Superintendent Column


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“Thanks” Just Isn’t Enough

April 2020

Thank you. These two words are never enough – especially now as we settle into some form of “new normal” in the world of public education forced by the virus known as COVID-19. Just one month ago, it would have been unthinkable that we would find ourselves and our world in the situation it is today. Schools closed. Businesses operating with fewer than 10 patrons. Stockpiles of emergency equipment being shipped where the need is most critical. The year 2020 is one we will never forget.

As superintendent, I am humbled by the dedication and professionalism of Sioux Falls School District staff, who, within a matter of days transformed traditional classroom teaching into a remote learning format; custodial staff who ramped up their cleaning of school facilities to ensure the safety of those who were required to be in the buildings; kitchen staff who put together hundreds of sack meals to keep our students fed. This teamwork deserves our deepest thanks.

Further, I am humbled by the support of our parents/guardians who have taken on the challenges that come with remote learning. I know many of you are pulling double-duty by working from home and guiding your child(ren) in their schoolwork, not to mention, the need to get logged into tools like Zoom, ClassLink, Schoology and more. Thank you for recognizing the important role that continued learning and regular routines provide children in this time of uncertainty. We are all in this together.

Though deeply inadequate, I extend my sincere thanks to the people of our community who serve in the vital professions of healthcare, law enforcement, and first responders. These folks deserve our appreciation every day, but especially now as they work on the frontlines of containing and treating this virus. They are truly heroes. The school district is proud to work alongside these folks as members of the Emergency Operations Center – a collection of agencies that plans for and leads in times of disaster. The coordinated, all-hands-on-deck-approach means outcomes are what’s best for the community.

Sioux Falls is truly a special place filled with special people. I believed that before I came here five years ago. Today, I KNOW that first-hand. We will get through this together. And, the lessons we learn along the way will make all of us, including our children, more resilient and appreciative in the future.

Reflection Drives Improvement

March 2020

Have you ever wondered what Fortune 500 companies do that makes them successful? What puts those businesses at the top of the list for innovation in their industry? The answer depends on who you ask.

But, if you look at the top performers in most industries, it is a safe bet you will notice that some common themes emerge. Some of those themes boil down to an accepting culture where ideas are respected, where work/learning environments are safe, and where decisions are reflected upon as a method for improvement. Public schools are no different.

In April, students, parents, and staff members of the Sioux Falls School District will be asked to complete a survey to help us measure how we’re performing as a school district. We truly want to know things like whether you and your student feel safe at school. Are course offerings appropriate and meeting the needs of all learners? Do adults at the school hold your child to the highest standards and treat all students equally no matter their background?

The survey results are important to us because they guide next steps in the District’s Strategic Plan. This plan - our road map - holds schools accountable for everything from test scores, to attendance expectations, to providing high-quality training to all staff. We measure all points annually and adjust our plans when necessary in hopes of moving the needle positively forward on each goal. Doing so means we’re doing what is best for students.

We know your time is valuable, but we hope you also find enough value in your public schools to carve out a few minutes and complete the short survey when it arrives in your email. If you don’t have an email on file with your school, you can also access the surveys via the school district website:

Your input is important to us as we reflect on how we can improve to strengthen our public schools for the good of our community.

Beating the Winter Blahs

February 2020

Here we are, in the throws of winter with cold and flu season keeping a seemingly firm grip on students and staff. The colder temperatures keep us all indoors this time of year - more than any of us would like. As a result, it is perhaps not a surprise how quickly we pass the sicknesses from one to another.

While sending your child to school when they are not feeling well is certainly not advised, we know parents can sometimes feel like they are getting mixed messages from the schools. Attendance is important. We cannot teach children who are not in class. Missing more than ten school days in a year is considered excessive.

All these statements are true. Years of research backs them up. School experts with say “Children who miss too much school in kindergarten are less likely to read well by third grade. By middle school, absenteeism can predict who will graduate from high school.” In another study of weather-related absences for children in Massachusetts, researchers found that “each missed day affected a student’s test scores and grades. This was especially true on snowy days when school stayed open, but some students missed class.”

