Small district experience in multi-faceted admin roles
By Robert Williams
Jason S. Smith will be the new principal at Frazee-Vergas High School beginning in June at the start of the 2023-24 school year.
“I had heard there was an opening coming and I kept my eye out for it,” he said. “The role is something I’ve been looking to get into. This opportunity came along and I jumped on it.”
Interviews were conducted with four other candidates from an original pool of nine by committee March 7-8. The other candidates included: Hannah M. Frink-Levenhagen, Student Success Coordinator at Perham Public Schools; Barnesville teacher Scott Amundson; Detroit Lakes teacher Lisa Conzemius and Nevis principal Brian R. Michaelson.
The hiring committee was made up of two school board members, elementary principal Travis Nagel, Superintendent Terry Karger and one teacher representative.
Smith was raised in Fargo and attended Minnesota State University Moorhead. He is married with three kids ages 11, 9 and five. The Smith family currently lives in Moorhead, where all three kids are enrolled.
After college, Smith continued a restaurant career while he determined what to do with his first college degree in History.
“I realized after a couple years I wasn’t using it or going to grad school as quickly as I thought, so I went back and got my teaching certificate,” Smith said.
Smith taught fifth and sixth grade social studies in the Waubun-Ogema school district for four years before moving to Ada-Borup West, where he taught another four years as a high school History teacher. He also coached Legion baseball for five years there and was the summer recreation director in both Ada and Ulen.
“Best teaching job I’ve had,” said Smith. “I would not have left Ada to go for another teaching job, period. I loved it, loved the kids, and loved the community.”
Smith had done his student teaching in Ulen. While finishing grad school and earning licensure to become a principal, an opening in Ulen-Hitterdal appeared out of nowhere one night.
“I was sitting around a campfire at 10:30 at night and got a Facebook message from someone who is now a school board member, who, at that time, was a teacher who was retiring,” said Smith.
That heads-up led Smith to accept the Dean of Students position, a unique role that is typically a teacher under contract with special administrative duties.
There is no principal in the Ulen-Hitterdal district, which is co-oped with Norman County East, where there is a principal in Twin Valley.
“I took that role and job and short of just a couple of things, I’ve done most of that job, as well,” said Smith.
The move to taking over as principal in Frazee is a career progression move.
“It’s a great opportunity for me and my family; the title is part of it but that’s not the whole of it,” he said. “To step into the principal’s role and be doing the job in the way that I like to be doing it—I’m very excited for it.”
During his time in Ulen, Smith took on multiple roles as the district had two different superintendents come and go during his time there, including interim superintendent.
“There were two to three days a week where I was the only administrator in the building and that was great for me,” he said.
Smith used his multi-faceted time in Ulen to build relationships with three different superintendents.
“I liked them all quite a bit, learned a lot from them and just got a really good angle on how things work in a smaller district, especially with that relationship between superintendent and principal,” said Smith.
Smith has watched developments in Frazee-Vergas by reading school board minutes over the past year and recognized challenges that are similar in many districts, including such things from bullying and staff engagement.
“I sat through the interview and one thing that came on is that staff is looking for something to rally around together again. It feels like people are starting to drift off and COVID pushed a lot of that. That’s not your administration; that’s the changes we saw in education,” he said. “Looking to get us all together again.”
Regarding the student experience, Smith was aware of bullying issues in the district early in the school year and noted how that can be best addressed by teamwork.
“I had heard about the situation you folks had with bullying here in the last year or so, but I think a lot of that gets solved with good people in good places, making sure our directives are clear, making sure that we’re all looking at the same target and making sure we’re all pulling in the same direction,” he did.
The district did address the issue by hiring a student success coordinator and that move seemed to quell much of the angst felt school-wide earlier in the year. Smith and the hiring committee did not dig deep into that specific situation but he understands all sides of the issue.
“The community wants a solution,” said Smith. “The community feels their kids are hurting and therefore, it’s more imperative that they find that solution.”
Smith is looking to make an immediate impact on more than just one issue bringing a fresh eye and new start for both students and faculty.
“That’s what I’m hoping,” he said. “Through conversations with your school board and with the team that I interviewed with, I’m hoping that’s what we can do. New school year, fresh start, new energy and pick up what’s good and what we’ve been doing and keep pushing that in the same direction and try to improve.”
Smith is a methodical and engaging speaker and has a definite action plan for both his new position and what the role means. His aim is to take a hands-on approach with communication at the forefront of what he needs to better assess the future of the job.
“A person comes in with their own set of goals, but of course, in your first year in a position like this your best bet is to take it all in and get the lay of the land,” he said. “The work I’ll do in the summer will help guide that along. It’s seeing where we can improve, not making wholesale changes without spending a day, a month or year in the building. It’s getting in and getting a feel for the culture. Getting a feel for what I can see and where I know I can can be the most impactful. It’s talking to staff, talking to kids and really trying to get the full picture. I’m excited to be here, excited to step into the role.”