Dr. Earl Joe Nelson had two offers to become a superintendent in July 2019 – one near family in Biloxi and the other the Clarksdale Municipal School District in the Delta.
And he chose us.
Both were failing districts with the Mississippi Department of Education, but the CMSD was 70 points away from a D and the district near family was seven points away from a D. Thanks to CMSD’s five board members, Nelson decided to come to Clarksdale.
Nelson spoke about his decision to be the CMSD superintendent, his experiences through a little more than one year on the job and his vision for the future at Clarksdale Baptist Church Sunday morning.
“I was really drawn to the five members of the board here,” Nelson said. “I’ve been around Mississippi and I was told that, not only do you want to be a part of a system, you want a system to be a part of you. Not only are you interviewing with them, you’re interviewing them as well.”
Nelson is in his 29th year in education after teaching at Biloxi High School for 11 years and being an administrator in the Pass Christian School District for 16 years. Both were A districts during Nelson’s tenure.
“You learn a lot in an A system,” Nelson said. “The things that you do, the mindset is different. How we look at education is different. If you look at all of our A systems in Mississippi, it’s the same. If you look at what curriculum they use, if you look at what books they use, it’s basically the same. Because here again, in A systems, they want to do what other A systems do. If you want to be successful, you want to follow what the most successful people do.”
Nelson said it has been very difficult bringing the same mentality to Clarksdale. He has also dealt with some health issues as he suffered a heart attack the week after beginning his tenure and had open heart surgery in February where he had a double valve replaces and a double bypass.
“Last school year was a rocky school year for me getting to know the system, being in the field working,” Nelson said.
Nelson said he had to quickly figured out what kind of staff he had and what he needed to fix.
“My first year, I chased a lot of rabbits,” Nelson said. “This year has been quite different for me. I’ve had the opportunity to bring some great people on staff here from A school districts.”
Dr. Janice Page has been contracted out and Dr. Shanta Rhodes is a new assistant superintendent.
“Last year we had a system that I pretty much was the leader and did everything, changing the tire to putting air in the tires,” Nelson said.
Nelson said there are instructional, operational and leadership systems in place, but he is still working on having the right people in place to best benefit the students.
“School is all about students,” Nelson said. “It’s all about making best decisions for our students, not for adults.
“With Clarksdale, I think we have a mindset of we’ve been making decisions for adults and not for students. And so that has to change,” he added. “I am meeting some resistance in that and I’m pushing back every time I run into that.”
Nelson said his goal is for kids to be able to continue their education, enlist in the service or be employed after graduation. He recognized the number of students decreased in the school system, but the goal is for people to be able to move to Clarksdale and have the numbers go back up.
Nelson said students in secondary schools told him last year expectations of were too low. In an effort to change that, Nelson said more classes are being offered in junior high and high school. He said students in junior high can take courses to earn high school credits.
Nelson said he expects to have testing this year and the goal is to get the grade to a C with the MDE.
He said technology is growing and he expects Google and Zoom to be used for school after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nelson said another goal is to add shop and welding classes. He said Clarksdale is considered a manufacturing area in the Delta. He also said he talked with Jimmy Walker at Saf-T-Cart and an instructor may be provided to teach kids how to weld, use the necessary computer and cut metal with proper measuring. He added students may be able to make $15 straight out of high school and all seven plants in the area are looking for the same type of thing.
One issue Nelson said he would like to address is the Carl Keen Career and Technical Education Center. He said 20 instructors have been lost in the last six years, but Rhodes, who was previously a CTE director, is working on some of those issues.
“I’m not very happy with it right now, just to be honest with you,” Nelson said. “The programs have gone down. We’ve lost teachers there.”
Nelson said 100 percent of the seniors graduated in 2020, but he acknowledged COVID-19 prevented the state test from taking place.
He said a social worker will be in all schools this fall. When kids are not in school, a resource officer will be sent to their home, a letter will be sent to their parents and charges could be filed against the parents if absences continue.
“If you continue to do that, you’re going before the judge,” Nelson said. “The judge here has been very supportive and he’s locking people up.”
Nelson said there was a 22 percent absentee rate when he arrived, but if the number is reduced to the teens, that by itself could improve the CMSD a letter grade.
He also said facilities have issues with air conditioning, heating and windows. He is looking at a company to provide the district better lighting and different phone services that could reduce the bills $120,000 to $150,000 per year. The extra funds could help with facilities.
The Wildcats are set to open at their new football stadium at the high school Sept. 18. It was made possible with an $8.5 million bond the voters passed, but Nelson would have preferred other facility issues were addressed first.
“We just passed a bond,” Nelson said. “I wasn’t here. I hear the bond is $8.5 million bond. I wouldn’t put $7.5 million into an athletic complex. I wouldn’t do that, but here again, I inherited that. It’s been a nightmare for me just trying to figure out some things we can do different because to have roofs that are leaking and we do have schools that are having difficulty without air.”