Interview with Dr. Wendy Robinson – Superintendent of the Year

Posted on January 23, 2018

Indiana superintendent of the year 2018

Dr. Wendy Robinson, Superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools, was chosen by members of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents (IAPSS) as the 2018 District II Superintendent of the Year. Dr. Robinson was then selected as the Indiana Superintendent of the Year from among the 8 IAPSS District Superintendents of the Year.

Winners are selected by other superintendents in their district who consider the qualifications and accomplishments of area colleagues and their instructional leadership during a time of limited resources. This is Robinson’s second time to be selected as the District II Superintendent of the Year. She was also the recipient in 2008.

Robinson has been in an administrator in Fort Wayne Community Schools for more than 30 years, serving as an assistant principal, principal, area administrator, assistant superintendent and deputy superintendent before becoming superintendent in 2003.

Fort Wayne Community Schools has addressed school funding challenges with a three-tiered approach 1) adopting district structures and processes that focus spending on activities that support student achievement, 2) participating in lobbying and other activities at the state level to improve funding and strengthen academic programs and 3) obtaining federal grants to help fill resource gaps. The superintendent’s cabinet serves as a budget examination team to ensure all department and school-level budgets align with the district’s mission, vision and core values. Improvement plans have been created throughout the district and contributed to a recent $2.5 million reduction of the transportation budget by implementing staggered school start times. The district’s grant successes include $42 million over a five-year period for a Teacher Incentive Fund and $1.2 million from 2014 to 2017 for school counseling.

The district takes pride in its diversity and its nearly 90 percent graduation rate.

Robinson earned a B.S. degree in elementary education from DePauw University, two master’s degrees from Indiana-Purdue University Fort Wayne, and her doctorate from Ball State University. She is a board member of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and served as the president of the Indiana Urban Superintendents Association in 2012-2013.

As the 2018 Indiana Superintendent of the Year Dr. Robinson will compete for the National Superintendent of the year against the other forty-nine state winners at the AASA National Conference in Nashville, TN in February.

As of the publication date of this newsletter Dr. Robinson has been selected as one of the four finalists for the National Superintendent of the Year.

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

Our starting point in educating all students to high standards is to make sure our students are ready to learn and have the supports they need to excel to their highest potential. We developed a Pyramid for Success many years ago to focus on all aspects of learning – from eliminating barriers to learning to helping students be resilient in striving for success to setting expectations and provide support to reach academic excellence.

When I became superintendent, we began to take a hard look at what students needed to be successful. We realized we needed to add resources to address the social and emotional needs of students so they would be ready to learn. We added case managers, therapeutic counselors and other resources for students. We also provided professional learning and additional support for staff members so they knew how to better understand students and the environment from which they come.

We implemented Positive Behavior Intervention Systems, and as a part of that training for staff members, we looked at what it means to be culturally responsive. We established structures and support for staff to ensure they were trained in classroom management and knew where to go to get additional resources. We worked with administrators, small teams of staff members and parents, and eventually entire building staff over a course of three years. Additional support was added if principals noticed teachers struggling in a particular area.

In addition to the technical aspect of classroom management, we had to work on the cultural aspect of traditional discipline. Staff members needed to learn how to set classroom expectations while balancing their own expectations and experiences with those of their students while not dishonoring student experiences. Staff members began to understand that a defiant student might have issues that need to be addressed in ways other than kicking him or her out of the classroom. By working with the student on a deeper level, the student doesn’t miss class time, finds more success in the classroom and is more successful in and out of school.

To tie all of this together, in 2016 we opened the Family and Community Engagement Center. This center is designed to be a starting point for new families to the District, where they can find the support they need to navigate the system and get off to a great start. The Center also serves as a resource for a variety of opportunities throughout a family’s time with FWCS. College and career-readiness programs are offered through the center, as are health and wellness programs, services for homeless families and Study Connection, the District’s well-regarded tutoring program.

