Roughrider Area Career and Tech Center director to retire after more than 4 decades
Kevin Nelson is retiring after more than 40 years in the education system. He hangs up his role as the director of the Roughrider Area Career and Tech Center.
DICKINSON — Since the 1980s, Kevin Nelson has dedicated his life to education with 27 years of experience as an instructor and 14 years leading schools as an administrator. In just a little over five months, Nelson will retire from his position as director for the Roughrider Area Career and Tech Center (RACTC) — a program he played a key role in launching for southwestern North Dakota.
About 13 years ago, educators across western North Dakota identified the need for career-based courses. The RACTC was established by a grant from area superintendents through the North Dakota Department of Career and Technical Education to fill gaps in curriculum in the southwest region of the state, Nelson noted.
“The biggest need, 13 years ago, was identified as health professionals,” Nelson said. “So the first health science program was started at Dickinson High School. We hired one teacher; that teacher taught Dickinson students and online to our 12-member schools… Then we also added agriculture.”
Nelson added that through a needs assessment, welders were also needed in the area. From there, the RACTC expanded into five programs, addressing gaps within the education system and preparing high school students for their careers following graduation.
Though sometimes the distance between schools would present a challenge — some located several hundred miles apart — Nelson took on the responsibility of leading the center for the first two years as director.
In 2010, Nelson decided to gain more experience as an administrator and took a superintendent position at Hebron Public School for seven years. Then he came back to the RACTC in 2017, and is currently in his fifth year as director.
“I've always been student based. Just seeing the opportunities that the Rough Rider Area Career center provides to students as far as programming and the equipment that we bring, that's what it's all about,” he said, adding, “... All teachers (and) administrators in education (are) making sure that their students have access to the best technology as we can afford, the best teachers that we can get and provide programs for students to make them successful. That’s just the bottom line for all of us.”
About eight years ago, the RACTC started an emerging tech consortium where schools share high-tech equipment. For example, 3-D printers, CNC routers, laser engravers and commercial embroidery machines get rotated to schools every six weeks.
“So part of the director's job is to make sure that that equipment is maintained and brought to schools on a timely basis,” Nelson said. “I'm going to say over 500 students in the region get to use that equipment. They get that chance for the fact it's expensive — a 3D printer is $15,000. And by the time I bring the 3D printer, the software, the computers, you're talking (about) a $25,000 lab that a single school couldn't afford.”
Public schools that are RACTC members include Beach, Belfield, Dickinson, Glen Ullin, Hebron, Hettinger, Killdeer, Mott-Regent, New England, Richardton-Taylor, Scranton and South Heart. One of the center’s most “cornerstone” programs is health science. This year, that program serves approximately 400 students with a large majority coming from Dickinson High School. Nelson added that health science is especially vital with the shortage of health care workers.
Partnerships with Dickinson State University as well as Great Western Network have also played a key role in maintaining the success of this program.
“It’s a team that gets it done for the students in these rural communities,” Nelson noted.
It’s remarkable to see the progress unfold from the Firefighter 1 Academy and the dental assisting program — the first of its kind in the nation, providing certification through the Dental Assisting National Board — that were both launched in 2021.
“Just to see the interest those students are taking in their community, they’re going to move on to be firefighters for Dickinson or rural fire departments. That’s just one aspect of our program,” he said.
Nelson’s last day as director will be June 30. As the center looks to hire a new director in the coming months, his retirement comes as a feeling of “bittersweet,” he remarked, adding, “it always is.”
“I’ve made a lot of friends through the years and I'm going to miss that… (Though there were) miles I put on, but when I get to a school and see somebody I worked with or a superintendent I worked with, that’s the enjoyable part of it — to make… those connections and maybe to lose those connections is going to be difficult," he said, adding, “Going in and seeing students (from when) they’re in junior high (to) now they're seniors and they're talking about their college plans and career plans and stuff like that. So that's going to be the hard part.”