Things are going well for Jessica Vogel, the new superintendent for the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Vogel took over the job in June, and so far it’s been a smooth transition, she said.
Originally from Minnesota, Vogel attended Northern State to earn her degree in special education and was a work-study employee at the old SDSBVI building, which was razed to build Dacotah Bank Stadium.
The old school is where Vogel first learned she loved working with students with visual impairments, she said.
“I always wanted to do this,” she said. “I have looked up to Marje Kaiser (the SDSBVI superintendent until 2020) for 20-plus years. I didn’t think this opportunity would open up this soon. … But I’ve never been more sure of anything. When I saw the job was open, I said, ‘Yeah, this is it. It’s my time.’”
After graduating, Vogel worked at a behavior school in Sioux Falls and, later, as an autism program facilitator in Aberdeen.
At that job, she led a program in a self-contained classroom, similar to how the new SDSBVI is set up. That’s proven to be a big benefit for her as superintendent.
Vogel also taught early childhood for a year, then took a teaching job at Northern where she was able to finish her doctorate in leadership and administration.
Despite having the credentials and experience, Vogel said there’s been a learning curve at SDSBVI. She oversees not only the school and departments in Aberdeen, but also the people and outreach consultants throughout the state and is trying to understand all of the individual jobs.
It’s helpful having superintendents from other schools for the blind around the country supporting her, she said. For example, Vogel said she recently went to Kentucky to a conference with fellow superintendents and that was a valuable experience.
“Things are going well and fast. … Sometimes I maybe spend too much time in classrooms because it’s fun. But work will always be here, and it’s nice to have the kids in the building. It definitely is.”
Vogel fills in where she can at SDSBVI
Vogel’s first challenge was finding people to fill the open positions. Luckily, she said, the school was able to fill the music and science positions internally. But the orientation and mobility position, which helps train students how to navigate their environment, use canes, listen for traffic and more, is still open.
The school is also in need of substitute teachers, and Vogel has been stepping in to help. She said those interested in substituting don’t need experience.
Substituting gives Vogel a chance to bond with the kids.
“The kids are definitely what I enjoy most about this job,” she said. “I’ve missed that for years, so it’s wonderful getting to interact with them every day.”
Getting school nationally accredited is a goal
Vogel said she wants to get up to full staff and start the process of getting the school nationally accredited. Mostly, she said, that involves a lot of paperwork to prove the school meets the necessary standards.
“COVID was really hard … because everything went virtual, and the kids can’t see, so it was difficult for them to figure it out through a computer,” Vogel said. “I think we are only just starting to rebound from that. The accreditation will just put us back on the map and in the good light.”
She also wants to update the school’s strategic plan, comprehensive plan, evaluation processes and more. After that work is done, they will be refined by the South Dakota Board of Regents, which governs SDSBVI.
And Vogel wants to do more family and community activities like the South Dakota School for the Deaf in Sioux Falls does.
“Supporting the families is huge. And then just spreading the good word about visual impairments is another goal,” she said.
Controversy with previous SDSBVI administration
What put SDSBVI in the news earlier this year were concerns about policies enacted by the previous administration and former superintendent Dan Trefz, who replaced Kaiser. He announced his resignation about a year ago, but finished out the school year.
There were concerns about cuts to the Expanded Core Curriculum, which is community-based instruction, and there was no formal way for parents to file grievances with the regents.
One parent said she had difficulty enrolling her child in the school under the previous administration. Several parents went as far as drafting a policy change proposal and giving it to state legislators, although it wasn’t passed during the session.
“It’s not to say it’s not still on the table,” Vogel said. “What they want is to be heard … and I appreciate that they’re advocating for their children. I’ve just provided some reassurance, but also, I’m supportive of them if they do choose to move forward as far as bringing anything to legislation later.”
Vogel said she was aware of the controversy before she applied and has since met with that advocacy group.
Late last summer, Vogel was looking at other states’ schools and gathering ideas to move forward, she said. She’s also meeting with parents to try and rebuild those connections.
Support group formed for parents of kids with visual impairments
There’s a new parent support group that had its first meeting this fall. Those who started it wanted to give space and hope to families who might feel frustrated or unsure after a diagnosis, Vogel said.
“From what I’ve learned, it’s very isolating to have a child who has a visual impairment or who is blind because we don’t have a huge number of those students in our state,” she said.
Once things are a little more settled, Vogel will be traveling to other towns to meet more parents and see if they have any questions or concerns.
“When I took this job, I was looking forward to that challenge that comes with helping to move the school and parents forward together,” she said. “I try to be as transparent as possible. That’s always my motto. My door’s open and they’re welcome to come in or call anytime.”