The Nicest Place in South Dakota: Iroquois School District

NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2020 FINALIST
"More Than a School"

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Some students didn’t have an internet connection when school went digital. Thanks to local teachers, they do now.

The Iroquois School District in rural eastern South Dakota draws its 200-some students from many miles around to the single building that houses pre-K through 12th grade. That building is in Kingsbury county, while its parking lot is in another county, Beadle.

With such a spread-out geography, Internet connectivity can be a big challenge. Before the pandemic, many families didn’t have good Internet access at home. For them, distance learning seemed daunting if not impossible. But school officials hatched a plan that would continue to make good on the promise of education, even while students were isolated at home.

First, they compiled a list of Internet companies—from the big boys, like Verizon and T-Mobile, to MIDCO, a regional service provider—that would provide or extend service for their students’ families, regardless of ability to pay. According to superintendent Mike Ruth, teachers then stepped in to help kids get online. And once they were all connected, Ruth himself established a way to stay in close touch with families and staff.

“Our superintendent has made weekly videos telling families what is happening at school— he always includes that if they need anything, in any way, that they should contact us,” says James Jesser, a middle- and high-school special-education teacher. “He assures them that we are there for them.”

the iroquois schoolCourtesy James Jesser
Though the school, itself, was closed, school officials worked hard to bring all the benefits of the school into each student’s home.

Next, the district figured out how to keep the kids fed. Many Iroquois students rely on school meals. It was critical, the district decided, for those not to stop. The staffed would prepare daily lunches, then deliver them straight to the doorsteps of each student who needed one—even students who live as far as 26 miles away.

“If they wanted a meal, they got one, every day,” says Ruth. The home delivery method extended to schoolwork too. “We either used the busses or staff delivered it to them, so they had no need to leave their house.”

Teachers also adjusted how they worked so that they were available to kids whenever they needed them. “A lot of students, many at the high school level, were sleeping until noon and wouldn’t begin their school work until much later in the evening. Teachers stayed up and were available to answer their questions,” says Ruth.

“Hands-down, Iroquois staff and teachers went above and beyond during the pandemic closure of school,” says Sara Newman, a parent whose kids—Avah, ten, who is in fifth grade and Addison, seven, who is in second grade—go to school in the district. “My husband and I are grateful to the teachers and staff at Iroquois who clearly love children and care about the education that each child receives. While the remote learning was not preferred, I wouldn’t have wanted my children enrolled anywhere other than Iroquois.”

The Nomination

I know that during this time of the pandemic that teachers and schools are going above and beyond what they normally do. However, I would like to nominate my school as the Nicest Place in America. I teach in the Iroquois School District (South Dakota). During this time the teachers have assured that the families we serve have the basic needs taken care of as they shelter in place. The school has delivered meals and lessons personally to the homes of the students. At our staff meetings we have discussed who may be in need and what we can do about it. Since our lessons are being delivered online the homes all need the internet. However, there are homes that do not have internet. The teachers have found the resources that they need to acquire internet. The local internet provider has given them free internet during this time.

Our superintendent has made weekly videos telling the families about what is happening at school. He always includes that if they need anything in any way that they should contact us. He assures them that we are there for them.

We are a rural community in eastern South Dakota. South Dakota has weathered the pandemic crisis well, but it is because all across the state that there are kind and caring communities such as ours.

I would consider our teachers as nice and kind. However, during this pandemic they have stretched beyond their usual boundaries and have become nicer and kinder. They have done what needs to be done to serve our students.

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