Scott McDowell is happy to be home.
The new Wilson Elementary School principal took over after longtime Principal Kathy Milburn retired at the end of the 2019-20 school year, and he’s excited to work for the district that gave him his high school diploma.
The 1994 Jackson Hole High School graduate spent two decades teaching in Illinois and Montana, and it was almost by chance that he saw the opening at Wilson Elementary earlier this year.
“It’s been a long time since I checked the Wyoming employment job boards or anything for the schools, especially since I moved to Montana,” he said. “So I hadn’t looked in a while, but seeing that there was an opening I decided to put an application in, because it’s Jackson.”
Taking the post at Wilson Elementary is the capstone of a circuitous journey that started when McDowell graduated from high school. His parents, Lynn and Dick McDowell, have kept their house here during that time, and when he went off to college he thought he would use it as a home base.
“I just thought — being 18, I was naive — that if I went to university somewhere and then tried to come back here and live and get a job that it was easy to do,” he said.
Life rarely works out how we envision it at 18, and McDowell discovered that wasn’t “as easy as it seems.” Having been born in Illinois, he went to the Midwest for college, garnering a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Illinois State University.
Instead of moving back to Jackson, however, he pursued a career in education in the Midwest, teaching and receiving his master’s in education from St. Xavier University and a master’s in education leadership from Roosevelt University. Going into education may not have been preordained, but it seems like a natural fit, given that his grandparents were teachers; his parents were educators in Jackson; his brother, Todd, is a teacher in Washington state; and his wife, Shannon, works in early education.
“I just come from a family of educators, and when I was a kid I loved school, and I wanted to stay in school,” he said. “I enjoyed the social socialization and the opportunities and the relationships with teachers and kids.”
For 13 years he stayed near Chicago, working as a physical education teacher and girls lacrosse coach, as well as an assistant swimming coach. Though he and his family enjoyed the Chicago suburbs, the mountains of the West continued to exert a pull on McDowell.
Finally, the impulse to move West became too strong, and the McDowells packed it up and moved to Bozeman, Montana, where McDowell took a post in Manhattan, a small town about 20 minutes northwest of Bozeman. He spent three years there before taking a “jack-of-all-trades” position as the superintendent of Anderson School District No. 41 in Bozeman.
“I was the superintendent, the principal, and before I left for two years I drove a bus,” he said.
With just a couple hundred students, the district was small, and most of his role was as principal, working with kids and teachers. However, also wearing the superintendent hat stretched him a bit thin sometimes, so he is excited that he will simply be able to be the principal in Wilson.
“I love the fact that I’ll be able to focus on being around kids more, being in the building more and working on principal duties rather than superintendent duties,” he said.
Though his job title is pared down, he said, working at Teton County School District No. 1 will be an adjustment. Holding most of the administrative positions at the same time in Montana meant that he was clued into pretty much everything happening at the district.
At Wilson he is one principal at one school, working within a much larger education system that serves thousands more students.
“I will say that it is definitely a change of pace, just working in a larger system,” he said. “It’s definitely an adjustment to work through the layers of a bigger district.”
With his experience, McDowell should pick things up just fine, and the district has gained a fierce advocate for public schools. At its best the American school system is designed to be an equalizer between social classes, a place that provides an equal education regardless of students’ background.
For McDowell, that’s why education is so important.
“Public school is a perfect example of here we are trying to do our best to meet the needs of every single kid — like 3,000 kids — regardless of where they come from or what house they come from.
“It has always been kind of the McDowell way in our family, and being a part of education is what we do.”