May 19 2006
Minichillo Inspired to Serve
The Elkhart Board of School Trustees' newest member, Robert Minichillo, who's completing the second year of his first term, is not a novice when it comes to Elkhart Community Schools. He was a teacher, coach and administrator with Elkhart for 32 years.
Minichillo, 71, started his teaching career in Kokomo after graduating from Ball State University in 1962. He was lured back to his hometown in 1967 by Lewis Kauffman and Charlie Mow, former Elkhart educators, to teach and coach at West Side Middle School.
It wasn't the first time Kauffman pointed him in the right direction. Minichillo said Kauffman, his former government teacher at Elkhart High School, was instrumental in getting him through high school, and, after a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, encouraging him to attend college.
"Lew was my teacher and counselor," Minichillo said. "He took a special interest in me. He became like a father to me." Minichillo said he struggled in school during his early years due to a learning disability, (which was never diagnosed). So although he was a good student in high school and had athletic scholarship offers, he didn't see himself going to college. He had been working as a meat cutter after school, and assumed that would be his future career.
Elkhart Board of School|
Trustee Robert Minichillo
Kauffman and Mow, however, had other plans for him. "They kept urging me to go to college," Minichillo said. "They described me as a 'diamond in the rough.' They said I didn't know my potential. They saw things in me I didn't see in myself."
Their encouragement not only led him to college, but also to a career in education. Minichillo wanted to help and inspire young people just as Kauffman and Mow had inspired him. "From my own experience, I knew it was difficult for some kids to learn," he added. "I wanted to help them. I hadn't always been treated right by teachers. I wanted to be the kind of teacher who never used the word 'stupid.'
"If you show kids you are honest and fair and you care about them, no matter how tough you are on them, they'll respect you and perform their best for you," Minichillo said.
He continued using those traits—honesty, fairness and caring—throughout his seven years at West Side and his 25 at Central High as assistant principal and then principal. He continues to use them today as he performs his school board duties.
Minichillo, who retired from ECS in 1999, ran for a board position at the urging of several community residents who viewed his teaching and administrative experiences as excellent tools for the position.
He said one of the strengths of the existing board is that each member is devoted to what is best for Elkhart's children. "We're all kid oriented," he said. "We all want to do good for kids and we believe that by doing what's best for kids, we're also doing what's best for our staff."
Another strength is the board speaks as one voice, Minichillo continued. "Even though we might personally disagree on certain issues, we speak as one board. We're not divisive."
He said a third asset is the board does its homework. "We have an excellent superintendent who provides us with the information and time we need to make intelligent decisions for the school corporation," Minichillo said. "We don't shy away from difficult issues and we don't rubber stamp the administration's recommendations."
In financial matters, the board, working with the administration, has been very good at "trimming the trees," Minichillo noted. "We're always looking for ways to trim costs and save money. Because we do this along the way, we're not having to cut down the forest as some of our neighboring school corporations are," he explained, referring to districts that are cutting employees or programs.
He believes this financial acuity leads to a happier and more productive staff. "If you have happy, contented employees, it will be reflected in how they teach," Minichillo said. "If teachers are worried about their job stability or the growing number of students in their classroom, they're not going to push themselves as hard."
Minichillo, like his colleagues on the board, views federal accountability laws as the major influences impacting education today. "Elkhart’s goal, like the No Child Left Behind act, is the continued academic improvement of all students," he stated. "That has always been the issue, even before No Child Left Behind brought attention to it."
Still, there's no doubt in Minichillo's mind the federal law, which has led to "failing" labels for many schools throughout Indiana and the nation, is flawed. "I don't know of any schools that are failing, even those that don't have much in the way of financial resources," he said. "But because a school doesn't reach a certain bar, it's listed as failing."
The intent of the law is good, Minichillo emphasized. "It's made us look at student growth more closely," he pointed out. "But to say a school is failing because a special education student or a child who doesn't speak English well, or even a child with few resources at home didn't score high enough on a test shows how the law is flawed and why it needs revision."
Minichillo, whose four children went through Daly, West Side and Memorial, is proud of Elkhart Community Schools and all it has to offer. His children participated in a wide variety of school activities, including athletics, music, and student government. Today, they all have professional careers, three of them in the education field.
"Throughout the years, I had several job offers that would have pulled me away from Elkhart," Minichillo said. "I was happy here, and my family (including wife Lucy, also an Elkhart educator) was happy here. I've always been committed to the school corporation. That's why I continue to serve."
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