HSE's first Black superintendent speaks exclusively to IndyStar on her vision for district
For Yvonne Stokes, each step in her career meant increasing the number of students and community members she could collaborate with and support. It started with one classroom, and will now be the entire Fishers community, as she becomes leader of Hamilton Southeastern Schools.
Stokes will be the first Black superintendent at HSE, and the first woman to lead the district in 13 years.
She was named the district's next superintendent by the HSE Board of School Trustees at special meeting on Thursday, ending a process that started late last year when current superintendent Allen Bourff announced his retirement.
Stokes, who has a doctorate in educational leadership, will start July 1. Her contract includes up to $187,500 in base pay and stipends for the first year as well as additional insurance and benefits. She has been an assistant superintendent for the School Town of Munster for the nearly four years.
Stokes worked her way up from classroom assistant to now superintendent in districts across Indiana, both bigger and smaller than HSE. Before Munster, she was an academic improvement officer at Indianapolis Public Schools and lived in Fishers.
"I bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the position," Stokes said. "I think Hamilton Southeastern is a great place to live and work."
HSE Board President Janet Pritchett told IndyStar that Stokes stood out from the first interview, with concise and thoughtful answers, comprehensive experience, a collaborative approach to challenges and an approachable communication style.
“I have no doubt that she can handle the challenges she will face leading our district with knowledge and grace,” Pritchett said. “Resiliency is a quality that I hope every one of the students in HSE graduates with and who better than the superintendent to demonstrate that?”
'Time is of the essence'
Stokes is the first Black leader of the district at a time when the HSE community is working on next steps after the current superintendent wrote pair of letters on how to address Black Lives Matter in the classroom. Those February letters caused outcry from the community and the district held a virtual racial justice town hall in March.
Stokes said that when it comes to racial equity, all people want a better life for their students.
“What I would say, is that in a time such as this, we can no longer be afraid to have those courageous conversations. We have to have them,” she said.
She said wants students and the community to be able to speak up and feel valued, even if the district can't do exactly what one community member wants.
Courageous conversations mean bringing the different mindsets in the HSE community together to listen to each other and find ways support students, she said.
"It is important that we are equitable in our approaches to how we support students we need to give them what they need and we need to do it in a timely manner,” she said.
Time is of the essence, she said.
“If you think about where we are in America right now, with so many social concerns, with even some political concerns, we need to help students realize that they can be resilient and that they need to make a place in life for themselves,” she said.
She said she thinks the HSE has begun to have these types of conversations, but there is more work to do.
HSE is ready, she said. “It’s more of how do we do it, (and) which direction do we go in terms of supporting our students.”
Stokes' appointment wasn't without controversy. About two dozen protesters gathered outside of HSE's headquarters Thursday ahead of the vote, urging the board to vote no. They held signs that said things such as "qualified staff matters," "education not indoctrination" and "teach our kids how to think not what to think."
Advocates for racial equity in the district applauded Stokes' hiring.
"We are so grateful to the school board for listening to parents' input and selecting a candidate who is student centered, encourages collaboration, and has a strong background working with diverse stakeholders," said Jaimie Cairns, a parent in the district who leads the advocacy group HSEqual. "HSEqual is committed to supporting equity initiatives in HSE Schools, and we believe Dr. Stokes will be an excellent partner as we continue to create school environments where ALL students are given the support they need to succeed in our global society."
Learning resiliency from her father
Growing up, Stokes spent her summers living with her dad, a college life science professor, and her step mom, a special education teacher, on the campus of Coahoma Community College near Clarksdale, Mississippi. She spent the school year living with her mom, an entrepreneur and foster parent and stepdad, a journeyman, in Fort Wayne.
She said that mix of experiences in living on a rural college campus and in an urban area helped shape her. And so did watching as her parents helped students.
Her mom, Julia Griffin, worked to make sure that foster children had a place to call home and feel safe. As an adult, Stokes would help her mom by going to meetings at school to advocate for the students.
But it’s an experience that she had as a younger child that she pointed back to illustrate her love of helping students and her resiliency.
When she was around 10, she said she remembers a student who approached her dad, Jerone Shaw, at the end of a lecture. She told him that she was going to drop out of college because she couldn’t afford it and the material was over her heard, Stokes said. Her dad was adamant the student stay.
