ELWOOD — Growing up in her native Whiteland, Casey Smitherman never would have thought college was for someone like her.

“I knew no one who had gone to college, except my teachers,” she said.

But not only did she attend college, she has earned the highest degrees possible.

In spite of joining the teachers’ ranks, living in more upscale Zionsville and most recently serving as principal in suburban Brownsburg, Elwood’s new school superintendent said she identifies with the largely blue-collar families she now serves.

Though she has been a presence in the district for about a month, Smitherman officially takes over as Elwood Community Schools’ new superintendent on July 1.

Born 47 years ago to Jim and Diane Gragg, Smitherman recalls loving going to school.

“I don’t remember having a bad teacher,” she said.

Her first introduction to the possibility of attending college was a trip to Ball State University with her high school English teacher, Marti Loop.

“She told me, ‘You can do this,’” Smitherman said. “I think because she was there with us, it wasn’t so intimidating. But it was impactful.”

At one point in her life, Smitherman thought she might want to be a social worker.

“I have a real servant’s mindset,” she said.

But her college adviser didn’t think social work was the right direction to fulfill that passion and told Smitherman she needed to work with kids before they got to the point of needing social workers.

“That was kind of a turning point for me,” she said.

After graduation, Smitherman returned to Whiteland to teach at her middle school.

“I was back with the same teachers I loved,” she said.

Twelve years later, she went to work for the Indiana State Teachers Association.

“I’ve always been a union girl at heart,” she said. That’s because her father went to work in a union job when she was 11 years old.

“That really changed our financial status," she said. "Not to have those financial worries was big.”

INCLUSIVE CULTURE

Among the things of which she is most proud during her tenure at Brown Elementary School in Brownsburg is raising the pass rate on ISTEP+ from 85 percent to 93 percent and being one of only six schools in the state at the time named a national Blue Ribbon School.

“That growth was not just numbers and test scores. Kids were ready to go to middle school,” she said.

Smitherman said she was able to achieve this by creating an inclusive culture with a family feel and by knowing each student by name.

“Transferring that feeling where people feel good about Elwood schools is going to be very important,” she said. “People should feel good about their community.”

Smitherman said Elwood Community Schools was a great place to move up the ladder because it’s a jewel in the rough in a city poised for an economic revival in the next three to five years.

“It’s on the cusp of so many cool things,” she said. “It’s an exciting time to be here, I think. There’s so much room to grow with our kids.”

Still, the social worker in her sometimes comes out as Smitherman talks about the needs so many students have beyond the academics. She said she is committed to ensuring students have what they need so they are ready to learn.

“Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry and are scared to go home,” she said.

But in the end, Smitherman said, high poverty can’t be an excuse for inadequate instruction.

“You recognize that poverty can’t be an excuse," she said. "You have to be of a mindset that every child can learn at a very high level. Our kids can learn. They just may need something different.”

One of Smitherman’s goals will be to create a district that will encourage residents to send their children its schools.

“For me, one of the most important things will be to bring students back to Elwood from Tipton or Frankton. I like that challenge,” she said. “I believe we will be able to offer something they can’t get anywhere else, especially around high achievement.”

Smitherman expects to make the move to Elwood with her husband and some of their blended family of seven children over the coming year. When she can’t make the long trip home, she expects to spend the night with her mother-in-law in Pendleton.

'PASSIONATE ABOUT EDUCATION'

Kathy Lengerich, an instructional coach at Brown Elementary, said Smitherman, whom she has known for seven years, is full of energy and never slows down.

“I would describe her as someone who is passionate about education and who always puts kids first,” she said.

Smitherman’s real strength, Lengerich said, is building relationships. In fact, she’s pretty much asked all the residents of Elwood out for a Coke.

“She is a master at building relationships with community, with teachers, with parents. These are all components of being a great educator,” Lengerich said.

As a community with economic and social challenges, Lengerich said the children of Elwood stand to benefit from what Smitherman has to offer. The families of children who come to school might find themselves the recipients of a new washer and dryer; hungry children will have their bellies filled; and nervous children will have their anxieties calmed.

“Not every kid comes to you ready to learn," she said. "They might need food. They might need shelter. They might need counseling. A lot of our kids need more than just education, and Casey is so good at getting the families what they need — not just the kids, but the families. You can’t have kids succeed academically when they’re hungry, when they’re angry.”

Brownsburg Community Schools Superintendent James Snapp first met Smitherman about 11 years ago when he worked for the Metropolitan School District of Franklin Township in Marion County and she was the liaison between ISTA and the school districts.

“In those three years, we were often on opposite times of the table,” he admitted.

But over the years, Snapp said, he was able to overcome their differences of opinion and gained a great respect for Smitherman and her work ethic, intelligence and collaboration.

“Not only is she a great principal with great accomplishments, she really distinguished her school in Indiana,” he said.

One of Smitherman’s greatest strengths was her ability to improve the public’s view of Brownsburg schools through her inclusive nature and ability to improve her school’s metrics, Snapp said.

“I think in a time when our students were facing greater challenges with poverty increasing, Casey really connected with families, whether that was connecting them with the food pantry or the clothing pantry," he said. "She really integrated them into the fabric of the schools.”

Snapp said his district is going to miss Smitherman and her many talents.

“Elwood schools are in great hands with her leadership.”

Follow Rebecca R. Bibbs on Twitter at @RebeccaB_THB, or call 640-4883.