Dr. Wendy Robinson learned the value of hard work as a young girl from her mother when, together, they sewed dresses to make extra money. “She made the dresses. I sewed the buttons,” Wendy said. Her mom created the form. She created the function.
A lost art in the age of fast-fashion and overseas clothing production, sewing requires discrete eye-hand coordination, patience and attention to detail — much like her role as superintendent of the Fort Wayne Community Schools, a district serving 30,000 students in Indiana. Since 2003, Wendy’s attention to form and function has helped her lead the district to an 89 percent graduation rate by focusing on academic excellence, community engagement and fiscal responsibility. “We keep it simple. Any new opportunity can fit into those goals.”
Keeping it simple is part of Wendy’s straightforward style. She speaks when she has something to say, and Twitter isn’t her vehicle. “Whenever I talk, I’m trying to make sure something is happening for my babies. As superintendent of a small or large district, your words matter. I don’t tweet. Little words turn into big issues because everyone has a filter when they’re reading.”
To get her message across, she does it face to face. “They can look at you and see, ‘She’s sincere.’ I have relationships with the mayor, the chamber. You don’t need to argue or prove a point with people you have a relationship with. Instead, you have a conversation and negotiate.”
Wendy has been getting her point across for decades. She credits much of her political skills to her experience as a third-grade teacher helping students learn to read and write. “With third graders, 95 percent of it is negotiation.”
This daughter of Fort Wayne — a graduate of its schools, a former teacher, a former principal and a former parent, and now grandparent, of its students — was recently named Indiana’s 2018 superintendent of the year by the state superintendent association, and she’s now a finalist for national superintendent of the year. “It’s part of my DNA, and the responsibility that this district has to this community is for me to be involved,” she added.
Her father’s education ended at eighth grade. Her mother wanted to be a nurse after high school, but her parents wouldn’t allow her to go to college without her sisters. Instead, she worked at a state hospital caring for others and devoted her energies to removing any barriers to college for Wendy and her sister.
The broader community also assisted in Wendy’s journey. Raised in a Southern Baptist church, she said the members encouraged her education dreams in high school and college with words of support or the occasional $5 bill. “I will never forget on the night I was appointed superintendent, a group of ministers of my church came to explain to the board that they had raised me and they expected the board to take care of me. I was one of them. They had taken care of me, and they expected the board to do the same.”
And they have. The board recently extended Wendy’s contract through 2020, allowing her to tackle a few more pressing issues before her retirement, including the implementation of a multi-million dollar federal grant to help serve Fort Wayne’s diverse student body.
“I don’t get involved in everything. But when it’s concerning children, the graduation rate or our community, I always have an opinion,” Wendy said. “People will respect you if you come at them with facts and limit the emotions. Legislators in Indiana know I pick and choose which topics I talk about. But when I do, they know it must be something important.”
Wendy’s steady hand as superintendent coincides with the changing education landscape in Indiana. In 2006, the state launched the nation’s largest voucher school program, allowing public dollars to be used for tuition at private and religious schools. The program that launched in 2011-12 with $16 million in funding has increased to $146 million last year. Fort Wayne Community Schools lost nearly 5,000 students, mostly from its top-rated schools — even though the program was sold to lawmakers as an offramp for families in struggling schools. And Wendy got involved.
The Journal Gazette, Fort Wayne’s local paper, editorialized its own concerns over Indiana’s “parallel system of schools” last October: “Voucher schools accept all dollars, but not all students.” It listed transparency, accountability, quality, access and costs as major issues.
“All that glitters isn’t gold,” Wendy said. “I don’t see it going away, and I warn everyone in the world that this is your next education agenda.”
Fort Wayne Community Schools takes every opportunity to show the community its value, garnering more than $200 million in bond issues to fix school buildings. Wendy is outspoken about state testing accountability (“Just pick something and stick to it long enough so teachers can see trends”) and graduation requirements (“Our graduation rate is 89 percent despite state dysfunction”), which now include more classes and service hours.
“We have people who care about students and know how to teach,” Wendy said. “We don’t blame our kids or talk about the poverty levels. We’re realistic, but the expectation is that we’re going to do the absolute best for every child. That’s an attitude that overcomes the dysfunction around us, but not all of it.”
Every month, Fort Wayne holds rolling leadership sessions with leaders across various levels of the district to check in, disseminate information or training and share the concept of team. And Wendy is an active participant. “You can’t assign the development of the district culture to someone else,” she said. “That responsibility has to rest with the superintendent. People have to see you actively engaged in activities you’re holding them accountable for.”
A follower of Michael Fullan’s “purpose, precision, professionalism” mantra, Wendy credits her team for being quality systems-thinking people. In 2003, when the district was forced to cut staff, she cut from the central office, added to school buildings and never hired a deputy.
She said her thinking is still rooted in the lessons she learned in the first cohort of The Broad Academy. “The fact that you as a leader have to believe in something” and decide how it will be used for positive change in culture and climate of public schools was critical, she said.
Succession planning comes up here and there in conversations. She said she’s worked on it, from encouraging staff to earn doctorate degrees to asking funders to help sponsor programming to increase capacity. The district hosts a human capital university that trains principals to go into classrooms and provides customer-service training to all administrators. Wendy said she is building structures to make sure the district is solid.
“The best thing I could do is to make sure the capacity is developed at all levels, that systems are in place. I’m as focused on how healthy will the district be when I leave,” she said.
For now, she keeps moving forward to the tune of one of her favorite songs, Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All.”
“It’s impossible to walk into a classroom and not feel hopeful,” Wendy said. “Children are focused on learning. I’m proud of the work we’ve done.” She noted that in annual student surveys, the district gets its highest scores for the sense of belonging. “We care about them. And they know it.”
What will she do once she has retired? “I have to have something. I just can’t ever sit,” Wendy said. She knows she’ll take her grandkids to places their parents won’t. She’ll read futuristic crime novels, and she’ll continue the handwork she learned from her mother, who passed away a year ago. “I’m doing something with a needle and thread.”
And for many years to come, the fabric of Fort Wayne Community Schools will certainly reflect her impact.