Decision Making That Sustains People and Deepens Relationships
How a small South Dakota district serves as its community’s hub and heart during a crisis year
BY JENNIFER NEBELSICK LOWERY/School Administrator, April 2021

Jennifer Lowery, superintendent in Tea, S.D., with her children on their first day of school in 2017. PHOTO COURTESY OF JENNIFER NEBELSICK LOWERY
Is it good enough for my own three children? More importantly, is it good enough for your children or grandchildren?

This is the question I ask myself, my administrative team and, most importantly, the people working closest with our students. During my tenure as superintendent of the 2,000-student Tea Area School District in South Dakota, our moral compass has been defined by this simple question.

In 2014, our state adopted a new teacher effectiveness model. School districts were expected to roll out the minimum requirements. The model included student learning objectives that did not have to include all students. My administrative team and I questioned the alignment with our mission.

The state’s minimum requirement allowed a school district to use a subset of students to determine the percentage of proficient students needed for teachers to score proficient. I asked myself if I was OK with my children not being part of the goal toward proficiency. The answer was no.

As such, we shifted the frame of reference from compliance to every student’s growth and proficiency. In 2014, our entire faculty and staff gathered in our high school commons to introduce student learning objectives. I asked individuals to stand if they had a child or grandchild attending our schools. Then, I identified 20 percent of the people in the room standing and asked them to sit down, including myself. Finally, I asked those sitting if it was okay not to include their child in the goal for proficiency. We decided as a team to stand for every child every day.

When we touch peoples’ hearts and support their minds with clear guides, our collective hands move our students forward.

Continuous Growth

Last spring, the moral compass of what we expected for children in our own home continued to drive decisions in our rapidly growing schools. Our district has nearly doubled in enrollment over the past seven years, gaining about 100 students per year, pushing us to add two new elementary schools. Our community, located outside Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s largest city, continues to grow. The district is nearing its 20th birthday.

While many challenges accompany growth, our ability to truly build a legacy is liberating as there is no “well, we have always done it this way” mindset. We are quick to adapt and purposeful to adopt as we build sustainable practices and manage our growth. These unique qualities supported our quick pivot into online education.

We are focused on building our improvement capacity even amid the uncertainty of the present. We ground our growth in adapting our work to meet the needs of students, teachers and departments through identified successes and resisting the continuous adoption of new practices and products. We have invested in professional development centered around improvement science by sending teams to Menomonee Falls, Wis., a model district in continuous improvement, and by partnering with our Studer Education coach, Gayle Juneau-Butler. Our improvement tools and tactics proved to be impactful during our educational transition in the spring of 2020.

Capacity Building 
Once a month, Tea Area School District Superintendent Jennifer Lowery (second from left) hosts “Lunch with Lowery” in each school building for a small group of students. PHOTO COURTESY OF JENNIFER NEBELSICK LOWERY

On March 13, 2020, the day our world nearly came to a stop, one of two district improvement teams returned around midnight from a robust professional development training in Wisconsin. As I reflect on that pivotal day about a year ago, I recall feeling the pulse of the nation and our state, leading to a shutdown of physical structures. We only had students until noon that Friday and needed to act quickly. By the time of their departure, our teachers had distributed Chromebooks across grades 3-12. Every family had at least one device to support instruction in their home.

Teachers collected details about internet capacity in our students’ homes by identifying whether students watched Netflix or an-other streaming service on their TV, computer or phone. Administrators worked through the weekend preparing instructional guides to support teachers in outlining best practices. The focus was on implementing what our students already knew with systematic support from our technology department.

On Monday through Wednesday of the following week, administrators facilitated Google Meets to review the instructional guides with their grade-level teacher teams. The principals’ purpose was to conduct a review of the positives, challenges, feasibility, questions and ideas from the people closest to the work.

After finalizing the guides, the team used the same process to develop standardized parent-friendly information. Feedback quickly flagged the instructional model as too robust for students to share a device. K-2 students needed a sustainable solution.

Principals worked with the district’s director of instruction, Tonia Warzecha, and director of technology, Chris Friedrich, to inventory all devices in the district before conducting a technology drive-up for distribution to all K-2 students and students who were sharing a device in their home. We knew if our K-2 students had a district iPad, we could push out apps universally to their device.

Our process included building-developed Google sites that appeared as a shortcut app for students to access on their iPad. This app served as the students’ learning hub. We succeeded because we did not introduce many platforms. Instead, we focused on what we already did well, learned from each other and sustained the efforts to support our students. The district’s instruction and technology teams worked with local internet providers to ensure all students had a connectivity solution to support unified instruction.

Our instructional guides are live Google documents. Therefore, as adaptations occurred based on feedback, the work remained current and accessible to all students and their families.

Key Words, Key Times

Communication was vital as the district focused on fulfilling its role as the heart of our community and as a reassuring presence. For our staff, the district office created a Google form to collect questions and concerns. This daily communication format made it easy to provide consistent answers.

Jennifer Lowery committed to communicating daily with students’ families during the public health crisis. PHOTO COURTESY OF JENNIFER NEBELSICK LOWERY
Combined with a Google Meet, hosted by the superintendent every two weeks, the communication helped to keep us connected as we served students from our homes. Principals facilitated cycles of improvement by including a survey in their weekly newsletters. Parents’ and students’ feedback was used to adjust the instructional plan.

The district developed a centralized communication guide, again using Google documents. As superintendent, I committed to address the community every school day throughout the crisis. These daily updates are linked, by date, to the centralized communication guide housed on our home page. The guide grew to include a community connections page where local businesses could share how they were servicing the community.

We recognized we not only could connect everyone, but we had the responsibility to connect and care for all. We facilitated the education of all students by opening our virtual doors one week after the closure. Additionally, we created a communication hub for businesses to update their changing dynamics. Finally, we facilitated the communication and distribution of our school district’s breakfast and lunch program and the bimonthly Community COVID Food Response distribution.

Fond Feedback

Whether it is months of planning or a weekend of development, advanced preparation is crucial for building confidence and stability within our schools and community. The use of live documents to effectively use feedback cycles has made it efficient to communicate with transparency.

These practices create a structure for the way we do business. We not only serve as the school, but we are the heart of the com-munity, connected by our Titan Pride. As I reflect on the feedback during the COVID crisis, I am proud that our system did not have an initial COVID-19 closure but rather a transition in our delivery model.

Following one of our feedback cycles, administrators received an e-mail from a staff member stating, “It was like we were built for this transition.” Community members would stop my husband and me as we walked our dog on a Saturday and share, “I wait up for your e-mail every night, and it makes me feel so much better as I know we have a plan and can get through this together.”

Teachers and support staff are keeping the focus as they continue to ask me, “Do you remember that time we were all in the high school and you asked us if it was okay to not stand up for all our kids? I always remember that day and how this is what I want for my kids.” This question continues to serve as our district’s moral compass. We decided, as a team, to stand for every child every day. Once we tug at their hearts and provide them with guiding principles of success, they move the mountains with their own hands.

JENNIFER LOWERY is superintendent of the Tea Area School District in Tea, S.D. Twitter: @jnlowery