7 questions: Superintendent is prepping rural students for future success

Superintendent Steve Willard leads the Belle Fourche School District, officially designated the geographic "Center of the Nation."

Steve Willard, superintendent of the Belle Fourche School District, got his degree in career and technical education and taught the subject for almost 20 years. That experience has helped him set a course for Belle Fourche as a model CTE district and likely also contributed to his selection as South Dakota’s superintendent of the year.

Steve Willard Belle Fourche School District
Steve Willard

Fun fact: The Belle Fourche School District is a rural, agricultural community located north of Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills that is officially designated the geographic “Center of the Nation.” The five-building school system recently added heavy equipment simulators and an industrial “laser” metal cutter to its CTE department. Willard discussed CTE and … in an interview with District Administration. 

1. What’s happening in the Belle Fourche School District that you are most excited about?

Willard: Building a CTE center in 2018 and seeing the growth of CTE opportunities for students.

2. What achievements over the last year led to your being chosen as South Dakota’s Superintendent of the Year?

The Belle Fourche School District is a leader in CTE in South Dakota. The district has invested in a new CTE center, which offers state-of-the-art welding, an impressive agriculture curriculum with high participation in FFA (Future Farmers of America), a commercially equipped family-and-consumer science kitchen, and an accounting program.

We also have in our other building a 3D printer, laser engraver and a 4’x 8’ computer-driven panel router. We have five heavy equipment simulators and partner with the National Guard unit in our community to allow students to run heavy equipment after time on the simulators. New for this year is the commercial driving license course. The Belle Fourche School District recently purchased two CDL simulators, a semi-tractor and a trailer. Students taking the course will be able to earn a CDL endorsement when they turn 18.

3. What are the biggest challenges your district is facing right now? 

Adequate funding is a challenge every year. Maintaining programs after ESSER funds expire. Many of the challenges we face are the same as most districts: poverty, lack of affordable housing, drug abuse and mental health issues.

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4. Have you seen an increase in student misbehavior over the last few years?

Not with the number of students misbehaving, but those who do are repeating the behaviors. We have on staff a full-time SRO now and a school-to-home liaison. Social media exacerbates situations.

5. What are the keys to your leadership philosophy, and how do they contribute to your district’s success?

Hiring good people and then letting them do their job.

6. How have your job/responsibilities changed over the last few years?

We are spending more and more time dealing with cybersecurity, preparing to mitigate possible physical threats and addressing mental health issues.

7. Do you have a good relationship with your school board? What are the keys to collaborating effectively?

I have an excellent school board. Our relationship has grown positively over the past few years due to mutual trust and transparency.

Tell us about your background in education and your journey to becoming superintendent.

I earned my BS degree in career and technical education and taught CTE courses at the junior high and high school levels for 19 years. I became high school principal in Belle Fourche in 2000 and held that position until becoming superintendent in Belle Fourche in 2008. I am entering my 16th year as superintendent of schools.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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