Chinle teacher expects excellence, gets it

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, April 16, 2010

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It isn't hard to find the common denominator between the seven, count 'em, seven finalists for the Gates Millennium Scholarship at Chinle High School.

Or the five seniors in the AP literature class who have all been accepted into a college of their choosing, with scholarships.

It all boils down to one teacher: Parsifal Smith-Hill.

"He's the main reason I applied to Ivy League schools," said Katy Gorman, 17, who is being courted by Brown, Bryn Mawr, Creighton and Dartmouth as well as several state universities. "I was afraid ... he really motivated me. He's the best teacher I've had."

Smith-Hill, in turn, says there's no secret to his method. Believe in the students, he says, and they will not disappoint you.

That, and work college into your lesson plans.

One of the assignments in Smith-Hill's advanced placement English class is a Power Point presentation on six colleges of the student's choosing. Three must be private schools, three public, and only one can be in the Four Corners.

He wants to get the students thinking outside their usual confines.

"You're talking about students who may be the first people in their families to go to college," he said. "They don't know what a college application looks like. Their parents aren't going to take them on a scoping trip. Some of them are scared to death."

In addition, they're hampered by a community with low expectations.

"I think there are people here who forget that we're able to produce students who are able to go to the best schools in the world," Smith-Hill said.

But he's not taking credit for the students' performance.

"All I do is get them fired up," he said. "The rest is up to them."

He also makes his classes as rigorous as possible, so "when the kids do get to college, they'll know what to expect," he said.

Gorman agreed. "He sets high standards for us, so you want to do well for him," she said. "He teaches us like we were adults."

"They are adults," Smith-Hill said when that comment was relayed to him. "They're young adults who are expected to go out into the world and start their lives. We had better give them the tools."

Smith-Hill came to Chinle from San Diego, Calif., where he was teaching at a prestigious private high school.

"Every day I asked myself, 'What good am I doing?'" he recalled. "It didn't matter what kind of a teacher I was, those students were still going to the best schools. They had everything they needed."

Since he came to Chinle 10 years ago, "I've never asked myself that question again."

Ironically, Smith-Hill himself didn't go to an Ivy League school. His bachelor's and doctorate are from the University of Arizona, although he did half his undergraduate studies in Switzerland and obtained his master's from the Sorbonne in Paris.

"It's not that I think you have to go out of state to get a good education," he said. "I just don't want my students limiting themselves. Some of the ones who got accepted into a university are choosing to go to a community college instead, because they love sports and they can do sports there. That's fine; that's important to them. I just want them to see all their options."

Why does Smith-Hill care so much about his students' future? It's not like learning where Cambridge is can help them meet state or even federal education requirements.

"These are by far the best students I've ever had," he said. "They're just great people to be around. When you can bring to them this vast array of things they've never seen or heard anything about, you're doing something."

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