AMERICAN FALLS — Randy Jensen was quite happy to return to his post as William Thomas Middle School principal after losing his bid for the state superintendent seat in 2014.
Back to East Idaho. Back to a district far removed from Boise’s political milieu. Back to the same building he’d worked in for nearly 30 years.
“Looking back, I was crazy to think I’d be happy living in Boise,” he said. “I love American Falls.”
The 27-year principal said Thursday he is finished with state-level politics after he lost in a hotly contested four-way race in the GOP primary for state superintendent. He ran second to Sherri Ybarra, who went on to defeat Democrat Jana Jones in the general election.
Jensen said his small-town approach to education and emphasis on relationships just weren’t enough to earn a statewide victory.
He also said he’s not unhappy with the outcome.
“I think we are moving in the right direction,” Jensen said, praising Ybarra’s willingness to listen to teachers. “Teachers change the world one child at a time, and we have to listen to them more often.”
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Jensen pointed to the second straight year of raises for teachers under the 2015 career ladder salary law as evidence of a recovering state of education in Idaho.
He offered no critique of Ybarra’s performance, but said the state should back off it’s emphasis on testing, which has become a way to “rank schools, evaluate teachers and label students in Idaho.”
“Schools aren’t sports teams,” Jensen said.
He told of an American Falls student who became discouraged after taking an ACT “proximity” test years ago. (The test provides students with projected calculations of their future scores on the college entrance exam.)
“This student received and 18 on her proximity test,” Jensen said, “and then she said, ‘Well, I guess college just isn’t for me.’ It broke my heart because I know this student’s hard work would make her very successful in college.”
An emphasis on establishing relationships with students should replace the state’s long-running emphasis on testing, Jensen said — a sentiment of his 2014 campaign platform and something he’s pushed for in American Falls since becoming a principal there 27 years ago.
Every week, Jensen picks four students to take to a pizza lunch. That’s 3,000 pizzas over the course of his career, he said.
Jensen said he’s content in American Falls, a place where he continues to receive national recognition as a local administrator. Earlier this summer, he was deemed the Association for Middle Level Education’s 2016 Distinguished Educator — the second time he has been honored on the national front. (He was the National Association of Secondary Principal’s Middle Level Principal of the Year in 2005.)
The AMLE award is proof of Jensen’s leadership, vision and student advocacy, said American Falls superintendent Ronald Bollinger.
“Mr. Jensen has been a driving force to define and create the essence of meaning of the middle school philosophy,” said Bollinger. “Students in grades six through eight have a unique experience through instruction and activities designed for the mid-level learner under Mr. Jensen’s leadership and vision.”
Former William Thomas student Juan Martinez remembers Jensen’s emphasis on creating student relationships.
“He met with every class in the school on a weekly basis,” said Martinez. “One time he talked to us about acne — like how to deal with it. It was just cool to know that he really cared about us.”
Jensen’s move away from state-level politics isn’t a step away from having his voice heard in the future. He can retire in a year or two — a move that could free him up for some “educational consulting.”