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story.lead_photo.caption Goza Middle School teacher Whitney Smith was recently named the Arkadelphia School District Teacher of the Year. Smith serves as an assistant band director and has been with the district for 16 years. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

Jim Lloyd knew Whitney Smith was going to be a special teacher as early as her senior year of high school.

Lloyd, the band director for Arkadelphia High School, was in the same position at Marion High School in 1995. He said that even then, she showed a lot of self-motivation and was very disciplined.

“Whitney is the most organized person I have ever known,” Lloyd said. “She has a very strong work ethic and cares deeply for students. She is incredibly organized.”

Smith was recently named the Arkadelphia School District Teacher of the Year. She works primarily at Goza Middle School but assists Lloyd during marching season at the high school level.

“It is an honor to be named District Teacher of the Year,” Smith said. “I feel like I cannot say that I am any kind of teacher without Jim Lloyd and Aaron Seel. Anything you see come out of my classes and my kids, is a product of them, too.”

She said she is glad the district has recognized her because she said a lot of times, athletics, arts and band are “extra.”

“I’m glad the district puts a priority on all the extracurricular [activities],” she said. “That is as important to the students’ education and being a more well-rounded student.”

Seel directs the eighth-grade band, while Smith directs the seventh-grade band. They both assist at the high school level.

“We all have different strengths,” Lloyd said. “Each of those contribute to making the band the best that we can be.”

Nikki Thomas, the principal at Goza Middle School, said Smith is “an amazing teacher.”

“She goes above and beyond in all that she does, even in the face of hardship,” Thomas said. “She is a middle school and high school band director and color-guard coach, and encourages her students to be their best in every area, not just band.

“Her students love her. She is an integral part of the team and always positive in her interactions with students, parents and colleagues.”

Smith has been at Goza Middle School for 16 years and is in charge of the color guard and the visual aspect of the high school marching band. Lloyd said her contributions make a huge difference in the performance. The color guard is made up of 24 students, and Smith said they provide the character for the show through the use of flags, rifles, sabers and dance.

“She contributes so much to the visual design of the program that is just an outstanding strength,” Lloyd said. “It allows me to concentrate more on the musical program and the execution of that.”

Smith grew up in West Memphis, Arkansas, and graduated from Marion High School in 1996. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music education from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia in 2000 and earned a master’s degree from Henderson State University in Arkadelphia in 2009. She earned her National Board Certification in 2015.

“At OBU, I knew I wanted to be a middle school band director because even though I had great teachers growing up in band, I wasn’t taught a lot of basic skills that I needed to have to be a great clarinet player,” Smith said. “When I went to OBU and music education, I wanted to be the best teacher for beginning students so they can have a solid foundation to grow from.

“To make themselves the best musicians they could be. I wanted to make sure they were given as many solid fundamentals and training [as possible] so they could be high school band players or go on to be professional musicians.”

Smith’s determination has paid off for Arkadelphia, having won back-to-back state championships in marching band in 2016 and 2017.

Arkadelphia earned a superior rating at the regional competition on Oct. 22 at Hot Springs Lakeside High School and qualified for the state competition at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock on Oct. 30.

“It takes a very special person to have intense joy to teach middle-schoolers,” Lloyd said. “Whitney has a special gift for teaching sixth- and seventh-graders. She is meticulous and impassioned with teaching the simplest concepts to middle school woodwind players.”

Smith said she comes from a family of teachers. Her mom, Judy Elliott, was a teacher at St. Michael’s Catholic School and later Marion High School in West Memphis. She taught pre-K through senior high in her tenure, but Smith said she never had her mom as a teacher.

“I grew up staying after school, putting up bulletin boards and helping her grade and sort papers,” Smith said. “It is what I have always known.”

Last August, Smith was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. She started chemotherapy Sept. 12, and it continued through the beginning of December for a total of eight treatments. In December, Smith had a double mastectomy, and now there is “no evidence of the disease after they took everything out,” she said.

Lloyd said that in his recommendation letter for Smith, he wrote how she was going through chemotherapy during marching season, which is the busiest time of the year.

“She would go to chemotherapy and would be out for a day or two, fight it and then come in horribly sick,” he said. “I would tell her to go home and say, ‘You don’t have to be here,’ and she would just say, ‘Yes, I do.’

“It was pretty amazing what she did last year. It was a pretty amazing physical feat that she pulled off by doing that.”

Smith said her students were very supportive during that time. A lot of the parents of her students gathered donations and presented her with gift cards, gas cards and cash at a Christmas concert.

“My church family also set up meals, about twice a week, for the entire four months as well,” Smith said. “The community was really great about helping me out with all of that.”

Angela Garner, a former principal at Goza Middle School, has known Smith for 15 years. Garner said Smith is one of the best teachers with which she has ever worked.

“She is caring and very organized,” Garner said. “Her band programs speak for themselves.

“Anything she does, she does 100 percent. She is super in everything she does.”

Garner said Smith is absolutely deserving of the recognition.

“She knows how to make the kids make music,” Garner said. “She makes musicians out of those students.”

Smith taught for two years for the Magnolia School District before being hired at Goza Middle School. She and her husband, David, lived in Benton during Smith’s first four years at Goza before moving to Arkadelphia.

David Smith was formerly a music minister at First Southern Baptist Church in Bryant but is now an eighth-grade math teacher at Goza.

“She is easy-going, fun and witty,” Garner said. “She is a strong Christian and does a lot of volunteer work with her church.

“She gives Second Baptist Church (in Arkadelphia) a lot of her time, and everything she does is to perfection.”

“This job is definitely not boring,” Smith said. “Every period, every hour that I teach is different. I don’t teach the same subjects at all throughout the day. …

“… I have students that are motivated to do what I ask them to because they know I am trying to make them better musicians and better people all-around.”

Seel said one of the biggest challenges with being a band director is the financial burden. He said the school district budgets less money than they did 20 years ago, and the band has doubled in size, and the cost of equipment has tripled.

“We don’t want to overload our students or community with fundraisers, so we try to maximize that as much as possible,” Smith said.

Smith said one of the other challenges is that her duties take up a lot of time, and even though the kids who sign up want to be there, Smith and the others are still responsible for the recruiting and retention of band members.

“If they are not in band by the sixth grade, they are probably not going to join band moving forward,” Smith said.

Right now, the high school band has 122 members, and the overall band program has 340 students. Lloyd said those numbers are high for a school the size of Arkadelphia.

“Next year, we are going to be at 140 at the high school level and 360 to 380 overall,” Lloyd said. “We continue to grow, and it is due to us working as a team.”

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.

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