we make it better for them while they’re here?
What does that look like from day to day?
In the mornings, I’ll greet parents and students in the morning if weather permits—shaking hands, slapping five, fist bumps. After that, I’ll have different appointments set up with parents. Some of them have questions that I can answer, some have messages I’ll pass on to the guidance counselors, and some parents just need more communication than others. The parents look to me for a lot of the load, and if something happens at the school and they can’t be there, I’ll advocate for them.
So that’s conversations, walk-ins, parent-teacher conferences, and workshops. I log all of those and submit them to the city. And when I’m in the school, I make sure to listen to the young men and women in the building.
And now you use Remind as part of how you communicate. How did you bring that to P-TECH?
My principal, Mr. [Rashid] Davis, is big on engagement. And when I first started here, he told me to make the job my own. I saw an email that mentioned Remind and went, “Hmmm.” With my being a new PC and P-TECH already having three years of parents, it seemed like a good tool for building relationships and catching up. I tested it out, and all I needed to do was put in cell numbers.
So I went to Mr. Davis and told him I had a new means of communication for our parents. He was like, “All right, well, do what you do.” That’s his thing: If it’s helping us, it can’t hurt us.
Before Remind, we pretty much only used our email system. Staff and students have personal email addresses, but emails don’t always get through. And students just don’t look at them.
And good communication isn’t just a nice-to-have—parent communication was an important part of securing Title I funding for P-TECH.
The lunch form holds a lot of weight in a school. A lot of power. When parents turn in their lunch forms, regardless of how much their kids have to pay, that’s what determines our school’s poverty rate to make sure we get Title I funding.
One year, we didn't get enough of those lunch forms. We had an entire year without our funding, and we really felt it around this time last summer. P-TECH runs summer bridge, but we also have classes for kids who wanted to graduate early or make up some credits or their Regents. We just didn’t have the funds to hire the staff for that last summer.
So I decided to use Remind to get the forms. Teachers know that if you backpack something, it never gets home. Every message I sent home was just “Lunch forms, lunch forms, lunch forms!” Parents got tired of me, but I had to get that instilled. And the great thing is that I could send them the link to the lunch form, so if they filled it out on the computer I didn’t have to do any paperwork at all.
We got a nice amount of our funding back. This summer, we have the staff for our programs and everything is up and running. It’ll help going forth, too, because some of it’s going toward upgrading P-TECH to a Remind School plan.
The parents look to me for a lot of the load, and if something happens at the school and they can’t be there, I’ll advocate for them.
It sounds like upgrading was a pretty easy decision for you.
Well, money talks. Bringing back our funding back helped. Here’s my view: If we want to add another six years to our great program, communication is going to be key. Why not build on what’s working?
I think the teachers here are going to love it. They always tell me, “I email and email, but I can’t get through.” The texts go straight to people’s phones. And parents feel more involved, too. I always tell them that if they change their phone numbers, they need to let me know. If something happens where we have to contact them, we want their information to be right. And now they send me their new numbers on Remind or even come in person to tell me.
I’m just excited to see everybody else using Remind, because I know what it can do. It’s helped me tremendously—not just with the lunch forms, but with the student leadership team, the PTA, and the JV basketball team. The upgrade is going to take us to another level.
That’s awesome. What’s your favorite message you’ve sent or received on Remind?
For the last two years, I’ve taken photos at our graduations to show the incoming parents that these could be their kids, too. It’s a celebration. It’s basically a selfie with the kids in a hallway, lining up to go downstairs and start the ceremony. I sent those pictures out last year, and the mother of a sophomore personally came up to me to thank me for the photo. That was amazing.
She said, “That gave me a sense that we can do it, not just my son. We can do it.” So sometimes I send her more photos, because she likes seeing her son at school.
When you were here as a student, did you ever think you would come back and work at the school?
Heck, no. Not at all. I used to come visit, but to work? I never thought in a million years I’d be back here. And that’s why I just get this feeling every time I walk through these doors. This building reminds me of my ups and downs, and I don’t take those for granted. When I’m here, I enjoy it. When I’m away, I talk about it.
The neighborhood’s changed a lot since I was a kid, but it still has that Bed-Stuy feeling and sense of home. The community aspect is still there. There are still a lot of small businesses here, a lot of black-owned businesses. And to make sure our community stays strong for the future, we’ve got to keep propelling our kids forward and helping them understand that this is where they came from. And we’ll be fine.
Interview and photography by Taylor Chapman, a proud Brooklyn resident whose first job was teaching at a high-poverty high school in North Carolina. With special thanks to Taylor McGraw of The Bell for audio support.