The Journal Gazette
Sunday, August 09, 2020 1:00 am

FWCS chief tries to find silver linings in challenges

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

Mark Daniel acknowledges he became the Fort Wayne Community Schools superintendent during unprecedented conditions.

It would be understandable if Daniel felt discouraged. The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted traditional schooling, spurring countless hours of planning so classes can begin Thursday – in person and remotely.

But Daniel finds the upside.

He finds it in the collaboration that's happening among teachers and administrators as they prepare for the unusual year. Look at everyone coming together for a common purpose – what's good for students, he said.

He finds it in the Zoom meetings that have replaced face-to-face gatherings. Look at how well participants stick to the agenda, leading to more efficient and effective discussions, he said.

He finds it in the need for remote learning. Look at what that could lead to – the possibility of students districtwide taking a course previously specific to one school, he said.

He even finds it in the curveballs COVID-19 continues to throw. Look at the problem-solving and critical thinking educators are using – the very skills FWCS is trying to teach students, he said.

“Those are the silver linings,” Daniel said. “I keep on telling people, 'Send me your silver linings,' because there are things that are happening that would not have happened before.”

It's not unusual for Daniel to be optimistic, he said, but he recognizes his optimism is especially important now because parents must feel comfortable sending their children to school, and teachers must feel comfortable coming to work.

“We're trying to create those situations and those conditions so people do feel comfortable,” he said. “I think that's been part of my job.”

It's a role he's had about six weeks – officially, that is. His predecessor, Wendy Robinson, retired June 30 after 17 years in the position.

Daniel spent a few weeks before his July 1 start date getting oriented with his administration team and the district's initiatives and projects, he said.

“When July 1 (rolled) around, I felt as if I wasn't just beginning the process,” Daniel said. “It was, we're involved in the process now.”

Although Daniel most recently led an Illinois school system, his history is in Fort Wayne. A 1979 North Side High School graduate, he started his education career in FWCS and has family in the Summit City.

The familiarity with Fort Wayne was an asset as he stepped into FWCS' top job, he said.

“If I was totally new to the community, it would have been a major barrier,” he said. “I didn't have that stress, so I'm very fortunate that that has not been part of my struggle, or should I say, challenge.”

When the school board first publicly discussed Daniel's proposed contract in May, members noted the only unusual benefit was a potential Rotary Club membership. Daniel – then known as the candidate – wanted to participate in the organization because of its connection to the community.

Daniel's initial weeks as superintendent have included interactions with other leaders. During his first week, he sat with Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, university presidents and fellow Allen County school superintendents for a discussion about COVID-19 safety protocols and procedures.

Chris Himsel, superintendent of Northwest Allen County Schools, welcomes Daniel back to the area.

“I look forward to working with Dr. Daniel in the future, along with my other colleagues,” Himsel said in a statement.

Daniel's goals for his first 100 days included visiting each principal before the start of the academic year. It's important to have relationships with those leaders along with knowing their goals and objectives and how that meets the mission and vision of FWCS, he said after he was hired in May.

“I would be probably much further along if we didn't have COVID,” Daniel said two weeks before the first student day. “Quite frankly, that's been a time consumer. It's just engulfed what I've done and what we continue to do.”

Sandra Vohs, president of the Fort Wayne Education Association, can't imagine a more difficult time to become superintendent, given the pandemic and escalating cultural conflicts, she said.

At the same time, she said, Daniel hasn't forgotten what it's like to be a classroom teacher.

“Since he arrived, his door has always been open to us, and he has specifically sought input from classroom teachers at all levels,” Vohs said by email. “Without clear guidance and financial support to comply with recommendations from health department officials and the state government, he has to figure out how to implement in-person and virtual instruction while balancing staffing and tech training and social distancing and transportation and food services and a hundred other little issues, all while ensuring that student and staff safety is the top priority. When he landed here he hit the ground running, and he hasn't slowed down yet.”

Daniel announced FWCS' reopening plan after two weeks on the job. He encourages families to check if they have questions, and he asks them for grace as changes are made.

“Flexibility is the key word here,” Daniel said.

FWCS let families choose between full remote learning and in-person instruction. About 30% of students had picked remote learning as of Thursday, spokeswoman Krista Stockman said. Students have until Sept. 3 to change their mind.

The 70% coming to school will do so daily if they are elementary students. The district is using a blended learning strategy for middle and high school students wanting in-person instruction, meaning students will spend part of their week at home and part of their week at school.

Daniel is familiar with blended learning because his previous school district offered it in recent years. Students thrived in the nontraditional setup, he said.

“As our teachers gave more responsibility to the students for their learning, the higher that expectation, the more the students rose to that expectation and met that expectation,” Daniel said of the Illinois district.

Blended learning could become part of FWCS' regular offerings, Daniel said. He foresees older students using the option to create time for career experiences, including internships, in their schedule.

FWCS had a different purpose for implementing blended learning this year, however. It should help reduce the number of students in the middle and high schools, making social distancing more possible, Daniel said.

“I think we have a chance now,” Daniel said, adding it helps that some students will participate entirely remotely.

This should comfort parents, Daniel said, but that's not the only group he's worried about when classes resume.

“I'm very concerned about the health and well-being of our building-level staff and faculty,” he said.

Illness or exposure to someone with COVID-19 could prevent teachers from coming to school, Daniel said, and the district can't rely entirely on substitutes because there aren't enough of them.

Leave it to Daniel to have a potential solution – and an upside – ready.

“Do we have teachers who are now teaching from home to the students that are sitting in the classroom? And the answer is yes. We've already laid that out, we've talked to our association about that,” Daniel said. “That has to be a possibility. Silver lining – possibility thinking.”

At a glance

Allen County's public schools are set to begin the 2020-21 year this week. Their first days are as follows:

• Monday – East Allen County Schools

• Wednesday – Northwest Allen County Schools and Southwest Allen County Schools

• Thursday – Fort Wayne Community Schools

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