Dr. Jane Stavem became the superintendent of Sioux Falls public schools on July 1, 2020. In her 31 years working in education, she has served in a variety of roles including elementary teacher, principal, curriculum director, assistant superintendent and superintendent. Much of her career has been spent at schools in Minnesota and Nebraska. Most recently, she was the superintendent of Lake Washington School District in Redmond, Washington.
Stavem knew from a young age that education was the career for her. She recalls spending her childhood playing ‘school’ with her cousins and an elementary teacher who allowed her to keep an outdated teacher’s manual. “It was all these small, cumulative acts that set my direction,” she said. “Throughout my education and career, I have been fortunate to have people who have offered encouragement and opportunities to allow me to grow.”
As an administrator, Stavem strives to bring that same support to others. She said her favorite part of educational administration is developing people. “Sioux Falls has several early-career administrators. I want to help give them the foundation and tools to help them maintain a strong career,” she said. “I enjoy activating leadership, activating people – helping others discover what feeds them as leaders and see where they want to grow.”
Stavem was raised in rural Nebraska and while she enjoyed her time on the west coast, she and her husband are excited to return to the Midwest. “When you see something that fits, you go for it. Washington has been fun, but we belong in the Midwest,” she said.
“When we visited Sioux Falls, we saw how thriving the business community is here. I’m a big believer in partnerships between education, business and community,” said Stavem. “So that was a big factor in recognizing a good fit for the position.”
Q: What is one of your goals for your first year on the job?
A: Right now there are layers of opportunity and layers of healing. We had COVID-19 and we have people voicing their hopes and concerns. We have an opportunity as a community to listen and find new ways to look at things. We need to really focus on connections on multiple levels. My biggest goal is to seek to understand and listen more than ever before. Education is what shapes the future. It is a huge responsibility, and a huge privilege to have that platform. I hope to be part of the conversations that move us forward.
Q: Following the COVID-19 pandemic, what do you anticipate will be the biggest challenge for the district as students return to the school buildings?
A: There are so many layers to this! Every district is planning for a fall where we aren’t sure of many variables. I was able to be in a few of the planning meetings prior to my official start date and I’m really pleased with how well the Sioux Falls staff is covering all the bases. It is probably the most complex planning school districts have ever had to do, and we’re doing it in a very short amount of time.
There are all the logistics – the protocols you use to keep people as safe as possible. But then it is also about tuning into the feelings of students and families. It's about their sense of safety and security – the unknowns of how people will respond. We know that long term separation is not good for human beings. So, it is really import for schools to resume with some sense of normalcy.
Finally, we realized that school is intertwined with all the community factors. The district needs to make good decisions in partnership with public health leaders, heath care systems and others. I know Sioux Falls did that well the first time around and I’m confident we’ll keep navigating this together.
Q: Enrollment in the Sioux Falls School district continues to grow steadily, and we currently have two new schools under construction and boundary changes on the horizon. Tell us a little about your experience in leading and navigating through growth and change in other districts.
A: The smart phone may be the single greatest invention in the past twenty years. The ability to literally carry the world in your pocket still blows my mind. Accessing information the way you want, when you want, in the format you want cannot be understated. It is a portal to limitless opportunity. No tool, however, does not come without pros and cons. Using this amazing tool the right way is what will unlock countless doors to the future, yet there are still equity divides that we need to work to bridge in order to help as many people as possible learn how to use this incredible key to unlock their own bright futures.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: I have pretty extensive experience with both of those factors. In Lincoln, we opened a new facility just about every year that I was there, so I’ve gone through getting both a middle school and multiple elementary schools and special program sites up and running. Growth was a regular part of my world as the person who allocated the staffing for all schools, hired principals and managed a budget of just under $500 million for my division.
Lake Washington is also growing rapidly, which includes multiple jurisdictions. During my first year, we opened two new schools, and this past year we opened five new schools with multiple renovation projects happening simultaneously. We work with three city councils, three mayors and King County, so there are a lot of moving pieces when you deal with them separately on construction projects. I’m looking forward to going back to a single city.
We just finished work with a facilities task force that shapes our long-range planning, and the district has grown about 31% over the last 11 years. So, I’m very used to fast-growing school districts and fast-growing communities.
Q: In the past few years, the South Dakota State Legislature has considered and ultimately defeated bills addressing pre-K education. What are your opinions on pre-K education and, if you are supportive, how do would you work with our State Legislators to find a solution?
A: I’m a believer in pre-K education. I also believe there is a parental choice aspect to it. It comes back to access – do parents who need or want pre-K education for their children have access?
The funding mechanism has to be in place to make it accessible to all. For example, in Nebraska, state-level funding is built into the state formula for educating 4 year olds. So there is free public pre-K education in that state. That being said, the reality is that budgets are taking a hit. So one option is to look to partnership opportunities to make this happen. There are also partnerships that can work really well. University, Foundation and school district (Nebraska example.)
There are plenty of studies demonstrating the lasting effects of pre-K. We know that kids who have had a pre-k experience are more likely to be successful readers and successful speakers by the time they reach 3rd grade. I would never go so far as to say every child must have pre-K. But I believe that every family and every child that would benefit from pre-K should have access to that.
I know this issue is on the radar in Sioux Falls and I’m anxious to see what is in place and explore what is possible in terms of partnerships, funding and space availability.
Q: Hiring teachers is always a priority, and will be even more so in the coming years with two new schools opening. What can you do to help attract highly qualified teachers to our school district?
A: There is a lot you can do with recruiting techniques, but what seems to pay off the most is a “grow your own” approach. First, we need to create pathways for other people who are interested in teaching to pursue that career. So, it might mean making sure the district is supportive of paraprofessionals or other staff members who wish to become teachers. High school pathways are another opportunity – create a path for credit that exposes students to education, leads them to higher education training and then back to the school district they attended. A lot of it is that people need to hear that you want them to be part of your district, that you value them and want them to stay.
Second, it is important to look at the aspects of how you encourage people to stay. How do you network teachers with each other? How do you support them in their professional growth? This sends a message that we want you to stay and we want you to succeed.
Many school districts – even highly diverse districts – struggle to hire a staff that reflects the diversity of their student body. It is a never-ending challenge. But I am interested to learn what has already been done in Sioux Falls and what can be done to enhance it. We need to find ways to demonstrate that we are a community that says ‘we value diversity and we want you to come and be part of us.’
Q: Workforce development is a topic that is constantly on the minds of local business owners and managers. How will you work to ensure that students have the tools to succeed in the workforce post-graduation? What kind of partnerships or programs could support student achievement during or outside of school?
A: The Sioux Falls School District is already on a good path in terms of developing career pathways and partnerships, and I would like to see those continue to grow.
One strategy I’ve used in the past is to make sure that career exposure is available not only for students but also for our teachers. How are we helping our teachers understand what is required in today’s workplace? Teachers don’t always have the opportunity to understand what that looks like – so applied learning for teachers can be a great way to equip them to guide students.
Finding ways to interact and keep people crossing paths is critical. Junior Achievement is one great way to do this – having business professionals in the schools interacting with the students and teachers. Another possibility is a program called Natural Leaders that offers parents leadership training, resume building, networking and more. This often engages parents from under-represented group who may have had access barriers in the past. It is a fantastic partnership between parents, schools and businesses that ultimately benefits students.
A lot of people view separate entities – its business/industry and its education. I see these as blended opportunities. There are great partners in business and industry who are willing to step up and make things happen, and we all benefit from those partnerships.