The New Year has arrived and I am hopeful. Great things happened in education in South Dakota in 2016 that will continue into 2017 and beyond.
The sales tax increase approved by the 2016 Legislature appears to be showing great success, raising teacher salaries an estimated 11.9 percent thus far.
The sales tax increase was part of a broader education package that aimed to support teachers and schools in a variety of ways, based on the findings of the Blue Ribbon Task Force.
Mentoring was a key component of this package. Too often teachers leave the profession because of the overwhelming nature of their first years in the classroom. Mentors can provide vital support for navigating this challenging time. The statewide mentoring program is now underway, with 154 mentors and 179 new teachers participating.
Grant opportunities were funded through the legislative package as well. Across the state, 43 classroom innovation grants have been awarded, for a total of more than $2 million. A number of districts are using these grants for the implementation of customized learning models that are literally transforming what education looks like and how it works.
Several shared services grants have also been awarded. This funding is helping small school districts with hard-to-fill positions.
I’m also optimistic about the strides being made in Indian Country. The work of the Native American Student Achievement Advisory Council led to two pieces of education-related legislation that passed in 2016.
Senate Bill 81 established a scholarship program to help several paraprofessionals in qualifying South Dakota schools earn their teaching degrees. And the Department of Education recently awarded three grants established by Senate Bill 82 for the development of Native American achievement schools in the Todd County and Smee school districts. These schools will spend the next 2.5 years planning for implementation before welcoming students in fall 2019 into programs that will weave Native American history, culture and language throughout the educational experience.