Back when Preston Smith ’01 was in high school, it wasn’t hard to pick him out of the crowd. He was the one in orange. Orange every day. Shirts, jerseys and jackets. Each one
as orange as the fruit that grew in the orchards
surrounding Rialto, Calif., a once prosperous
middle-class community that was gutted by white
flight shortly after Smith’s parents settled there to
raise a family.
His penchant for orange made a great
campaign gimmick, a distinguishing mark that
may have helped him win the race for student
body president despite his minority status as a
Caucasian kid in a tough inner-city school. Then
it became a thing. Preston’s thing. As if he needed
to stand out more than he already did.
But Smith’s status as a campus leader didn’t
protect him from political backlash when he
uncovered a school scandal — a college counselor
was playing favorites, stacking the competition for
Smith told the administration and then the
media. No one believed him. Faculty members
sided with their colleague and turned a cold
shoulder toward the kid who’d made the
accusations — even after lopsided awards-night
results proved him right.
“It was a really lonely year,” Smith said. “Most
of my friends had graduated the year before, and
none of the teachers would talk to me.”
At graduation, after leading the Pledge of
Allegiance, Smith made a farewell statement. He
unzipped his standard-issue green graduation
gown to reveal a second robe underneath — this
one bright orange.
Pomp and circumstance gave way to
pandemonium as two angry teachers jumped
up and escorted their rebellious student body
president off the stage and out of the ceremony.
But it was too late. Smith had left his mark.
“A bunch of stuff happened after I graduated,”
he said, and the scholarships started getting
distributed evenly again.
Preston Smith has been fighting injustice and
disrupting the status quo in education ever since.
As co-founder, president and CEO of Rocketship
Education, a nonprofit network of charter elementary schools based in San Jose, he has turned
his restless energy toward the achievement gap —
the educational disparity that handicaps students
from low-income communities, often for life.
Across the country, the need to bridge the
Rocketship launched in 2006 on a mission
gap between low-income and affluent students
is enormous. The Nation’s Report Card, an
annual assessment from the U.S. Department
of Education, consistently indicates three of
four low-income students fall behind grade
level by fourth grade, jeopardizing their future
educational and economic outlook.
to attack this societal deficiency with an
innovative educational philosophy that rests
PRESTON SMITH ’01
rests on three pillars:
teaching excellence and