School Board Success Story: Indiana

By Glenn Cook

When Delores Hearn ran for the Warsaw Community school board, she knew the northern Indiana district faced some major hurdles.   Administrative churn -- five superintendents in eight years -- had led to middling achievement. Schools operated in silos with limited interaction, and some performed better than others. As a system, Warsaw did not lack for funds -- the district is in the “Orthopedic Capital of the World” -- but more than half of its 7,000 students lived below the poverty line, and families with more economic advantages were migrating toward private and parochial schools.

“It was a bunch of bits and pieces out there, and the community was aware of it,” says Hearn, a former teacher and school psychologist in Warsaw who later ran her own children’s clinic for 15 years. “How to put all of these things together and make something happen is always the challenge for any community, organization, or business. But it takes leadership to make something happen.”

Leadership, in Warsaw’s case, came from a variety of sources. The board embarked on a two-year superintendent search and, during that period, cleaned up policies and procedures that had benignly contributed to school silos. After the board hired Superintendent Craig Hintz in 2009, the nonprofit organization OrthoWorx brought in Cambridge Education to conduct an external audit of the district.

Three years later, the district has used the audit results to develop and implement a new strategic plan. It has converted an elementary campus into a STEM-themed school and is considering other targeted programs. Every administrator and more than one-third of the teachers have attended a professional learning community conference.

In 2011, the district received an overall grade of C in the state accountability system, with several elementary schools earning Ds. In 2012, the third year of Warsaw’s reform initiative, all schools earned As from the state.

“Ours is a three-year story,” says Hintz, who was named 2012 state superintendent of the year. “What I observed in joining the district was a wonderful system of schools. What we are certainly working toward now is to become a leading school system in Indiana, and we’re well on the road to that.”

Getting the house in order

You can go back further than three years. Flash back to 2007, 18 months after Hearn joined the board. Another superintendent had left, and several schools were struggling. The board knew something had to be done.

Hearn and another board member worked with the interim administrative team to “get everything in order” before hiring a superintendent. During the lengthy search, she says the board focused on streamlining policies and procedures and “started to see how things had kind of broken down.”

“I would attribute it to all of the turnover we had,” Hearn says. “We took our time in choosing the next superintendent because the board was really centered on finding someone who had experience, who had knowledge, and could be a leader with a good vision of how to work with the community and bring our system together. We wanted to make sure all the pieces were in place this time.”

Hintz, who had personal and professional ties to the state, was hired in 2009. Soon after, the Lilly Endowment set up OrthoWorx, a nonprofit organization focused on community development and education in Indiana. The organization’s focus is not on direct community aid, but on “helping to build up the education system and other assets to prepare communities for the future,” says Executive Director Brad Bishop.

In 2010, OrthoWorx hired Cambridge to do an outside, comprehensive study of all schools in Warsaw. Released the following year, the study’s numerous recommendations included: Develop a strategic plan, offer more dual credit and Advanced Placement (AP) classes, create theme/focus schools, and dedicate more funding to fine arts and STEM education.

“Developing the strategic plan was an important step,” Bishop says. “For a long time, the board was focused -- not unimportantly -- on ensuring the corporation was fiscally sound, had good facilities, and operated efficiently. Our focus was on developing the strategies on what makes a truly good school system as opposed to a financially sound school system.”

Rather than chafe over the findings, Hintz and the board took them to heart. District leaders talked to more than 400 community patrons, administrators, teachers, parents, and students as they developed a strategic plan and a 24-word mission statement that reads: “To inspire and equip all students to continuously acquire and apply knowledge and skills while pursuing their dreams and enriching the lives of others.”

“The board has had to exercise its vision and understand the degree to which the corporation competes with other districts for students and taxpayers,” Bishop says. “They’ve embraced that.”

Making a difference

Jennifer Tandy has served on the Warsaw school board for two years. Her husband is a senior vice president at Biomet, one of Warsaw’s three largest employers. The mother of two children, one in high school and one in college, she often is called on to give school tours when Biomet is recruiting new employees.

“When families come in from Texas, or the East Coast, or California, we want them to live here, and the first thing they ask, riding in the car with a real estate agent, is ‘How is your school system?’ As a school district, we have competition, and we can’t afford to be average,” Tandy says.

Under the leadership of Hintz and the board, the district has added eight AP classes as well as vocational and career education courses. Using a $450,000 innovation grant from the state -- the largest in Indiana’s history -- the district transformed Washington Elementary into a STEM academy this year and is looking at proposals for other themed schools, including a fine arts academy.

“You have to give a lot of credit to OrthoWorx for what they’ve done for our education system,” Hearn says. “When they brought in and paid to have Cambridge do the education study they did, it gave credibility to what we as educators knew was out here in our community. It gave us the credibility to say we need to work together more.”

Everyone knows the challenge is sustaining the district’s progress. Warsaw is stepping up its marketing and communications efforts to draw the families that Tandy helps recruit. OrthoWorx remains a strong supporter, providing training funds for the professional learning communities and working with the district on other STEM initiatives.

“Many strategic plans become vinyl trophies that go on a shelf,” Hintz says. “That’s not the case in Warsaw. … We have a strategy for using professional learning communities as the framework for ongoing school improvement, and our staff is coming back and saying it is the best professional development they’ve ever had. And the results are just phenomenal.”

Tandy says the board must continue to focus on results, especially with three new members.

“As a board, everything we look at is related to the district’s strategies and core values,” Tandy says. “Are we doing what we need to? Are we inspiring? Are we equipping our students to have the skills and knowledge they need to be successful? Sustaining that focus is going to be interesting, but we have very targeted, strategic objectives to stay on that path. We’re not just sitting back and waiting for the grade to change.”

For Hearn, the veteran board member, the district’s progress has been gratifying.

“You’ve got to have everyone working together,” she says. “It’s been a lot of hard work, but the community is seeing the benefit of it. I hope we can sustain it in the coming years. As a board member, that’s my hope, and my goal.” 

Glenn Cook (gcook@nsba.org) is publisher and executive editor of American School Board Journal.