by Morgan Sturdevant
If you’re at WHS long after school has ended, when the hallways are clear of almost everyone except for a few custodians, you may hear a bellowed song ring throughout the building. It may seem like something out of Glee, but it’s not. It’s just our new principal, Dr. Derrick Nelson, singing a tune, and he’s been doing it for years.
On Feb. 8, the Westfield BOE appointed Nelson to be the sixth principal and first African-American principal in WHS history. As he settles into the job without the “interim” title he had held since August, he reflects on what brought him to this moment.
Nelson became interested in education at a young age, but it took him some time to pursue it as a career.
“I always wanted to be a teacher, ever since I was a very little kid,” said Nelson. However, in college, he decided not to pursue a teaching career and instead studied international marketing and public relations, working at two companies in the field out of college.
In an epiphanic moment, Nelson woke up one day and said, “I like my job, but I’m not in love with my job.” He went to a job fair in his hometown of Plainfield and was hired on the spot as a teacher. During his six years as a teacher at Washington Community School in Orange, he cites one man in particular as his inspiration. “I had teachers who really screwed the light bulb for me in a lot of different ways,” said Nelson. “My Algebra I teacher Brother Mike made [the subject] come alive for me. He really made it so it just made sense for me and made it so that I wasn’t scared of math anymore.”
After six years of working as a teacher, Nelson opened his eyes to other things. “I think [getting into administration] was more so because of the idea that I could effect change at a bigger level than just the 25 kids that were in my classroom,” said Nelson. “I think it was that piece that even with my kids as a teacher, there was only so much that I could do. How could I help the students at the school in a larger way?” After contemplating, Nelson decided to pursue a career in educational administration. His first two jobs in this capacity were as assistant principal of Main Street School and Park Avenue School, both in Orange, from 2007–2010. He later moved to the same position at Roosevelt Intermediate in 2010 and then to WHS in 2012.
Nelson participated in the ROTC program at two different high schools. When his first ROTC school, St. Pius in Piscataway, closed down, he decided to attend Bishop Ahr in Edison for the academic rigor. But the school lacked an ROTC, and Nelson found himself longing for the program. “I didn’t realize how much I was going to miss the ROTC program, and the program went to St. Peter’s in New Brunswick, so I took a leap of faith and went there,” said Nelson.
After his freshman year at Delaware State University, Nelson’s parents told him that they could no longer afford to finance his education. As a result, he joined the Army Reserves, started working a full-time job and moved off-campus to afford to continue his education.
During this time, he worked as a CBRN soldier—a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Specialist. Even in the military, Nelson pursued the educational side of the job. “Basically, our job is to help protect soldiers and teach them to protect themselves,” he said.
His current position is Chief Warrant Officer 2, and he has been working in the Reserves for 23 years. “As a person, he’s very kind, caring and giving,” said Master Sgt. Alejandro Arroyo, who has known Nelson for more than 20 years. “He’ll give you the shirt off his back. He puts soldiers in front of himself.”
The main thing Nelson believes he brings to the principal’s office is dedication. “I really feel that I am dedicated to this building and our kids receiving the best education that they can,” said Nelson. “A lot of times it’s about doing the hard work, rolling up the sleeves and actually making sure that you’re there and in it every day...to make things work well for kids.”
This dedication to the staff and students is noticed by teachers and administrators around the building. “I think he puts his students first and really is focused on doing everything possible to make Westfield High School a great place for students, for staff, and for the community,” said Assistant Principal Mr. Jim Desarno.
Nelson’s leadership skills were apparent in January, when he was chaperoning the WHS Model UN trip and, along with other school leaders, had to handle a social media threat that turned out to be a hoax. “He was stellar in every way on that,” said Mr. Daniel Farabaugh, WHS social studies teacher and co-adviser for Model UN. “He did everything I would hope a good leader would do…. He exuded confidence, he answered all questions and dealt with it from every angle. It was exactly what you would want someone in charge to do in a crisis situation.”
It’s not just the handling of these situations that makes Nelson a good leader. It’s also that singing you hear in the hallways at 5 p.m. “He has that intangible quality that a leader needs,” said WHS Science Teacher Ms. Judy McLoughlin. “You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it’s a combination of personality and the ability to make decisions, quickly and smartly.… Whether it’s his military background or his personality, he naturally commands respect. That said, he can also joke around. He can dance at prom and still maintain not only the respect of the teachers, but the students. That’s unique.”