Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed is wrapping up her first year as the leader of Hopkins Public Schools — and already making history.

She’s the first woman and person of color in the superintendent’s office in the west metro school district, part of a changing face of leadership that reflects the increasingly diverse student body it serves.

“To be a woman and a woman of color, people say ‘whoa, that’s different,’ ” she said recently, adding that girls’ faces light up when she’s introduced as the boss’ boss’ boss. “They can’t believe it. … It’s a great change. Our students need to see role models of color.”

While women make up about 76 percent of K-12 teachers nationwide, only 24 percent of superintendents are women, according to a report released this spring by the American Association of School Administrators. And there are even wider gaps when it comes to race; 93 percent of superintendents are white. In Minnesota, only 16 percent of superintendents are women — a number that’s remained virtually unchanged the past five years, according to the state Association of School Administrators.

“In Minnesota, it hasn’t significantly improved,” said Jerry Robicheau, a former superintendent who teaches at Concordia University in St. Paul and has studied the lack of women and people of color in superintendent jobs. “It’s not changing as fast as the diversity in our schools.”

Like schools across the state, Hopkins’ student body is becoming more diverse and seeing an increasing number of English language learners. The percentage of students of color rose from 29 percent in 2008 to 46 percent this year. And it’s not just Mhiripiri-Reed helping diversify the district’s leadership; Fartun Ahmed was elected to the school board, one of the first Somali-American women to do so in the U.S.

“It takes a long time to change a system,” said Wendy Donovan, school board chairwoman. “We’re always looking to make our school district look more like our kids.”

The board unanimously picked Mhiripiri-Reed a year ago to succeed John Schultz, who left after 11 years to take the top spot in the Edina Public Schools. Donovan said Mhiripiri-Reed has already proven to be strong, dynamic and thoughtful in the CEO-like job.

“No matter where she goes, there’s a line of people who want to meet her,” she said.

Rethinking education

Dubbed “Dr. M.R.” by colleagues, Mhiripiri-Reed spends her days bouncing from meetings to events and school visits.

Inside her sunny office, she has swapped the traditional large wooden desk for a modern standing desk and a mini stair-stepping machine. She’s filled a whiteboard with color-coded goals and events, scrawling “criteria for thinking big” at the top.

She has ambitious goals for the first-ring suburban district and aims to overhaul how education looks and acts. She says she wants to break the old model of kids sitting in rows of desks to memorize facts for standardized tests. Instead, she wants to make classroom design and curriculum more student-centered and focused on emerging skills. Her approach follows a shift at some colleges, which have dropped ACT or SAT admissions requirements for a more comprehensive assessment that includes grades, interviews and essays.

“K-12 districts are, in general, fairly traditional if not antiquated,” she said. “Our kids are done with that. They’re asking for a much more dynamic … set of experiences.”

Mhiripiri-Reed has another bold goal: to be the first district in the state to close the achievement gap. She hopes to narrow what she calls the “opportunity gap” by encouraging students of color to take Advanced Placement classes, for example.

She also must confront the 6,700-student district’s declining enrollment; it has lost 1,000 students over the past decade to charter schools and nearby Minnetonka Schools. She said the district needs to spread the message to Hopkins families — who also come from Minnetonka, Golden Valley, Eden Prairie, Edina, Plymouth and St. Louis Park — that test scores in the diverse district are comparable to its competitors.

“Aren’t we trying to prepare our kids for the world?” she asked. “A person who has been educated in a more diverse setting is more well-rounded.”

‘Superfan’ of student success

Mhiripiri-Reed, the oldest of seven, grew up in a diverse environment.

Her father immigrated to the U.S. from Zimbabwe and married her mother, whose grandmother immigrated here from Norway. The family spent some time living in Kenya, Uganda and Switzerland before settling in Bloomington. Mhiripiri-Reed went to Yale University, aspiring to become a judge, but changed to teaching after witnessing the poverty near campus in New Haven, Conn.

While teaching in St. Paul, a male principal suggested she’d make a great principal, too. By 33, she was, leading Champlin Park High in the Anoka-Hennepin Schools — then the second-largest high school in the state.

“She was truly a leader,” said Jeff McGonigal, who was her counterpart at Coon Rapids High then and is now Anoka-Hennepin’s associate superintendent for secondary schools. “She knew how to be a superfan for student achievement.”

After earning her doctorate from Harvard and working as an associate superintendent in California, Mhiripiri-Reed returned to the Twin Cities to take on the top job. School leadership will better reflect their communities, she said, if more women and people of color are promoted. Many women also struggle with balancing family and work, she said, adding that she was pregnant and had a 2-year-old when she was in graduate school.

“It’s a hard job,” she said. “Not everyone wants to do it or deal with the politics. Not everyone wants to deal with the scrutiny. Not everyone wants to be the buck-stops-here person.”

But the self-described workaholic and former spin instructor (she met her now-husband in her spin class) isn’t shying away from the big responsibility — or her big plans for Hopkins.

“It’s been busy,” she said, adding with a smile: “I do have a lot of ideas.”