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Profile                                                          Page 59

 

Engaging the Village To

Educate

BY BETSY SAMSON

Wanda Cook-Robinson
Wanda Cook-Robinson

Midway through the 2005-06 school year, Wanda Cook-Robinson took the helm of the 7,300-student Southfield, Mich., Public Schools, about 15 miles northwest of Detroit. The job came with a $16 million structural deficit and student achievement well below state averages. But Cook-Robinson had a plan.

“We were losing funding, losing enrollment. I knew we had to turn to our community, to our businesses, and tap into Southfield’s many resources,” she says. “I thought, ‘It’s truly gonna take the village.’”

Cook-Robinson, who grew up in greater Detroit, has been a Southfield resident for nearly 30 years and knew the area is home to more than 100 Fortune 500 companies and 9,000 smaller businesses. She began engaging the community to work collectively on the district’s issues.

“She’s not one to say, ‘I’m the superintendent, I’m doing this myself,’” explains Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence. “She makes sure she doesn’t leave any opportunity untapped when it comes to working with the community.”

Financial contributions, while always appreciated, are not the primary emphasis. “These organizations are not just giving us dollars here and there,” Cook-Robinson says. “They’re giving us true participation.”

Among the 52 active partnerships, including several dozen connected to higher education, is Revolution Read, a communitywide initiative to get every student reading at grade level by the end of 5th grade.

She asked community leaders to model the importance of reading beyond classroom assignments. For the program’s kickoff, local celebrities and politicians, including the mayor, were among the public readers. The superintendent also solicited support from Scholastic Inc. In the second year of the program, reading scores are moving upward.

Lawrence recalls Cook-Robinson’s infectious optimism when the superintendent approached her about Revolution Read. “She said what she does all the time. She told me, ‘I have a great idea, and you’re gonna love it!’”

A finalist for 2013 National Superintendent of the Year, Cook-Robinson earned her Ph.D. in instructional technology. She says the degree refined her goal to “create systems where each student can reach their optimum capacity.”

A self-described instructional architect, Cook-Robinson draws heavily on this background in her efforts to personalize instruction in Southfield’s classrooms. In late 2011, Michigan lifted its cap on charter schools, eight of which are now in the Southfield community. The superintendent viewed the situation as an opportunity for improvement. To better serve students’ individual needs, she led the district in redesigning its elementary curriculum so each building has a different thematic focus.

To offer more course options at the high school level, the district introduced the strictly academic, college-prep-oriented University High School Academy in 2008.

True to form, Cook-Robinson sold the community from the outset, working with parents, teachers and school board members, as well as tapping into outside resources.

For Cook-Robinson, the college-prep academy is the fulfillment of a personal ideal. Its first graduating class of 66 boasts a 100 percent graduation rate, 100 percent college matriculation and an aggregated $3.6 million in scholarships. The school’s motto: Built by Southfield.

Betsy Samson served as School Administrator’s editorial assistant. E-mail: magazine@aasa.org


 

BIO STATS: WANDA COOK-ROBINSON

Currently: Superintendent, Southfield, Mich.

Previously: associate superintendent for instruction, Southfield

Age: 59

Greatest influence on career: My 1st-grade teacher, Mrs. Stinson, really opened the world of education for me by teaching me how to learn.

Best professional day: Standing at the graduation ceremony of our first graduating class from University High School Academy with my hands on my hips and saying, “How do you like your return on your investment?”

Books at bedside: Enhancing Professional Practice by Charlotte Danielson; and Closing the Achievement Gap by Noah Borrero and Shawn Bird

Biggest blooper: I made the mistake of communicating with one board member instead of all seven. I quickly learned while one may ask the question, all get the answer.

Why I’m an AASA member: What I value the most is the networking aspect and being able to call a fellow member and say, “How did you handle this?” 

 

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