OTTUMWA — Superintendent Nicole Kooiker attended the National Superintendents Forum last week, where she saw areas Ottumwa led — and a few that need improvement.

The National Superintendents Forum is an annual, invitation-only event put on by the National Superintendents Roundtable. The conference is three days long and packed from end to end with guest speakers, roundtable discussions and networking opportunities with superintendents from all across the country.

The keynote speaker was Jamie Casap, “Chief Education Evangelist” for Google. He spoke about education’s shift toward increased digitalization and faculty collaboration, a topic that excited Kooiker.

“We are more collaborative than we were in the past, but the reality of it is a teacher can still go shut their door and completely work in isolation,” Kooiker said. “And we really need to truly move and create spaces that are collaborative.”

A problem that faces many teachers and administrators, Kooiker said, is they are reluctant to adopt policies that are different from how they were educated.

“They said education is the slowest to change, because everybody’s done it and thinks they know how to do it,” she said.

The event also helped attendees establish collaborative relationships between people they would have never had a chance to meet otherwise.

Kooiker said she already planned to touch base with superintendents she met from Mississippi, Texas, California and Florida. Since new school boards were forming all across the country Monday night, Kooiker said everybody was eager to hear how everybody’s meetings with their new boards went.

“There are some impressive things happening out there, and we were challenged to do more impressive things and to think outside the box,” she said. “We are now not just educating students. We are expected to serve the whole child.”

This trend has prompted many districts to adopt programs that improve students’ lives outside of school, such as the Food Bank of Iowa’s BackPack Program. While Kooiker was pleased to see Ottumwa among the leading districts in such areas, she said it also let her see where Ottumwa needs to improve.

For example, the district has had trouble maintaining mental health resources. Earlier this year, when the district renewed its contract with Southern Iowa Mental Health, there was a notable reduction of in-school mental health professionals.

The conference allowed Kooiker to speak with other superintendents who had been in similar situations and learn from their example. Since a labor shortage, rather than funding, was the issue, one suggested conducting therapy sessions through video calls.

School safety was also a major topic of conversation.

“How do you balance welcoming and safe?” Kooiker said.

While many of those she spoke with had implemented security measures such as metal detectors, Kooiker said internal issues like bullying and harassment are more pressing. In conversations with some students, she said some measures the district already has in place, like radios and school resource officers, sometimes make students feel less safe. It’s something Kooiker would like to address in the future.

Jack Langland can be reached at jlangland@ottumwacourier.com.

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