Preston David Schwemmer Smith ’01

A late bloomer in high school, Preston Smith ’01, had one quality that made him a leader among the self-conscious, easily embarrassed teens who composed the rest of the student body. Preston was fearless.

And because he was fearless, he was pressed into service by his tongue-tied friends to ask girls for their phone numbers. About 90 percent of the time, he returned to the group empty-handed. But that never stopped him from asking again the next time any of his friends lost their nerve.

Preston never lets fear of rejection stand in the way of his goals. Combine that resilience with his tenacity, intellect and willingness to work hard, and it is clear how he has been able to succeed in a field rife with obstacles — educating kids from low-income neighborhoods, first founding a charter school in his working-class, racially diverse hometown of Rialto, Calif., and now opening schools nationwide.

The co-founder and CEO of Rocketship Education, Preston initially planned a career as a lawyer. Growing up in a low-income family made him “super-motivated to make money,” he said. Then he came to Carolina and discovered that being rich wasn’t limited to financial wealth and that a meaningful life couldn’t be bought.

While majoring in Latin American studies at Carolina, he’d become fluent in Portuguese and was determined to spend a semester abroad in Brazil, a program not in his parents’ budget. He signed up anyway, and that summer before his junior year he returned to California and worked a 12-hour graveyard shift at a manufacturing plant, came home and slept a few hours, then got up and went to work at the mall for another six hours until it was time to return to the factory. By the time the study-abroad tuition was due, he had the money.

The trip, with a social justice focus, proved providential. He met students interested in changing the world; one of them would become his wife.

During his senior year, he went to a job fair at the Dean Smith Center, determined to launch a career that would at least let him pay off his student loans. He stopped by the Teach for America table and learned that he could get some loan relief, a salary and the opportunity to give students in under-resourced schools like the ones he had grown up in the advantages he knew they deserved.

Two years later, he’d been named teacher of the year at his elementary school and was a finalist for an award given to a TFA corps member with the highest classroom academic gains in the nation. Community organizers pushed him to start a small, autonomous school that would still be part of the public system. He was 24. He co-founded Lucha (the name means “struggle” in Spanish), and by the end of his third year as principal, Lucha was the fourth-best elementary school in the state.

But change came slowly in a dysfunctional school system. He built on his success at Lucha by co-founding Rocketship Education, a charter school and nonprofit that gave him the autonomy to ramp up professional development among teachers, engage and organize parents of his students, and draw on a variety of ways to personalize learning for his students.

Rocketship has gained national attention for the strong test scores of its students, for blending traditional teaching methods with online instruction and for keeping administrative costs low. Since opening the first Rocketship school in 2007, Preston has launched schools in California, Tennessee and Minnesota, and the Washington, D.C., school system has authorized him to open as many as eight schools in its district, serving elementary and middle-school students. Rocketship now teaches 5,000 students a day.

As part of its mission to engage the whole family, Rocketship dedicates a room in each school that gives parents access to computers with internet service where they can submit job applications online. By closing the achievement gap and encouraging whole-family involvement, Rocketship has had a positive influence on low-income communities overall. And by investing in professional development and promoting from within, Rocketship has been able to attract and retain top-quality teachers.

As one of his colleagues said, “Preston has the heart, passion and goodwill to make a huge change in public education.”

Preston credits UNC for putting him on the path to success. “Not all colleges take good care of you,” he said. “You either make it or break it. But UNC created opportunities that helped me succeed and overcome some of my self-doubts.”

As he ventures ever deeper into the increasingly political fight to give all children a good education, Preston remains fearless and uses his voice to help others.

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