Winter weather, illness, or lack of motivation can all keep students out of the classroom. Yet, learning to overcome those challenges at a young age results in a lifetime of benefits that are developed through grit and perseverance. The courage to do what sometimes feels difficult is, I contend, worth the work. Sometimes getting the children to school every day seems difficult. I contend however, it is worth the work. Your child’s future is work the work!

Do what you can to push through these next few months. Summer break is really only a few short months away!

The Power of Mentoring

January 2020

As superintendent, one of the most rewarding roles I fulfill each week is visiting schools and classrooms. During that time, I am privileged to see the impact one caring adult can have on the life of a child. Our teachers, education assistants, custodians, clerical, food service staff, and administrators work hard to build meaningful relationships with students every chance they get.

Young people need to know someone wants them at school. Someone notices when they are absent. And, that someone cares enough to know their name and a little about their interests. To an extent, our staff can and does fill that role. But to a greater extent, Sioux Falls is so lucky to be a city where many caring adults step forward, not because they must, but because it is something they want to do.

For decades, our students have benefitted from the school-based mentoring program coordinated by Lutheran Social Services. Their staff works tirelessly to recruit and train volunteers who meet one hour each week during the school day with a student to share in conversation, compete in a good-natured game of UNO or basketball, and sometimes to complete homework. More than 1,000 adult/student mentor matches meet each week through this program.

Unfortunately, hundreds more students are on a waiting list for a mentor. That’s why, as we begin the new year, the Sioux Falls School District is adding a partnership with the TeamMates Mentoring program. This program will not take the place of the LSS school-based mentor program. It will only enhance the number of opportunities for willing mentors to become involved. TeamMates began in 1991 at the urging of legendary Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne and his wife Nancy who believe, like we do, that caring adults in the lives of children can make a significantly positive impact. Adding this program to an already philanthropic and caring community like Sioux Falls will only mean more great matches for more students.

Further, Sioux Falls Mayor Paul Ten Haken and the City of Sioux Falls is teaming with Downtown Rotary to launch Sioux 52. This mentorship initiative will bring further awareness to the need and impact of mentoring by connecting interested adults with youth in need.

Mentoring matters. While it does take a commitment of time, it does not depend on the size of your bank account. Every adult has something to give. And, no matter how “on track” or “fine” a child may seem to be, consistent words of encouragement and genuine care from an adult does far more for that child than money ever could.

January is national mentoring month. Now is the time to get involved. There are more opportunities than ever before. And, there are more children waiting for someone like you to step up to be their mentor. If you take this challenge, I promise this unintended outcome: you will walk away each week with a feeling of receiving far more than you gave.

An Invitation to Engage

December 2019

A Long-time District employees call it one of the most significant undertakings in the history of their work in education. I anticipate it will be just that. Redrawing school attendance boundaries is a monumental task that affects the lives of thousands of children, their parents, and our community, in general. It was more than 25 years ago that the last significant boundary change was implemented in Sioux Falls with the opening of Roosevelt High School.

In January, the Sioux Falls School District begins a six-month-long process as a result of the successful $190 Million bond that approved the construction of Ben Reifel Middle School and Thomas Jefferson High School. Overcrowding due to growth on the west side of Sioux Falls drove the need for those new facilities and new boundaries are necessary to ensure overall efficiency and diversity of each school building.

A 30-member task force has been selected to gather information and make recommendations. They will do their work in three public meetings in January and February and make recommendations that will then be taken to the broader community for input during the months of March and April. Public meetings are scheduled at each of the five middle schools. School leaders will present the recommendations and listen to feedback. All reasonable input that is in line with the priorities approved by the School Board will be considered. Those priorities include:

  • Priority 1: Quality Education for All Students
  • Priority 2: Student safety/Well-Being
  • Priority 3: Budget Considerations
  • Priority 4: Natural Borders as School Boundary Lines
  • Priority 5: Accommodate Growth and Change

Mark your calendars now to attend one of five community engagement meetings.

  • Thursday, March 12 at Memorial Middle School - 1401 S. Sertoma Ave.
  • Monday, March 16 at Patrick Henry Middle School - 2200 S. 5th Ave.
  • Thursday, March 26 at Whittier Middle School - 930 East 6th St. 5:30-6:30pm
  • Tuesday, April 7 at McGovern Middle School - 6221 W. Maple St.
  • Thursday, April 9 at Edison Middle School - 2101 S. West Ave.

