Eric Nesse gets a promotion, takes over helm of middle school

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Eric Nesse was promoted to principal at Hazelbrook Middle School the same year the school is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Principal Eric Nesse hasn’t had time to hang the art in his office.

He’s had a busy couple weeks as he leads Hazelbrook Middle School toward its third decade, and he’s got his work cut out for him. There’s the persistent struggle to balance class sizes, with many teachers juggling about 35 students per class. The school is preparing to adopt Common Core State Standards in place of Oregon State Standards as a new way of assessing students.

But two weeks into the 2012-13 school year, Nesse admits, “It hasn’t been significantly different than any other year.”

He’s felt the “inherent nervous energy” that always seems to flow through the halls during the first day of a new school year. He’s focused on the “operations” side of running things: making sure students are set with their schedules and helping them adjust to the rules the school has set before them.

But even though Nesse has just embarked on his first year as principal, his position doesn’t feel much different from the position of associate principal he held for the past nine years. Not yet, anyway.

Nesse first arrived at Hazelbrook during the 2003-04 school year. He had just wrapped up a five-year stint teaching English, journalism, yearbook and newspaper classes at Tualatin High School. He came to Hazelbrook as an associate principal to then-Principal Darin Barnard. He takes over the helm of the school the same year Hazelbrook turns 20.

“I’d say one of the most significant changes is the overall population of the school,” Nesse said. “When the school was built, it housed 730 students, and we’ve grown to just over 1,000. That’s a pretty significant difference. I’d say another big change is we definitely have grown in diversity. Our Latino population this year is going to be around 33 percent. When the building opened, it was certainly under 10 percent.”

Road to the principal’s office

Nesse hails from Everett, Wash. He graduated from Western Washington University in Bellingham, met his future wife Lindy and relocated to Portland. After getting his master’s degree in educational administration from Portland State University, Nesse taught at Tualatin High School for five years.

Now happily settled in Southwest Portland, Nesse and his wife are raising their son, Reid, who is 2 years old. The shift from school administrator to parent has been an interesting one, Nesse says, especially as he watches his son go to preschool at a local Montessori school. Nesse is used to the role of problem-solver, or at least mediator, when issues arise with students and their families. It occurs to him that he might someday be called to talk to his son’s principal.

“It’s funny being on the other end of that spectrum, watching my own son go to school,” he said.

Nesse describes himself as a “big sports fan,” and enjoys playing basketball in his free time. His secret passion, however, is collecting old jazz recordings on vinyl. He estimates he owns around 3,000 records in the jazz genre alone.

“It may be a borderline obsession,” Nesse joked. “Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus are a couple of my favorites. They’re a little bit more unique, a little bit ahead of their time. They were pretty progressive during that developmental stage of the ‘50s and ‘60s jazz scene.”

It was in college, while working a summer job cleaning public parks and park facilities, that Nesse stumbled across jazz. “If I wasn’t listening to a Mariners game, I was listening to the local jazz station in Bellingham,” he said.

But he hasn’t forgotten what it was like to be in middle school.

“I was definitely right in that awkward stage,” he said. “I sometimes had a hard time adjusting to what adults wanted me to do, and I was testing the limits of what was allowed.

“I was definitely no different than what I see from our kids here: that adolescent, ‘trying to figure out who they are’ phase. That’s a big part of what we do here, is help kids to navigate that.”

It helps that Nesse is still in touch with friends from his middle school years. It has reminded him to keep a healthy sense of humor when interacting with students.

“I like to maintain a positive relationship with them,” he said, “to let them know that even though I am almost 40, I can relate to them and what they’re going through. So just showing them that I still understand how to relate to them as adolescents is a big part of building trust with them.”

Above all, though, Nesse views his position as the instructional leader of the building.

“I set the tone for what the expectations are here,” he said. “And I oversee the management of a really, pretty big enterprise — 1,000 kids, 60 adults. This position is really just to make sure I have a finger on the pulse of what’s happening all the time, so that it runs really smoothly.”

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