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Newton Highs Jason Smith is a Grammy semifinalist
Jason Smith has been named a national semifinalist for the 2017 Grammy Music Educator of the Year Award.

At the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year Francene Breakfield, head counselor at Newton High School, approached band instructor Jason Smith with a few questions. When he asked why she was asking, Breakfield said she was nominating him for an award. He had no idea which award.

In April he found out he had been selected as a quarterfinalist for the 2017 Grammy Music Educator Award. Smith followed up by submitting a video and essay materials. The Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation have presented a Grammy award to a music educator for the past three years.

Last week, Smith was in the band room at Newton High School when he received a phone call from an unknown number. He usually does not answer such calls while at work but decided to take that one. It was a woman from the Grammy Foundation calling to inform him that he had been named a semifinalist. Smith, who was recently named the Newton County School System (NCSS) Teacher of the Year, said, “My mouth just dropped. I did not think my materials were anything special.”

Smith may be one of the few who were surprised.

“I am not surprised he was selected,” said Hezekiah Rodgers, a former student of Smith’s and 2016 Newton High graduate. “The guy works harder than most people I know. Around Newton County mastering a craft like music is not always a high priority. He pushed us all.”

According to a recent Grammy Foundation press release, the purpose of the Music Educator Award is to recognize kindergarten through college teachers who have “made a significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education and who demonstrate a commitment to the broader cause of maintaining music education in schools.” The award is open to U.S. music teachers and anyone may nominate a teacher.

This year, the Grammy Foundation received 3,300 nominations and named 290 quarterfinalists.

“I saw an ad in a magazine about two years ago about the recording academy honoring music teachers and immediately thought about nominating Mr. Smith, but I had missed the deadline for submission,” Breakfield said. “I watched the Grammy Awards earlier this year and when they recognized the music educator, I knew I had to nominate him this year so I went online and searched for the application and put the deadline date on my calendar.”

Breakfield added, “As the head counselor here at Newton High School, I see what everyone else sees. Mr. Smith spending countless hours after school to teach and coach his music students, the growth of our band over the last few years, and the exposure he gives our students through fieldtrips and summer programs. I also see what he does behind the scenes to help our 10th and 11th graders prepare for Governors Honor Program, what he does to help our seniors get their music portfolios together for potential colleges, and creating new opportunities for our kids such as Jazz Band and All State Band. The students love him and I have much respect for what he does for our students.”

From the pool of quarterfinalists, 25 music teachers from 16 states were selected by the Grammy Foundation as semifinalists. Two are from Georgia, Smith and Nicole Thompson of Taylor Road Middle School in Johns Creek. Besides the recognition for their work, semifinalists receive $500 and their school receives a matching amount.

In December, the Grammy Foundation will announce 10 finalists.

“There is nothing more I need to submit. It is now in the hands of the selection panel,” Smith said.

Finalists receive $1,000 with a matching amount going to their school.

The 2017 Grammy Music Educator will be named early next year. The award winner, as well as his or her spouse or guest, will be flown to Los Angeles to be recognized during Grammy Week 2017 and to receive his or her Grammy Award at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony on February 12, 2017 at the Staples Center. The winner and his or her school each receive $10,000.

“I am so excited for him and proud of him as well. I want him to go all the way to LA for the Grammys,” said Bakerfield, regarding Smith’s selection. “Not just for the trophy and recognition which he so deserves but also for the monies he will be able to pour into the NHS Sound Factory Band.”

When asked about the impact of the attention he has received as NCSS Teacher of the Year and as a Grammy Music Educator Award semifinalist, Smith said, “It has been bittersweet. I lost my Mom last month and so have not been able to physically share all this with her.

“The attention has been great, but I am not a person who looks for that. I usually direct recognition to the students,” Smith said. “Students need teachers and teachers need students. I am blessed to have great students. They do what I ask them to do. They see the bigger picture. The student leaders get it. They want to be part of a larger vision. I am happy for the attention the program is getting.”

The larger vision for Smith and his program is to prepare band students to continue their music careers after graduation.

“Students are buying into the concept of getting better individually and therefore better together,” Smith said. “If they want to play at the college level, I want them to be ready. Every student who has auditioned for one has received a college scholarship.”

Rodgers is one student who realized that vision. He is now a freshman at Columbus State University studying musical performance. His instrument is the saxophone. When The Covington News spoke with him, he was in a practice room honing his musical craft.

Smith is currently developing application materials for the Georgia state teacher of the year award. Those will be submitted in December.

Asked if there were any other awards in the works, Smith laughed and said, “Not that I know of.”