AMERICAN FALLS – In this town of less than 4,500 people, Randy Jensen has taken 3,000 students to lunch.
Anyone who has played Little League baseball in the past 25 years has shared the field with Coach Jensen.
One of four Republicans vying for state superintendent of public instruction, Jensen hopes to bring the same small-town approach to statewide office.
“I’m really big on relationships – in small towns you’re able to build a lot of relationships with a lot of people,” he said. “In a small town, you can make a big difference.”
Jensen grew up just 30 miles from where he has spent a 29-year career in education at American Falls’ William Thomas Middle School. He taught and coached before becoming principal at age 27, a post he has held for 25 years.
The small-school environment suits Jensen. He picks four students a week — every week for 750 weeks — and takes them to lunch at Pizza Hut.
That’s 3,000 pizzas over in his career.
“I love watching them blossom from sixth to eighth grade,” Jensen said. “In sixth grade, they come in as rosebuds. In seventh grade, they can be a little thorny. By eighth grade, they’ve blossomed into such great kids.”
Jensen ran the town’s Little League program for a decade.
He still pitches batting practice or hits fly balls to high school baseball teams.
One of Jensen’s original students, Amy Manning, loved him so much that she drove her own children 60 miles so they could have him too.
“He’s always so energetic, he’s helpful and he’s excited to be at work every day,” she said.
Jensen has lots of families like the Mannings in his life; many of his students are second-generation kids. Those relationships are so important to him that he won’t feel like a loser if he loses this election.
“Sometimes I’ve thought the best thing for me is to lose this election,” Jensen said. “I’ve got a great life in a great town.”
Jensen grew up the youngest of seven children in Pocatello. His parents, Charles and Nelda Jensen, owned Vogts Heating and Air, a business that was founded in 1892 and remains in the family.
He grew up working in the family business, but dreamed of being a professional baseball player until he was cut from the Pocatello High School varsity team.
“I didn’t want to go back to school again,” Jensen remembered.
But when his brother-in-law asked him to coach an 11-year-old Little League team, he found teaching was his calling.
“After two weeks, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” Jensen said. “I loved working with kids.”
That’s been his life’s mission ever since.
Jensen served on a Mormon mission then enrolled at Idaho State University where he met his wife, Kristen, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
He also owns administrator and superintendent certificates from the state.
Kristen has served on the American Falls City Council for 23 years and has been instrumental in business development and revitalizing the downtown.
A reputation as a talented American Legion coach – and a chance golf outing with some pro scouts – even landed Jensen a stint as an associate scout for the Dodgers.
Together, Jensen and Kristen have four children.
Jensen is also active in the local Lions Club, Chamber of Commerce and has served as the leader of a singles ward for young adult members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints.
During his education career, Jensen restructured the curriculum to focus on reading and literature and brought parents and teachers into decision making.
He has won a host of awards at all different levels, from Idaho Principal of the Year to Fulbright Scholar and National Principal of the Year, in 2005.
If elected, Jensen would scour the state for education experts to bring to the State Department of Education.
“One of the big problems the state department has had for a long time is I don’t think they’ve been very connected to local school districts,” Jensen told a gathering of the American Falls Chamber of Commerce in April. “They’re in Boise taking care of Boise business.”
Jensen said his department would be a trusted support resource.
“Our job at the state department is to serve,” he said. “It’s to work with schools and teachers, to help them meet their needs, not tell them what to do or punish them when they don’t do what we want them to do.”
He said Gov. Butch Otter’s Task Force for Improving Education offered a blueprint for how he would set education policy.
“When I go to the Legislature, my goal will be to be have standing behind me the teachers’ association, the school boards association, the administrators association and the parents’ association. If I go to Legislature with those groups standing behind me, that will be powerful.”
Jensen would invest heavily in bonuses for teachers or counselors who take a more active role helping students transition to college. He believes it would be vital for students whose own parents have never been to college and have less experience navigating financial aid forms, application deadlines and housing choices.
“He talks about college all the time,” eighth-grader Samantha Mason said. “How to get in, what colleges you can go to, what colleges are good.”
Jensen believes happiness and success are intertwined.
“I judge success by when they’re 30, not when they’re 13 or 18 or going off to college,” Jensen said. “I want these kids to have a happy life.”
- All of our stories on the superintendent’s race: click here.
- Coverage from last week’s KIVI TV candidate debate: click here.
- Coverage from Monday’s City Club of Boise forum: click here.
- Jensen’s website: click here.