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DL principal wins top state honors

Sandy Nelson, principal at Rossman Elementary School in Detroit Lakes, has been named the best in the state.

Sandy Nelson's colleague and long-time friend Jerry Hanson always gives him grief about "talking too much" and his ability to ramble on.

So when Nelson was interviewed for the National Distinguished Principal Award, where he had to answer 21 questions in 45 minutes, Hanson joked that it was a miracle that Nelson could keep his answers brief.

The Rossman Elementary Principal did find it difficult to explain the school's great accomplishments in two minutes per question, but in the end, he was able to pull it off and surprise Hanson, principal of Roosevelt Elementary School.

Nelson is Minnesota's 2010 National Distinguished Principal -- an award given to one principal from each state.

But he remains humble about the recognition. He credits the whole school, its staff and students.

"Principals are not who they are by themselves, ever," he said. "Quality principals are not about themselves, they're about their team."

This year was Nelson's second try at competing for the award. After applying last year, he was picked as one of the top three finalists, but didn't make the cut. He didn't consider reapplying until the president of the Elementary Principals Association said his first application was strong and convinced him to reapply.

"So I said, well I'll have to think about it because it takes time to do this. It takes some commitment, even from your family," he said.

The 45-minute interview wasn't the only stressful process Nelson had to go through to compete for the award.

It began all over again last fall when he submitted his written application that was due in December. He then found out he was one of the top three finalists and interviewed in St. Paul last Friday.

On his way home, he stopped to visit his son who lives in the Twin Cities and that's when he got the call with the good news.

So in the end, it was all worth it.

"It was a relief." Nelson was interviewed by 12 other principals representing various divisions from across the state. He was asked about what's being done to promote academic as well as behavioral excellence at Rossman.

He had to explain what makes the school unique, how to promote student performance, how to encourage the staff to continue to improve, etc. He answered various questions that gave interviewers an idea of what's happening at Rossman that makes it a quality school.

"To summarize that, it's not always easy to do in two minutes a question," he said.

Nelson will represent Minnesota when he travels to Washington, D.C. this fall to accept the award with 49 other elementary principals from around the nation.

"It's exciting to have recognition for our school," he said.