New South Dakota Secretary of Education discusses experience, challenges

Secretary Sanderson joins the department after most recently spending two years as a policy advisor to Governor Kristi Noem.
Published: Dec. 11, 2020 at 6:46 PM CST
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PIERRE, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - South Dakota has a new Secretary of Education.

Tiffany Sanderson officially started with the South Dakota Department of Education on Wednesday, Dec. 9. Former Secretary Ben Jones left to become the State Historian with the South Dakota State Historical Society.

Sanderson and her husband, Nathan, have worked in and around Pierre for over a decade. Nathan served as a policy advisor to Governor Dennis Daugaard, and is currently Executive Director at the South Dakota Retailers Association. They have one son who attends public school in Pierre.

Secretary Sanderson has worked in and around education for much of her career, beginning in 2003 with the national Future Farmers of America (FFA) organization in Indianapolis, Indiana. She also previously worked for the South Dakota Department of Education from 2009 to 2017. She spent the last two years as a policy advisor to Governor Kristi Noem.

“My entire professional career has been in education,” Sanderson said. “My background is in agricultural education.”

Sanderson takes over the department at a tumultuous time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She hopes to bring people together and listen to a lot of voices in order to continue leading the department through the pandemic.

“In a time like COVID, a lot of quick decisions have to be made. Having a large network with people of expertise in many areas... I think that is going to be a real key as I move into this role.”

She wants to put an emphasis on working with local school boards and officials across the state, while still allowing them to serve their schools the way they see fit.

“That diversity in communities... the variety, the spirit, and personality of communities all comes through in their schools, and how they are run and what their priorities are.”

Sanderson acknowledges that COVID is the biggest challenge currently facing the department. Despite that, she believes it has forced everyone in and around education to explore new and effective ways to educate students, namely through online and hybrid learning.

“The silver lining for us is that COVID opened up the opportunity, in quick turn, (to) try things we hadn’t discussed in a long time. We were forced into that, and it is a good thing in this situation.”

Her goal is for the department to continue to expand access to postsecondary education for all students in South Dakota.

“Students will gain more income over their lifespan if they receive additional training after high school. That may be employment through military service, it might be apprenticeship. It may be a two year or four year program that they enter.... that sets them up well for in demand careers.”

In light of an executive order signed by Governor Kristi Noem this week, which gave schools flexibility over things such as evacuation drills, Sanderson says the department is continuing to evaluate their approach to standardized testing for the Spring of 2021.

“The United States Department of Education has said that statewide assessments are still on for the Spring across the country, but they are offering some waivers to reflect the reality across the country... We are working hand in hand with the US Department of Education to pursue the right waivers.”

The South Dakota Department of Education has faced quite a bit of turnover in more recent years, but Secretary Sanderson says that she is in it for the long haul.

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