IOWA DERECHO 2020

Deputy Superintendent Nicole Kooiker helps lead Cedar Rapids schools through pandemic, derecho

She started job in midst of coronavirus return-to-learn planning, then led storm recovery

Nicole Kooiker is photographed Sept. 3 at the Educational Leadership and Support Center in Cedar Rapids. Kooiker started
Nicole Kooiker is photographed Sept. 3 at the Educational Leadership and Support Center in Cedar Rapids. Kooiker started July 1 as the deputy superintendent of the Cedar Rapids Community School District and has been instrumental in developing the district’s return-to-learn plan amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Nicole Kooiker started her job as deputy superintendent of Cedar Rapids schools in the middle of a crisis — first the coronavirus pandemic and then the derecho that damaged school buildings.

Kooiker, 45, started with the district July 1, right at the height of return to learn strategic planning. Then she led recovery efforts after the Aug. 10 storm that brought hurricane-force winds and damaged over 30 school buildings.

“I don’t look at it as a job. I look at it as who I am and what I do every day,” Kooiker said. “I love having hopefully a positive impact on our students’ and staff’s lives.”

Kooiker started her career as a physical education teacher, then shifted to teaching high school biology and general science.

She said she loved working with students, but when her principal at the time encouraged her to pursue administration, she saw it as an opportunity to have a bigger impact.

Kooiker had worked as a middle school principal for a few years when the superintendent took note and encouraged her to get her superintendent’s license.

“The teacher can impact their classroom, the principal their building and the superintendent the entire system,” Kooiker said.

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Before coming to Cedar Rapids, Kooiker served as superintendent in the Ottumwa and West Marshall school districts.

The description for the deputy superintendent position in Cedar Rapids caught Kooiker’s eye because it is about working with students and equipping teachers to better do their jobs, she said.

“We’re there to support (staff), especially this year, the uncertainty of things, I think it will be really important to let people know, ‘We’re here to serve you,’ ” Kooiker said.

On the first day of school Sept. 21, Kooiker plans to be in the school buildings engaging with students and supporting staff, who not only are returning to work in the midst of a global pandemic, but also may have homes that were damaged in the derecho.

“It’s pretty traumatic to have your school building damaged, and probably your house, along with the whole global pandemic piece,” she said.

Teachers, who began professional development Sept. 2, are learning about how to better engage families as students may switch from the hybrid learning model to online learning and back again during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think first and foremost students are going to be excited to be back at school or on a Zoom session remotely with teachers and connect to students in their class,” Kooiker said.

“When you don’t have the opportunity (to go to school), you realize how important it really is.”

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While Kooiker said she is worried about possible coronavirus outbreaks, she believes the cohort system — keeping students in groups of 20 or less — will help mitigate the spread.

“We feel good about when they do have to quarantine, there will be a seamless transition for students to go to online learning,” Kooiker said.

Teachers in quarantine will continue teaching online unless they are sick. At that point, the class will be taught by a substitute teacher.

“We have to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously,” Kooiker said. “I think it’s really important for our students to have the opportunity to be educated face-to-face.

The social emotional well-being of students who are disengaged for a long period of time, those health concerns can be even stronger and outweigh the health concerns of younger children when it comes to having the coronavirus.”

Kooiker said Cedar Rapids school staff has “a lot of skill and a lot of will.”

“When you have crisis events and people can truly pull together and problem solve and work really hard to come up with quality solutions, I couldn’t be more impressed with the Cedar Rapids team,” Kooiker said.

“I think the district has done an amazing job listening, learning, collaborating and trying to best serve students, families and staff.”

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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