DeKraai is quick study

DeKraai is quick study Donna DeKraai by David Lias A woman who spent years in charge of a third-grade classroom is meeting the challenges of heading the primary organization that represents public educators statewide.

And she's loving every minute of it.

Donna DeKraai, the South Dakota Education Association president, replaces Elaine Roberts, who couldn't run for re-election because of term limits.

DeKraai has been traveling the state, meeting with educators. Last week, she spent time in Vermillion.

DeKraai, from Brookings, taught school for 18 years before leaving the classroom for her new role as SDEA president.

"I started my teaching career in 1984," she said. "I taught one year of fourth grade, and then I taught 17 years at the third-grade level."

DeKraai has been an SDEA member for the past 18 years. She holds a master's degree in education from South Dakota State University, received the Brookings Teacher of the Year award in 1998 and was recognized by the Honored Women Educators of South Dakota in 2000.

Over the past 18 years, DeKraai has served in many SDEA member capacities. She has been president, negotiator and treasurer of the Brookings Education Association, has been a delegate to the NEA Representative Assembly six times, and was elected to the SDEA Board of Directors in 1995. Prior to being elected SDEA president, she served as SDEA treasurer. She officially assumed her new duties in Pierre on July 15.

"I found the worth in SDEA at all levels," said DeKraai. "And when I find value and worth in something, I stick to it."

DeKraai encourages all South Dakota education professionals to "stick to it," even through the difficult times for education, like now.

That's the message she brought to Vermillion and other local education associations she plans to visit this fall.

"About two years ago, I seriously started thinking about whether I'd be good in this role � am I ready to do something like this?

"I actually had a conversation with my father, and he played the role of devil's advocate, and told me all the things I'd be getting into, because he was a long time teacher," DeKraai said.

She eventually decided to follow her ambitions and seek the leadership position.

"The reason I guess I did it is because I'm doing it for the educators of South Dakota and for the children," she said. "As a classroom teacher, there was only so much I could do, and I really felt I had something to offer, and I see it as a challenge, and I'm going to work very, very hard."

She has an important message to South Dakota teachers � you make a profound difference in the state's society.

"Educators in South Dakota make a difference," she said. "In general, you don't like to draw attention to what you do on a daily basis or brag about your successes. But nobody else can do what you do," she said, speaking of teachers' roles. "Every day you walk into your school, you make a difference in the lives of our young people. You make a difference in the future of South Dakota."

DeKraai doesn't fear what lies ahead at the beginning of 2003. She will be part of the SDEA lobbying force in Pierre � which will be dealing with a many new legislators and a new governor.

"It's going to be very exciting," she said.

DeKraai said she is committed to education funding.

"My best synopsis is the educators in the state of South Dakota will no longer be at the bottom in salary in the nation," she said. "I'm realistic that it might not happen in a year or two, but I'm never going to give that hope up."

She hopes the Legislature and new governor see education as an investment.

"I also hope to see our teachers, our educational personnel, have the respect that is due to them," DeKraai said. "That can happen by having legislators actually ask how their decisions will affect us in the classroom instead of passing legislation and coming back and saying 'what's going on?' or having us come back and say, 'do you realize this is what happened to the children when you passed this?'"

At a time when education issues across the state are at the forefront of many coffee shop and over-the-fence conversations, DeKraai knows her new responsibilities won't be a cakewalk.

"Educators and education officials across the state are in the spotlight right now," she said. "With many local opt-out votes, budgeting issues and the federal mandates in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we're facing some huge challenges."

One of DeKraai's rallying cries will be for active involvement from SDEA members in every policy-making process.

"From our office in Pierre to the smallest local association in the state, we must be instrumental in working on these and other important issues," she said. "Our only other option is to sit back and watch others make decisions that will affect our day-to-day work and take what they give us. That simply isn't acceptable."

Looking ahead to the November election, DeKraai is optimistic about the future of education in South Dakota. "We've all scratched and clawed just to survive the past eight years," she said. "On Nov. 5, we have a golden opportunity to start the education pendulum swinging in the other direction. I'm very enthusiastic about the opportunity to work with a new administration in our governor's office as well as our legislators at the state and national levels of government."

DeKraai will serve a three-year term and plans to run for re-election to a second term. While serving as SDEA president, she's on a leave of absence from Hillcrest Elementary in Brookings.

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