It was Harrison Hill Elementary School on an early December morning in 2014, but it could have been any of the Fort Wayne Community Schools buildings on any day. Superintendent Wendy Robinson was walking down a quiet hallway with a journalist when a student, her face streaked in tears, came around a corner toward them. Robinson stopped her conversation in mid-sentence and approached the child.
“What's going on here?” she asked quietly. “What happened?”
Between sobs, the young girl explained it was the school's annual pajama day, but her mother had forgotten, dropped her off at school late and now she was the only first-grader not wearing pajamas.
Robinson pulled the student into her arms, whispering in her ear until the girl nodded her head and smiled, ready to return to class.
That's the educator most never had the chance to see – the third-grade teacher who saw each student as one of her own, who considered every district decision for its effect on all children. Robinson steps down this week after 47 years with Fort Wayne Community Schools, leaving the state's largest school district strong and resilient. Mark Daniel, another product of Fort Wayne schools, follows in the superintendent post beginning Wednesday.
The student-centered approach his predecessor followed will serve both Daniel and the district well, even in the face of inevitable budget shortages, ill-conceived Statehouse policy and COVID-19-related challenges.
Steve Brace, former president of the Fort Wayne Education Association, started teaching at Adams Elementary School about four years before Robinson began her teaching career at Ward Elementary.
He noted her lifetime association with the district.
“From kindergarten up until now, she's shown a loyalty to FWCS,” Brace said. “I think there's an appreciation for the fact she kept the district strong. Are decisions made that (teachers) didn't like? Of course, but overall they appreciate her legacy.”
He credited Robinson, as an assistant superintendent, with “keeping the corporation together” in 2000 after teachers voted “no confidence” in Superintendent Thomas Fowler-Finn and the school board inexplicably rewarded him with a $23,000 annual raise.
“She had the ability to build relationships, along with an ability to lead us into improving our test scores, our image, our relationship with the union – that was a job Dr. Fowler-Finn had given her because he had kind of botched it,” recalled Faye Williams-Robbins, the district's chief officer for Student, Family and Community Engagement. “She could have those conversations in a way that made other people see the vision.”
Williams-Robbins, who also has spent her entire career with the district, cited Robinson's leadership in 2011, when North Side and South Side high schools were targeted for state takeover. Instead of “cosmetic” fixes for those schools, she said, the district examined the systemic cause of achievement problems there and set out, with community input, on making comprehensive changes.
“Dr. Robinson was the lead on the piece with the community, with business leaders, on how to build partnerships to support students,” she said. In turn, the district avoided the turmoil some Indianapolis Public Schools have seen at the hands of failed takeover operators.
“This really is the end of an era,” said Brace, now an area director for the Indiana State Teachers Association. “I think everyone owes her a big thank-you. You don't see the successes like we've seen at FWCS in most large districts.”
Robinson maintained a fierce devotion to public education, Williams-Robbins said.
“If there looked like there might be someone trying to undercut us or do something that could cause us to not be viable, she absolutely jumped out on the front end of that to protect public education for anybody and everybody,” she said.
That was the third-grade teacher that remained at Robinson's core, caring for each and every student.