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Yvonne Stokes named new Gary superintendent

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The Gary School Board named Yvonne Stokes, a former superintendent at Hamilton Southeastern near Indianapolis, as its first post-takeover school chief Friday.

Stokes, who also served as assistant superintendent at the School Town of Munster, takes office July 1 when Gary is expected to be released from state control.

Gary became the first district in the state to fall under state control because of large budget deficits that nearly derailed its existence.

Newly-picked Gary Community School Corporation superintendent Yvonne Stokes speaks to visitors after her appointment was announced during a public meeting on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)

After the board vote, Stokes was swarmed by Gary residents eager to meet her and ask questions.

Her former boss at Munster, Jeff Hendrix, looked on with a measure of pride at the educator he hired in Marion and Munster.

“She’s always been focused on children,” said Hendrix who hired Stokes as an assistant principal and then a principal when he led the Marion Community Schools.

Gary Community School Corporation board member Danita Johnson-Woods welcomes newly-appointed superintendent Yvonne Stokes during a public meeting on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)
Gary Community School Corporation board member Danita Johnson-Woods welcomes newly-appointed superintendent Yvonne Stokes during a public meeting on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)

Hendrix, who was Munster superintendent from 2014 to 2022, hired Stokes in 2017 as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. In 2018, she received the Indiana Governor’s Award.

At Munster, Hendrix said Stokes assisted with strategic planning and diversity training and established herself in a strong role in leading curriculum and instructional practices.

Hendrix recommended her for the top job in Hamilton Southeastern in Fishers, another affluent Indiana community like Munster, and she became its superintendent in 2021.

Newly-picked Gary Community School Corporation superintendent Yvonne Stokes sits as council members applaud her appointment during a public meeting on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)
Newly-picked Gary Community School Corporation superintendent Yvonne Stokes sits as council members applaud her appointment during a public meeting on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)

It proved to be a rocky experience after new, more conservative school board members took office.

She left abruptly in 2023 before her contract had expired.

Stokes, who holds a doctorate degree in educational leadership, said she’s not afraid of the challenge Gary offers from keeping its finances in the black to uplifting academic performance.

Gary resident and former teacher Shanee' Butler speaks during the public comment period at a Gary Community School Corporation meeting to announce its next superintendent on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)
Gary resident and former teacher Shanee’ Butler speaks during the public comment period at a Gary Community School Corporation meeting to announce its next superintendent on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)

“I’m a big advocate of reading,” she said when asked about the district’s third grade reading scores that rank at the bottom of the state. Stokes described third grade as the critical period for students to master reading as they move into more advanced content in fourth grade.

Stokes also plans to focus on Gary’s truancy problem, another key linchpin to turn academics around.

Stokes arrives in a community struggling with high poverty and poor academic performance that represents a stark contrast to Fishers with its median household income at about $126,000 in 2022 compared to Gary’s $36,874.

 

Gary Community School Corporation board members applaud newly-appointed superintendent Yvonne Stokes during a public meeting on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)
Gary Community School Corporation board members applaud newly-appointed superintendent Yvonne Stokes during a public meeting on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)

The residents who spoke to the school board before its vote still voiced distrust in the system that left them in state control since 2017.

“She’s walking into something that’s really, really hard,” said Jackie Lee. “I pray for her.”

Michaela Spangenberg, of the Gary Education Coalition, complained about the selection process saying the community didn’t feel included.

Gary resident Nikki Byrd speaks during the public comment period at a Gary Community School Corporation meeting to announce its next superintendent on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)
Gary resident Nikki Byrd speaks during the public comment period at a Gary Community School Corporation meeting to announce its next superintendent on Friday, June 7, 2024. (Kyle Telechan/for the Post-Tribune)

“There is a real movement to destroy education in this country and this community has been under attack for many years. We need to really band together and protect these kids,” she said.

Nikki Byrd, a frequent critic of the conditions at the West Side Leadership Academy, called for transparency from Stokes’ administration.

“I pray and hope that this was the right decision. I’m not sure. I’m nervous because we haven’t had anything positive for our children in the last seven years,” she said.

Bruce Curry, of Gary’s NAACP, encouraged faith.

“When it comes down to a decision, everybody in this room has to have some trust in the board. Gary has to be positive now. That stuff in the past, you got to let it go.”

The school board took months to evaluate 38 applicants from 14 states and whittled its process to three finalists before settling on Stokes and awarding her a three-year contract. She will earn $215,000 a year and can receive up to $15,000 in incentives for boosting finances, academics and enrollment.

“We went through a very exhaustive process to select a superintendent and in that process, we felt you had the skills, and experience to do a very good job,” said Danita Johnson-Woods, the board member who headed the search team.

“We didn’t get this way overnight. We don’t expect miracles, but what we do expect are incremental gains by working together as a team.”

Board chairman Michael Suggs said the board wants inclusion as it assumes governing powers in July.

“I feel we are fortunate to have selected a leader that I feel I wish my children had a chance to learn under. I appreciate your feedback, but I won’t tolerate disrespect. This is a serious job for serious people.”

Stokes is expected to make remarks and greet the public at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Gary Area Career Center, 1800 E. 35th Ave.

Carole Carlson is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune. 

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