Rooted In Mills County - Ralston Public Schools Superintendent Jason Buckingham Enjoying Rewarding Career As Educator
The superintendent of Ralston Public Schools in Nebraska says his grandmother was among the influential people he had in his life while growing up in Glenwood that played a role in his decision to choose a career in education.
Jason Buckingham, a 1991 Glenwood Community High School graduate, has been a Ralston Public Schools educator for the past 25 years and is in his first year as the district’s superintendent.
“My grandma, Lois Anne Buckingham, was an educator and actually taught in Glenwood at the tail end of her career,” Buckingham said last week during an interview. “She just passed last year and she had taught at West Elementary. Her and Grandpa had been all over. They were a military family - Air Force. Grandpa retired out of the Air Force so she taught in Ohio, Florida and all kinds of different places.
“It was a very significant impact that she had on me. She thought that education would be all right if she had a grandkid going into it.”
Standout Student-Athlete At GCHS
Buckingham was a standout student-athlete in high school, earning honors and scholarships in the classroom and accolades on the athletic field. On Senior Awards Night in 1991, he was the recipient of several awards, including the Iowa Bar Citizenship Award, Army Scholar Athlete, Drake Presidential Scholarship and Presidential Academic Fitness.
As an athlete, he was a force on the gridiron as a tight end, playing for coaches Brian Albert and Chuck Osberg, and was a member of some highly successful track and field teams, where he specialized in throwing the discus.
“We were fortunate to be a part of some really neat things at that time back in Glenwood,” Buckingham recalled. “I was part of that back-to-back state championship track team (1989-1990) my sophomore and junior year. Then, my senior year, I was runner-up at state in discus.
“That was definitely a highlight going through high school with (coaches) Jim Whitcomb, Leonard Griffith and Dan Jones. It was just a great experience working with those guys. That was something they lived and breathed.”
Buckingham moved on to Drake University after graduating from Glenwood, where he played tight end on the Bulldog football team, while earning a bachelor’s degree in business. He spent a year working in the business world after earning his degree from Drake, but something was missing, he said.
“I had really caught the bug with football and thought I had more to give to the game,” Buckingham said. “I thought, ‘So, how do I do that?’ Teaching and coaching seemed like a natural fit.
Teaching, Coaching Jobs
After spending a year working in business, Buckingham returned to the area and went back to the classroom at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where he got his teaching license. His first job as an educator was with Omaha Public Schools. He taught at Morton Middle School and coached at Burke High School. He landed in the Ralston district in 1999, where he was hired as a business teacher and girls basketball coach, a sport he wasn’t totally comfortable coaching initially.
“When I got here, originally, they needed a business teacher and they needed an assistant girls basketball coach,” he said. “I said to the principal at the time that was doing the interview, ‘I can teach business, I’m pretty confident about that, I don’t know much about basketball and I know even less about girls.’ The principal said, ‘Well, we’re hiring a basketball coach and a teacher, so if you want one, you have to take the other.’”
Buckingham took the job and as it turned out, the girls basketball coaching gig went better than expected. He also coached varsity football and track and field.
It was during that coaching and teaching period that he met his future wife, Jennifer.
“I was enjoying myself quite a bit, then sure enough I met a girl and we got married,” Buckingham said. “She said, ‘You spend too much time at school – you have to give something up,’ so basketball ended up being what I gave up. I coached football and track a few more years.”
Move To Administration
Buckingham said he’s never “had his sights on the next job” and his move into administration happened “accidentally,” with support and encouragement from mentors who believe he has what it takes to be a successful administrator. They told him he should further his education to open up potential opportunities down the road.
He listened to his mentors and continued his education. He now has two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s and a specialist’s.
Buckingham’s transition into administration started with a position as the lead teacher and administrator of the district’s alternative education program, a position he found to be the most gratifying of his career in education.
“The most rewarding (position) is working as an alternative school instructor because you have kids that are pretty beat down, whether it’s self-induced or life has thrown some challenges at them,” he said. “If you can get them to where they start to have some success and they can see that, they’ll do anything for you.
“Seeing someone be successful and being what they can be is very rewarding.”
