As Detroit Lakes Public Schools Superintendent Doug Froke enters his final days at the helm — he will make his final appearance as superintendent during Sunday's commencement ceremonies at Mollberg Field — he appears to be a man at a crossroads, unsure where his path will lead him next.

"I'm not sure yet," he said, adding that he and his wife, Coleen, have been "talking about and looking at different opportunities," both in school administration and in the private sector, but he plans to take his time before reaching a decision.

On Monday, June 22, Froke sat down for his final interview with this newspaper, and took the opportunity to reflect on his decades-long career in education.

In the beginning

The 13 years Froke spent in Detroit Lakes were his longest stint in one place since he began his educational career back in the 1980s.

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A native of Vienna, S.D., a town of about 80 people, he graduated from nearby Willow Lake High School with a class of 24 students. He received a bachelor's degree in secondary education and a master's degree in secondary administration from Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., then went on to earn an education specialist degree from the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.

Froke's first education post was as a social studies teacher in Wilmot, S.D., where he also coached football and track for seven years, before taking his first administrative position as principal and athletic director in Onida, S.D. It was right around this time that he and Coleen were married, Froke said.

After three years in Onida, he took his first job in Minnesota in 1996, serving as superintendent of the Fulda district for the next eight years — the last of which (2003-04) was spent dividing his time between Fulda and Windom. In 2004, he began serving full-time as superintendent at Windom, where he remained until taking the job in Detroit Lakes during the summer of 2007.

A challenge met

When he began his Detroit Lakes tenure 13 years ago, Froke already knew that quality instructional space was at a premium in the district's K-12 facilities.

"Even at 2,600 kids, in 2007, you could already see that space was an issue — that quality of space was an issue," he said. "There weren't enough spaces available to meet the individualized learning needs of our students — I knew it would be my biggest challenge."

As an example, Froke said, "We were holding interventions in closets, and custodial store rooms; band classes were being held on a stage (adjacent to the Rossman Elementary gymnasium)."

In short, a lot of spaces within the district's four main K-12 academic facilities were being used to fill needs for which they were not originally intended. In order to fill all of those critical space needs, a variety of facility improvement plans were proposed for public vote — none of which passed muster until November 2018, when a $49.8 million bond referendum was finally approved by a 53-47% margin. Three prior bond referendums, in 2013, 2015 and 2016, had ended in failure.

Once the bond referendum was approved, additional funding resources pushed the total being spent on improvements at all four academic building sites to just over $60 million — and that's not even counting the millions that were invested in maintenance and improvement projects between 2013 and 2018.

Some of those prior projects included a complete revamping of the high school's track and field facilities; energy efficiency improvements at the middle school; and major restructuring of the parking lot and bus pickup/dropoff points on both the north and south sides of the joint Roosevelt Elementary/Detroit Lakes Middle School campus.

"By the time the current project is finished in 2022, we will have spent just under $70 million (on district-wide facility improvements) since 2013," Froke said. "I think the residents of the district are going to be really pleased with the final product."

He added that the current project will not just bring the district's K-12 facilities up-to-date, but render them ready to adapt for future needs, whether that be increased enrollment, or new teaching models like the career academies that are being implemented at the high school.

"It's going to provide more relevance for the students," he said. "It (the redesigned high school) can offer more authentic tasks for them, focused on their career interests. This high school is going to be a neat, neat place for the parents and students of Detroit Lakes, both programmatically and from a facilities standpoint."

While it's not quite "mission accomplished" yet — the building project will take another couple of years to complete — Froke said he feels the timing is right for him to close the book on his tenure with the Detroit Lakes district.

"You just have a feeling when it's time to do something different, somewhere else," he said. "The last few years have been rewarding, but also challenging, and stressful."

Froke's final day on the job will be Tuesday, June 30; his successor, Mark Jenson, takes the reins July 1.

Saying goodbye

For the time being, Froke and his family will continue making their home in Detroit Lakes, where their youngest son, Carson, will begin his junior year in high school this fall. Their older son, Connor, will be a junior at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities.

"This has been a great experience," he said. "Detroit Lakes has been a great place to raise our kids."

Froke added that the thing that stands out the most about his time with the district is the kids he's gotten to know. "Detroit Lakes has great kids," he said. "We're grateful to have been a part of it."