BROWNSBURG — It was one week before school started in 1996 and Donna Petraits hadn’t taught in a classroom in 12 years. Then she got a call from an old friend, Russell Hodgkin, then-principal at Brownsburg High School asking her if she would consider stepping back into the classroom.
“I had worked for him in Zionsville,” said Petraits, the Brownsburg Community School Corporation communications coordinator who will be saying goodbye to the district when she walks out the door this coming Friday. “He said he was in desperate need for an English teacher and yearbook adviser.
“I resigned my job on Thursday, cleaned my office Friday, showed up for teacher meetings Monday, and taught my first class in a dozen years Wednesday,” she said. “It was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
Petraits said she left teaching in 1984 because her personal life had become so strained, it forced her to leave education. But the second go-around was different.
“Teaching was so much better the second time around,” she said, “because I’d gotten comfortable in my own skin.”
In between, Petraits held a sales position, and said that helped her gain more confidence to help show students why their education was so important. By 2003, the corporation had grown to needing a communications director. Five years later, she stepped out of the classroom to do that full-time.
“As the corporation grew, the issues grew, so there was more need for communication,” she said, noting at the time she was teaching a mass media class that she’d created.
“For years, it probably wasn’t that big of a deal,” she said. “Schools could ride on the coattails of their reputations and there wasn’t a lot of upheaval and turmoil in education. But now there’s high stakes testing, our budgets are being cut — a lot controlled by the state — so it’s critical for schools to be in communication with parents so they understand what the situation is. Really, it’s important for any taxpayer that supports the schools and any member of the community.”
And that need will take her down a different route, and one with more flexibility as Petraits focuses on time spent with family after a long career.
“This has been exciting, but I’m ready to move on,” she said. “My husband (Mike) is retired, so he’s got a lot of flexibility and I’m jealous of that. He does a lot of subbing for the schools, but he has the option of saying ‘I don’t think I want to work today. I’m going to jump on my motorcycle and go for a drive’ and I envy that.”
Petraits also said that her father has fallen ill, and caring for him is a high priority in her life, as well as spending time with two young grandsons. She says all of those things contributed to her deciding to step away.
But she won’t be disappearing completely, and the talents learned at Brownsburg will be spent elsewhere on a consulting basis statewide for smaller school districts that do not have the option of having a full-time communications coordinator but still need to relay important messages to the community.
Petraits says she’s seen a lot in her time at Brownsburg, from the rise in community options, to the prevalence of social media —both of which she says is a blessing and a curse. In an effort to give more of that communication to parents, Petraits created Vision BCSC 11 years ago, a program where community members get a once-a-month, in-depth look at behind the curtain of the district. She said that is one of her most proud accomplishments.
“The reality is, school districts and school personnel are bound by privacy laws, and there’s only so much information that you can freely divulge,” she said. “We try to always give all the information that we possibly can. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that when there’s a void of information, it gets filled, and it’s not always the right information. So it’s incumbent upon us to make sure the right information is available.
“(Social media) allows us to communicate almost instantly with parents. If we have an emergency situation, weather event, delay, snow days, those kinds of things, it can be a real blessing to get information out quickly. Where it creates a challenge is that we can’t always get the correct information out as quickly as they want it. We can never, we will never be able to beat a kid with a cell phone texting from the building about what is going on. So that creates a real challenge, trying to get the right information out there fast enough.”
Vicki Murphy, who held a communications coordinator position at Cardinal Ritter High School in Indianapolis, will replace Petraits, who credits Murphy as being a “quick study who understands the culture of education.”
In the end, Petraits says this is just the right time, but she looks back fondly on a school district that continues to show marked improvement in their testing scores and increased reputation gains and hopes that she played a role in some of that.
“My favorite part of working with the Brownsburg Schools is that it’s such an exemplary school district,” she said, noting she moved her family here for the schools. “The reputation has only improved over time, and I’d like to hope I contributed to that.
“What I would hope is that people understand how hard the schools, teachers, custodians, bus drivers — how hard these people work and how much they care about the kids. I’ve always been proud to be a part of this district.”