Buckingham was later promoted to assistant high school principal and then to the position of middle school principal. Prior to being named superintendent last summer, he served as the district’s assistant superintendent for business for nine years.
“Ralston has been a great home for me and just about the time that I get something finished, there’s a job that opens up, so it’s been a progression from teacher and coach,” he said. “This year, the superintendency opened up and I was encouraged by quite a few people – ‘This is something you need to do.’
“Now, Here I am. I didn’t wake up in high school and say, ‘Gosh, I want to be a superintendent.’ It’s just something that’s developed along the way.
There have been a lot of people in my life who have been pushing me to do more.”
Ralston’s ‘Niche’ in Metro
Now in his seventh month as superintendent, Buckingham said the job is an on-going learning experience. One of his biggest adjustments has been allowing others to carry out tasks that he’s tempted to do on his own.
“The higher up you go, the less impact and control you have on things. You have to trust other people,” he said. “I’m a work in progress, when it comes to that. I’m a little bit of a Type A (personality) when it comes to seeing things through. Once I take responsibility for something, it’s really hard to let go of it, but we’re in a process right now where I’ve got some great hires.”
Ralston Public Schools has a total Pre-K – 12 enrollment of about 3,500 students, which makes it one of the smaller districts in the Omaha metro area. Buckingham said the enrollment number plays in the district’s favor.
“We definitely have a niche here in Omaha,” he said. “We have a lot of families that come from smaller towns that live in the metro and when they go and look at a high school with 2,500 kids, that’s too big. When you look at a high school our size, we’re right around 1,050. It seems a little bit bigger, but in comparison to all the districts around us, it has quite a different feel.
“People choose to come here for a reason. They choose because of the opportunities we can provide for them.”
The district has six elementary schools, one middle school and one high school.
Buckingham’s passion for his work is evident when he talks about the positive impact educators have on the lives of their students on a daily basis, but he also conceded there are a growing number of challenges facing teachers and administrators, including negative sentiment and false narratives being promoted in some political arenas that public school educators are pushing their own agendas and beliefs onto students.
“To be honest with you, in doing this quite awhile, I really haven’t run across anybody that has gone out intentionally and tried to brain wash anyone,” he said. “It’s all stuff that’s been very well intended, but it may not necessarily match the views of the parent or it may not necessarily match the views of a segment of society.
“That makes it really difficult. We’re seeing that right now and it’s tough right now because people are pretty entrenched in what their positions are. They don’t want to hear anything other than what their views are. So, when you try to present diverse perspectives and you try to show both sides of a situation, sometimes you do butt heads with people. That’s unfortunate.”
New District Facilities
Buckingham said he’s fortunate in that he has a supportive six-member school board and the trust of a community that backs public education. He noted that the district is in the middle of completing several facility projects being funded by an $83 million bond issue passed by Ralston voters. The project includes new buildings and classroom space, upgrades to outdated facilities built in the 1970s and a new outdoor multi-sport athletic complex.
“We have not had our own home baseball or softball field ever,” he said. “That (athletic complex) was one of the projects that helped push us over the line. We’ve got such a phenomenal athletic complex now.”
Buckingham pointed out that Ralston borrowed an idea or two from Glenwood when it came to designing its new athletic facilities. Buckingham and his family reside in the Glenwood Community School District - his wife, Jennifer, is a vocal music teacher at the Glenwood Middle School and their son, Blake, was a 2023 GCHS graduate.
“A little bit of our idea we got off of Jeff (Bissen),” he said. “I volunteered as the booster club treasurer for a couple of years in Glenwood as my son was going through school. I thought that (new athletic complex) was a great idea and we kind of stole that.”
Glenwood Ram, Ralston Ram
Buckingham chuckled when reminded that he’s spent a considerable portion of his life being a Ram – wearing Black and Gold growing up as a Glenwood Ram and now donning Red, White and Columbia Blue attire as a Ralston Ram.
He hesitated and smiled before answering the final question of the interview:
Which school district has the better Ram logo – Glenwood or Ralston?
“I like ours,” he said. “If you look at it closely, it’s the shape of an ‘R’. I think Glenwood could probably replicate that at some point, but I haven’t shared it with Jeff, yet.”