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An educational journey ends

Jodi Rickels finishes back where she started

SOLON– Jodi Rickels was very much influenced by her teachers.
“I was one of those kids that just loved, loved, loved school,” she said. “I was the one who would cry on the last day of school each year. I didn’t want it to end.”
As a little girl, she played school at home. As a young student, she volunteered for anything to stay in the building.
It was a natural extension of what she already loved to do, and her large family was involved in a lot of school events. Her father also owned and operated the local school buses.
“Our lives really revolved around school and school events,” she recalled.
As she matured, she realized the strong, positive influence a school can have on young kids.
“To be a part of that has been great,” she said.
Rickels, 58, is retiring from her position as Lakeview Elementary principal after 12 years.
She ends her career where it began back in 1984.
Growing up in Olin part of a family of eight, Rickels and her siblings attended school in a single, kindergarten through 12th grade building, loved athletics and participated in theatre.
But they also all played an instrument and would sing together around the piano at Christmas.
“That was a very important part of our lives,” she said.
She started playing accordion at the age of 7, loved to play and was getting pretty good. Good enough that she pursued a music degree with accordion as primary interest from Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids.
It didn’t seem practical to major in accordion performance, so she combined two things she loved and graduated in 1984 with a bachelor of arts in music education.
Lakeview Principal Sandy Lawrence brought Rickels to Solon that fall to serve as elementary music instructor, and she spent the next 13 years with the district, the last year as an interim guidance counselor.
The joy of teaching music, she said, is you get to see all the students over many years. She became fascinated by the developmental growth kids showed over time, and began work on her master’s degree in guidance counseling at the University of Iowa.
About a year in, it just wasn’t clicking.
Her principal, Lisa Haverkamp, felt Rickels demonstrated leadership skills and suggested administration.
“Immediately, that is what really resonated with me,” she said. “This is what I want to do.”
She switched her degree to educational administration, but had enough hours in counseling to serve in an interim position her final year.
It gave the district a year to find someone with the right qualifications, she said, “and me a great experience stepping out of music education and into a role where I helped families and really looked at the building in a different way.”
Rickels accepted her first job as principal serving three buildings in Mount Pleasant, but before she had a chance to take the reins, tragedy struck.
One of her students was killed two days before school started in a traffic accident.
It was one of the most difficult situations a principal can deal with, but Rickels didn’t know the family or the child and had to rely on the rest of the administration.
“It all depends on relationships and I hadn’t had a chance to build those yet,” she explained.
Solon had been a rural, small town with a lot of farming families. Mount Pleasant at the time was a bustling town with a handful of Fortune 500 companies and a successful small college.
You can read all sorts of things and know you have the right philosophy, she said, but when the buck stops on your desk you have to deal with the responsibility of being a leader.
It took a few weeks to adjust her thinking, but she eventually hit her stride.
Rickels spent six years in Mount Pleasant, but with family in Jones County, she and her husband Dan knew they wanted to go back north eventually.
In 2002, she was hired by the Iowa City Community School District as principal of Horace Mann Elementary, and the family moved back to Solon.
By this time, she felt confident in her skills.
“Horace Mann has families from all over the world,” she said. “There are 27 different languages spoken in that building.”
The student population had significant needs, but it was another new experience for Rickels and she learned a lot about the barriers facing families and students over her six years.
She loved Iowa City, but her kids Hale and Emma were in Solon, the family was connected with the community and when then-principal Marilee McConnell left for Linn-Mar, Rickels saw an opportunity.
“It’d be great to be on the same schedule, serving the community that we love and where I started, and thought, ‘I’m going to give it a shot.’”
Solon’s changed a lot over the years, but it still continues to be the hub of the community, she said.
In Mount Pleasant, the school was a part of a bigger community that included area industry and college, but in Solon it’s the centerpiece, she observed. It’s how local people connect and make friends.
As the town and the surrounding developments have grown, the district has stepped up to meet community needs, she said.
But COVID-19 has been another learning curve.
It’s been like nothing she’s ever experienced, and she’s seen a lot, including a tornado ripping through the Horace Mann neighborhood.
“We are learning as we go, what our students need, what our families need, what our schools need, and then try to find a way to make that happen,” she said. “Luckily we just have so many hard working and intelligent educators in the Solon district that make it happen almost instantaneously.”
District staff worked tirelessly to create and implement distance-learning options, she continued, but they worry about the kids.
Rickels tries to remind them they are not alone.
“Don’t forget this isn’t just us,” she said. “This is everybody in the world. And everybody knows that when school resumes, kids are going to need some extra assistance getting back into the routine and getting caught up to speed and getting what they need right away and we’re just going to have to remember that.”
Even though she’s retiring, Rickels also has concerns about the kids, especially those in early elementary grades.
“The level of independence is just not there, we haven’t cultivated that yet,” she explained. “They really do need that teacher. The importance of the presence of that teacher is so great.”
It emphasizes the importance of public education, there for everybody and helping all, she added. “When that’s gone, we’re at somewhat of a loss.”
Rickels is grateful for everything the community has provided in her journey as principal.
Her husband Dan, human resources director for WestRock Company in Cedar Rapids, isn’t ready to retire, but now vacations or travel aren’t limited to July.
She doesn’t have any plans other than getting her house a little more in order.
“That’s been put on hold for 30-something years,” she noted.
She’s proud of the district and the teachers she’s worked with over the years.
“I think Solon has an enormously bright future and I feel so lucky that I’ve been a part of that,” she said. “This community is in my heart forever.”