After serving in several capacities at DL school, Niklaus comes full circle to retirement
During his 21 years with the Detroit Lakes School District, Lowell Niklaus has come full circle.
“I started as the education director, and I did that for five years,” Niklaus said Monday. “Then I served for nine years as superintendent, and then seven more years as education director.”
But come July 1, Niklaus’ tenure with the district will officially come to an end, as his retirement begins.
“It’s time,” he said simply. “I’m ready, and I’m excited for something different in my life.
“I turn 62 next week, and I’ve been doing this for 38 years,” Niklaus added, speaking of his time as an educator, which besides his tenure in Detroit Lakes, also included seven years as a high school social studies teacher in Linton, N.D.; three years as a high school principal at Dakota Schools in Arthur, N.D.; and six years as principal at Norman County West in Halstad, Minn.
“I have six grandkids that I want to spend time with, doing different things,” he said, adding a little wistfully, “You lose a lot of time with your family, with your kids, because this is not a 9-to-5 job.
“I want to enjoy a non-working life for a while. I started working when I was in eighth grade, carrying out groceries,” said the Belgrade, Minn., native. “I don’t really have any plans (post retirement). But I have hobbies.”
Some of those hobbies include woodworking, golfing, and spending time enjoying the lake home he shares with his wife Laverne.
“One of my goals was to live by a lake, and near a golf course,” he said. “I haven’t done any golfing in two years, and we only used half a tank of gas in the pontoon all last summer.”
Ultimately, Niklaus added, if he does decide to return to the workforce in some capacity, it will be on his terms.
“I want to work on my schedule, though I’m not sure what that will be at this point in time,” he said.
Though he has no regrets about his decision to retire, Niklaus said, that does not mean there won’t be things that he’ll miss.
“I’ll miss working with the people here,” he said. “But it’s time for someone to take over, with new ideas to help this district move forward. Renee (Kerzmann, who will become the new director of curriculum, instruction and technology on July 1) will do a great job.”
As for his own accomplishments in the education director’s chair, Niklaus said, “It was a consolidated effort of administrators and teachers. I just happened to be in the leadership role. But the real work was done by the teachers.
“I got to come back (to the education director’s position) and help reshape the curriculum,” he said. “Over the last seven years we’ve made significant improvements, and the (student) test scores are showing it.”
When he made the switch from superintendent back to education director, Niklaus said, “I saw the whole world changing in terms of technology. I’ve always been a bit of a technology nut, and I think we’ve done a number of things to incorporate technology into our thinking and learning.”
In particular, Niklaus pointed to the district’s “iPad Initiative,” which started two years ago by giving each fifth grade student an iPad for their personal use during the school year.
“The iPad initiative was our most comprehensive and significant change,” Niklaus said.
Each year since then, the incoming fifth graders received new iPads, while the higher grades continued to use theirs.
“This past year, it was grades 5-8, and next year it will be grades 5-9,” Niklaus said. “Hopefully the district will be able to keep that going.
“They’re tools to help kids learn better, and teachers to teach better,” he added. “They allow our kids to be able to do things they never have before.”
But at the same time, Niklaus added, the tool is only as good as the teachers’ and students’ ability to make use of its capabilities.
“The teachers need to know how to teach with them (the iPads), and the kids, how to learn with them,” he said, adding with a smile, “My six-year-old grandson has it mastered already.”
Younger kids find the technology much easier to incorporate into their learning experience, Niklaus said, because “they’ve never known anything different.”
During the past seven years, Niklaus said, “the model we’ve set up is a model of continuous improvement. There’s been a significant shift to data driven decision making.”
What that means, Niklaus added, is that teachers and administrators are incorporating the data gleaned from students’ test scores to better target the classroom curriculum toward specific areas that need improvement.
In addition, the teachers themselves began forming professional learning communities, or PLC’s, where they would “assess data, make decisions on what to do next and plan it together. It becomes a learning experience for the teachers as well as the kids.”
When asked what prompted him to take what many might perceive as a professional step backwards seven years ago, Niklaus said, “The superintendent’s job was good for eight years, but it’s also one that’s somewhat distanced from education itself.
“You deal so much with the money aspects, the political aspects,” he explained, “and I really missed the education components that were part of my job both before and after the superintendency.”
Niklaus also admitted that there were “some tough times” during his tenure at the helm of the district. “We were cutting budgets every single year I was superintendent,” he said. “That’s not easy to do, and it’s not fun.”
Ultimately, going back to being the education director helped him to reconnect with the part of education that drew him to teaching in the first place —making a difference in individual students’ lives.
“I got into the business of education because I thought I could make a difference in some kid’s life,” he said, adding, “I had some teachers who made a difference in my life — my high school math teacher, in particular.”
Niklaus said that about 10 years after he graduated from high school, he had the opportunity to reconnect with his former math teacher at an all-school reunion.
“I got the chance to thank him,” he said. “He said that I was the first person who ever said that to him.”
Becoming a teacher himself was not in his original post-graduation plans, however.
“I didn’t have any intention of teaching right out of college,” he said. “I had a bachelor’s degree (from Concordia College in Moorhead) in psychology.”
However, Niklaus added wryly, “a bachelor’s degree in psychology wasn’t worth much in the 1960s.”
“I was going to be a (school) counselor originally, but then I found out you had to be a teacher first, before you could do that,” he said. “So I went back and got my teaching degree at the University of Minnesota-Morris, and I finished that in one year.”
His first teaching job was in North Dakota, Niklaus added, “Because teaching jobs were hard to find in the 1970s.”
It was while he was teaching in Linton that he would meet his future wife, Laverne. They got married in 1977, and raised three daughters.
Though his initial plan after landing that first teaching job was to go back to school and get a master’s degree in counseling, Niklaus ended up taking the school administration path instead.
He earned his master’s degree at Northern State College in Aberdeen, S.D., and “I did my specialist work at the Tri-College in Fargo-Moorhead,” Niklaus added, noting that he did most of his post-graduate work while working full-time, taking courses in the evenings and during the summer.
Eventually, he ended up in Detroit Lakes, which is where he ended up staying.