SOUTH SIOUX CITY – South Sioux City Community School District superintendent candidates participated in a final, public interview before the district chooses its new leader.
The four finalists, Jason Alexander, Derek Ippensen, Ashley O’Dell and Rony Ortega, were interviewed by the school board Monday.
Current superintendent Todd Strom announced recently he would be retiring at the end of the school year after 33 years.
The selected superintendent will be announced Dec. 12. Their first day on the job will be July 1, 2023.
Derek Ippensen has been the Norfolk Public High School principal since 2018.
He has a doctorate in educational leadership from Doane College, an education specialist degree from the University of Nebraska – Kearney, a master’s in education from the University of Nebraska – Kearney and a bachelor’s in education from Doane College.
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He formerly served as the PK-12 principal at Shickley Public Schools and an activities director, teacher and coach at Central Catholic School in West Point.
Ippensen said his “keys to success” define who he is as an administrator. The first key is to define success; the second is to have a plan and be flexible; the third is to have faith in the people, plans and preparations, the fourth is to be a leader and champion of people; and the fifth is to work hard and have fun.
Ippensen spent Nov. 16 in South Sioux City, meeting people in the district and community. Ippensen said he visited South Sioux three times during the interview process and said each time he left more excited about the community and district.
“The passion that people here in South Sioux have for their school and their community is amazing,” he said.
When asked what he will do to focus on culture, diversity, equity and inclusion, Ippensen said many conversations need to be had with the different cultural groups of the community.
“By focusing on culture, diversity, equity and inclusion, we start to look at them not as something ‘other’ but as something just different and when we embrace those differences we’re stronger,” he said.
He said he would work with outside organizations to see what they want and need from the district and ensure the district is utilizing already existing partnerships better.
Recruitment and retention of school staff is an issue schools across the country are facing, with a variety of different solutions being implemented such as stipends, higher wages, better benefits and more.
Ippensen was asked what his ideas are related to the issue. He said it starts with building a district staff that trusts one another and that knows their professionalism is relied on for retention. For recruitment, Ippensen said the district needs to be attractive to prospective teachers.
District stakeholders and community members said it is important to have a superintendent who’s involved in the district; Ippensen was asked how he’d get involved.
He said he’ll attend school events throughout the district so family members can see him and become comfortable speaking with him. He said he’d also be present at community events.
Ashley O’Dell has been the assistant superintendent at South Sioux City since last year.
She has an education specialist degree and a master’s in education school administration from Wayne State College and a bachelor’s in education from the University of South Dakota.
She formerly served as the South Sioux City High School principal and the assistant principal.
Being a lifelong South Sioux City resident, O’Dell said she has the advantage of already having relationships in the community and has been highly involved in community events. She also has a deep knowledge of the district.
Even though O’Dell works for the district, she still had a day in the district as a candidate and spent time with community members and staff.
She said the classrooms, schools, kids, teachers and principals are the reasons she works for the district in the first place.
“The best things in my life have been a result of the schools, whether it’s personal, whether it’s professional,” she said.
When asked what she will do to focus on culture, diversity, equity and inclusion, O’Dell said diversity is the most unique aspect of the district and is one of the strongest attractors.
As the superintendent, she also said she would work with outside organizations to see what needs there are and what the district can do to celebrate the different cultures.
O’Dell said the first step in addressing recruitment and retention is making sure the staff feels valued and heard. She said having an open-door policy as a superintendent and hearing the concerns of staff can help people feel more comfortable.
Competitive wages are another way to keep staff and recruit more, she said.
District stakeholders and community members said it’s important to have a superintendent be involved in the district. O’Dell was asked how she’ll be involved.
O’Dell said she attends various activities throughout the district and believes it is important that the community knows the superintendent is connected to the community.
“This is home for us, this is where we want to be, this is where we want to raise our kids,” she said. ”I feel connected to the community and (my family) do too and we have a really good one to be proud of.”
Jason Alexander has been the superintendent of Beatrice Public Schools since 2018.
