The Tigers' Heartwarming Roar: Lexington holds special ceremony for National Distinguished Principal of the Year

The Tigers' Heartwarming Roar: Lexington holds special ceremony for National Distinguished Principal of the Year

By Tyler Dahlgren

There’s four elementary schools in Lexington, and, as superintendent, Dr. John Hakonson likes to make a habit of spending time in each building.

Morton Elementary is the only one north of the train tracks that run along Highway 30, closest to the interstate. It’s a welcoming and inviting place full of energetic and happy kids, a stop that Hakonson enjoys every time.

His visits to Morton always come with a catch, though: Tracking down Mrs. Edeal.

“You never find Nikki in her office,” Hakonson said of Morton Elementary’s principal. “She’s always out in the classrooms. She knows the kids. She loves the kids. She brings a spark to the building.”

Ah, yes. A “spark.” That was the word we were searching for during our visit to Morton on the morning of March 14, when students and staff gathered in the gymnasium to celebrate. 

“What were they celebrating?”, you might ask. 

First, they celebrated each other’s accomplishments during the third quarter. Morton Terrific Tigers were recognized and applauded by their classmates and teachers. Then, they celebrated their principal, who was named the 2023-23 National Distinguished Principal of the Year from Nebraska by the Nebraska Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) in November.

“Honestly, I think the best part of the award is just bringing awareness to the good things that we’re doing here in Lexington,” Edeal said. “I have a great staff. They make my job easy. And we have great kids here in this community. The best part about winning the award is bringing attention to our community and what we do here.”

Earlier that morning, 40 miles east in Kearney, Edeal received her 12th and final round of chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. They celebrated that, too. Loudly, and proudly.

“They’ve been unbelievable in the way they’ve supported me through this,” Edeal said. “Every time I’ve started to feel down, they do something to perk me back up. Like when I was at the halfway point, after my sixth treatment, they made a little video and sang a song and sent it to me. Just little things like that have meant so much.”

On this Thursday morning, the kids had something extra up their sleeve. Near the end of the ceremony, they broke out into a skit, song and dance performance of Katy Perry’s famous anthem “Roar”, and it took their teary-eyed principal totally by surprise.

The smile stayed on Edeal’s face long after the ceremony had ended.

“That was amazing,” she said. “The relationships are the most important part of the job for me. We don’t always really know what the kids come from at home, and so when they’re here at school we want to make it a safe place where they have people they can trust and have fun with.”

Last Thursday morning, they had a lot of fun. The challenges in Lexington are well-documented. The large majority of the student population are free-and-reduced lunch. Many of the kids are learning English alongside the curriculum. But Morton’s culture never waivers, and it’s never been stronger.

“Nikki’s recognition is a great reflection upon our school district,” Dr. Hakonson said. “We’re fortunate, and she would say this too, to have great people working here, teachers and administrators, many deserving people committed to kids. They love her. She rallies people around an idea or an approach and gets great buy-in. People love her and rally around her.”

Dr. Hakonson called Edeal a “tireless worker, a well-deserving person who has been here a long time and gets phenomenal results for kids.” 

To further exemplify that, Edeal opted to receive her chemotherapy treatments on Thursdays. That way, she’d feel the after-effects over the weekend. By Monday, she’d be ready to go to school, a place that’s always felt like home.

“I knew I wanted to be a teacher when I was in the second grade,” Edeal said. “I never imagined myself as a principal, but I was nudged by one of my colleagues to give it a shot, and I’m glad I did, because this is my passion now. This is what you wake up for every day.”

Edeal said the support she’s received has been simply amazing, from her students to her teachers (who wore black t-shirts that read “Her fight is our fight” in neon pink to the celebration) to the Lexington community. That’s par for the course, she added.

“Without the businesses in our community, we wouldn’t have the kids in our building,” Edeal said. “Our stakeholders really trust us. They bring us the kids and trust us as professionals, and we value that relationship a lot.”

At the end of the day, Edeal said, it’s about the kids. When she was receiving chemotherapy in Kearney, they were on her mind. Come to think of it, they’re always on her mind.

“As you can see, they’re just great kids," Edeal said. "They know what our characters are, what we want them to be, and they do a great job of demonstrating it every day."

On this Thursday morning, Edeal’s students took the chance to say thank you. Loudly, and proudly.

Not only could you hear it, you could actually feel it in their roar.