Nothing keeps Adam Smith from heading to work at Hillcrest High School each day. Not even cancer treatments.
Two years ago, the school’s longtime band director and softball coach had surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor, followed by 11 months of radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
“I was so afraid for my [students] for them to be left alone. I felt like I gave them a commitment. … I just couldn’t give up,” Smith recalled.
Rather than take time off, he shifted his schedule into overdrive.
Smith often underwent treatments during his lunch hour and would return to Hillcrest’s campus to finish the day teaching classes and helping band students prep for performances and competitions.
“I would be sick at school, and the kids knew it,” he said. Students picked up the slack by scheduling additional practices for themselves when Smith wasn’t available, and parents also pitched in to help.
In August Smith was honored by the Rotary Club of Dallas, which presented him and two other Dallas ISD teachers with its Service Above Self award.
“I went through heck but the kids, what they did was amazing,” he said. “They’re the ones that deserve an award because they took care of me. They kind of made me OK.”
For more than a dozen years, the Rotary Club has given the award annually to educators who are nominated by their peers, school principal, or members of the public.
During the awards presentation, Rotary Club of Dallas member Colleen Brainerd described Smith’s ability to “be real with his students, setting an expectation of being genuine so he can reach the inner depths of their souls and motivate their minds to give their best every day and ultimately achieve their goals.”
It wasn’t the first time Smith has been recognized for his performance as an educator. In 2010 he was named DISD’s Teacher of the Year.
Smith began his teaching career nearly a quarter-century ago after graduating from the University of Tulsa, where he double-majored in math and music.
He played on the university’s baseball and competitive softball teams, and performed in several of its bands. In 1992, he earned a master’s degree in woodwind pedagogy.
Smith and his three children moved to Dallas 10 years ago when he accepted the job at Hillcrest.
At the time, the marching band had just 15 members. Today, it boasts 154 students and has recently taken top honors at several competitions.
“I expected really high things for them, and I didn’t take failure as an option,” Smith explained of his ability to grow the program.
He has also earned a reputation at the school for his willingness to assist students both inside and outside of the classroom.
On most weekdays, Smith said he arrives at Hillcrest around 7:15 a.m. and leaves about 12 hours later. Following Friday night football games, he stays until he’s certain each marching band member is safely headed home — usually after midnight.
He spends Saturdays poring over video footage from the previous night’s halftime show, searching for ways to improve the band’s performances. On Sundays he meets with drum majors at the football field to fine-tune the group’s choreography for the next show.
“I love it,” Smith said. “I’m just like their parents. I am so proud of them when they’re out there.”
Hillcrest High School Principal Chris Bayer said the band program’s growth has been “phenomenal” in recent years. “The kids just multiply every year because they hear about [Smith] and become attached to him and the program. … He spends who knows how many hours outside of the job description helping kids out.”
Smith “cares so much about the kids, and I think that’s a lot of what comes through,” said former Hillcrest band booster club president Jamie Eisenberg, who nominated Smith for the Service Above Self Award.
She had watched Smith in action for four years while her daughter, Elise, played saxophone with the marching band prior to graduating last year.
“The level of music he is able to get out of these kids with the limited support and resources that they have is amazing,” Eisenberg said.
Eisenberg pointed out that although the high school is located in a “somewhat affluent” area, not all the students are affluent. “There’s not a lot of parental support for a lot of these kids, and I think they get more support from Smith sometimes.”
When students and their families can’t afford band dues and other expenses, Smith often calls upon members of the community as well as his church, Park Cities Baptist, to sponsor the teens.
“I go with them and we clean their yards or clean their shrubs out or whatever it takes” to repay the debt, he explained. “The community is great to us. … They’re always willing to help students who are willing to work.”
Oyinkansola Busari, a drum major at Hillcrest who also plays clarinet, called Smith’s battle with cancer “heart-wrenching and really scary.”
Despite his illness, she said, “He’d go out and march with us and we’d give him a little hat [to wear] so he wouldn’t get [sunburned] on his face.”
Smith knows his dedication is not lost on the students.
“Kids flock to that if you show that you’re going to be there for them and you’re not giving up on them and you expect high standards from them,” he said. “They want that.”
And other area school districts, it turns out, want Smith.
Despite receiving frequent offers for prime teaching gigs at other Dallas campuses, he said he has no intention of leaving Hillcrest, the school from which his own children graduated.
Hillcrest’s administration and staff members “have been so awesome to me. I owe them so much just for the acceptance they gave me and my kids when we moved here,” Smith said. “I felt at home and that’s why I’ve stayed so long, and that’s why I love these [students] and they react to me the way they do. I’m home. This is like our family.”