Earl Joe Nelson, Jr., Clarksdale Municipal School District newly selected superintendent, sits in his office on July 9 in Clarksdale.

CLARKSDALE – Reality set in for school board members of Clarksdale Municipal School District when its chief Dennis Dupree announced he would retire after a 12-year journey marked by significant strides and lingering struggles. 

News of Dupree’s departure allowed the board to start a search to find someone “who will be proactive, has a plan, and is ready for the unique set of challenges” the Delta brings, board member Kenneth Gooden told Mississippi Today recently.

Those unique challenges consist of a declining student enrollment, high teacher turnover, and six of seven schools rated low performing.

After learning Dupree was set to retire June 28, the school board set out on a search for its next leader. The board approved $10,500 to retain the Mississippi School Boards Association to assist in the search.

After weeding through 20 candidates and narrowing the list to six – two of whom were in-house – the board in July chose Earl Joe Nelson Jr., former administrator in the Pass Christian and Biloxi school districts, as the new superintendent for Clarksdale schools.

Last year, Nelson was one of two finalists for the superintendent position in Canton.

Nelson grew up in Utica, Mississippi, but he has Mississippi Delta ties. He was born in Cleveland, Mississippi, where his father, Earl Joe Nelson Sr., lived. Similarly to his father, Nelson has been in education for more than two decades. 

Like most school districts in the Delta and across the state, the Clarksdale school district has trouble retaining highly qualified educators, which affects student achievement and community involvement. 

The district remains classified as low performing, bouncing between D and F every year since 2013, when the Mississippi Department of Education established the A-through-F rating system under the Every Student Succeeds Plan. 

In the 2017-2018 school year, 19% of the district’s teachers were not certified and perhaps consequently the district received an F rating

Nelson said he’s looking for ways to help retain the staff at other schools. Before his first day on July 8, the district had 52 open positions to fill. Currently, 40 positions need to be filled, according to the district’s website. 

“I have to recruit everywhere,” said Nelson.

Growing up in Utica, Nelson watched his mother and father work tirelessly as educators. Hence, he declared he wouldn’t go into education. After graduating from Jackson State University in 1990, the then 23-year-old moved to Texas. One year later, he moved back to Mississippi.

In 1993, on three occasions, his old high school principal offered him a job as a teacher in the Biloxi School District. Nelson declined twice. On the third attempt, a month before school was set to start, his principal encouraged him to “come and take a look,” he said. 

Nelson visited the school and never looked back. 

At Biloxi High School, he became an assistant basketball coach helping to lead the team to two state championships. He also was a middle school football coach despite not knowing much about the sport.

But what satisfies him the most has been helping over “200 guys” graduate and “motivating kids.”

After 11 years in Biloxi as a teacher and coach, Nelson moved on to Pass Christian in 2004. He spent the next 15 years leading students at Pass Christian Middle School as an assistant principal and sole principal. The school has maintained an A rating throughout Nelson’s administration until the 2016-2017 school year when the school received its first B rating. 

Under his leadership, the middle school received the 2012 National Blue Ribbon Schools award. This award administered by the U.S. Department of Education “recognizes public and private elementary, middle, and high schools based on their overall academic excellence or their progress in closing achievement gaps.”

“When Pass Christian Middle School received its National Blue Ribbon, it was (Nelson’s) visionary leadership coupled with the expertise of the teachers, the willingness of the students to learn, and the commitment of the community that helped the school earn the prestigious award,” said Carla J. Evers, superintendent of Pass Christian Schools, in an email.

“As I appreciate the story, he gave everyone in the school a piece of blue ribbon and asked that they wear it as a means of visualizing what was possible and as a way to remind them of the goal.”

Throughout his tenure at Pass Christian., Nelson helped the school achieve academic success. Yet, he endured trying times, he said. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast destroying every school in the district except for DeLisle Elementary School.

The city lost lives and its tax base. Students and teachers lost their homes. Sue Matheson, then superintendent, told WLOX 80 percent of the personnel in the district lost their homes. 

“We were totally devastated. We had lost everything,” Nelson said.

His administration persevered. Instruction resumed 8 weeks later. Nelson recalled his office being in “the trunk of his car.” 

FEMA delivered 50 portable classrooms on the campus of DeLisle Elementary School. The high school was rebuilt in 7 weeks. However, it took about 3 to 4 years to rebuild all other schools, he said.

“We had all of the students K-12 on the site,” Nelson said. “We didn’t have instruction for 7 or 8 weeks and we still had some of the top scores in Mississippi. That opened my eyes up that it still can happen for kids if you believe in kids and you believe they can make a difference.”

In 2005-2006, the school received a level 5 superior rating, the top rating under the accountability system at the time.

Clay Stillons, Clarksdale Municipal School Board president (left to right) poses with SuzAnne Walton, administrator of the year from Kirkpatrick Elementary School, aduring a January monthly school board meeting

Nelson’s “track record in running one of the highest rated schools in the entire state,” was one of the reasons the Clarksdale school board unanimously chose him as the next superintendent, said board president Sandy Stillons in a phone call with Mississippi Today.

“We know there are going to be challenges, but he has a proven ability in moving students forward,” Stillons said. “We found him to be a very open and warm individual.”

Because of his experiences on the Coast – rebuilding a district from the ground up – Nelson says he has insight into the issues the Clarksdale community faces with limited resources.

One of the most important aspects is changing the mindset of the people in this area, he said.

“I want to change the mindset from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. I’m big on growth mindsets,” said Nelson. “We gotta stop making excuses for what we don’t have and use what we have effectively, and so that’s what I’m here to do.”

He knows change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process. 

“You gotta get people to trust the process of success and it’s not fun,” he said. “Success is not popular. You have to have change to have success and everybody don’t like change and so I came here to be a change agent.” 

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.