Nicole Swigart: Our homegrown superintendent
RAPID CITY, S.D. – After eight months as the interim CEO for the Rapid City Area School (RCAS) district, Nicole Swigart has officially become the district’s newest superintendent. NewsCenter1 visited with Swigart about her new role and what it will mean for the education of our students.
Why is it significant that Swigart was hired in March?
“I think there are a lot of reasons it’s important to have somebody in place early rather than later. Typically, superintendents come into play in July. The fiscal year in school districts is from July 1 to June 30. But budget decisions are made in March as soon as the legislative session is over and they determine what they’re going to appropriate to us. It’s hard to transition from a budget that was created under one superintendent to a budget that’s created under another. So, I think coming in early and being a part of that is going to be really helpful moving us forward. You’re really knowledgeable when you’re in it through the whole process. Fortunately, this is my 34th year in Rapid City Area Schools. So I have a good understanding of the budget and our capital outlay funds.”
What does Swigart bring to the role?
“I know all of our buildings and all 23 principals, our managers, our leadership. That is a huge benefit. For most superintendents coming into a district, the first six months are learning just staff in the district and where buildings are in the community themselves. They have to learn everything about the city. In my previous role with the district, I was a community liaison to a lot of multi-agencies and that has really benefited me in this role. I have lots of connections in our community, not just from being an educator and an administrator here, but also from living in this community for so long, and that really jumpstarted my work in this office. I didn’t have to back up and learn names and learn jobs and roles and how we work together in this district. That all came very naturally to me because I’ve always paid attention to what leadership was doing, and I’ve always been really concerned about what’s happening in the community, and I’ve been able to capitalize on that work in the community, and I think that I will continue to be able to do that. I know all of the former administrators from around the whole district who have retired. I talked to a lot of them at football games or basketball games or out in the community at a restaurant. And we’ve tried to figure out when was the last homegrown administrator from Rapid City, and it was a long time ago. A really long time ago. And by having my whole entire career in Rapid City, one thing you will not hear me say is, well, we did it this way in Iowa. All I can say is we did it this way around the city because that’s literally what I know. And what’s wrong with that?”
How will Swigart’s position change from being the interim CEO to now being the superintendent?
“Luckily, I had a board that really believed in me, so I’ve been able to do all the superintendent work. I think that as we move forward and get things more established, the board will be able to step back a little bit more and let the district operate in a more traditional fashion. But, because of the interim year and because of the way the district was left last spring, we’ve had to work really closely together and be really involved. They’ve had more of a hand in the decisions we’re making. But I think all of them would like more of their life back. And we’ll be able to go upstairs. We’ve talked about the board being able to move back upstairs and allow the district to operate and bring things to the board instead of having them in at the ground level.”
What is one thing that is important to Swigart?
“Last summer I testified in front of the Senate Education Committee on Juvenile Justice, and one of the things I shared with them is that I truly believe that South Dakota needs to look at a third way for kids to complete school. The majority of our kids will graduate statewide. It’s 80%…some 90% locally. It’s not as good as we’d like it to be locally. We’re sitting at about 70% with completers. We [need to] get up to 84%. What about the other 16%? In our schools, we know that we have lots of kids who come in and as they are supposed to proceed through school, they become over age and unaccredited students. So we sadly have kids in our buildings that are 16 or 17 years old, who have fewer credits than you need to finish your freshman year. You can only sit through English 9 so many times and be fully engaged. So I want to see a different path for them. The work that was done last year with Juvenile Justice and the work this House summer committee is going to do looking at a different completed track. The idea I’m pushing is that kids could go into a CTE (Career Technical Education) center, get trained in a workforce area of need, whether it’s framing, painting, laying in concrete, welding, auto body, small engine repair, whatever interests them. And then at age 17 or age 18, if they are certified and we have a job offer for them, the state can give them completed credit. I would love to see kids that are over age and under accredited who have kind of given up on the traditional path, have an option to finish and be successful. I’m really pushing that. I think that we could do that with some matching funds from the state to build the CTE Center. And I would invite students from Douglas, students from Hill City, students from Meade County to come down and join us and work in our CTE Center so that it’s impacting regionally our workforce and our students. And that is going to happen because of things the legislature is making possible this year.”
What does the board have to say about Swigart?
Clay Colombe from Area 5 says, “I think probably one of the things that I love the most about her is that she is the heart of all of these people. She’s just an employee of the district and she loves this district and she wants to see it succeed and not at the expense of the taxpayer. And I’m actually praying that this actually rubs off on other districts. Bringing up somebody already in the system I think was important. Because [she] has been here for 30 plus years, you know, shows that it can happen. You know, bringing in the outside firm was like, guess what? Every time the leadership changes, we got to go find somebody from outside, and that just didn’t sit well with me. It shows not only our staff, but the community, even our students that, look, that it’s possible to come up through the [system]. You’re starting as a teacher and come up and eventually lead it. And I think that’s important, especially, you know, a lot of talk with CTE pathways coming up. There’s more than one way to do it. You don’t have to have that doctorate. I have nothing but respect for people with their doctorates. But in this position, the experience…that’s the primary focus for me. And again, she has been here for 30 years. She’s worked through this district, seen a lot, and learned a lot through that. And that was extremely important for me and this decision.”
Why did Swigart decide to apply for the superintendent position?
“I didn’t set my eyes on [whether] I wanted to be the superintendent until after June of last year. I asked myself, if not me, who? I was concerned about getting somebody in that doesn’t know anything. And so I thought, I’m going to throw my name in the hat and if they don’t pick me, that’s absolutely fine. But I gave it a try. I gave them an option. This is literally not where I found my path going. I’ve joked around that I blame my mom because when after Simon resigned, my mom said, ‘Honey, you should put in to be superintendent. You’d be a really good superintendent.’ And I said, ‘I’m not going to be the superintendent.’ And then she got to say, ‘See, I told you!’ [She] put it out there in the universe. And I think she did and she probably planted the seed that I could do it. I think there’s something to be said about it being an organic path through school. I love my story as the first person in my family to graduate from college. When I graduated college, I got my first job. I didn’t know what a master’s was. So a mentor teacher had to tell me in the 90’s what a masters was, because if you don’t have anybody in your family who’s gone down, that path, you don’t know that story. And I got my Master’s in Literacy. I didn’t even get it in administration. And then I thought I’m going to go back to school and take up Administration. Then I got a second certification in administration. And I had great mentors in that process, phenomenal leaders in this district who invested a lot of time and energy teaching me. I credit Ken Burnham who passed away. But he was the first Principal of Stevens, my first full-time job. Stevens at that time didn’t hire first-time teachers. You worked your way up to Stevens High School. You came from a middle school. Stevens was the place everybody wanted to teach. And people asked him, ‘why her?’ And he said, ‘I see something in her.’ That has always stuck with me. I didn’t have any desire to ever leave this district. And I think that makes it makes it so I never want it to fail. I want this district to succeed. Where I believe, in the past, people treated Superintendent here as a stepping stone to go somewhere else. I’m not going anywhere else. If I didn’t get this job, I would have either gone back to my other job in the district or retired. And that’s where I’m at, but I’m not going somewhere else. And I just think that matters. And I think sometimes we end up on a path that is the right path for us, not a path we ever saw for ourselves.”