The final plan will be voted upon by the school board in June 2020, but will not go into effect until the new schools open in the Fall of 2021. I assure you there is no preconceived plan already drawn up and hiding in a backroom. I firmly believe, and the District has demonstrated through its process to develop the plan for the bond, that community input makes good plans even better.

As your superintendent, I look forward to participating in good and thoughtful dialogue to move our school district forward. I fully expect it will be an emotional issue. The good news is that all our schools are well-maintained and welcoming places to learn. Sioux Falls has much to be proud of and I know the outcome of this difficult work will only make our schools and our community stronger.

$190 bond progress - 1 year later

November 2019

Last September, the Sioux Falls voters overwhelmingly said ‘yes’ to a $190 million plan that would result in three new schools and over $40 million worth of safety, security, accessibility, and equity upgrades to 14 of our already existing schools. Since that 'yes' vote only 14 months ago, a great deal of progress has been made on the plan. You may recall that enrollment continues to climb upward causing some schools to be at maximum capacity. That trend continues. Our official Fall 2019 enrollment jumped by 196 students and put us over the 24,000 mark for the first time in the history of the District and further emphasizing the need for more space “to educate and prepare each student to succeed in a changing world.”

For months, I liked to compare the work being done on the projects to the adage of seeing the duck on the water gliding downstream. On the surface, it doesn't look like much is happening, but underneath there is a lot of paddling going on. Until recently, a great deal of 'underwater' work was happening, including design development, strategy, and what’s next. Now, we are finally starting to see the fruit of that labor.

Following the groundbreakings at Thomas Jefferson High School and Ben Reifel Middle School earlier this summer, construction has moved full steam ahead. Footing, foundation outlines, and even some upward construction can be found at both Jefferson and Ben Reifel, giving the community a glimpse of what's yet to come. Site utilities at both locations are also close to being complete.

While the construction of the new schools was a critical piece of the bond plan, there are many other pieces to this puzzle, including several much-needed tender love and care projects at already existing schools.

One project that has wrapped up is the much-needed music addition and renovation that took place over the summer at Memorial Middle School. Operational Services Director Jeff Kreiter and his team worked tirelessly over the summer months, adding on to the already existing music space on the north end of the school. They were able to extend the space without much disruption, adding practice rooms and storage spaces for instruments.

I feel great about where we are at in the process. Jeff Kreiter and his team have been working diligently to get things done in a timely and cost-effective manner. While there is still a long way to go until all the projects are completed and the doors of the new schools open in the fall of 2021 (our fingers are crossed for a mild winter) we are eager to report that as of now, we are both on time and budget. We look forward to the new opportunities all of this construction will provide for our students in the future.

Vaping: Facts and Concerns

October 2019

Fads and fashions always have a way of adding new words to the English language. But there is a new word showing up in headlines that doctors are calling a public health crisis.

Vaping, or the use of e-cigarette devices to inhale a flavored liquid, has quickly become popular with teens and pre-teens. Originally marketed as a safer alternative to smoking traditional tobacco, new reports of severe respiratory illnesses, and even death, are prompting organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue warnings.

While the work of the Sioux Falls School District primarily focuses on delivering an academic education, we are deeply committed to helping our students and their families develop safe and healthy habits that allow them to live long, productive lives. That’s why the District acted quickly to put together a townhall meeting last month. Our health partners at Avera provided the medical research and information while our school staff provided the reality of use of vaping products by Sioux Falls teens. It was a powerful and educational event. We encourage you to view it on KLRN-TV: Your Sioux Falls Classroom Connection or by accessing it through the Sioux Falls School District’s social media channels, including YouTube.

The use of tobacco products is illegal for teens, but we all know that does not stop them. There are discipline consequences if students are caught with these products on school property. While that does deter some young users, fear of discipline certainly doesn’t stop all of them. What matters most in prevention efforts? Researchers tell us it is a clear, no-use message delivered by parents, teachers, and other caring adults.

Your public schools will continue delivering a clear no-use message with posters, discussions between school nurses, counselors and teens, and through the health curriculum. We encourage parents, community leaders, and anyone willing to join us in these efforts.

