CROFTON — Growing up, Johnnie Ostermeyer didn't do well in school.
"I wasn't the model student," he said. "I came from a single-parent family, lived in poverty and didn't get good grades."
Some people questioned his effort and even his abilities, he said.
"When I was young, people didn't think I was trying hard in school. They thought I didn't care or was lazy," he said. "But about fifth or sixth grade, a teacher thought I might have dyslexia. I worked with it and have gotten better with it, but I still run everything through my auto spell-check to make sure I have the words right."
Ostermeyer overcame those early life challenges. He developed empathy for struggling students, much of it because of the insight he gained from his own life.
He went into education, ascending to his current work as a third-year principal at Crofton Junior-Senior High School.
"There are people (in my hometown) who certainly didn't ever imagine that I would be a teacher or a principal," he said with a laugh.
Ostermeyer has gone far beyond his difficult childhood. He has distinguished himself in his career, winning the respect of those around him.
He has also won the 2017 Outstanding New Principal of the Year award.
The Nebraska State Association of Secondary School Principals selected him for the honor. This award is presented annually to a principal who has demonstrated outstanding leadership in their school, region and state levels.
Ostermeyer grew up in Cairo and graduated from Centura High School.
He received his bachelor's degree in math education and his master's degree in school administration (for grades 7-12) from Wayne State College.
Ostermeyer has worked in education since 2003 and has served as the principal at Crofton Junior-Senior High School since 2015.
Under his leadership, Crofton was named a National Blue Ribbon School for the 2016-17 school year. The award recognizes schools for academic excellence and meeting the needs of its students.
While at the Washington, D.C., ceremony, Ostermeyer led a round-table discussion on interventions for all students, with a focus on at-risk, struggling students.
"I also led a session on it at our state principals' conference," he said. "When I talk intervention, I'm talking about helping our kids bridge the gap. We offer things like peer tutoring, extra practice and re-teaching."
Ostermeyer said he and the staff try to reach students before they fall too far behind in their work.
"We encourage our students to get help if they need it," he said. "If you have lower than a C- in a class, you're required to come in a half-hour early for re-teaching or other help. If you have a higher grade, you can sleep in another half-hour."
While some students are required to attend the help sessions, other students take advantage of the school's offerings on their own.
"I would say 80 percent of the kids who need help come in for additional work," he said. They learn more, they take more time and they get back on track."
The Crofton staff watches out for struggling students, Ostermeyer said.
"We do things like spot checks on grades," he said. "If they aren't doing well, I'll talk to them and ask what happened with a certain test or class. The custodian may even alert me when a kid doesn't look happy. The students know we're concerned and aren't just blowing smoke at them."
Based on his own experiences, Ostermeyer knows the importance of a strong influence in young lives.
"My mother spent countless nights in prayer for me as I was not always the model student," he said. "I was fortunate enough to have a great, godly man see the potential in me. Ryan Rathke, my math teacher and coach, was one of the most positive male influences in my life."
Ostermeyer knows students don't learn in a vacuum. They may face many personal issues. "I may not know the lives they are leading (at home), but I want them to lead a better life," he said.
Growing up, he found himself gravitating toward an education career.
"I knew I wanted to play football, and I also wanted to work with kids," he said. "I knew that teaching and coaching was the route I wanted to go."
However, he needed to overcome his dyslexia in college.
"I really struggled with reading and writing. Everything was backwards. But I worked really well with numbers, so I went into math (as my college major)," he said.
Athletics has played an important role in his life. He played basketball at Nebraska Christian College. In addition, he played football and competed in pole vault at Nebraska Wesleyan and Wayne State College. He went on to play professional football for the Sioux City Bandits of the UIF (United Indoor Football).
He started his teaching career at Woodbury Central Community School District in Iowa and South Sioux City Community Schools. Prior to arriving in Crofton, he served as the assistant principal and activities director at Pierce High School.
"Mark Brahmer of Pierce High School was a great mentor and friend," he said.
Ostermeyer had no intention of leaving Pierce, but former Crofton Principal Todd Strom encouraged him to submit his application for the Crofton secondary principal vacancy.
Ostermeyer got the job. He also went on to win the Region 3 Principal of the Year award. Unbeknownst to him, he was nominated for Nebraska's Outstanding New Principal of the Year award, which recognizes a person with three or fewer years as a principal.
"I was notified that I was a finalist for the state award, and I needed to get the paperwork done," he said. "I updated my resume, and I needed recommendations from my superintendent, a teacher and a community member."
In his recommendation, Crofton Superintendent Corey Dahl said his principal holds high expectations for all students.
"He is very consistent and fair regarding student discipline," Dahl said. "By being consistent and fair, the students have also gained respect for his expectations."
Crofton Community Club President Joyce Stevens noted that Ostermeyer "makes his mark" by working with parents, families and businesses owners, along with being a volunteer.
"He is embracing the community in which he lives and is open to ideas," she said. "Mr. Ostermeyer is a fierce advocate for education; he has a heart of compassion for issues and challenges facing the youth, especially in the area of education and the diversity of learning styles with children."
Crofton teacher Mitchell Hofer praised Ostermeyer's moral and religious values.
"Every organization is guided by the moral compass of its leaders. I find Mr. Ostermeyer to be a man of deep ethics and steadfast principles," Hofer said. "The decisions he makes as an administrator are first and foremost guided by what he believes to be truly right and good for this school."
Ostermeyer returns the compliments, feeling blessed to serve in the Crofton schools and community.
"I can't say enough about Crofton and the community's backing for the school," he said. "Crofton is like a parochial public school. I would say 85 percent of the kids have a religious background, and 85-90 percent of them come from two-parent families. That's not the norm for public schools in Nebraska."
In addition, Ostermeyer praised the students' work ethic, respect for others and desire for excellence. The entire staff holds high expectations for the students, he said.
Besides overseeing his own building, Ostermeyer works with the Crofton elementary and St. Rose School administrators. He sees all parts working together in determining what is best for each student and the entire system.
In addition, the Crofton community holds pride in its school, Ostermeyer said. Area residents are also showing a sense of ownership and partnership with the current community engagement meetings.
The Crofton school district's future looks bright with good finances and larger classes at the elementary school, Ostermeyer said. The district is looking to position itself for its future needs, he added.
The Outstanding New Principal of the Year Award belongs to the entire school district and community, only strengthening his belief in Crofton, he said.
At age 39, Ostermeyer said his childhood experiences molded his outlook on life. Today, he credits his Christian faith and his family as anchors when things get rocky.
"I didn't have a perfect childhood, but I wouldn't change it," he said. "We struggled, but it made me the person I am today."
He hopes his students take the same approach in dealing with their daily battles.
"The garbage truck of life will dump on you, but it's all how you respond to it," he said. "You can roll around in it and smell like it, or you can stand up, dust yourself off and grab the good out of it.
"It's not the setback — the difference lies in what you make of it."