When the state of Indiana proposed revising how it divvies up money for its neediest students in 2014, Wendy Robinson, the superintendent of the Fort Wayne school system, saw a familiar scenario. She spotted yet another attempt to gut funding for the districts that educate the largest share of the state’s most vulnerable students.
So Robinson got down to work with her team. She huddled with Kathy Friend, the district’s chief financial officer, and together they devised counterproposals to persuade the Republican-led legislature that their alternatives would be better for districts like Fort Wayne and others that serve large numbers of poor students, English-language learners, children with special needs, and students who frequently move in and out of schools.
Robinson’s approach to the school funding fight—thoughtful, prepared, confident, team-driven, and determined—has defined her tenure in Fort Wayne, a district of about 30,000 students in the northeastern part of the state where she has been superintendent for nearly 13 years. She is not only well-versed in research-based academic best practices, but also deeply knowledgeable about school finance, education policy, and the politics that drive the debate over K-12, Friend and others say.
It’s an approach that has helped make Robinson perhaps the state’s most persuasive advocate for urban public schools, even as many Indiana politicians embrace robust school choice policies, including a large voucher program, loose regulations for home schoolers, and an expanding charter sector. And it has helped cement Fort Wayne as a diverse and thriving urban school system—a counternarrative to the often-negative stereotype of big-city school systems—that wisely uses its resources to produce strong academic results.
- Philosophical Foundation: Success is built on a strong philosophical foundation that is carried out from the boardroom to the classroom. Educators’ moral purpose is simple: “We educate all students to high standards.”
- Strong Teams: Strong teams are imperative at every level, from administration to individual schools. Leaders provide frequent professional learning for employees to ensure everyone hears the same message and is heading in the same direction.
- Continuous Improvement: People start at different levels of success, and growth will not look the same for everyone. Leaders should focus on establishing a cycle for continuous improvement with measurable targets that allow for accountability.
“Our whole philosophy is that, ‘No, we are not failing,’” Robinson says. “Our kids may need different resources, but we have as many kids who are considered highly able, who can go on to Stanford, and Yale, and all the other universities as kids in other areas [do]. But just because it’s public, it’s denigrated, and that really is a personal affront for me.”
Robinson, 65, whose tenure as superintendent is four times longer than that of the average urban schools chief, has spent her entire career in Fort Wayne, starting as a 3rd grade teacher at Louis C. Ward Elementary School in 1973. She later moved up the ladder to take on assistant principal, principal, and administrative roles in the central office. She says she only really applied for two jobs in the district: her first, as a teacher, and later, the superintendency. Supervisors, seeing her work ethic, ability, and potential, tapped her for the other positions.
She jokes that she was probably born a teacher and that her brother, who was younger by three years and is now deceased, was her first student.
“When he was a child, I always had him sitting somewhere, teaching him something,” she recalls. “It’s just been something I wanted to do.”
Her teachers encouraged her to become a lawyer, but she always knew that she would end up in the classroom. “I didn’t choose teaching because I couldn’t do anything else,” she says. “I chose teaching because I could do anything else I wanted to do.”
Robinson’s children attended Fort Wayne schools, and three of her grandchildren are current students. That kind of skin-in-the-game gives Robinson added credibility when she makes the case for Fort Wayne schools.
Mark GiaQuinta, the school board president, says his district has “one of the finest superintendents in the United States.” Fort Wayne’s progress was built through the collaborative efforts of the superintendent, the school board, and the district’s teachers, and not by the work of one individual, he says.
Robinson has a solid relationship with the school board—something that’s not a given in big-city districts, where discord between the chief and the board sometimes undermines school improvement efforts—and created an atmosphere of trust, collaboration, and openness. She has the confidence to share the spotlight with others, and a charisma that allows her to lead without threatening, GiaQuinta says.
“I think you could pluck her out of the field of education and drop her anywhere because she has the kind of keen mind and approach to problem-solving and decisionmaking that allow us to determine whether decisions and policies are having an impact on student learning,” he says.
Robinson has a long track record of bringing a quiet passion and steely resolve to the Statehouse during Indiana’s contentious education policy debates. Whether there’s debate on changing the state accountability-rating system, new teacher-evaluations systems, or developing and implementing new state academic standards, she is there. She’s one of the go-to educators in the state to whom policymakers float their ideas.
State Sen. Dennis Kruse, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee, says that while the two may disagree on issues such as vouchers, they both have the same goal at heart—doing what is best for Indiana’s students.
