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LEI Mentor Spotlight: Getting to Know Jocelyn Smith

Jocelyn Smith - Mentor Spotlight

Mentor principals have played a critical role in the success of the Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) since the program’s inception in 2012. The experience, accountability, and personal attention that these leaders provide has been a defining characteristic of the LEI, helping Catholic school principals—and their teams—institute lasting changes. 

After schools attend the LEI summer conference, mentor principals maintain regular contact with the 4-6 school leaders in their group through monthly video conference calls. These conversations, which focus on various themes related to Latino outreach, recruitment, and enrollment, are an opportunity for school leaders to learn from one another and receive real-time consultation and feedback from their mentor on some of the things that they’re doing in their school. 

The commitmentJocelyn Smith and students of our LEI mentors, most of whom are still active Catholic school principals themselves, is truly the engine that drives the LEI.  

This month, we highlight Dr. Jocelyn Smith. Jocelyn has worked in education for over 20 years and has served as a mentor principal since 2018. Jocelyn has served as lower school principal at St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School in Columbus, Georgia, since 2014. When Jocelyn became principal, the school was declining in enrollment and facilities were in desperate need of renovations. She and the high school principal began a capital campaign to improve facilities. During this same time, she realized a huge need for a Catholic preschool. She opened the first Catholic preschool in the Diocese of Savannah in 2015. The road to growing enrollment was not easy. It required improving academics, increasing technology and renovating facilities. Under her leadership, Jocelyn, along with other school leaders, turned a struggling Catholic school with declining enrollment into an incredible success story. Her school has increased enrollment to capacity with several grades on extensive waitlists. St. Anne-Pacelli now outperforms all diocesan and national norms in every grade level in every content area. The school’s mission is evident in every inch of the campus. You are known. You are loved. You are prepared. It is for that reason that each and every day is a GREAT day to be a Viking.

Read the interview below to learn a bit more about Jocelyn Smith, her LEI journey, and what continues to fuel her passion for Catholic education and serving Latino families.

Let's start with a fun question. What is your favorite go-to recipe?

Ha! With four kids, my favorite go-to recipe is one that they all eat. Growing up in a Cuban household, picadillo was a staple. It was served alongside white rice and black beans. It was my mom’s go-to and has become mine too. I must admit, it is also a favorite because it lends itself to hidden veggies that the kids have never noticed. 

You grew up in New York. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences in Catholic schools as a child?

When I first became a principal . . . I wanted to see my old school and share that I had become a Catholic school leader. I didn’t understand why such an amazing school that formed me would have closed . . . I quickly learned the hard truth of the enrollment crisis. It scared me and invigorated me at the same time. We have a great product and I vowed that what happened to Our Lady of Good Council wouldn’t happen to St. Anne-Pacelli.

I grew up in New York City and was incredibly blessed to have attended Catholic schools from Pre-K to college. Catholic schools in New York City were everywhere. They were filled with students and run by sisters. It was a wonderful experience. I was surrounded by ethnic and cultural diversity in every grade. When I first became a principal, I wanted to go back home and visit my school. I eagerly went to 91st Street between 1st Avenue and 2nd Avenue; to my disbelief, Our Lady of Good Council was closed. It was an incredible feeling of sadness. I wanted to see my old school and share that I had become a Catholic school leader. I didn’t understand why such an amazing school that formed me would have closed. About a week into Catholic education, I quickly learned the hard truth of the enrollment crisis. It scared me and invigorated me at the same time. We have a great product and I vowed that what happened to Our Lady of Good Council wouldn’t happen to St. Anne-Pacelli. It has been a labor of love but something I absolutely adore.

How have you been moved and inspired through the work of the LEI? 

This work is who I am at the core. Creating an environment where Latinos feel loved and thrive academically is what we as Catholics are called to do. I went to the LEI in 2014 and was fascinated by the initiative. The reality that Catholic schools nationwide are closing and we as Catholic school leaders have tools to ensure that they stay alive and thrive is amazing. Think about it…if we were to enroll just 5% of Latino Catholic school children in the U.S., we would never close another Catholic school again. We have an incredible product. The ability to walk alongside other school leaders and watch their schools flourish culturally and academically is such a blessing. 

You are a life-long educator. Can you tell us a bit about your passion for serving culturally and linguistically diverse students?

I became a New York City Teaching Fellow right out of college. I was 22 and assigned to an ESL 1st grade inclusion class. I had no idea what to expect but in true first-year teacher fashion, my classroom was precious and I was ready to receive my students on the first day of school. I had no idea that all 27 of my students were in the silent phase of language acquisition. I would speak and they just stared. I felt defeated. My friends were all sharing their struggles of classroom management and my class was silent. I seriously had no idea what to do, but the one thing I promised was to never give up. I vowed to always be there for them and create a safe space where they would learn and feel loved. As a result of that class, I quickly learned that culturally and linguistically diverse students were my absolute favorite students to teach. They brought so many experiences to the classroom. We celebrated accomplishments, but also our many differences. At the end of the day, they are children who just want to learn and be loved. Our job as educators is to make sure that we approach each lesson with the tools students need to be successful. 

Jocelyn Smith reading to her students


You've worked really hard to market your school to families. Can you share a few pieces of advice for other school leaders?

If funding permits, I highly recommend hiring a director of communications. This person should be an expert in the fields of public relations, marketing, advertising and branding. It’s important to know your audience. To effectively market you must know which audience prefers which platform. Are you marketing to grandparents who still read the newspaper, or millennials who surf social media? A strong website that is current and reads well on a phone is also a must. We all have a great product. Sell it! Celebrate success. High achieving schools celebrate success. When marketing your school, be loud and proud!  

