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Bamber Valley Assistant Principal Malissa Nelson advocates for students, from elementary school to graduation

"I really firmly believe I'm right where I need to be," Nelson said.

Malissa Nelson
Bamber Valley Assistant Principal Malissa Nelson on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Next fall, Malissa Nelson will return to Century, the high school she graduated from nearly 20 years ago. Only this time, instead of worrying about exams and homework, she'll enter the building as an assistant principal.

She isn't new to working in the district. For the last several years, she's been an assistant principal at Bamber Valley Elementary. Before that, worked as a special education teacher and then as an instructional coach.

She knows there may be some learning curves with the new role. After all, she'll be working with students at the end of their K-12 education rather than at the beginning of it.

But she's more excited than anything.

"I'm really, really passionate about students. And this is a really great opportunity to get to know kids and their families at a different stage in their education," she said. "One thing that really excites me about going to the high school level is helping students be the agents and advocate for themselves. I really want to empower kids and empower families to be able to speak up for themselves and be able to make that change."

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In her role at Bamber Valley, she's been more of an advocate for students, rather than pushing students to advocate for themselves.

Regardless of whatever difference there is between the two practices, it arrives at the same result: helping students thrive.

According to Nelson, her job can takes different forms. Sometimes it involves decisions and programs, paperwork and logistics. But it also involves simple things, like waiting outside the school with a smile, greeting students when they arrive.

"Honestly, it's one of the best parts of my day" she said about meeting students when they're dropped off. "That's so important to have that contact with them right away in the morning."

She also helps out supervising recess every day.

Inside the building, her role is all about helping students. She works with teachers and case managers to determine whether students need more help than they're getting. She's involved with planning and problem solving.

Like teachers around the country, she was both challenged by and learned from the pandemic.

Instead of greeting students at the front door of the school, she helped do home visits, taking education supplies and meals to students throughout the neighborhoods. Instead of meeting with parents in her office, she spent a lot of time on the phone, helping them navigate the technology and software associated with distance learning.

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Even though schools may have changed in the years since she was a student herself, she's now found herself in the position she looked up to as a little girl.

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"I live just up the street from my elementary school principal, who was hugely influential to me," Nelson said. "I always thought, 'I would love to make that kind of a difference for kids some day.' I would love to be that voice, and be that advocate for kids like she was for me. Because she helped and supported me during a kind of challenging time in my childhood."

As much as she enjoyed her time teaching earlier in her career, she knows she's found the right spot where she can make the best impact.

"I really firmly believe I'm right where I need to be," she said.

And, whether she's performing that role at the elementary school level or the high school level, she'll still be advocating for students and their families.

Who knows? Maybe one day, she'll find herself having the same kind of impact on a student that her own principal once had on her all those years ago. Maybe one day, she'll have a former student enter the field of education because adults like Nelson made them think 'I would love to make that kind of a difference for kids some day.'

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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