Dr. Karissa L. Niehoff is starting her third year as executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is the first female to head the national leadership organization for high school athletics and performing arts and the sixth full-time executive director of the NFHS. She previously was executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools-Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference for seven years. She began her career in Connecticut public education in 1989 as a physical education, health and Latin teacher at Greenwich High School. In the succeeding years, she was a teacher, coach, athletic director, assistant principal and principal at the middle school and high school levels. Niehoff earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts, a master’s from Southern Connecticut State University, a sixth-year degree in educational leadership from Central Connecticut State University and a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Connecticut.
Question: What are some things you are most proud of accomplishing in your first two years as executive director?
Niehoff: In the last two years, we’ve worked hard to bring the NFHS into a better national presence by responding to feedback that we’ve received for some time on services we provide. Doing so meant engaging the membership and its voice in making decisions, and even looking at how we define strategic priorities with the NFHS Board of Directors.
Hopefully, I’ve empowered both the staff and membership, all while inviting voice, collaboration and ideas. Consequently, I hope we enacted those ideas so that the NFHS has pivoted and is moving with greater alacrity into the role of true national leader in the scholastic space.
I’m especially proud that we are actively engaged with national governing bodies and professional sports organizations in collaborative exercises and as service members. We are also engaged with the NCAA in many capacities. We are invited to present at national forums. Our voice is very important now. COVID has helped to carve out that what we are doing in the high school world matters.
Our staff needed to be encouraged and set free to be able to do some things. Given how they have responded, we need to continue to support the NFHS Learning Center in growing, as well as looking at news ways to address communications. I’m proud in what the NFHS Communications/Publications Department has done recently in identifying new ways to communicate. They have capitalized on media platforms and are building relationships. I hope it feels good for staff to know their growth and opinions matter. Ideas from anybody are important. Hopefully, there’s a different opinion and energy in the office that is evident to the eyes of the general public and membership. We’re a different office. We’re a new organization. We’re stronger, and now a better leader.
Question: Since you arrived, there seems to be more emphasis on the NFHS as the national leader for high school sports and performing arts. What’s behind this emphasis?
Niehoff: There’s something for every student at NFHS member schools, whether they have a bend for athletics, performing arts or speech and debate. I think what’s wonderful about high school cocurricular programs is, first and foremost, that they are truly the second half of the school day. They are extensions of all of the intentions of the academic day in growing and developing students. Yet, cocurricular programs do so in a way that traditional classroom learning opportunities do not. Whether it’s a theatre stage or behind the scenes designing sets; if it’s your first time trying out for a debate team; if it’s your first time trying out for a music program or sports, most schools have something that all students can attach themselves to after school.
Our mission at the NFHS is about engaging as many students as possible for the reasons being that they will develop, have fun, and be able to apply what they learn after high school. I think when we dive deeper into supporting the programs and why, it’s really because nowhere else can students grow and develop with trained educational leaders and coaches that will hopefully give them an education-based experience. They can do all that while learning a ton about themselves, what it means to be a teammate, and to enjoy the outcomes of challenges.
Question: Even prior to the pandemic, there was a concern about a decline in sports participation. As the pandemic subsides, what are some strategies for re-igniting that interest in high school activities?
Niehoff: We’re now seeing research detailing how life without activities has resulted in more students self-reporting incidences of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, disconnect and apathy. One study in particular was conducted by the University of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine after the March shutdown of schools. That study revealed 68 percent of the state’s student-athletes reported symptoms of depression by May.
Through studies such as the one in Wisconsin, we’re learning just how important activities truly are. We know students and families are ready to return. As we come back, and where things are ready to go, let’s not forget all the other reasons that we participate in athletics and activities. It’s not just to win. It’s to belong. That’s something we’ve learned to get excited about.
Even if we’re not back in person, there’s virtual belonging that we’ve learned how to do. Virtual belonging is important, and I can’t think of a better environment to have that than in an education- based environment. So, let’s get excited about that now. Let’s belong in any way we can right now. Let’s keep that positivity and creative energy that we’ve had these past few months. Let’s carry all of that with us as we do return to in-person settings. There’s things that we can be excited about right now even as we continue to determine these decisions on returning.
I hope the NFHS can be a leader in telling stories about positive returns, and we offer our own celebratory voice as we do go back successfully. I think when we do return, we need to be the leader in why we need high school activities given what they do.
Question: What are some things you believe that we have learned during the pandemic that might be implemented on an ongoing basis once life returns to normal?
