How to build schools: Help your community tell its story

Even though her district was doubling in size, Superintendent Jennifer Lowery did not succeed in her first attempts to get voters to pass a bond to fund new school construction. Like any good leader, she re-strategized the next time she asked residents of South Dakota’s Tea Area School District for tens of millions of dollars.

The key, she contends, is a change in mindset. She and her administrative team came to see themselves as a vehicle for providing information to the community and helping them buy into the school board’s strategic plan.

“We worked on creating the story with the people of the community—it’s their story,” says Lowery, South Dakota’s 2024 Superintendent of the Year. “Community members wrote their own story of what they wanted their community to look like for their children, and they carried the bond and they carried the project forward.”

School construction has been in high gear over the last 10 years. Lowery and her team have built nearly 80 elementary school classrooms and completed a $41 million addition that doubled the size of the district’s high school, among other expansion projects. The Tea Area School District, which is only 20 years old, has grown from two schools to five since Lowery took the helm in 2012.

To drive the district’s growth, educators collaborated to establish Tea Area’s four core values: communication, innovation, accountability and teamwork. “We had to identify our standards and our values and align that to our mission and vision,” she notes. “We define that together and we celebrate that, and also evaluate on that. That’s been critical in keeping us aligned in our goals.”

Short cycles of improvement

While you and your educators probably don’t need another buzzword—or another acronym—you’re always looking for a new staff and student success tool. Lowery would encourage you to consider starting in preschool or kindergarten with short cycles of improvement—also known as PDSA cycles, also known as “Plan, Do, Study, Act.”

“We are committed to improvement science—empowering students to understand ‘this is their plan, these are the actions they have, they need to study their results, and they act and adjust,'” Lowery explains. “We’re using goal setting through short cycles of improvement with our students and teaching them how to talk in that language and connect that with a growth mindset.”

This has also allowed her educators to create a wider range of post-graduation pathways for Tea Area’s students. New CTE programs in welding and career-oriented clubs such as Future Farmers of America play a big role in this effort. Teachers are also working to engage students in career exploration in middle school.

But those may not be the most important factors in getting students focused on their futures. “We’ve seen huge growth in our Future Farmers programs and our welding classes are at max capacity,” she concludes. “The content and interest have to be there but the teacher’s connection with the student and that welcoming relationship are critical in the program moving forward.”

Matthew Zalaznick
Matthew Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.