Building Opportunity

Nick Nelson is Oregon’s 2017 High School Principal of the Year

By Kathy Ursprung

Principal Nick Nelson delivers a speech
Principal Nick Nelson delivers a speech at The Dalles High School’s 2017 graduation.

Nick Nelson, principal of The Dalles High School, may understand the value of a good education better than most.

“We were raised that education is the most important thing you can have, that nobody can take it away from you,” Nick says. “Once you have it, it’s yours.”

That parental lesson took firm hold among the four Nelson siblings, three of whom earned their master’s degrees. Two continued on to careers in education. The third became a licensed social worker involved with children. The fourth sibling went to college and entered corporate management.

“Our folks sacrificed a lot for us,” Nick says. “We didn’t have a whole lot, but education was the priority.”

Nick’s parents didn’t receive the same opportunity.

“My mom was a migrant worker,” he says. “She would go from Oklahoma to Texas to California to Oregon and Washington in the migrant stream at that time.”

Nick’s father met his mother at a migrant camp just west of The Dalles. He finished high school at Dufur during the Depression and went into the Civilian Conservation Corps, then served as a U.S. Navy Seabee during World War II before returning to The Dalles. He attended one term of college.

“Mom always said she got to go to elementary school,” Nick says. “We found out later on that she never really did go to school. She was self-taught and Dad helped her.”

Earlier this year, Nick did something that would surely have made his parents proud. He was named the 2017 Oregon Principal of the Year by the Oregon Association of Secondary School Administrators and the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators.

Among the high school’s accomplishments under Nick’s five years in leadership is an increase in on-time graduation rates of more than 23 percent—from 60 percent to more than 83 percent. The school is on track to meet or exceed that rate again when the state school report cards are released this fall.

The announcement of the award came as a surprise to Nick. The news was delivered at a school board meeting in April after a long day working on school accreditation. Nick was late to the meeting and wondered at the large presence of staff. Seeing his wife and other family members, as well as officials from the Confederation of School Administrators, was the tipoff that something was up.

“It was a complete and total shock to me,” he says. “I didn’t have any idea at all previously.”

Athletic Director
Athletic Director Mike Somnis, left, and Assistant Principal Kurt Evans, right, join Nick in celebrating his 2017 Oregon high school Principal of the Year honors. Photo courtesy of North Wasco County School District 21

Nick has worked in education more than 37 years, most of them in The Dalles, although his career has also taken him to Grass Valley, La Grande, and to Idaho, where he also farmed and ranched to make ends meet.

Jerry Christensen—now retired after working as a The Dalles teacher and administrator—brought Nick back to The Dalles, hiring him in 1980 as a sixth-grade teacher and migrant education program coordinator.

“From there, I just kind of followed him up the ladder,” Nick says. “He was a great mentor, as was (retired teacher) Gladys Caddy. I don’t think I can ask for any better mentors.”

Nick worked to excel as a teacher, then began pursuing more education with administration in mind. He says moving from teaching to administration was in line with the core values his folks provided.

“It is a privilege to have an education to be able to take advantage of what opportunities there are—AP and career ed, the career technical education program— those kinds of opportunities are out there that kids can take advantage of,” Nick says. “I want to see more of that happen. One of the best ways to see it happen was to go for an administration position.”

Nick served for four years as vice principal at The Dalles Middle School, then seven years as vice principal at the high school before taking the principal’s seat. He is starting his sixth year in that role.

“High school is probably the most complex thing you can get involved with in education,” he says. “Grades 9 to 12 are where it happens. Lives change at high school.”

Rather than a boss or a leader, Nick sees his leadership style as that of a builder—someone who “engages, enlists, asks questions, anticipates, invites and builds people—building the opportunities for kids to excel,” he says. “Along with that is building opportunities for staff to grow. The secret, I think, is if the staff can be empowered and feel like they’re improving and there’s something on the inside of them that’s being built. That’s essential for success.”

Earning the principal of the year award has been a team effort, Nick is quick to say, involving all of the administrators and teachers at the high school. And it didn’t happen by accident. School staff has diligently implemented strategies geared toward school improvement during the past five years. They also monitor school data to make sure those strategies are effective.

“We look at multiple measures, including attendance, grades, and behavior, then we even drill down farther,” Nick says.

As an example, he points to a decision to change the scheduling of teacher attention time that, by itself, significantly decreased the number of failing grades in the school.

“Things just really turned around,” Nick says. “We had a nice, healthy drop (in failing grades) just from that one switch.”

Nick’s relationship with students varies from kid to kid, group to group.

“I like to go into our leadership classes,” he says. “I like to be in the classroom as much as I can. I don’t like to leave the building. I enjoy going to games, even though they make the day really long. I know there’s appreciation there when the athletes see that. When the band or jazz people see that.”

Nick and his wife, Jeannie, will travel to Washington, D.C., in September to participate in the national Principal of the Year awards. When he returns, his focus will return to improving the performance of his school. His goal when he took on the principal’s role five years ago was to be in the top 10 percent of schools within five years.

“We’re not quite there yet,” he says and lists a range of recently implemented programs that are helping improve achievement and prepare students to be college and career-ready. “These are some of the things we are piecing together to build this opportunity for kids and for the community.”