Jordan Nelson was in the midst of his first year as principal at Collins-Maxwell High School when in February of that year, all “you know what” broke loose.
“It was crazy,” Nelson recalled. Within one week’s time, the school experienced the unexpected death of a high school student, the sudden suspension of its superintendent and being put on lockdown because of a very real threat to students’ safety.
“Honestly, the thing that helped me deal with it most, other than some great people here, was my coaching experiences (from back when he was teaching and coaching) … those (coaching experiences) put me in a lot of high stress situations and talking to the media,” he said. This time, he admitted, was a little different, because it was “how much can we tell the media?”
Nelson remembers how Bryce Caple, school board president at the time, would come in, and he and Caple would sit and talk to the school’s attorney as each situation unfolded. “The media wasn’t going to stop until I talked to them,” he said. And finally he did. Nelson had been unexpectedly catapulted to top spokesman for the district.
Going through all that, during the same year that the district was also having very tense discussions with Baxter about whole grade sharing, was tough at the time, but what has happened in the district since that eventful February has been nothing short of remarkable. And very soon, July 1 to be exact, Nelson will not only be principal of the middle and high schools in the district, he will also be the district’s new superintendent. And he’s only 38 years old.
To understand how Nelson came to this point, it helps to look at where he’s been. He grew up in Westby, Wis., and graduated from Westby High School in 1997. He attended Luther College to be a teacher, but changed his major to sports management and graduated in 2001 with a degree in physical education, health and sports marketing.
He landed a job in sports marketing in Philadelphia with an agency that did a lot of marketing and sales for college and pro teams. “I got to meet a lot of famous people,” he said, but only three months into it, he knew he should never have given up on his first dream — educating. After six months in Philly, he left the job and went back home to figure out how to right the ship.
He decided to move to central Iowa and live with some friends in Grinnell, and finish getting his teaching credits at William Penn University. During that couple of years, he coached high school baseball at BGM in nearby Brooklyn and was also an assistant basketball coach there.
After completing the coursework for the teaching degree, he took his first teaching job at SCMT in Sheffield, where he was the elementary and high school PE teacher and athletic director. He was also the head boys’ basketball coach, assistant varsity football coach and head girls’ track coach, plus he taught driver’s ed and did some rec league coaching in the community. His basketball team made it to state three times and won a state championship in 2011, ending the season 27-0. It was exciting and kept him pretty busy, and it was manageable, he said, because he was still single.
After four years at SCMT’s high school, a whole grade sharing agreement happened with Rockwell-Swaledale, and Nelson got moved to the middle school to teach and coach, and in 2006, he decided to start leadership classes in education through Drake. He’d had a strong interest in leadership from the beginning, but knew that he probably couldn’t coach once he became a principal, so he’d sat on that move awhile, he admitted.
While working toward leadership, he also got married in 2007, to the SCMT schools media specialist.
In December of 2008, he earned his master’s degree, and in 2012, he took a job as assistant high school principal in Carlisle, and because of the need, he also was the head boys’ basketball coach for the district. The position at Carlisle brought him into contact with a man who would prove to be as important later in his career, as he was when Nelson was at Carlisle.
“Tom Lane hired me at Carlisle,” he said. It was Lane, then Carlisle superintendent, who was a great mentor to Nelson, and who, when all the craziness happened at Collins-Maxwell in 2016, reached out to Nelson offering his help. Shortly thereafter, through his work with the AEA, Lane became C-M’s interim superintendent, and would help Nelson, the C-M school board and the district get through a very tough stretch of time.
“The thing about Tom,” Nelson said, “is he does everything right. He knows how to handle school finances, how to deal with negative things and what he doesn’t know, he knows the best people in the state to reach out to for help.” Nelson recalled how Lane held two forums for the public to lay everything out about how the district was doing, and some of that wasn’t real positive in terms of the outlook for the future. Finances were an issue; academic achievement was an issue and enrollment was an issue.
But once Lane realized what the school board and community wanted for the district, he helped lay out the plans for them to move forward.
One of the main plans was operational sharing, and that brought in another great superintendent for the district. “I’d only known Ottie (Maxey, Ballard superintendent and present shared superintendent with C-M) very little, ” Nelson said, “but working with Ottie closely has made me want to be a good superintendent.”
Nelson also wants to become a stable leader for the district, because it’s no secret that C-M has had a number of leadership transitions. Nelson is so committed to the district at this time that he’s moving his wife, and their school-age son, to Maxwell this year.
“If I didn’t think this district had viability, I wouldn’t bring my son here,” he said. The family still resides in Carlisle, where his step-daughter is a senior this year. Nelson also has two older step-children, who are out of school. His son, Luther, is presently in fourth grade and will start fifth grade as a Spartan.
Speaking of Spartans — the new school mascot has been just one of the very positive things that is happening at Collins-Maxwell Schools this year. “There’s so much positivity up here; our academics are better, and we have so much school spirit as the Spartans,” he said. The former mascot was given up, after the school’s long sports sharing arrangement with Baxter ended at the end of the last school year. As hard as that was to work through, and it was met with resistance from some, there is so much energy in the district this year.
“I won’t be one of those people who believes that small schools are dying,” Nelson said. “We’ve got too much going for us.” He brings up three big points: 1) behavioral issues are down; 2) absenteeism is down; 3) assessment scores are up. And, he added, the high school has started offering AP classes this year and plans to offer on-site ACT testing to all seniors this April.
“It’s fun to come to work every day,” he said. “We have an awesome staff.” Among that awesome staff is the high school secretary, Jodi Girard, and school counselor Jessica Allen, two positions that Nelson said are critical to his success. The district also has a great group of teachers, and has the benefit of some veteran teachers, along with good younger teachers. “They’re all working together.”
There are a number of committees in the district that teachers serve on to help improve the district. “We don’t have teachers that sit on the sidelines; they’re all involved and that helps build our culture. I don’t want to lose any of them… they’re good teachers and good people.”
Nelson is also very pleased that his elementary school principal, Chad Grandon, is a leader who shares the same goals that he has for the district. “We have fun, but we get stuff done.”
When he thinks back to all that the district has been through over the past few years, Nelson said, “it’s easy in this job to become negative … but you always have to find ways to turn it around and make things positive.” And he’s very positive about the district. If any parents are wondering whether Collins-Maxwell is the right school for their child, he insists, “Come and talk to me. You can learn so much face-to-face, and I can sell Collins-Maxwell as a school. It’s easy. We have so much good going on here.”