‘It’s Always Great!’

YHS Principal Jennifer Johnke is is headed east to Georgia and a department chair at South College Atlanta. 

After seven years as Yankton High School (YHS) Principal and 20 years with the Yankton School District (YSD), Jennifer Johnke is leaving for points east and a “new adventure.”

Johnke and her husband Erich will be moving to Kennesaw, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, later this month.

“I was hired as the department chair of General Education at South College in Atlanta,” Johnke told the Press & Dakotan. “I will also be teaching some math classes there at the college level.”

Johnke, originally from northwest Iowa, attended college at the University of South Dakota (USD). She taught for a year in Iowa at the West Lyon Community School District and then, in 2001, made the move to Yankton to begin her YSD career

“I’ve been here ever since,” she said. “It’s always been the Midwest, so Atlanta will be definitely a new adventure.”

Johnke also noted that she never thought leaving Yankton was in her future.

“I’m just so passionate about Yankton School District and Yankton High School and the success of the teachers and the students within these walls,” she said. “My heart was in it every step of the way, and truthfully, leaving it behind has been very difficult.”

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but it can take a village to raise an adult, too, Johnke said.

“I came to Yankton one year out of college, the naive bright-eyed girl,” she said. “Those who knew me that first year talk about how I was so excited about everything; it didn’t matter what it was, it was great.”

Johnke recalled another teacher who commented on Johnke’s enthusiasm.

“She was like, ‘Sometimes, is it not great.’ I’m like, ‘No! Its always great!’”

There have, of course, been the sad times, which she said always involved the loss of a YSD staff member or student, and tough times, for example, transitioning to new positions.

Johnke was a geometry teacher and dance team coach at the high school for nine years before deciding to get another degree and take an administrative track. In 2010, she was hired as the YHS assistant principal and then as principal in 2013.

“It was difficult when I changed positions, because I remember my first day sitting in the assistant principal’s office,” she said. “I sat down and I had this terrible feeling in my stomach. I thought to myself, ‘What have I done? I loved teaching and coaching dance!’ But then I got into being the assistant principal and I loved it.”

Her first day as YHS principal went much the same way, Johnke said.

However, not everything has been great. She noted that the COVID-19 pandemic was a hard experience. Also, in 2015, two intruders entered YHS and were found on the premises by staff, taken to the office and later arrested.

“While that was a difficult moment, a lot of changes took place that have improved the security and safety within the district,” she said. “I think about how many changes there have been to Yankton High School since I’ve been here.”

The internship program, the building trades facility, the ag program and the increase in the number of Advanced Placement (AP) classes and Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes offered, were a few of the innovations that Johnke mentioned.

There are also plenty of funny moments, Johnke said.

“A lot of people still laugh about the time I single-handedly shut down the internet of the entire district,” she said. “We were doing state testing and some MAP testing several years ago, and I didn’t fully think through what would happen if you attempted to have all 950 students at the high school log in at the same time.”

Because high school students get antsy when they can’t log in, they all attempted to log in several times, driving up the number of simultaneous logins from 1,000 to several thousand, Johnke said.

“So it shut down everything,” she said. “I got on the loudspeaker and I said, ‘Stop logging in!’”

What she will miss about Yankton most of all, Johnke said are the people.

“What makes a place is the people,” Johnke said. “There is nobody that I’m walking away from thinking, ‘I hope I never see them again.’ Instead it’s, ‘I wonder if that was the last time I’m going to see that person.”

That last thought was expressed with emotion.

“I thought for sure I would retire in that principal’s office, but I guess you never know where life is going to take you,” she said.

But, as the moving date approaches, Johnke is already looking forward to some things about living in the Deep South.

“Like not having to shovel my driveway in the winter,” Johnke said. “I can still remember the last time I shoveled my driveway; it was that wet, heavy snow, and with each scoop I thought, ‘I bet this is the last time I shovel my driveway.’”

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