Though Mark Jenson has only been on board as Detroit Lakes Public Schools' new superintendent since July 1, he is no stranger to the Detroit Lakes area, having spent many summers at his family's home on Big Sugar Bush Lake, and worked in his hometown school district, Moorhead, as both a teacher and coach for several years.

"We bought my parents' lake home (on Big Sugar Bush) a couple of years ago," said Jenson, adding that he and his wife Mindi are currently living there. "This is totally coming home for me. It feels very good."

That familiarity with the area will serve him in good stead as he takes on his new duties this month, though Jenson readily admits that the coronavirus pandemic has hampered some of his efforts to get to know the people in his new home community.

"Ideally, it would be nice to have July and August to get out into the community and make connections," he said. "I've started to attend some community meetings, but with all this (i.e., coronavirus restrictions on social interaction) going on, it's really been difficult."

To that end, the school district has scheduled an official "meet and greet" for the new superintendent on Friday, July 17 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Detroit Lakes City Park, near the Pavilion. (It will run concurrently with the Noon Rotary Club's weekly "Food Truck Friday" event, which takes place from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. in the parking lot just north of the Pavilion.)

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Jenson said that his first priority as superintendent will be to help guide the district's administration and faculty in developing plans for fall classes in Detroit Lakes' four K-12 academic facilities.

Like other public school districts across the state, Detroit Lakes is in the midst of planning for three possible back-to-school scenarios in light of the pandemic — distance learning at students' homes, with K-12 facilities remaining closed; a hybrid plan, offering a mix of distance learning and classroom time; and a return to full-time, in-person classes, with pandemic safety measures in place.

It'll be about another month before the Minnesota Department of Education finalizes which scenario will become reality. Until then, Jenson will be busy settling into his new duties, overseeing all of Detroit Lakes' preschool, K-12 and adult education programs.

Jenson said he's excited by all the educational and extracurricular opportunities ahead for the Detroit Lakes district, which is in the process of transitioning to a career academy education model at the high school, and right in the middle of a three-year, $60 million remodeling and expansion project at all four of its main academic sites: Rossman and Roosevelt elementary schools, middle school and high school.

"The academy model at the high school is a move in the right direction," Jenson said. "It brings the curriculum into more of a real-world setting . . . gives students an opportunity to learn outside the classroom."

He noted that when the $60 million districtwide construction project is completed, Detroit Lakes' K-12 facilities will be "quite impressive."

One area where the district will need to improve, however, is in educational equity — i.e, ensuring that all students have equal access to the district's educational resources, regardless of their geographic location or economic status.

"I think COVID-19 and distance learning really showed us . . . we're not always equitable," he said.

A passion for education

Jenson's passion for education is one of the things that the Detroit Lakes School Board highlighted in their decision to hire him last February, and he says it is the result of "having really good mentors," both growing up in Moorhead and in his post-secondary academic pursuits.

Those pursuits led him to first seek a bachelor's degree in education from Concordia College, and later his master's degree and certification in educational administration and leadership from Minnesota State University Moorhead.

His first teaching job was in Enderlin, N.D., and he also taught in the Tiospazina Agency Village near Sisseton, S.D., before coming back to Moorhead Public Schools, where he taught English and coached hockey for 10 years.

"My principal (at Moorhead) pushed me to get my master's," he said.

After 10 years at Moorhead, Jenson got his first administrative job at Rocori Public Schools in Cold Spring, Minn., where he served as assistant high school principal for a year before moving up to the high school principal's position. Seven years later, Rocori's middle school principal retired, and Jenson added those duties to his position as well.

This past year, after 13 years with Rocori, Jenson applied for, and was accepted to the superintendent's position at Detroit Lakes. He said his wife Mindi, who has her own online business, hikehoppers.org, plans to expand that business into Becker County in the near future, and their oldest son Matt is a special education teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School right here in Detroit Lakes.

Their daughter Julie is studying to be a veterinarian at North Dakota State University in Fargo, and their youngest son — who recently recovered from a bout with COVID-19 — has received a scholarship to play college hockey at the University of New Hampshire this fall. He and Mindi, who celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary this year, plan to make Detroit Lakes their home for the foreseeable future.

"It was always the plan to get back here," he said. "I loved the area, the people, the vibe — we're just very excited to be here. Sails up!"