La Crosse Schools’ Randy Nelson faces final leadership test before stepping down as superintendent

Nelson reflects on more than three decades in education and guiding a school district through a pandemic
Randy Nelson

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – The School District of La Crosse is a month away from new leadership. Superintendent Randy Nelson is retiring after 37 years in education. However, parents still need his guidance as the district tries to figure out what September will look like for students and teachers.

Open the dictionary to the word, final, and the third definition reads concluding examination. We all know what it’s like to take a final exam. Nelson faces the toughest final test of his career.

“It’s been a long journey,” Nelson said.

Nelson has prepared his whole life to lead students and teachers.

“Our systems I think whether it’s ours or any others’ in education really needs to be about one child at a time,” Nelson said.

His career began in 1983.

“I taught high school students speech and theater and English and absolutely loved that,” Nelson said.

His dream was to follow the example of his teachers.

“I was told by one of them who I still am in contact with. They said, ‘Nelson…you were a kid we were concerned about. You were just a kid who we thought could fall through the cracks and so we jumped in. We jumped in and we connected,'” Nelson said. “That’s the kind of educators I had the privilege of supporting me.”

During his time with the School District of La Crosse, Nelson said he is proud of the progress made to revamp places like Northside Elementary, and moving two of the district’s charter schools to the old Brick House downtown.

“It’s really the experiential piece that our student ought to have,” Nelson said.

Social Justice and equity for students who live difficult lives away from school is an area he says he could have done more.

“I wish that I could have been more nimble myself, more aggressive, and more agile to have our system respond to some of those things faster,” he said.

The end of June is the final act for Mr. Nelson. However, it comes during a time his experience is needed most.

“Our teachers are missing their kids and our kids are missing our teachers,” he said. “We’re all missing each other. Education is a human relations endeavor.”

Most tests and challenges can be met with careful planning and studying. Preparation for a pandemic is not in many textbooks.

“It’s very taxing from a leadership standpoint,” Nelson said.

People are still looking to him for direction and clarity in a moment of great unrest.

“We’re working on a survey that will be going out to all of our students, our staff and our parents here in the next few days so that we can better understand the experience from their side.”

His final exam as a leader doesn’t carry letter grade. Nelson says his final weeks in this chair will be measured by how he leaves it behind.

“We’re looking at creating another opportunity in August and hopefully targeting who we know really could use some support. Trying to do some face to face things with that.”

The Brick House, a new home for students he says, is a prime example of how people can stand stronger than they did yesterday.

“This building has what’s stood the test of time,” he said. “It has withstood several generations and today it’s something different than it was five months ago. But the best buildings are ones that are able to change.”

The reward for overcoming a final exam is the next test whatever that may be.

“It’s my hope that as I transition out and the district moves forward, that people see the opportunity that’s there to do the next great things,” Nelson said.

Nelson said he doesn’t know what he will do after he steps down but is happy to slow down for a change. Dr. Aaron Engel the former superintendent the Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau School District will take his place.