Carolyn DeVoe wasn’t always a fan of Fort Wayne Community Schools. When the district asked the community for $500 million to improve schools eight years ago, the head of the Southwest Area Partnership was a leader in the campaign to defeat it. But when the district returned three years ago with a revised project list, DeVoe stepped up to publicly support the campaign bond issue.
What changed her thinking? She credits leadership with restoring trust.
"There’s a feeling of pride and accountability in our schools," DeVoe said.
Superintendent Wendy Robinson and FWCS Board President Mark GiaQuinta insist on giving credit for the pride and accountability to teachers, administrators, staff and parents. But they set the foundation for improvements in academic achievement and fiscal responsibility. They demanded more from educators and staff even as they faced crushing cuts in funding and defended attacks on public education.
The district today has a graduation rate of nearly 91percent, more than two percentage points above the state average. ISTEP+ scores have been steadily rising, even as the number of students from low-income households has grown. Legislators who routinely denigrate public schools listen when FWCS officials speak.
For their work in establishing FWCS as the state’s premier urban school district and for advocating on behalf of public schools across Indiana, Robinson and GiaQuinta are The Journal Gazette’s Citizens of the Year.
An unlikely team
Individually and outside their school roles, Robinson and GiaQuinta are community leaders. The superintendent has served on the Parkview Hospital board and now serves on the Parkview Health System board. She’s also on the Greater Fort Wayne Inc. board and a member of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership.
GiaQuinta, a longtime Democratic Party activist, is a former four-term city councilman and has served on the city plan commission, public transportation board, St. Joseph Hospital Board, Family and Children’s Services Board and the Indiana Government Efficiency Commission.
Robinson, the educator, and GiaQuinta, the attorney, make for an unusual but effective partnership.
He was a sharp critic of the school district when he sought a school board seat in 2006. Robinson, who joined the district as a teacher in 1973, was in her fourth year as superintendent and making progress in establishing good relationships with community leaders and the teachers union when GiaQuinta was elected to his first term.
The first building project campaign was under way when GiaQuinta, 61, joined the majority in supporting the $500 million project, but he made it clear he didn’t like the process that led to the final figure.
The project’s defeat in a dueling petition drive became a turning point. When he was elected school board president in 2008, the board adopted well-defined goals and a scorecard for measuring progress. GiaQuinta immersed himself in effective school board leadership and he continues to remind board members that they oversee the superintendent, who – in turn – oversees daily management of the district.
Robinson, 64, turned from the defeat to concentrate on academic challenges. A state takeover threat was facing North Side and South Side high schools. Recognizing the schools could be only the first of several facing the possibility of being handed over to private operators, the superintendent designated 11 schools as LEAD (Leading Educational Achievement with Distinction) schools. Staffing changes were made, along with intensive training and new practices.
It worked. The two high schools needed to improve their passing rates on English and algebra end-of-course exams by just 5 percent, but South Side improved by 8percent and North Side by 10. Many LEAD school practices were extended districtwide.
The changes didn’t come without criticism. Demands for improvement have earned complaints from teachers and administrators who would prefer everything remain unchanged. But the district now has a strong base of both veteran teachers and young teachers trained under new state accountability guidelines.
"I think a very important shift happened – to ‘no excuses’ for adults," Robinson said. "It’s not because of kids who come from homes where none of us would want to be. But the no-excuses part is – you can’t blame the kids. We have to change our behavior as adults. We’ll always have the issues – they just have to be addressed."
GiaQuinta still insists FWCS students didn’t have to "earn" safe and comfortable school buildings with academic improvement, but he concedes those improvements allowed the district to win support for a $119 million referendum in 2012.
The improvements have allowed Robinson andGiaQuinta to speak up where they once trod carefully. Both have emerged as outspoken defenders of public education.
"I believe that our responsibility as the largest district is to sometimes speak up for people who don’t have the resources or the history to know that if the legislature is going in that direction, here’s what’s going to happen," Robinson said. "I think we’re at a point where the politics of education get in the way of people collaborating the way they need to."
Their primary commitment, however, is still to FWCS. Robinson said she is determined to see the district doesn’t decline under her watch. GiaQuinta said he believes the district is on the rise.
"Come inside our buildings – any building, any time – and tell me we’re not better," GiaQuinta said. "It’s very difficult when you walk someone through New Tech (at Wayne High School) and show them what’s going on for them not to be impressed by it, or by the biomedical program at Snider, or my Real Men Read class – these kids are smart.
"We’ve still got those non-believers," GiaQuinta said. "But they are an aberration. Most people know we’ve done our part."
That includes oversight of the building program. At the end of the third year of Repair FWCS, major projects are done at Bloomingdale, Croninger, Harris and Harrison Hill elementary schools, with work at Snider High School, Memorial Park Middle School and Irwin Elementary expected to be completed by the start of the next school year. The work is on time and on budget.
Michael Packnett, president and CEO of Parkview Health System and 2013 Citizen of the Year, has observed Robinson as both the leader of the school district and at his own board meetings.
"She would come to our hospital board meetings after a full day of serving the needs of the school system and still give her gifts and talents to us," Packnett wrote in an email. "I could often tell that it had been a challenging day, but she always said that it was worth it for the kids.
"We are very fortunate that Wendy has served for 11years.... We have lived in other communities where the superintendent changes every 2-3 years," Packnett wrote. "There’s no chance for development of great culture when the leader changes that often. We’re very fortunate that Wendy has led FWCS through some very difficult times and made many personal sacrifices while doing it."
Packnett, past chairman of the Regional Partnership, knows the importance of a strong local school district.
"Wendy really helped me understand the importance of FWCS to our entire economic development effort," he wrote. "As the largest school corporation in Indiana, as FWCS goes, so goes much of the workforce and economy of Fort Wayne. Our economic efforts rely on a talented workforce – if we’re not producing 18-year-olds ready for college or the workforce, we won’t have as strong an economy as we should. The jobs will go where the talent is."
Former state Rep. Win Moses, as a two-term mayor of Fort Wayne, also knows the importance of a strong local school district.
"The public school is the core of the community," he said. "Along with city services and parks, it’s what people look at when they come to a community. Fort Wayne schools are – and have been – excellent. This is not Indianapolis, where many of them have had problems and the population moved, basically, because of the schools. People come to Fort Wayne because of the schools."
Moses recalled that GiaQuinta, as a young councilman, once asked Moses, then the mayor, to appoint GiaQuinta to the school board. (At the time, the school board was appointed, not elected as now.) Moses had to point out that state law prohibited an elected official from holding a second office.
"He wanted to do this nearly 40 years ago," Moses said. "It has been a burning passion with him for a very long time."
DeVoe, the district critic-turned-supporter, said she has confidence in FWCS and its leaders.
"I’m delighted," she said. "It’s the kind of leadership we’re after."