Returning to Akron Public Schools was a full circle moment for incoming superintendent Christine Fowler-Mack, who was schooled and first taught in the district 25 years ago.
Not only does it feel momentous for Fowler-Mack, a Goodyear Heights native and graduate of East High School and the University of Akron, but it is also a historic moment for the district. Not only is she the first female superintendent, she is also the first woman of color to hold the superintendent position in Akron Public’s 174-year history.
“I’m so excited to be stepping into this position, and it’s so important that everyone — all the students — can see themselves and people who look like them in every capacity,” she said.
Fowler-Mack, 55, started her teaching career instructing sixth graders at Robinson Academy (now Robinson CLC). After earning her administration credentials, she moved into administrative roles at Kent City Schools, Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District and Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Her most recent post before being named APS superintendent in April was Chief of Portfolio Planning, Growth & Management in Cleveland.
Now, 25 years later, she is back, replacing David James who led APS for 13 years before leaving the district to serve as Columbus Public Schools’ deputy superintendent for operations.
“I feel indebted to Akron, not only because I feel like I got a great start in my educational experience, but coming back in my initial years as a teacher, Akron was just one of those places that not only developed me, but I felt cared for, included, like I belonged,” Fowler-Mack said. “The opportunity to do work here with this community was very attractive to me.”
Following a tumultuous year of instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic that forced students out of traditional classroom spaces, Fowler-Mack is stepping in at a critical time in education.
“Our number one challenge is figuring how to best reopen and recover from the last year and a half of the pandemic where things were disrupted not only in our space but every space,” she said. “It’s about reopening, recovering and leveraging this moment to reimagine because of things we learned from the pandemic about the need to personalize the education for students and ensure wraparound support.”
In a district that faces challenges such as student housing insecurity and a lack of broadband access, bridging the gap of inequity that became increasingly apparent during the pandemic is going to be an arduous task that takes creative solutions, Fowler-Mack said.
A heavy focus will be on technology and hybrid learning, especially as students have the option for remote online learning this year as COVID-19 cases in Summit county continue to increase with the spread of the Delta variant. Masks are required for in-person classes.
“We’re not going to force education to be online every single day, but we are embracing the use of (technology) more substantially than we have in the past,” she said. “We are continuing to train educators along with that and continuing to really utilize ways of learning that appeal to our students.”
She was attracted to the district because of its approach to post-secondary readiness through its academy programs, which allow students to specialize in specific college and career readiness programs in partnerships with local organizations.
“I believe in that model of ensuring that kids are prepared for life beyond K-12, whether that’s going to college or directly into careers or enlisting,” she said. “What works for one student isn’t always going to work for another, so we need to assess how to further personalize the learning experience so that every student can be successful.”
Fowler-Mack says another focus of her tenure will be to change harmful and untrue perceptions of the district that may prompt parents to opt out of public schooling. She wants to focus on widespread messaging and personal connections with parents, as she herself is a mother to two children.
“Being a mom, what I’m looking forward to is connecting with families as well. I’m not only leading, but I’m living it,” she said. “I can relate to families who want the best for their children and are also trying to survive in this uncertainty right now. Sometimes people seem to have a perception of who our kids are or what our district is, so I want to see how we can enhance the range of ways in which we can communicate as a school system so parents can think of their home district as a viable option because there are wonderful things happening and great people in our system.”
As she prepares for the daunting task of starting the 2021-2022 school year on August 30, she also considers the simpler joys of coming back to her hometown: like flicking on her headlights at Swenson’s for a burger, picking up a cake from West Side Bakery or watching a track meet at Ellet Community Learning Center with her daughter.
“Something that makes Akron special is it’s still one of those bigger cities with the hometown feel,” she said. “We have some unique communities in Akron, and there’s a place for everyone. I’m happy to be a part of it again.”
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos provided by Christine Fowler-Mack.
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