He has an education specialist degree and a master’s in education from the University of Nebraska – Kearney and a bachelor’s in education from Chadron State College.
He formerly served as a superintendent and principal at Ord Public Schools and a principal at Burwell Elementary School.
Alexander spent Nov. 15 in South Sioux City, meeting people in the district and community. Alexander said South Sioux City is a great district with great people and it is evident that there is community pride in the school district.
When asked what he will do to focus on culture, diversity, equity and inclusion, Alexander said they need to first have conversations on what the district is doing well.
He said the district then needs to reach out to people, listen to their needs, and then address them.
“We have to listen, that’s probably the key factor,” he said. “If we want to get people’s input, we have to be willing to listen to what they say and sometimes we have to be honest with ourselves and say ‘do we need to do this differently.’”
Alexander said being competitive is the best way to recruit and retain teachers. He said the world of education is changing and the district has to be ahead of the competitors.
He said the district needs to find the selling points of South Sioux City to show people a reason to move there.
For retention, Alexander said the district has to include staff in the decision-making processes and have conversations with staff on what will keep them in the district.
District stakeholders and community members said it’s important to have a superintendent that is involved in the district and Alexander was asked how he’ll be involved.
Alexander said involvement is an important aspect of being a superintendent.
“They want to know that you’re approachable, they want to know you’re personable, and that they can talk to you,” he said.
He said attending school activities and being involved in community organizations such as the chamber of commerce and Kiwanis, are ways to be out in the community.
Rony Ortega has been the Bryan High School principal in Omaha for four years.
He has a doctorate in educational leadership, a master’s in education leadership and a master’s in school counseling from the University of Nebraska – Omaha and a bachelor’s in secondary education from the University of Nebraska -Lincoln.
He formerly served as the executive director of school support and supervision for the Omaha Public School District and the principal of Buffett Magnet Middle School in Omaha.
Ortega said there are 244 districts in Nebraska and only three that he would consider working at — South Sioux City is one of them.
“I feel that my strengths perfectly align to your challenges here. You have everything in place and it is just needing some strong leadership and the right kind of leadership to really move things forward,” he said.
Ortega spent Nov. 16 in South Sioux City, meeting people throughout the district and community. He said it was a rigorous day and said it was worth his time.
“I got a lot of information … not only the strengths but the challenges,” he said. “I continue to feel that I can address some of those challenges, that some of the challenges you are facing now are challenges I’ve previously addressed.”
When asked what he’ll do to focus on culture, diversity, equity and inclusion, Ortega said it is a lens that he looks at things and a lens he was born with.
He said it’s important for the kids to see themselves in the school district and in the school staff. He said he loves the community is proud of and values diversity.
“I would like to push the community a little bit more to move to that next step of inclusion and equity,” he said. “Those are some of the challenges in South Sioux City Community Schools is how do we take that step from valuing and appreciating diversity to ensuring equitable outcomes for our kids.”
Ortega said Bryan High School in Omaha is known as the inclusive school in the district and the only school where the students in advanced academics mirror the school demographics.
When asked about how he will address recruitment and retention, Ortega said he would want to look at ways to provide education to the classified staff and help them advance to teachers and administrators for the district.
When it comes to recruitment, Ortega said taking in student teachers is a great way to recruit teachers and see if they will be a good fit with the district.
District stakeholders and community members said it is important to have a superintendent that is involved in the district and Ortega was asked how he will be involved.
Ortega said currently working at a large high school, there is an event or activity every night that he could attend. He said he tries to balance his time in the community with his leadership team to have a presence at the events.
“You want to be at all events, but it’s not humanly possible, so how do you work with your leadership team to ensure that there is district representation at all events that are important to the community,” he said.
He said he looks forward to identifying opportunities in South Sioux City where he can be of value and have a presence.
The Board of Education hired Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates to help with the national search for the next superintendent. The district distributed a survey as well as had focus groups throughout the community to determine what traits were wanted in the next superintendent.
The full interviews can be watched on YouTube.