The former Decatur City Schools superintendent comes out of retirement to lead Madison City Schools into a new era
Photos by Joshua Berry
On June 1, Dr. Ed Nichols began a new chapter in his life when he became the superintendent for the Madison City School District. He is the fourth superintendent for the school district since the system was formed in 1998. He replaces former superintendent Robby Parker, who retired in February.
Dr. Nichols retired as superintendent of Decatur City Schools in 2016 after a 28-year career there that included band director, principal, assistant superintendent, and four years as superintendent. He briefly served as the interim superintendent for Madison City Schools in 2016 prior to Parker being named superintendent.
He had since been active in multiple roles including director of the Principally Speaking Network, community, and media consultant for Decatur Hospital, and two consulting services.
“I’ve been working with schools ever since I retired,” he said. “I have been across the state, Georgia and different places working with school districts. I worked with the State Department on their strategic plan. I worked with Madison County and surrounding city districts. So, I never really left education.”
“I then had the opportunity in January to go back into a school as the interim principal at Decatur High School,” Nichols explained. “Their principal had left in the middle of the year and the superintendent in Decatur asked me to finish out the year for them, so I did. My daughter, Meredith, goes there, so it was something I looked forward to doing.”
When he re-entered the campus atmosphere of the school, he realized something had been missing. “The energy I got from being around the students and working with teachers, I really missed that part of it. Even though I had been working with schools, I missed that camaraderie, that excitement you get being around students.”
When the opportunity came to put his name in the hat for consideration in becoming Madison City Schools next superintendent, it seemed like the right time. After all, it was a school district he had become more familiar during his time as the interim superintendent and with the school foundation. “I put my name in and thought if this is God’s will and if He has a plan for me there, we will see what happens,” Nichols said. “It’s a great district and I am very excited about being here.”
About the four years he spent after retiring as Decatur’s superintendent, Nichols says he gained valuable contacts and experiences that will prove to be useful in the uncertainty of reopening schools amid COVID-19.
“I also had some unique experiences while retired,” he said. “I worked at the hospital and helped them, and I worked with economic developments and business leaders across the country. I thought maybe these experiences are something I can bring back — not just my educational experiences.”
School campuses stayed closed from the middle of March through the end of the school year. Moving forward in what is considered the new normal is a new direction for all school districts, including Madison. Relying on feedback from those affected the most is something Dr. Nichols said is vital in the reopening process.
“I really like to make decisions when I have feedback from stakeholders,” he said. “I like feedback. I like to ask parents. I like to ask teachers, and I like to ask community members what they want and think.
“I will also have a student committee of high school and middle school students and talk to them,” he added. “That is exciting to me, to think about what we can do to move our school system, which is great already, to become even better. I do not have all the answers, but I will ask people in this community what their view of that is and then I will help guide the team to push us in that direction.”
Nichols said the most important thing to remember as everyone navigates into this unknown, is we are all here for the kids
“I have always lived under the premise that every child is gifted, and they are,” he said. “Our job is to find the gift. It could be band. It could be lacrosse. It could be robotics. It could be scholars bowl. It could be a job experience in career tech. Every child has that thing that inspires them to be the best they can be, and our job is to help find those places.
“I used to always say that our job as adults is to clear the clutter and find a way. I am so thankful in my life I had a band director, Mr. Huffmaker, who when I asked in the ninth grade if I could join the band, found a way. He didn’t say, ‘No, you should have done that in the sixth grade when everyone else did it.’ He said, ‘Sure, what would you like to play?”
That lead to Nichols obtaining a scholarship to further his education. “My parents were not of means to pay the whole way to college, and the tuba got me there. Mr. Huffmaker, with that one simple yes, changed the trajectory of my life,” he said. “We have to find that avenue for kids. What will drive us to be even better than we are is to keep that focus on every kid.”
Dr. Nichols took the opportunity to attend the University of Tennessee, where he served as a drum major for UT’s marching band “Pride of the Southland.”
“I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college,” he said.
Dr. Nichols grew up in Maryville, TN, but was born in Anchorage, Alaska. “My dad was in the Air Force. He was a career military man. He joined the Army in 1939 and retired from the Air Force in 1964,” he said. “My dad was from Birmingham. My mother from Knoxville.”
His father died from cancer in 1988, the same year Nichols moved to Alabama. “He was so excited I was moving to Alabama. One of the last things he said to me was, ‘you are going to the promise land.’ He loved Alabama football and was the biggest Bama fan. “
Neither of his parents graduated high school. They both had to stop their education in high school. “My mother went back later and got her GED and went to business college. My dad, of course, had a military career and later got his GED,” he explained. “My mother worked two jobs to help send me to college, and I have never forgot how hard she worked. I always remember, and tell people, my parents never really helped me with homework. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to do, they just didn’t know how. But I also remember how much they sacrificed to send me to school. I am blessed that I had two great parents.”
Sitting on Dr. Nichols desk in a nameplate that reads, “Edwin C. Nichols, First Sergeant, Korea 1952-1953”. “I keep my father’s nameplate on my desk,” he said. “Every office I have ever had, I have had my dad’s nameplate on it. And, I keep his medals and his picture on my wall to remind myself of his service to the country in two wars.”
Nichols says he grew up in a great small town with a great school system. There he learned invaluable lessons on how to look for the best in people, especially students. “The teachers there taught everyone like they were the valedictorian,” he said. “They taught every student as if they were going to go and do great things in life, and that is what they would tell us.
“I’m still in touch with some of them.,” he added. “My junior English teacher, Dr. Penny Ferguson, is my hero. This is her fiftieth-year teaching school. I still talk to her regularly. I was not her scholar student in high school, but she taught me like I would be a scholar student one day.”
It’s because of that outlook Nichols said he is excited to come to Madison City Schools, a district that has the same belief.
One aspect of life in Madison outside the world of education has certainly already taken a hold of him. Nichols said he is a huge Rocket City Trash Pandas fan.
“I am so pumped,” he said. “Even before I came to Madison, I had already got my season tickets. I love baseball!
“I grew up near Knoxville and we had a Minor League baseball team, then I came to North Alabama and he had The Stars,” he continued. “I like Minor League baseball because I like the feel of it. You are there in the stadium and it’s not such a huge crowd and you can be close to the action. I am so excited about it!”
In fact, for Christmas his wife, Miranda, bought him his own Trash Pandas jersey with his name on the back. He also got to participate in the ball team’s “Jersey Experience” where they invite season ticket holders to the Toyota Field for a special VIP tour and let them hit some balls. “I had such a great time. It was amazing.”
Nichols says there is a lot to be excited about coming Madison, and Madison City Schools. Certainly, he has his work cut out for him in a world made uncertain by COVID-19, but one thing is clear — Madison City Schools is an exceptional school district and will always strive to stay that way.
“This is a tremendous school district with a rich heritage. It dates back all the way to Dr. Clark when the school system started and had great leadership with Dr. Fowler and Mr. Parker. I feel honored to even be able to pick up their mantle in a way and begin to move forward for the children of this community,” he said. “We have great students, teachers, parents, community leaders, city leaders and a tremendous school board and staff. This is a great place to be.”