Story and photos by Jo Mathis/AAPS District News Editor
Gym teacher Kate Lewit had been very happy at Allen Elementary, her home for 26 years.
But when she learned that Allen’s principal Joan Fitzgibbon was leaving to be principal at the new A2 STEAM three years ago, Lewit knew what she had to do.
She had to follow Fitzgibbon over to STEAM.
“Allen is near and dear to my heart and always will be,” she said, “But the opportunity to continue working with Joan won out over everything.”
Those who’ve worked with Joan Fitzgibbon know just what she means.
And now that Fitzgibbon is set to retire at the end of March, the accolades are plentiful.
Dawn Linden, who oversees elementary education instruction services for AAPS, says that Fitzgibbon is known as a visionary leader.
“This way, we have some overlap time with the staff still here, “ she says, sitting in her colorful office at A2 STEAM. “My staff has already met, and they’re talking about what kinds of strengths (in a principal) they want.”
Fitzgibbon says there hasn’t been any particular event that made her think now was a good time to retire. It’s just that she’s ready to back off from the day-to-day work and turn her attention to consulting, as well as travel, sports, and hobbies such as woodworking.
“It’ll be more macro instead of micro,” she says, noting that she’s done with Fun Nights and lunch duty. “I’d like to help build and construct the idea, rather than the day-to-day things.”
Because A2 STEAM has now rolled out sixth, seventh and eighth grades, the time is good for a transition, she says.
Fitzgibbon grew up in Monroe, the youngest of three girls. Her dad, Thomas, who died six years ago, was the finance director for Teledyne CAE. Her mother, Barbara, was a homemaker. Fitzgibbon’s oldest sister, Debra Brousseau, is a vocal music teacher in Ypsilanti, while sister Brenda Pyle is the finance director for Airport Schools.
“It was an awesome childhood; we’re a very close family,” Fitzgibbon says. “My mom and dad came to every single one of my sporting events, and to every game they could come to when I was in college. I feel very fortunate.”
Part of the reason she wants to retire now, in fact, is that her 80-year-old mother is still able to travel with her.
“I could work another 10 years, but then she’s not going to in the place to travel like she can now,” says Fitzgibbon, who is eager to see the U.S. national parks. “So my mom is thrilled. We’ve traveled a little bit before, so she’s really happy. But my sisters are not happy that their baby sister is retiring before them!”
Fitzgibbon attended Lutheran school K-8, Monroe Junior for ninth, and then was active in varsity sports at Monroe High School. After graduating in 1983 as one of five valedictorians, she attended Michigan Tech on a sports/academic scholarship.
From computer science to education to Tappan Middle School
But by her junior year, she realized that she’d rather major in education than computer science. So in 1985, Fitzgibbon transferred to Eastern Michigan University.
In the fall of 1987, she student taught at Tappan Middle School, filled in for a teacher on sabbatical that January, then got a permanent job there for the next 10 years, mostly teaching seventh grade math.
During her Tappan years, she earned her education leadership degree at EMU and knew she wanted to be a principal to have more influence on programming and structure.
By then, she also came to believe that the best leaders never forgot what it was like to be a teacher, put kids first, and listened to others’ opinions.
That’s the kind of leader she vowed to be.
A yearning to lead
Fitzgibbon left the district to become an assistant principal for five years in Dexter Community Schools, where she learned a lot from Mill Creek Principal Evelyn Shirk, who later became Dexter’s superintendent.
When Fitzgibbon learned that a principal was needed at Allen Elementary, she applied, eager to return to AAPS as a school leader.
She says was set up for success at Allen because of the work of retiring principal Janette Jackson, who now will take Fitzgibbon’s place at STEAM until a permanent principal is named.
“That was an awesome experience,” Fitzgibbon says, reflecting on those 11 Allen years. “I absolutely love Allen, which is near and dear to my heart. Allen has an amazing staff, community, and students. People working really hard and doing good work for kids. And it’s a fun place.”
Then came the announcement that AAPS would start a school focusing on science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
Fitzgibbon hated to leave Allen on the one hand. But the thought of starting A2STEAM at Northside from the ground up was exciting.
“I also think people need new blood,” she says. “It’s easy to get complacent, and you don’t want that to ever happen for anybody in a building. I think sometimes we get stuck in places because there’s not a business structure where you’re moving up financially. It’s easy to stay put.”
So when she moved on to STEAM, she was ready for a new challenge. And then some.
Full STEAM ahead
About 400 children from 26 schools entered STEAM when it opened in the fall of 2014.
Project Based Learning Coordinator and STEAM teacher Brooke Stidham watched Fitzgibbon handily accept that challenge to lead in the creation of STEAM.