While we are learning more each day about the health risks of e-cigarettes and vaping, there is still so much more we do not know. Please discuss the facts about this alarming trend with your student. Use information from reputable sources and rely on your family’s medical provider if you or your teen needs help to quit the habit. Together we can prevent a child we all care about from becoming one of the statistics.

Ready to Connect?

September 2019

Despite even the highest level of preparation, first few weeks or months of a new school year are often a blur until routines are established and lazy summer days are long forgotten. By now, I hope the whirlwind of back-to-school shopping, schedule changes, and the like, has settled.

This month, I’d like to remind you of some of the tools and resources available to parents and guardians to keep you informed and organized. In August, the District mailed its Ignite publication to more than 80,000 households to provide detailed information on the progress of two new schools being built following last year’s bond election. We included information about social-emotional learning efforts in our classrooms, the new dual-immersion program at Hayward and Rosa Parks, and a feature story about a staff member who came to Sioux Falls as a refugee and is now a teacher. If you missed this publication, I would encourage you to find it on the District’s website:

While you’re on the website, I would invite you to spend some time watching original produced videos of classroom activities, make note of middle and high school flu shot clinic dates, September 2019 and spend a little time getting familiar with our Strategic Plan. The website contains a wealth of information on many topics. We also spent time over the summer redesigning the school pages to feature building-specific information. Many school newsletters are also taking on a new look thanks to an easy-to-use software that is new this school year.

The District’s mobile app is also a great place to find everything from breakfast and lunch menus to the latest news to job openings in the District. One of the best features of the app is that you can choose the school(s) your child(ren) attend so the information you receive through the app is more specific. If you prefer that information be delivered in a specific language, you can change that in the settings tab. This is great feature for our new families coming from other countries!

And finally, I’m certain you’ve received important information from your school through our mass communication tool which allows us to send phone calls, emails, texts, and push notifications. This is a tool we simply cannot live without. Due to its wide use, the District is now encouraging all teachers to use the texting feature to connect with parents. We know you’re busy. This will allow you to stay connected to monitor the progress of your student and build a relationship with their teacher.

Of course, face-to-face communication is always preferred. If you have a concern, I invite you to call or set up a meeting with your building principal to discuss. Meaningful two-way communication between schools, teachers, parents, and the community is the best way for us to work together to ensure the success of our students!

“New” Never Gets Old

August 2019

Pencils are sharpened and floors are shined! Welcome to the 2019-2020 school year! The start of another academic calendar brings so much anticipation; not only for students, teachers, and staff, but also for parents who are excited to see their student flourish. A new year never gets old! This new school year brings with it plenty of excitement as your Superintendent, as well. Now entering my fifth year as Superintendent of the Sioux Falls School District, I can’t help but look back with pride on all we have accomplished together. Four years ago, we mapped out a plan to improve student learning, support our staff, make our schools safer and more welcoming, and to engage the community in all facets of the educational journey. This work is recorded in the District’s Strategic Plan, which monitors progress, allows us to design initiatives to improve goals, and holds us accountable for that work. The Strategic Plan guides us in every decision we make with the sole purpose of providing the highest quality education possible.

Last fall at this time, our community overwhelmingly supported a $190 Million bond to pay for three new schools (two of which are currently under construction) and upgrades to August 2019 14 existing buildings to account for growth and safety. In June, we broke ground on Thomas Jefferson High School in northwest Sioux Falls. In July, we broke ground on Ben Reifel Middle School in southeast Sioux Falls. These two new schools really serve as “book ends” to the thriving business community and strong schools we already enjoy.

While increasing enrollment in our schools is exciting to see, our number one priority has been and will continue to be the safety of our students and staff. The Strategic Plan addresses this. Construction projects address this. Staff routinely train. School Resource Officers paid for by the City of Sioux Falls work shoulder to shoulder with us to build relationships with students and to address concerns when they arise.

As we begin this new school year, I invite you to be an active participant in your child’s education. Volunteer. Attend parent-teacher conferences. Ask your student about their classmates and what they are learning. Before we know it, we will be wrapping up another school year and setting our sights on the next one again. Time is a gift we cannot waste. Have a great year!