Representatives of the three major educational institutions in Mitchell gave an update on the state of their schools Thursday at the State of the Schools Luncheon, discussing the ongoing COVID-19 fight, institutional leadership changes and the continued efforts to improve and expand its programs.

The luncheon, held in the BankWest meeting room on North Sanborn Boulevard, was sponsored by the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee.

“Other communities have been doing this type of event, but Mitchell never has,” Meghen Callies, program coordinator for the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce, told the Mitchell Republic. “This was in the works last spring before COVID-19, but this was the first one we were able to have.”

The luncheon, which Callies hopes will become an annual event, is designed to help bridge the gap between governmental and educational institutions and the general public.

“We’re always looking at new programs we can do, but bridging the gap between the community (is important),” Callies said. “We know that (education and government) is a popular topic and people want to hear about it, but they don’t know how to go about getting it.”

Newsletter signup for email alerts

The topics shared Thursday were varied but focused on educational and student issues at Mitchell Technical College, the Mitchell School District and Dakota Wesleyan University, the three major educational institutions in the community.

Mitchell School District

Joe Graves, superintendent for the Mitchell School District, said the biggest current issue the district is facing is the COVID-19 pandemic. Classes have been live and in-person in the district the entire 2020-21 school year, with a lower number of missed days than a typical school year.

“I’m proud to say that we’ve been open since the first day of school and had the kids physically present. We’ve actually missed school less this year than in most years,” Graves told the audience of about 15 community members. “That was the day it was 22-below and school was an hour late.”

Active cases of the disease this year have been extremely low in the district, Graves said, and the next step in that fight is getting school faculty and staff members vaccinated as per the vaccine rollout schedule. That will hopefully begin in the next month, he said.

“Essentially, our (COVID-19 infection) numbers are zero. We’re still trying to get our staff vaccinated, which we believe will happen in March,” Graves said.

The district is growing in size slowly, which surprises some people, Graves said. With new construction visible around the community, many assume the district is growing at a faster pace than it actually is. While there may be some new families in the community, those families aren’t as large as they once were a decade or two ago.

“Our student body was 2,784 (last year), and this year it is 2,802, so our enrollment is up a little bit,” Graves said. “People ask why the district isn’t growing. The (new) houses are beautiful, they all have three-car garages, but only one tricycle.”

Mitchell Technical College's Carol Grode-Hanks, Vice-President for Academics, speaks during the State of the Schools Luncheon on Thursday in the BankWest meeting room on North Sanborn in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Mitchell Technical College's Carol Grode-Hanks, Vice-President for Academics, speaks during the State of the Schools Luncheon on Thursday in the BankWest meeting room on North Sanborn in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Mitchell Tech

Carol Grode-Hanks, vice president for academics at Mitchell Technical College, also highlighted the school’s efforts to combat COVID-19, noting that like the Mitchell School District, numbers of cases at the school have dropped to nearly non-existent during the course of the year.

“We’re proud of the fact that we’ve been able to do that. At MTC, the last few reports have been zero for COVID-19 infections or quarantines,” Grode-Hanks said.

Grode-Hanks also noted perhaps the most outward sign of change at the school - the fact that it is now referred to as Mitchell Technical College after years of being known as Mitchell Technical Institute and other names prior to that. The school’s commitment to academic excellence remains unchanged with the name change, she said.

“On July 1, we changed to Mitchell Technical College, and we’re very proud of that distinction. It doesn’t change our mission, but it does open up a lot of opportunities for students,” Grode-Hanks said. “Being a college we now have more transferable options in the state and outside of South Dakota. We’re very excited about what’s happening.”

Also highlighting changes at the technical college, Grode-Hanks said the first round of LPN to RN associate degree students will be enrolling in the fall, facilities such as the new student lounge and cafe area have been updated and a 24/7 fitness center is currently under construction.

Dakota Wesleyan University's Fredel Thomas, Vice President of Admissions and Marketing, speaks during the State of the Schools Luncheon on Thursday in the BankWest meeting room on North Sanborn in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Dakota Wesleyan University's Fredel Thomas, Vice President of Admissions and Marketing, speaks during the State of the Schools Luncheon on Thursday in the BankWest meeting room on North Sanborn in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Dakota Wesleyan

Fredel Thomas, vice president of admissions and marketing for Dakota Wesleyan University, also shared pride in the school’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis — the case count at the school is currently zero — while bucking the nationwide trend of declining college enrollment. The school logged an enrollment of 948, she said.

“In the fall of 2020, schools had a 16% decline in first-year students across the country. We didn’t experience that decline and our numbers actually went up,” Thomas said.

With enrollment strong, the campus needs room to put all those students. Thomas said new construction at the school will help alleviate some space issues and provide even greater means of social distancing for students and staff who have to share the same space.

“We use every single place on campus as a classroom,” Thomas said. “Our school of business and leadership is set to open this coming fall, and if you drive by it’s changing every day. It’s going to be amazing. It’s about time to get our business students into an incredible building.”

Thomas also noted that interest in the school from international students has picked back up as the outbreak ebbs and the vaccine rollout makes headway into curbing the deadly pandemic. Students attending the school from abroad include individuals from the Cayman Islands, Nigeria, Peru and the Netherlands.

And of course, the search for a new president is underway after DWU President Amy Novak announced she would be moving on to a new position in Iowa after this school year.

“The search is underway. We will work with a search firm to get the most qualified candidates, so this process will take some time,” Thomas said. “It can really take some time, and I’m guessing we’ll have an interim to cover through that time. But the process is underway, committees are being built and we’ll see what the future holds.”

Thomas, like Graves and Grode-Hanks, also praised the institutional cooperation and resource sharing between the three schools. Mitchell is in a unique position to have three such entities serving its students, she said. And, in this case, share their current status with community members in a casual environment.

“It’s pretty amazing how three schools can come and talk to you like this in one community,” Thomas said.

Callies said she was happy with the inaugural event and hopes to develop more like it. She said there were plans in the works for a similar luncheon that would bring leaders from city and county government together for a similar rundown. She said the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce would be looking to hold that event in the fall and becoming an annual event, with the school version becoming a regular event in spring.

“We hope this will grow from here,” Callies said.