Interview with Wayne Barker – District VI Superintendent of the Year

Posted on April 18, 2018

The superintendent of Bluffton-Harrison Metropolitan School District, Wayne Barker, has been named 2018 Superintendent of the Year for District VI by the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents (IAPSS).
Barker has been superintendent at Bluffton-Harrison M.S.D. since 2009.

In 2009 enrollment in the district was rapidly declining – from 1,643 students in 1996 to 1,331 students in 2009. The decline in per-student revenue and other State budget cuts had a devastating impact on the district. The cash balance at the end of 2008 was $9,025. Budget issues caused staff reductions, and teachers were two years behind on collective bargaining agreements.

Barker and members of the board of school trustees created a strategic plan to make Bluffton-Harrison M.S.D. schools “Schools of Excellence” and “Schools of Choice.”

Barker challenged teachers to show how much they care for their students, and to make it obvious to others why they chose to be teachers.

The district also committed to become a showcase for integrating technology into learning, installing Smart Boards and using capital projects funds to implement a one-to-one digital learning initiative that provides tablets to every student from kindergarten through high school. The district has been an Apple Distinguished Program since 2013.

To combat the effects of a district poverty rate that increased from 20 percent in 2006 to 49 percent in 2017, the district expanded its preschool programs and opened a childcare center.

Enrollment has steadily increased since 2009, and the district now serves 1,571 students, with a corresponding increase in income. The district’s cash balance at end of 2016 was more than $2 million, and the board of trustees has also dedicated more than $2 million to a rainy day fund. Employee compensation has improved.

Barker is happy to note that Bluffton-Harrison schools have received 4-Star Awards five times in the past eight years. Before becoming superintendent Barker was an assistant principal in the district for 14 years.

Barker serves on the Indiana Regional Works Council and is a board member of the Bluffton Regional Hospital and the Wells County Chamber of Commerce.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from Ball State University, a master’s degree from Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, and an Ed.S. degree from Indiana University-Bloomington.

District VI includes Adams, Blackford, Delaware, Fayette, Henry, Jay, Madison, Randolph, Rush, Union, Wayne and Wells counties.

What program(s) or activities in your school district that focus on improving student learning do you feel are the most successful?

I am very proud of the learning that takes place in our school district. Over the last nine school years our district’s schools have received 4-Star Awards six times and had only received it one other time prior in our 136 year history. We know the direct correlation that increasing poverty has on student achievement, but we don’t accept that as an excuse in our school district. We are committed to using strategies for understanding poverty from the aHa! Process by Ruby Payne to equip our teachers to best teach our students. Also related, this last year we had our highest graduation rate ever at 98.2% with 78.2% of our graduates pursuing further education through vocational schools, two-year schools, and four-year colleges.

What have been your most significant challenges as a supt. and how have you dealt with them?

When I was hired as superintendent of BHMSD in 2009 our school district was experiencing very challenging times. Enrollment at BHMSD was on a rapid decline from 1996 to 2009 when our ADM enrollment fell from 1,643.5 to 1,331.5. Additionally, we finished the calendar year of 2008 with a cash balance of only $9,025. However, I was encouraged during my interviews with our board of school trustees that they were committed to providing the best learning opportunities possible for the children of our school community. Working together, we created a strategic plan and began our mission of making BHMSD “Schools of Excellence” and “Schools of Choice.”

One of our strategies for improvement was to make our school district a showcase district in the use of technology integration among all Indiana schools. We installed SMART boards in all of our classrooms and initiated our “1:1 Digital Learning Initiative” for all K-12 students. Our district has celebrated being an “Apple Distinguished Program” since 2013 and our middle school was recognized as Indiana’s first and only “SMART Showcase School.”

We’ve seen our poverty rate increase from a free and reduced rate of 20% in 2006 to 49% in 2017. This caused us great concern that many toddlers in our community would not have the early learning opportunities they need. Duly, we have funded more preschool opportunities for the children in our school community and now have two full-time preschool programs with licensed elementary school teachers. Additionally, we’ve partnered with Head Start to house them alongside our other preschool programs in our elementary school. We are excited that our preschool program was named a Level 3 Paths to Quality program this fall. Further, our district moved from having an only before school latchkey program to now having a full-fledged childcare center that is open year-round from 6:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. (including school cancellations and school break periods).

As a consequence of our increasing free and reduced rate, we qualify for the Summer Food Service Program and serve 200 lunches per day at three locations in our school district throughout the summer break period. Fortunately, our enrollment has been on a steady incline since 2009 and we now serve 1600.87 students. This is a growth of 269.37 students over these last 8.5 years which is just over a 20% increase. As such, we have seen increased revenues and our cash balance as of December 31, 2017, was $1,969,131, which is an increase of $1,960,106 since December 31, 2008. Along with that, our board of school trustees has deposited $2,142,800 in our Rainy Day Fund since December 31, 2009.

If you could improve one aspect of K-12 Education today, what would it be and what changes would you make?
I would like to see us find solutions related to the social, emotional, and mental health issues we’re facing in our schools today. These issues are only being exacerbated by the opioid epidemic which none of our school communities are immune from. As a result of these combined issues, we need more counselors in our schools than ever before to help us with the challenges that our students are now experiencing.

What advice would you give to aspiring or beginning superintendents?
Being a superintendent can be a lonely job at times so it is very important to become active in IAPSS. Professional development through this organization is relevant and outstanding. I stand amazed by my colleagues in Indiana and grateful for the many times they have encouraged and offered their insights to me. Additionally, I would encourage aspiring or beginning superintendents to always remember why they became an educator, and to do the job in such a way that their why is always obvious to others.