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

The politicizing of public education has been one of the most significant – and frustrating – challenge of my time as superintendent. This was emerging in my early years with the introduction of charter schools in Indiana. It wasn’t long before that grew into a voucher program that is now on the verge of being replicated across the country. Our state has managed to turn a system that was designed to educate all students – not just those from certain families or those who could afford it – to one that is driven by profits. Our state has created a system that further polarizes the haves and the have-nots. This will continue to grow as the accountability system disproportionately penalizes high-poverty schools.

Though all the changes, however, we do not just sit quietly on the sidelines. We work closely with state legislators to make sure they know how their decisions affect our schools, and we serve as educational experts. We are trusted because we don’t just lobby for our own interests; we look out for the interests of children throughout the state. We connect with other advocacy group and parents to strengthen our position. We meet with legislators frequently, invite them to visit our schools to see our teachers and students in action and have a lobbyist who works on our behalf in Indianapolis when we can’t do our own lobbying. We also have open communication lines with our federal legislators. With the Federal and State governments playing a significant role in education policy and funding, we must make sure we have a voice at the table.

If you could improve one aspect of K-12 Education today, what would it be and what changes would you make?

Fort Wayne Community Schools would not be as successful as we are today without structures in place. As a large district, it is too easy to get distracted with the latest ideas and newest trends. We decided many years ago that we needed to become a learning system, to set a direction and move in that direction together. Schools must focus on supporting our adult learners (staff members) at the state and local levels.

With the support of Learning Forward, at FWCS we have trained many administrators and district leaders in how to use common language and supports to elevate teaching and learning. School leaders are able to take the district-level agenda and deliver it to school staff in order to have consistency throughout the district in instruction. The focus is always on what is best for students and how can teachers, administrators and other staff members be supported to provide the best opportunities for the nearly 30,000 students who enter our building each day.

Developing this type of system does not happen overnight and does not come without expense. It is important for elected officials and educational leaders to understand that to improve student outcomes, we must allow for the continuous improvement of the adults who teach them.

What advice would you give to aspiring or beginning superintendents?

Build strong relationships with your employees, families, students, school board, community leaders, business owners, neighborhood associations and anyone who lives or works in your community. Our city is a diverse one, with a large population of African and Burmese immigrants, in addition to Caucasian, African-American and Hispanic populations. We are in every neighborhood in Fort Wayne, and we serve nearly 30,000 children every year. We know we cannot be successful without strong community support.

The trust we have established in the community has led lead community organizations and businesses to support our schools financially and otherwise. For example, we have a strong partnership with Parkview Health, which provides nurses and wellness coaches for the benefit of students and staff. Parkview also operates our Health and Wellness Centers and contributes to countless projects throughout the year to improve the physical and emotional health of our staff and students.

As you prepared for the National Superintendent of the Year competition what was your biggest challenge and what have you taken away from the experience?

The most challenging aspect of this process is the attention that it brought. I prefer not to be in the spotlight. Each call for an interview or congratulations from a friend or colleague from across the country brought with it a certain level of discomfort for me. I realize, however, that this spotlight is really not on me but on Fort Wayne Community Schools. My team and this district deserves to be recognized for the hard work done each day to educate all students to high standards.

Too often, urban school districts are written off as being unsuccessful and not innovative. Fort Wayne Community Schools defies those stereotypes. If being recognized in this way calls attention to the great work our students and staff do, I am willing to accept it.

Has your involvement in this process and the opportunity to look at the superintendence from a national perspective given you any new or different feelings about the role of the superintendent in today’s challenging educational environment?

This process has served as a reminder that the education world is much smaller than we realize. On many different levels, we’re all connected in some way trying to do the same high quality work for students. Through we may live in different parts of the country, have different numbers of students and have varying degrees of diversity, our challenges and opportunities are remarkably similar.

This honor has also allowed me to renew some old connections. The overwhelming support from friends and colleagues across the country is heartwarming and inspiring. As a superintendent, I don’t also way time to nurture those relationships, and it is a good reminder of the connection we have in wanting students to be the very best.