“To have built this program from the ground up has been amazing, “ said Stidham, who has been at STEAM since its start. “She’s made the staff, the kids, and the parents become a community. She’s been thoughtful about how to roll out PBL, how we are going to integrate the students from all over Ann Arbor and various backgrounds. She really has that vision for where she wanted us to go with the program and was able to bring us all together.”
Stidham says the students love Fitzgibbon, a “go-getter” who often pops into the classrooms and lunchroom.
“The kids love when Ms. Fitz comes in,” she said. “They do the GoNoodle dance parties in a lot of lower el on movement breaks, so they’ll practice their dances and say, `Let’s call Ms. Fitz so she can come down and dance with us today!’”
Fitzgibbon still keeps on her phone the picture she showed to the building’s architect three years ago.
“I said, `I want my building to look like this,’” she says. (See photo, right.) “And he said, `Really? You want all those clouds and everything?’ I said, `Yeah, I do.’ Starting a school basically from the ground up was a huge opportunity for me, and something principals rarely get to do.”
Fitzgibbon is convinced that project-based learning is the way to go, and has enjoyed seeing the students’ progress over the last three years.
“The kids are really engaged,” she says. “They have an opportunity to have a lot more voice in their interests and applying it to what they’re learning. There are obviously still core concepts that don’t change from school to school, but how they go about demonstrating their knowledge of those core concepts in projects and their use of technology has soared.”
LeeAnn Dickinson-Kelley says transforming Northside School into a thriving A2 STEAM learning environment was a natural fit for Fitzgibbon, who she considers “the quintessential school leader.”
Kate Lewit says Fitzgibbon’s leadership is unrivaled.
“I’ve been in the school district for close to 34 years, so I’ve had quite a few principals, and wonderful leaders,” says Lewit. “But Joan’s style is such an amazing combination of friendship, passion, and support. She’ll get you moving if you need to get moving, and she holds you accountable for things. But what Joan is most known for as a leader is that she always has the back of her teaching staff. Always. And I think that’s incredibly important, especially with the demands on today’s teachers, is to know they have a principal who’s always going to go to bat for them, who’s always going to support them, who’s going to help them problem-solve, and get them what they need. That’s an amazing comfort for people to not have to worry that they’re going to be thrown under the bus or fight so hard for what they need.”
Fitzgibbon says if she was accused of anything, it was probably supporting her teachers too much. But she’s convinced that’s the way to go.
“If you can support your staff, and they feel supported, then your kids are happy in the classroom, and when kids are happy, then your parents are happy,” she said. “For me, it flows that way. If I was accused of anything, it was probably supporting my teachers too much.”
At the same time, says Lewit, Fitzgibbon is a whole lot of fun.
“She knows how to mix the serious, serious work that we do, but knows how to have a balance,” she says.
Asked what she would change about public education if she could, Fitzgibbon says she would insist that those who are responsible for the oversight of public schools at both the state and national level have actually worked in education.
“It’s one of the only positions we have where people think they have a say as an expert because they went to school,” she says.id. “We oftentimes have lawmakers and policymakers who have nothing to do with education.”
“I don’t think teachers are respected for the amount of work and the amount of responsibilities they’re being asked to do. There are a lot of social and emotional needs teachers are meeting. I just wish the profession was more respected and understood. I think oftentimes we’re fighting for funding we should have to be fighting for. If there were no teachers, what would we do?”
Though Fitzgibbon looks back on a long, satisfying career in education, she does have one regret: She wishes she had earned her doctorate degree because she’d love to be able to teach at the university level now.
“I think everybody wants to teach in a place where the kids are there because they want to be there,” she says. “That’s pretty challenging without a doctorate. For me, that would be a really nice next step, to teach one or two courses. I think I might be able to teach at the community college. I really would like to teach not math as much as I’d like to help teach how to help prepare incoming teachers for the magnitude of what they’re going to face in the classroom.”
It’s doubtful that she’ll pursue a doctorate now.
“I think people should be lifelong learners, but I want to be a lifelong learner of lots of things,” she says.
Fitzgibbon is not a bit worried about filling her days because she has such a long list of interests she’ll now have time to explore in more depth. She likes to cook, and now wants to take some formal cooking classes. An avid woodworker, she has signed up for a class in Asheville, N.C., where she’ll learn how to use new engraving lasers and routers. More golf, kayak and pickle ball are also on the agenda.
Asked to name her happiest AAPS years, Fitzgibbons said they include stints at each of the schools she’s worked at along the way, including the years she helped lead the Tappan Players and was co-president of the Tappan PTO; her years in Dexter; the family atmosphere at Allen; and the thrill of helping build A2STEAM at Northside.
“I’ve enjoyed it all,” she says.
Stidham says A2 STEAM has a solid foundation thanks to Fitzgibbon.
“She’s led us on a good path, and is making sure we’re solid moving forward,” she says. “She’s going to make sure that the next leader is able to fill her big shoes.”