Gillian Smith ’95

Teaching Children Well

By Terry Godbey

Gillian Smith

Gillian Smith ’95 doesn’t regret for a minute trading big business for the nonprofit world. As chief marketing officer for City Year, which helps teens stay in school and on track to graduation, she’s helping to strengthen our struggling public school system.

“The fact that we are not educating the kids in our highest-need communities to the degree they deserve is a huge social-justice issue,” she said. “What’s happening in our urban areas is devastating, and yet it’s a completely solvable problem.”

City Year attempts to solve it by recruiting 17- to 24-year-olds of all backgrounds for a year of full-time service to help students stay in school. It is one of the top employers of recent college graduates. The 2,000 corps members receive a stipend for serving as tutors, mentors, and role models right in the 21 cities City Year serves, mostly in urban, high-poverty areas.

“We are getting to the core of the potential of our country,” she said.

“As early as sixth grade, you can identify the kids who are likely to drop out of high school,” Smith said. “If they are chronically absent, have behavior issues, or are failing math or English, they have only a 25 percent chance of graduating.” City Year volunteers, because they aren’t teachers, relate to the students differently, which is effective, she said. In 2010, 90 percent of students tutored by City Year improved their raw literacy scores over the course of the school year.

Smith joined City Year in July 2011, after four years at Teach for America, a nonprofit with a similar mission. The groups—sister organizations under the AmeriCorps umbrella—tackle educational problems from different angles. Teach for America strives to eliminate educational inequities in 43 low-income areas by recruiting recent college graduates from all majors and backgrounds to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools at full pay.

Before Teach for America, Smith held key marketing positions at Burger King, Sunbeam, and Coca-Cola. She said the seed for her switch to nonprofits was planted at Rollins, where she majored in politics and became a literacy tutor at the Orange County jail. She was shocked to discover how many grown men born and reared in the United States could not write their names, let alone read at a first-grade level. “It opened my eyes to the inequities we have in this country,” she said.

Smith, who is fluent in German, won a Fulbright scholarship at Rollins and taught English in Germany. “It gave me a unique perspective about the United States educational system, living in another country with an arguably stronger social-welfare state that invests more in its schools,” she said.

“Our country is no longer the best at educating our students. Everybody needs to wake up because education is key to everything in the future of our country. When we think about where jobs are going to be created, we need to make sure we have a really educated population.”

Smith has been recognized as a Woman to Watch by Advertising Age and an Online AllStar by MediaPost. She lives in Coral Gables, Florida with her husband and their two sons, 6 and 8. Suffice to say, Smith will make sure they do their homework.

“We can turn things around by giving kids great teachers and access to the right resources and making sure they’ve got people who believe in them,” she said. “It’s great to see that there are so many young people who are channeling their energies into these areas.”