Kruse, who has worked with Robinson for the past 11 years, describes her as a “student-centered superintendent” who has done a good job of working to ensure that urban schools get their fair share of state funding. He said he was in favor of giving more money to rural schools during the recent funding debate, but Robinson and her team were able to “get me to think a little bit differently” and convinced him that districts such as Fort Wayne had a greater need for those dollars.
“She is passionate about what she does, and she is well-spoken, she is well-informed, and has an excellent knowledge base,” he says. “I appreciate all of that.”
Robinson sees it as her responsibility to defend the original promise of public education in Indiana.
“We believe that you have to draw a line in the sand somewhere,” she says. “I am a proud product of this district. My kids were raised in public education, and a lot of parents in this community still choose that. But the public message from the state is that, ‘If it’s public, it should be bad, there is something wrong with it, and that we are going to save you from failing public schools.’ ”
The Fort Wayne district is unusually diverse for an urban system: 47 percent white, 24 percent black, 15 percent Hispanic, 9 percent multiracial, and 5 percent Asian. Students speak more than 70 languages and dialects. While a middle-income community, with a median household income in 2014 of $43,994, the city has pockets of wealth mixed with areas of poverty. Seventy-one percent of students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals.
Fort Wayne has the highest concentration of private schools, including parochial schools, in the state, making stiff competition for the district. Yet the school system has not experienced a large-scale exodus of students: As school choice expanded through voucher programs in the past five academic years, enrollment in Fort Wayne’s schools dropped only by about 1,300 students.
Robinson says that the district has been able to hold on to students because it offers parents choices and has rigorous programs and transparency. Even before the voucher program, the district expanded its magnet programs, and families can choose to send their children to schools around the city. The district holds an annual fair during which parents and students can meet with teachers and staff at the different schools to find the best academic fit. Each of the five high schools offers a specialized program of study in which students can explore career paths in areas that include biomedical sciences, engineering, and business.
Under Robinson, the district has invested heavily in leadership development. For the past five years, it has worked with Learning Forward, an Ohio-based professional-development organization that first consulted with the district on improving leadership and instructional practices at elementary schools that were at risk of being taken over by the state.
Stephanie Hirsh, Learning Forward’s executive director, says one of the things that set Robinson apart is her priority on professional learning for everyone in the system—learning sessions that Robinson herself participates in and sometimes leads.
Our kids may need different resources, but we have as many kids who are considered highly able, who can go on to Stanford and Yale.
Laura Cain, the assistant to the superintendent for strategic initiatives, says staff members share Robinson’s belief that the district’s educators have a moral purpose to educate all their students to the highest standards.
“We all know that, we believe that,” she says. “It’s kind of a criterion to work here.”
Others note Robinson’s savvy in forging bonds with parents and the business community. Those relationships have helped make discussions and decisions about closing schools, cutting transportation, soliciting donations, and lobbying legislators less contentious.
Robinson is a big believer in building systems and the tools to measure whether those systems are working. For instance, the district’s Balanced Scorecard is made up of published, annual goals and action steps that every school and the district must take to achieve specific, agreed-upon objectives and job-embedded professional development for principals and teachers.
“We believe that if you don’t have a solid plan for what you want to get done, you won’t have any idea whether you have reached that goal, no way of knowing how you are going to get there, or even if you got there,” she says.
Fort Wayne students’ performance on state tests has stayed close to, though below, statewide averages in the past five school years. And the district has managed to move ahead, then drop slightly behind, the statewide four-year graduation rate, outperforming the state in 2012-13, with a 90.7 percent rate, compared with the state average of 88.6 percent. In 2013-14, the district’s graduation rate slipped to 89 percent, while Indiana students averaged a 90 percent rate.
Robinson, a graduate of the inaugural 2002 class of the Broad Superintendents Academy, is the first to say that those outcomes are the result of teamwork with the district leadership team, the school board, teachers, parents, and students.
That teamwork has not gone unnoticed. In 2014, The Journal Gazette, a local newspaper, named Robinson and GiaQuinta citizens of the year, and the Council of Urban Boards of Education last year recognized Fort Wayne’s school board as a school board of excellence.
Robinson says she is helping to build the systems that will allow the district to continue to flourish long after she is gone.
“I don’t think leadership is to create a lot of people to follow you,” she says. “What I am trying to do is to work myself out of a job, because I am trying to help people to be able to carry the load. I often say to people, ‘If I am the only one thinking this, we are in trouble.’ ”
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2016 edition of Education Week