/I’m looking to re-energize and build’ Clarksdale schools new leader accepts ‘the unique set of challenges’ the Delta presents

I’m looking to re-energize and build’ Clarksdale schools new leader accepts ‘the unique set of challenges’ the Delta presents

Nonprofit Mississippi News CLARKSDALE — After a 12-year journey that was marked by significant strides but also lingering struggles, Clarksdale Municipal Schools District’s chief Dennis Dupree announced his retirement. Kenneth Gooden, a board member, told Mississippi Today that Dupree’s departure prompted the board to begin a search for someone who would be “proactive, have a plan,and be ready for the unique set of difficulties” the Delta presents. These unique challenges include a decline in student enrollment, high teacher turnover and six schools that are rated as low performing. The school board began a search to find its next leader after learning that Dupree would be retiring June 28. The Mississippi School Boards Association was retained by the board for $10,500. After narrowing down the list of 20 candidates to six, two of whom were internal, the board elected Earl Joe Nelson Jr. as the new superintendent for Clarksdale Schools. Nelson was among two finalists last year for the Canton superintendent post. Nelson was born in Utica, Mississippi. However, he is Mississippi Delta-related. His father Earl Joe Nelson Sr. was his father. Like his father, Nelson has been an educator for over two decades. The Clarksdale school district, like many others in the Delta, has difficulty retaining qualified teachers, which negatively impacts student achievement as well as community involvement. Since 2013, the Mississippi Department of Education created the A-through F rating system under Every Student Succeeds Plan. The district is still low performing and continues to bounce between D- and F each year. The district was given an F rating in 2017-2018 because 19% of its teachers were not certified. Nelson stated that he is looking at ways to retain staff from other schools. There were 52 positions available before Nelson’s first day, July 8. According to the district’s website, there are currently 40 open positions. Nelson stated, “I must recruit everywhere.” Nelson grew up in Utica and saw his father and mother work tirelessly as teachers. He decided not to pursue education. The then 23-year old moved to Texas after graduating in 1990 from Jackson State University. He returned to Mississippi one year later. His high school principal offered him three times in 1993 a position as a teacher for the Biloxi School district. Nelson turned down two times. His principal encouraged Nelson to come and have a look at the school on his third attempt. This was a month before school was scheduled to begin. Nelson went to the school and never looked back. He was an assistant basketball coach at Biloxi High School and helped lead the team to two consecutive state championships. He was also a middle school football coach, despite not being very knowledgeable about the sport. He says that what makes him happy is helping “200 guys” to graduate from college and “motivating children.” Nelson left Biloxi in 2004 after 11 years as a coach and teacher. As an assistant principal and sole administrator, he spent 15 years at Pass Christian Middle School. Through Nelson’s tenure, the school maintained an A rating until 2016, when it received its first B rating. The school was awarded the National Blue Ribbon Schools Award in 2012. The U.S. Department of Education awards this award “recognizes public, private elementary, middle and high schools based upon their academic excellence or progress in closing achievement gap.” Carla J. Evers is the superintendent of Pass Christian Schools. She said in an email that Nelson’s visionary leadership, along with the expertise of teachers, students’ willingness to learn, and community commitment, helped Pass Christian Middle School earn its National Blue Ribbon Schools award. “As I value the story, Nelson gave each student in the school a piece blue ribbon and asked them to wear it as a way of visualizing the possibilities and reminding them of the goal.” Nelson was a key figure in the school’s academic success. He said that he survived difficult times. The district was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The city lost its tax base and many lives. Teachers and students lost their homes. Sue Matheson (then superintendent) said that 80 percent of personnel in the district lost homes. “We were completely devastated. Nelson stated that we had lost everything. His administration persevered. Instruction resumed 8 weeks later. Nelson said that his office was in the trunk of his car. FEMA provided 50 portable classrooms to DeLisle Elementary School. In 7 weeks, the high school was rebuilt. He said that it took 3-4 years to rebuild the other schools. Nelson stated that all students from K-12 were present at the site. Nelson said, “We didn’t have instruction for 7 to 8 weeks but we still had some top scores in Mississippi.” It opened my eyes to the possibility that kids can succeed if you believe and believe in them. The school was awarded a level 5 superior rating in 2005-2006. This is the highest rating possible under the accountability system. According to Sandy Stillons, the Clarksdale school board unanimously selected Nelson as its next superintendent because of his “track record of running one of our highest-rated schools in the state,” she said in a telephone interview with Mississippi Today. Stillons stated that while there will be challenges, he has demonstrated his ability to move students forward. “We found him very open and friendly.” His experience on the Coast, rebuilding a district from scratch, has given Nelson insight into the problems Clarksdale faces with limited resources. He said that changing the mindset of people in the area is one of the most important parts. “I want to shift the mindset from a fixed to a growth mindset. Nelson said that he is a big believer in growth mindsets. Nelson said, “We must stop making excuses for the things we don’t have. We have to use what we do have effectively. And that’s what my mission is.” He also knows that change takes time. It takes time. He said, “You have to get people to believe in the process of success. It’s not easy.” “Success does not appeal to everyone. “Success is not popular.”