Jensen touts change in American Falls, reflects on schools chief run

AMERICAN FALLS — Randy Jensen uses a fitness ball for an office chair because “it never hurts to get a little exercise.”

It’s also good for posture, Jensen says, and forestalls his bent for dozing off at peculiar times. In 2012, his children launched an Instagram account dubbed Sleepy Randy, which documents the former state schools chief candidate’s tendency to fall asleep on a whim — at a baseball game, on a school bus, in a hot tub.

The fitness ball is one of several new additions to the superintendent’s office in American Falls, ever since Jensen took over as superintendent in July. White paint now covers what were brown, wood-paneled walls; a separate standup desk sits where former superintendent Ron Bollinger’s hulking executive desk once did; and Jensen stripped the window blinds to flood the office with natural light (and, perhaps, to combat catnaps).

“An office sends a message,” Jensen said, adding that after five months as superintendent that message should be clear — change is coming to the American Falls School District.

In a two-hour interview with Idaho Education News, the 32-year, highly decorated educator with greying hair discussed his plans for the rural and diverse Southeast Idaho district. He also reminisced on minute details surrounding his 2014 run for state superintendent, and why he may have lost.

“I look just like Tom Luna, when people wanted something else,” Jensen said, speaking of the former Idaho schools chief, who officially dropped out of the race three days after Jensen formally announced his candidacy on the Statehouse steps in 2014.

Yet it was Luna’s embattled status and controversial policies that enticed Jensen to run in the first place. After concluding that Luna “didn’t stand a chance at winning a third term,” Jensen said he reached out to fellow educators across Idaho to encourage them to run. When no one would, Jensen said, he entered the race.

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“Luna was killing education,” Jensen said. “I ran to get him out of there.”

Jensen met later rumors of Luna’s nixed candidacy with skepticism, because he first learned about them from his 93-year-old mother, who was living in a nursing home in Pocatello at the time.

“I came back from Boise and my mom said, ‘You don’t have to worry about Tom running, Randy. George told me he’s dropping out.'”

George who? Jensen wondered.

Turned out, George was former U.S. Rep. George Hansen, 83, a retired politician and fellow nursing-home resident in Pocatello. Hansen and Jensen’s mother had apparently shared dinner together at the nursing home — and some political dirt, courtesy of Hansen’s own inside sources.

Days later, news reports confirmed that Luna had officially dropped out, but Jensen kept campaigning, despite what he now considers an inability to click with Idaho’s predominantly conservative voter base.

“I’m not a Republican,” Jensen said, adding that he only registered as one to compete in the GOP primary for state superintendent.

In the end, Jensen ran second to Sherri Ybarra, in a hotly contested four-way race. Ybarra went on to defeat Democrat Jana Jones in the general election.

Despite losing, Jensen refrained from critiquing Ybarra, or her current Republican opponent, Wilder superintendent Jeff Dillion. The two recently faced off in the first round of debates in Coeur d’Alene.

“I respect anyone who runs,” Jensen said.

For now, Jensen said he’s excited about affecting local change in American Falls, where he has worked as a teacher and principal for 29 years, was named Idaho Educator of the Year and once received a Fulbright scholarship to help train educators in South America.

Some of that change includes overseeing the eventual shuffle of hundreds of elementary students into a new $9 million intermediate school now under construction. American Falls voters approved a bond issue to help curb overcrowding in the district in March.

But structural upgrades tied to growth are just one part of a broader changeup in American Falls, said Jensen, who’s now heading a districtwide push toward project-based learning and more career-technical programs.

Projects, not standardized tests, Jensen said, best asses student performance, especially in diverse districts like American Falls, where a high concentration of Latino English language learners grapple with the heavy writing emphasis on Idaho’s current standardized test of choice, the SBAC.

“Schools in Boise kick our butt in test scores,” Jensen said, “yet I can brag that almost half of our students are bilingual.”

Jensen also partnered with a number of local industrial and agricultural businesses, including frozen potato producer Lamb Weston and surrounding farmers to help find jobs for his district’s career-technical students. To capitalize on rural Idaho families’ preference for the trades, Jensen said American Falls is developing “work based” report cards, which will track things like absences, tardies and discipline infractions. These measurements, Jensen believes, will steer local business owners toward recent graduates interested in the rural area’s array of trades careers.

“We delude our current report cards,” Jensen said. “A student might be a horrible worker but still have a 4.0 grade-point average.”

Overall, the shift from school principal to superintendent has been good, Jensen said, but it has at least one downside.

“I’m not sleeping as much as I did before,” Jensen said.

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