“I remember him saying: 'First of all, you’re not dropping out. We are going to talk about what you need. We are going to figure out how to make this through and with regards to me talking over your head, I’ll speak your language. I’ll help you translate what I’m saying to a language that you understand.' ”
Stokes said that stuck with her.
“My dad just helped me understand what it means to be resilient, no matter what happens in life, to be resilient.”
That resiliency, she said is what helped her throughout her life, including after her divorce and she was taking care of her children.
At one point, she said that with the advice of lawyers, she decided to file for bankruptcy.
“I did what I had to do to take care of my children, and I don’t regret it,” Stokes said. “All the experiences that I’ve had over my life that helped me be who I am, I’m happy about that.”
Those experiences included scrapping gum off the bottom of classroom tables to make money in the summers while working as a classroom assistant. At another point, she said she worked two jobs as a teacher and a waitress to support her children and go back to school so she could become a principal.
“My life has been a journey of helping others,” Stokes said. “I've had ups. I’ve had downs. I’ve had my life turned completely around, but the one thing that I’ve always learned is that I’m resilient. … So I believe all of the things I’ve experiences helped make me the leader that I am today.”
An equitable approach to academics
At the top of Stokes’ to-do list is to look at academics, especially after a pandemic.
That goes for early learners, who may have delayed school due to COVID as well as for all students to make sure they can succeed academically as well as socially and emotionally, and are ready for life before and after graduation.
“I know some people say we want to make sure they’re ready for the real world,” Stokes said, adding that phrase bothers her. “School is the real world. It's the real world. Kids live in the real world.”
Stokes said she wants to ensure teachers have resources and professional development. And she wants to be accessible to all teachers.
When it comes to finances, she said the district has to think about what it takes to met goals and the costs. If the funding isn’t there, she said they will have to go for a referendum.
While she hasn’t led a referendum campaign, Stokes said she was part of referendums at IPS and Munster and learned from her colleagues. One thing that is clear, she said, the district must be clear about what is at stake and what could be cut.
HSE’s current operating referendum will be up in 2023.
Stokes' approach to academics, come in part from her time at IPS. She said while there are non-negotiables for students and schools, the approach can vary.
“We need to be equitable and give students what they need,” she said, adding that sometimes parents might ask why one school has a particular program or set of resources and another doesn’t.
Stokes said it’s not that the latter should or shouldn’t have that resource, it’s about what will have the biggest impact for each school.
“I talk a lot about equity because it’s not a matter of just giving everybody the same thing, that doesn’t always work,” Stokes said. “We can all get the same thing and our needs not be met.”
She has experience across the state
In addition to Munster and IPS, Stokes has worked at Blackford County Schools, Marion Community Schools and Fort Wayne Community Schools in roles including principal, assistant principal, special education services coordinator, director of curriculum and evaluation, teacher and classroom assistant.
While Munster is smaller than HSE at about 4,100 students, Fort Wayne and IPS are larger at roughly 28,500 students and more than 31,000 students respectively.
She has a bachelor’s degree and doctorate in educational leadership from Purdue University as well as a licensure in exceptional needs from Purdue’s Calumet campus. Stokes has a master’s degree in special education from the University of Saint Francis.
She was the top candidate for HSE out of a pool of 25 from seven states. Of those, 12 were current superintendents, eight were assistant or deputy superintendents, two were principals and three were in other roles.
Pritchett told IndyStar that the board didn’t only consider sitting superintendents to not limit the candidate pool. She said Stokes’ experience in Munster and knowledge of large districts showed she was ready.
Plus, she showed she had the ambition and the drive to lead, Pritchett said.
Students come first
Stokes said while being a Black woman is part of her identity, she wants the community to judge her on her work.
“That’s what I’m here to do is support our children, keep the main thing the main thing, supporting our children,” she said.
That means all children, she said.
“If there are needs of children who happen to be black and brown children, I will meet those needs. If there are needs of children who are gifted, who are accelerated...I want to meet those needs,” Stokes said. “If we have needs of students who are the average child, and sometimes (they) feel like 'I’m unseen, I’m unheard,' I want to meet those needs. I want to meet the needs of all children, and all children matter.”
Stokes said she doesn’t have all the answers, but will investigate and understand the charge at hand.
“I have experiences that I believe have brought me to the point of understanding what the needs are in a school district,” she said. “and anything that I don’t know, collectively and collaboratively, we can figure it out.”