Through the chain-linked fence

Change comes in all forms. Sometimes it’s external, like Hurricane Katrina. Sometimes it’s educational, jumping from one school to another, for instance. And sometimes it’s personal, figuring how to find your way through life’s many changes and viewing them as opportunity. JMU alum Dan Smolkin (‘11) understands this. He’s lived it — and shares a few thoughts on how he successfully navigated some heavy-duty change.

Dan has also initiated change. While at JMU, he and  Sandra Tran (’12) developed JMUTeach, an innovative program that allowed Madison students to design and teach courses. Dan also served as a student-member on the JMU Board of Visitors. Currently, he’s working with an innovative start-up company in Palo Alto, Ca. He sums up his job at Quixey as “human resources, building a whole lot of IKEA furniture, and making my company a great place to work.”

Dan Smolkin (’11)

Through the chain-linked fence

by Dan Smolkin (’11)

Reflecting on my education, I am the product of several solidly unique educational institutions. I would try to plot all of these schools along some sort of continuum, but I’m not sure that would even do them justice. Each of their approaches was truly unique in (reasonably) meeting the needs of the students that attended and likewise they would find themselves directly in conflict with the philosophy of one of the others.

My education started in New Orleans, a city known for having one of the worst public school systems in the country. The logical choice for many families that could afford the price tag of attending a private school would inevitably be to send their children there during their grade school years – aside from a few brave families I knew, albeit those were few and far between.

My father was a product of New Orleans public schools at a better point in their history. While still a far cry from a perfect system, my dad remained highly committed to his high school alma mater – Benjamin Franklin. Franklin consistently stood apart from the rest of the public schools in New Orleans and has been toward the top of the Newsweek lists for as long as I can remember.

This anomaly happened because the best and brightest of the school system flocked to Franklin. At the same time, many parents who had sent their children to private schools through the 8th grade were willing to make the leap and send their children to the highest performing magnet school for miles around. Who could argue with taking a break in making tuition payments in favor of sending their child to a school held in such high regard?

My parents took “the leap” twice. First, with my brother in 2000 and second with me in 2003. I remember my brother confessing to me that our grade school hadn’t prepared us to make the leap from a small private school centered around individualistic learning styles to the education-en-masse of a public magnet school.

The atmosphere was tense and competitive from day one. I knew making a name for myself would be difficult — especially when I could count everyone I knew on one hand the first day. Many of the students had travelled in packs from other public schools, but I was one of the break-aways form the private system. There wasn’t much of a guidebook for how to gain standing in a school that brandished graduation rates, Ivy League graduates and National Merit finalists as a testament to what it could produce.

For two years I could barely keep my head above water. I was in over my head. Undoubtedly I was a liability against the merits speaking to the success of a school like Benjamin Franklin. My grade point average was so low that I thought I could never recover from the hole I had gotten myself into.

Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina (Photo credit: earthhopper)

I was seven days into my junior year of high school when the orders for the mandatory evacuation of New Orleans were given. In the coming days, Hurricane Katrina would cause unfathomable damage to the city I called home.

Within days, my family knew there was no returning anytime soon. Within a week, my address had changed and so had my school. My family evacuated to Palo Alto, Calif., and I was the newest student at Henry M. Gunn High School.

Classes had started about two weeks earlier and I was, once again, the new kid in school. But the culture of Gunn was a far cry away from that of Franklin. The only way they resembled each other was their commitment to seeing all of their students succeed — in the forms of a rigorous course load, enviable graduation rates and jaw dropping college acceptances. Other than that they were worlds apart.

My grades improved dramatically while I was in Palo Alto. But it was only because enrolling as a student at Gunn opened the door to the opportunity to learn from the multitude of mistakes I had made during my freshman and sophomore years.

For several years after Hurricane Katrina, I made numerous trips back to New Orleans as my family rebuilt while I finished high school from California. Though with every trip I consciously avoided driving past my old high school out of some fear that it may reawaken the student I once was.

One break I finally gave in and drove to the campus, reopened with new paint and renovations from the flood several years before. I slowly walked up to the gate I had walked through hundreds of times. A flood of relief rushed through me as I grasped the chain-linked fence.

As I looked through the chains I whispered, “Thank you.”


To learn more about JMUTeach, visit

And to read more about Dan’s experiences, you can check out his blog.


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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