At a glance
Name: John Houser
Title and employer: Principal of Wayne High School, Fort Wayne Community Schools
Time in current position: Nine months; started in July
Family: Wife, Nanette, and two daughters, Caitlin, 24, and Lauren, 23
Education and professional experience: Bachelor’s degree in English from Wabash College, 1984; taught high school English at Lake Central High School for three years; came to FWCS in 1987 and taught 10 years at Elmhurst High School, followed by 12 years at Snider High School; served a one-year administrative internship at Elmhurst and became assistant principal following year at South Side High School, where he remained for three years; was a football coach for 25 years
Wearing a rubber awareness bracelet of Columbia blue and scarlet red – the school colors – Houser's passion and energy abound as he points out large motivational posters adorning the hallways that feature Wayne students.
Some student posters are random, some feature top academic students, others profile a top-notch artist, athlete, science or band student. Many of the graphics and murals are the work of Houser's oldest daughter, an art major who lives in Ohio.
When he came to Wayne High School in July, there was a trust issue with staff and students, Houser said.
“The first thing I had to do was gain the trust of the people I work with; the adults more so than the students,” he said.
Houser has been involved as a teacher, football coach, assistant principal and now principal for 31 years.
“Wayne has had a number of principals in the past,” he said. “I am the fourth principal that this year's graduating class has seen.”
“I knew it would take some time to gain the trust of the students,” Houser said.
Houser tries to be as honest as possible and is constantly engaging with staff and students.
“It starts with ‘good morning' and involves showing genuine concern,” Houser said.
Houser takes the time to know the students – their triumphs and their struggles.
Beginning their freshman year, each student is tracked on performance, personal growth, goals, attendance, tardiness, readiness to learn and writing assessments. A leadership team made up of members of the faculty holds individual conferences with each student, offering guidance and direction and letting the students know whether they are on the right path to graduate.
Common writing assignments begin in the 10th grade, and students are tested four times during a seven-week period to gauge their progress.
The conferences continue during the students' junior year, but the focus is on careers, higher education and setting goals.
“The students know exactly how they are doing; they own their data,” Houser said. “Many get more competitive and take greater pride in their progress.”
Houser said he would love to see the data-tracking system go schoolwide in the future.
The conferences offer an excellent way to get to know the kids, he said.
A former area administrator for Fort Wayne Community Schools remembers Houser and his enthusiasm for teaching.
Arleen Zumbrun, who retired in 1995, was principal of Elmhurst High School when she hired the young, eager Houser as an English teacher in 1987.
“He was outstanding and very creative,” Zumbrun said. “He got kids excited about English; that is talent.”
Year after year, Houser was voted favorite teacher by the student body, Zumbrun said.
“He had a lot of energy, and there was no doubt in my mind that he could succeed at whatever he chose to do,” Zumbrun said. “Wayne is lucky to have him.”
Houser goes the extra mile and buys reading materials he thinks might be of interest to students.
“I've bought three copies of ‘Divergent' written for the struggling reader and some gaming magazines,” he said. “There are kids who would tell you they don't like to read, but they just don't like to read something that doesn't interest them.
“The staff's focus this year is to improve literacy in content areas.”
Students are taught to read Shakespeare, William Faulkner, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, a science lab report and more.
Houser strives every day to build confidence and trust.
“I tell everyone I will be here in 10 years. I've got nowhere else to go and nothing else to do,” he said, “and I tell every student, ‘I will be here for your graduation.' ”
It isn't just the student's academic life that Houser gets involved in. He is working hard to bring back extracurricular activities and instill school pride.
“The student body has not embraced the school,” he said. “We have addressed this with parents and students. We want them to have pride in their school.”
This year, the homecoming powder puff event was brought back for the first time in years.
“It ended in a tie and everyone enjoyed themselves; there were no fights,” Houser said.
Students were able to buy a rubber bracelet for a few dollars that served as admittance to the homecoming tailgate and dance.
“The school lacks a clear identity,” Houser said. “Students are drawn from so many different neighborhoods.”
Some students have achieved success in spite of having to overcome so many difficult obstacles.
“It's not been easy, but these kids are resilient,” he said.
Houser's immediate supervisor said she has seen a positive difference at the school under Houser's leadership.
“There is a different feel to the environment,” said Debra Faye Williams-Robbins, superintendent of high schools for FWCS.
“Before, there were a lot of students who were not involved, but John has made it clear that it is ‘their' school and that they will get a quality education while there,” Williams-Robbins said.
Some parents who transferred their children in the past few years have seen the transformation as well, she said.
“We are hearing from parents who want to bring their kids back to Wayne,” she said.
Houser is involved with the teaching and administrative staff and works collaboratively with them, Williams-Robbins said.
“He's a go-getter and very much wants to do the best job possible,” she said. “He's very conscientious, passionate about his work and kid-centered.”
Before Houser arrived at Wayne, school assemblies were discouraged because they were too disruptive.
“We've had two, and we've created a cheer block,” Houser said.
The assemblies have been used to recognize students in all areas, including sports, arts and academics, he said. Students are also rewarded for not being late and performing a “good act.”
“The kids have been very respectful,” Houser said.
Houser's enthusiasm seems to be paying off.
The attendance rate is 96 percent, and many of the students in the hallways and classrooms sport school spirit or college attire – both encouraged by Houser and his faculty. Houser's recipe for encouraging kids to excel and be their best is simple.
“Love them up, help them out, encourage and forgive them,” he said.