You are fond of saying, “You are either green and growing or ripe and rotting.” Can you unpack this for us in terms of what you see in education?

None of us want to be categorized as rotting, yet for many schools, things haven’t changed, but our students certainly have. We cannot do what we have always done and expect different results. We need to be giving our students the best when it comes to teaching, learning and data driven assessments. We are all called to give each and every student the best educational experience possible and with that comes the need to stay current and learn best practices. I tell my teachers often, don’t be the smartest person in the room. If you are, change rooms. Stay green, keep learning and treat every child entrusted to your care as if he/she were your own.

What inspired you to complete your doctorate? What did you study and what did you learn?

Dr. Jocelyn SmithWhen I was a little girl, my mom said to be successful you should either be a doctor or a lawyer. That stuck with me, perhaps for the wrong reasons. I didn’t want to be either. I wanted to be a teacher. I loved playing school and would often wonder what the faculty lounge really looked like. When I became a teacher, I quickly realized I had to keep learning. I wanted to be the best possible version of myself for the students entrusted to my care. I got my master’s degree and realized there was more to learn. I then pursued my specialist degree and was hungry for more. It was at that point that I changed directions and my focus. I wanted to learn more about school leadership. What makes some schools so successful? The saying the fish stinks from the head down, resonated with me. Is it the leadership? Was there more to it? It was then that I decided to pursue my doctorate at Vanderbilt University in Organizational Leadership. I studied powerful practices in business, but also studied leaders. My capstone focused on self-efficacy of Catholic school principals and the implications for professional development. When I received my doctorate, I looked at my mom and said, your daughter is now a doctor (even if the only medical treatment I give is an occasional Band-Aid in the clinic).

What inspires you about the mission of the Catholic School Advantage and Notre Dame?

Catholic education formed me. The mission of the CSA is rooted in promoting the value and accessibility of quality Catholic education. What’s not to love? We are called to embrace the universality of the church. The CSA has figured out how to effectively do that. I was a part of the LEI and realized quickly that the tools they equipped me with needed to be shared. I also realized that growing enrollment can't stand alone. Teachers need the tools to successfully reach the students that are quickly filling their classroom seats. That is when I joined ENL. That equipped me with the proper tools to deliver PD to my staff. Being the only Latina principal in my diocese, I realized that we need to cultivate future leaders. Students need to see what they want to become. It can’t just be me. And so, I joined LEAD. Working with the CSA team has been absolutely amazing and, well, it happens to be at Notre Dame. Go Irish!

Jocelyn Smith_presenting at LEI summer conference

Can you tell us a bit about your family and what parts of motherhood you enjoy most?

I am a mom to four pretty awesome kids. I started motherhood with twin boys, Dylan and Logan who are now juniors in high school. Then came the Irish twins… Brayden who is 9 and Camila who is 8. Motherhood isn’t for the weak. I have to say that watching milestones through a child’s eyes is pretty amazing. Watching them discover the world around them and become the uniquely different people that God intended them to be is remarkable. In July my boys got their driver’s licenses. I wasn’t ready. Ready or not, it was happening. With time I stopped stalking them on Life360 and was more comfortable with this new stage. And just when I thought I was good… Dylan decides he wants to be a pilot. He rocked my world yet again. I watched him on the runway and thought, really? I was just getting good with driving and now the boy is 40,000 feet in the air. Like I said, it’s not for the weak. It is for the blessed. Kids are a blessing and each and every day I am reminded of that. From listening to their prayer intentions, to the random notes I find in my purse, it’s an honor to be their mom.

Before becoming a principal, what was the most unusual or interesting job you had?

Jocelyn and her familyI think the most unusual job I had was in high school. I worked at The Spanish Institute in New York City as a translator. At 16, I was being hired out to negotiate multi-million-dollar business deals. I attended organizations’ galas with all the famous movie stars and politicians. I even got to meet Queen Sofia of Spain who eventually knew me by name. It was a pretty unusual experience when my friends were all working in retail and I was translating business deals that I didn’t even fully understand. A true testament to the gift of bilingualism.

And let's close this out in the same way we started - with a fun question! What is your favorite animal at the zoo and why? How about your least favorite?

My favorite animal at the zoo has to be the sloth. Strange, I know. I think partly because I am envious of the level of chill that they manage to achieve. I mean, have you ever seen a stressed sloth? Nope. Imagine living a life with zero hurry? It’s a good reminder to slow down, look around and take in the moment. My least favorite is definitely anything reptile. Our zoo has a reptile house and I am very happy to skip that exhibit. Snakes and lizards are not for me. Not even a little bit. 

More about Jocelyn Smith... 

Haidee TodoraJocelyn Smith, Ed.D., is a school administrator that has devoted her career of over 20 years to developing teachers and school administrators using high-impact programs, data disaggregation, and prescriptive interventions to positively impact academic achievement. She holds a Doctorate of Education from Vanderbilt University in Leadership and Learning in Organizations. Jocelyn currently serves as the Lower School Principal of St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School in Columbus, GA. In addition to her role as principal, Jocelyn serves as Faculty for the English as a New Language Program. She also serves as a Mentor Principal for the Latino Enrollment Institute and as a LEAD Mentor for the Latino Educator and Administrator Development Program. Jocelyn believes firmly in the importance of leadership development to ensure operational vitality and academic achievement for all students. She is passionate about the importance of Latino recruitment and retention. Once enrolled, she believes it is imperative that we meet the needs both culturally and linguistically to ensure the success of all students. She currently resides in Midland, GA, with her husband and four children.

If you're interested in learning how to recruit, enroll, and better serve Latino children in your school, as well as work with an incredible mentor like Jocelyn, consider joining the LEI!


Learn more about the Latino Enrollment Institute