By the testimony of colleagues, job references and other observers, Mike Nelson always had leadership qualities so it should not come as a shock that he is scheduled to become Massachusetts’ youngest superintendent of schools upon the June 30 retirement of Old Rochester Regional Superintendent Doug White (more on that below).
“For me, going to school was almost like a home away from home,” said Nelson in an interview with the Wanderer on Tuesday. “My schooling experience was always one of the most reinforcing aspects of my life being surrounded by positive people who were helping me achieve my goals. I remember being in high school thinking, ‘I want to be in education. This is what I want to do.'”
At 6-foot-6, basketball was Nelson’s game growing up, but he left sports behind to focus on his education at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. A political science major, he always wanted to be in education and was 99.9 percent sure it would be in the public schools.
His journey was founded upon the intention to take all the impact that educators made on his life and figure out how to pay it forward.
“When I reflected prior to the last interview (February 29), I really thought about ‘Why am I applying for this position?’ And that’s when I shared the comments about the analogy that educators can be lighthouses for children,” Nelson said. “I thought about how fortunate I was not only to have one lighthouse but many different lighthouses who were educators throughout my life. And I said, ‘That’s the reason why I believe I ended up interviewing for this position,’ because in some ways it helps me come full circle in terms of what people gave to me.
“Now, in terms of being a professional, (I am) being able to work with those people hand-in-hand in terms of helping other kids, and (I am devoting) my life to doing the same thing.”
Nelson, 36, grew up in New Bedford and later Wareham, where he attended the public middle school and high school. His father is a facilities supervisor at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School and his mother worked in the mortgage business.
Technically a millennial, of more relevance is his standing among his peers.
According to the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, of the 237 listed for public school districts in the state, the youngest superintendents for the 2019-20 school year include two at age 38 and four others at 39.
Pending fresh developments, the state will have a new titleholder, according to independent non-profit based in Bedford of which all superintendents are members and benefit from professional development, legal services, policy, etc.
“At the crux of it… I knew a goal of mine was to become a superintendent. At some point I would have to become a superintendent for the first time,” said Nelson. “At one point (in the interview process) I listed the different titles that I have maintained here from a responsibility standpoint.”
While many districts allow a director of special education or student services to focus exclusively on that job description or area of programming, Nelson considers himself fortunate.
“It’s also one of the reasons that I wanted to come here. I believe that the director of student services was going to be used to work with all students and on behalf of all students and families,” he said. “That’s why I mentioned I’ve been designated the civil-rights coordinator for the district, the special-education director, the homeless liaison, the foster-care point of contact. I have had my hand heavy in designing professional-development opportunities, working with the curriculum teams.”
Nelson learned quickly the many areas at which the Central Office is looked upon for facilitation.
“We’ve had some changes in positions and rollovers and some vacancies in Central Office in the last couple of years,” he said. “Even though those were challenging times in some ways, for me personally as a professional it meant I was actually able to step in and take on some responsibilities that typically wouldn’t have fallen on my plate, if you will. And it helped prepare me, at this point having served as the director of student services and then the assistant superintendent, it helped me prepare to have a base knowledge of having my hand in all those different responsibilities.”
Originally hired as director of student services, Nelson was promoted to assistant superintendent last year with the retirement of Elise Frangos. Since then Nelson has taken on more and more, and in doing so spread his wings and has become more widely relevant at ORR.
Nelson’s background in special education served as an important starting point, not only because of the impact he was able to provide in that role but because it helped form an inclusive philosophy that is core to the district’s belief system. In turn, relationships formed and were strengthened, setting the table for the tremendous outpouring of support during the selection process completed on March 5.
“I did not anticipate the level of support that I was given from staff, administrators and teachers and paraprofessionals, right through the ranks including parents and stakeholders when I initially applied for this position, and… I said, ‘Wow, it’s just incredible to know that when you commit yourself to do something that all the relationships and all the time and all the effort that you put into it… it was just such a powerful experience to have that level of support, and I’m extremely grateful for it,” said Nelson.
Presuming successful contract negotiations, there will be a reintroduction period next school year in which Nelson will become known as the superintendent of schools at ORR. During his February 29 finalist interview with the joint school committee, he was asked about the challenges that accompany emerging from inside.
“What does that mean moving forward? When I said that I might have had hard conversations, what I meant is that I would like to think that some of the reasons I’ve been able to establish those relationships is because I’ve always been transparent and honest in terms of listening to others’ points of view but also providing them feedback in terms of why I may have taken a position of using all the data points available in terms of making the best decision,” he said. “I’ve built these relationships in a way that I can continue to build off of them, and I will continue to do a lot of the things that I’ve done in terms of working collaboratively with all the stakeholders and make sure they feel valued in terms of shared decision making.
“So when I think about bringing in a new assistant superintendent and possibly a new director of student services, I think about that I can actually speak from my experiences, think about their skillset and their philosophy and really help them learn about our communities and our communities will learn about these new individuals as well.”
Nelson drives 30-35 minutes to and from ORR from his home in the south end of Plymouth, where he lives with his wife Jessica, a special education teacher, and their two sons and two stepchildren ranging from high school junior and sophomore to a first grader and a three-year-old now attending ORR’s preschool program inside the high school.
Nelson says he has received some advice from White, including the need to devise an entry plan, to focus first on negotiating his contract. Once that is behind him, the more personal sharing and dispensing of pearls of wisdom will commence.
Nelson may be on the on-deck circle, but his philosophy only awaits his at-bat.
“One way I would like to use my skillset is in communicating from the superintendent’s office in real-time in terms of here’s the information we have, we want to share it with our communities,” he said. “I think that that will help build a level of trust between all the different community players in our three towns and a new superintendent.”
Until then, Nelson is appreciative of the support he has received, and regardless of what lies ahead he remains confident based on the focus around him and ability to naturally collaborate toward “what’s best for the kids.”
By Mick Colageo