When the development team tapped for the former General Electric campus was introduced more than 18 months ago, Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent Wendy Robinson was on hand for the announcement. She and other district officials have been working since to determine how best to take advantage of the opportunity there.
The plans are as ambitious and unique as the overall Electric Works project: A hybrid of career and technical, dual-credit, entrepreneurial efforts and more – designed to offer students study options not imagined in their current form. The district's strategy was galvanized when the State Board of Education adopted Graduation Pathways, new requirements Indiana students must meet to demonstrate they are ready for the workforce or continued study.
“If we're going to educate kids the same way we did 150 years ago, they aren't going to be ready for what's coming,” Robinson said in an interview last week. “What we see at Electric Works is an extension of what we're trying to do here in the district.”
Faye Williams-Robbins, chief of Student, Family and Community Engagement for the district, said the plan is to create a program that will draw students from around the region, as the Career Academy at Anthis now does. But the STEAM program – science, technology, engineering, arts and math – envisioned is not another career center or New Tech program. It's not a charter school or early-college program. Students from school districts throughout the region could participate in the Electric Works program to satisfy the Graduation Pathways requirements while maintaining enrollment in their home schools.
“It would be very much along the same structure as Anthis, with half-day programs, but also an exploratory piece for ninth- and tenth-grade students to participate,” Williams-Robbins said.
Instead of a job-training focus, the program would seek to develop six skill sets: collaboration, communication, critical thinking, character, creativity and citizenship.
“We're talking about a location that would do things like an urban-farming program ... tying agriculture and sciences and medicine together so you are creating skills that are transferable,” she said. “We're talking about something that feeds the music technology program that Purdue (Fort Wayne) and Sweetwater have.”
District officials have had conversations with officials from most universities in the area and are beginning to consider specific courses and how they might be offered as dual-credit college courses, taught by university faculty or high school teachers sanctioned by the universities.
“This will be a facility that's about creation, innovation – preparing kids for those six skill sets so they are able to go anywhere and do anything, and not just prepared to fit a specific niche,” Williams-Robbins said.
Robinson said the district has identified a space on Swinney Avenue, on the west end of the former GE Recreation Club building. Darren Hess, director of facilities, and Chief Financial Officer Kathy Friend have done the preliminary work in determining the cost, an estimated $4.5 million to start, with ongoing operational costs of about $2 million a year.
Robinson acknowledged the district doesn't have a ready source of funds for the Electric Works program, but is having conversations with legislators about an appropriation to establish one. The governor has reportedly expressed interest in the program, and some community leaders are exploring ways to support it.
Crystal Vann Wallstrom, managing director of innovation at Electric Works, said the STEAM high school will be perfectly positioned to benefit from other activity on the campus, including new businesses the developers hope will begin as start-ups there. She cited a just-released study demonstrating how race, gender and socioeconomic background can limit opportunities children have to be exposed to innovation and entrepreneurial activity.
“I think of this as a long-term play,” she said. “This is going to be an economic driver. I think of the innovation there as a regional accelerator. It's a new model for Fort Wayne.”
The General Assembly has been an enthusiastic supporter of education choices, so it should find favor in the Electric Works high school plan. It promises to not only address challenges smaller school districts will face in providing career exploration opportunities to satisfy the Graduation Pathways requirement, but also become an important source for the better-paying jobs the region desperately needs.