Steve DeLapp was raised in Minneapolis schools, graduating from Washburn, one of two high schools where his father served as principal. So when the younger DeLapp had a chance to return to Minneapolis as a principal, he took it and stayed put.
For 20 years.
DeLapp announced recently that he’s stepping down after this school year from the only job he’s held for Minneapolis schools – principal of Clara Barton Open School.
His 20-year tenure at one of the harder schools to get into in the city makes him the current dean of city principals for longevity at the same school.
“He’s such a champion of progressive education that it’s kind of hard to sum him up,” said Jennifer Bennett, parent co-chair of Barton’s school council. Open schools employ a philosophy of education that emphasizes hands-on studies tailored to a student’s learning style and interests. Minneapolis once had five such elementary schools, but it’s now down to Barton and Marcy open schools, plus South’s high school open program.
DeLapp, 64, has been preparing his school since last school year for the possibility of retirement. The irony in his longevity is that he didn’t even get hired when he applied the first time for an open school opening in Minneapolis. But Barton parents and teachers heard of him after he’d been passed over for Marcy and coached him through the district hiring process.
He said he found an already strong school at Barton: “I just think there’s a real strong culture among the teachers and the parents that we’re doing important work, and going to keep getting better.”
Barton’s enrollment has been as high as 755 students, although it’s budgeted for fewer. About twice as many families apply for kindergarten openings as the 78 available spots, and the waiting list for each grade level is typically a score or more.
A gentle-mannered man who liked to roam the school’s halls and sit in on classes, DeLapp said perhaps the biggest change at the school during his tenure has been the improvement in learning climate. He attributes that to a social skills program for students known as responsive classroom. It teaches students how to follow teacher instructions, cooperate with others, and learn in large and small groups. “It fit the open school model well because we seek to have kids making important decisions as learners,” DeLapp said. “People who visit the school can really sense it.”
There have also been physical changes. Barton is one of the smallest school sites in Minneapolis, sitting on a cramped half-block site at 4237 Colfax Av. S. An addition years ago gave the school a commons area and other space, and eliminated its wooden portable classrooms, but didn’t make more student capacity.
Some district changes have changed the work of principals such as DeLapp. There’s much more emphasis on principals serving as instructional leaders of schools rather than merely building administrators. He views the developing district teacher evaluation process as giving a strong endorsement to effective teaching. “It’s nothing out of sync in what we’re after in an open school,” he said.
The southwest area’s associate superintendent, Theresa Battle, will be meeting with the school parent-teacher council to gain a better understanding of what the school is looking for in a new leader, and also plans to talk to older students about that.
DeLapp‘s announcement was carefully phrased to reassure parents that he’s confident the school’s commitment to progressive education will outlast him. He said he’ll also be around to help mentor his successor next fall, a role he’s willing to continue in other schools if the district is willing to tap the experience he’s gained in 40 years in education.