Niehoff: I’ve noticed how technology can be used as a tool to maintain communication, learning and participating. If we can capitalize on what technology can do, we can engage people in continual learning and networking, and it won’t cost us a penny.
What’s been great about organizational memberships is that we’ve taken advantage of technology as a webinar platform and as a communications tool. We need to continue using it as a way to stay engaged, even when we do return to in-person settings. I hope we continue to use technology as an enhancement tool as we return to normal work settings. There’s tremendous value in communicating at the national level on a regular basis.
The education-based environment – high school, in particular, because it is built on structure and a risk minimization approach – is one of the better places for students to re-engage in academics and activities. That’s been the foundation for how we’ve built our programming. It’s much more controlled. This isn’t to discourage club sports participation, but trained coaches, trained teachers and schools have much more structure and many more resources in place for students to have opportunities to learn and have fun as they participate in performing arts and sports.
The recent pause in society has helped elevate the importance of the high school experience, especially considering we are probably the most educated group on the overall development of a child for 100 years. We must continue paying attention to how we take care of students, specifically how we screen them before participation. COVID has taught us that viruses are non-forgiving and there could be new ones on the horizon. We need to have a new level of readiness. Some of our pre-participation information needs to be a little bit deeper and richer. When students are experiencing illnesses or injuries and must stay home, I think telemedicine is going to be an extremely important new resource.
Question: What ways do you see the NFHS being involved this coming year in addressing equity and diversity in high school activities.
Niehoff: The recent racial unrest is a manifestation of issues that are not new. These issues are hundreds of years old. The NFHS, as a leader in this area, needs to talk deeper and more transparently about diversity, equity and inclusion.
The NFHS is committed to understanding how we can best play a role as a leader in facilitating conversations with state associations and developing educational materials that are not just developed internally. Those educational resources need to include taking advantage of the multiple sources of expertise across the nation and engaging those people in live educational experiences. We can take those live conversations and immediately turn them into resources that can be shared with others. Whether it’s in the form of webinars or data and research, we have to be a leader in capturing and sharing those helpful resources. The NFHS also needs to provide states additional resources in the form of links, tool kits, and any other way that we can connect them with places to learn and with tools to use as they do their own education.
Looking at diversity, equity and inclusion, and the role the NFHS can play as a national leader, is among the priorities of our board of directors. It’s my hope that when the Strategic Planning Committee reconvenes in 2021, they will embrace diversity, equity and inclusion as one of our strategic planning priorities. We can then support our desire to be a national leader with specific language and NFHS family support in challenging our staff of 40 to become just that leader.
Question: What are some of the priorities that have been established by the NFHS Board of Directors for the 2020-21 school year?
Niehoff: The NFHS as a national leader has become a standalone point of emphasis. We want to become a national leader in educational support, support for state associations, bringing the high school voice to many tables, and really becoming recognized as the national leader for interscholastic athletics and activities. The issue of diversity, equity and inclusion is also one of the Board priorities. Among the others is technology and our ongoing work to update technology services for the membership. The Center for Officials Services (COS) is related to that, but we wanted to make it a standalone. Our other priorities include the NFHS Network, risk minimization through the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC), and marketing and communications. Marketing is a new priority as we look for a new marketing strategy now that we have signed with Teall Properties Group (TPG). The final priority includes looking at new revenue sources for the NFHS. Through the great work of Dan Schuster, the NFHS director of educational services, and the Learning Center team, we’re building valuable coursework that proves to be a great asset.
Question: What are some of your goals for the next few years as the leader of the NFHS?
Niehoff: As a leader, I channel all of my energy into facilitating communication and listening to the needs of the membership, as well as facilitating and empowering the growth of our staff to capitalize on talents. We’re a small but mighty group. If I can, I just want to be the guide on the side and use any leadership and positional responsibility that I have to do those two things simultaneously.
I want to be pretty persistent, consistent, collaborative, and assertive with grace in terms of communication with outside groups about the importance of our programs played by the state associations in the larger ecosystem of athletics and activities. We are arguably the largest youth sports group in the world, and we are certainly the most diverse. I really want to champion who we are as a federation family, empowering the strengths of the people in that family.
I want us to be nimble while also being coherent to our mission. Everything must be coherent. From a leadership perspective, every daily conversation needs to emphasize the importance of our staff, membership, collaborative ideas, needs of the students and schools, and our connection to other pertinent groups that can help in supporting our mission.
Cody Porter is the manager of media relations in the NFHS Publications/Communications Department.