Washburn’s new principal hasn’t worked in a Minneapolis school since the 1990s, but Rhonda Dean doesn’t sound fazed by her shift from a mostly white school with little poverty in Andover to a considerably more diverse student body in Minneapolis.
First, she started her career in Minneapolis schools, teaching math in various grade configurations in the Wilder building, and then went on to South to learn the ropes of being an administrator.
While she was at the Banneker school within the Wilder building, she helped lead the school’s adjustment to a first wave of Hmong immigration, a job that she said helped her to learn across cultural barriers. She worked to removed barriers for students and their families.
Even earlier, she roamed the wood-floored halls of the old Franklin school in north Minneapolis, where her father, Russell Henderson, taught art before switching to Southwest. She also attended Franklin and went to Henry for a year befpre finishing school in Fridley, where she also recalls huddling in a basement during that city's 1965 tornado
“For me, I’m going back home,” the 52-year-old declared in a phone interview Tuesday. She’ll get a formal introduction to the Washburn community on May 22 from 5-6:30 p.m.
At Washburn, she’ll face several challenges. One that’s leftover, despite the strenuous efforts of predecessor Carol Markham-Cousins, is to narrow the gap between the school’s low-income and minority students and the increasingly white, middle-class enrollment sent to Washburn since the district hardened its attendance area boundaries. Although the school has drawn recognition for its drama and athletic achievements, its four-year graduation rate is about 53 percent.
Another is to stabilize the school’s leadership. Washburn was rocked during the 2012-2013 school year first by an incident in which a small group of students hung a dark-skinned doll, and then by student-led protests over the reassignment of a popular athletic director after issues arose from replacement of an outdoor scoreboard. After the district reassigned Markham-Cousins, it hired Patrick Exner for the job only to dump him quickly after an allegation that he changed student test answers, something he’s denied.
One advantage that Dean has is that she’ll come into Washburn knowing its interim principal, Assistant Principal Linda Conley, who worked with Dean at South.
Another piece of her background could also fit Washburn’s needs. At Wayzata High School, she was responsible for integrating a class of ninth graders into the high school for the first time. Now the Minneapolis district wants to create more of a dual academic campus at Washburn and adjoining Ramsey Middle School. That will mean some students could take classes in both schools. Dean will have a year to work with Ramsey Principal Paul Marrietta before the change takes effect a year from this fall.
Lund wouldn’t say directly whether she’d also applied for the district’s other marquee principal opening, at South, where the district is behind on its own schedule for announcing a new principal. But she said that a school like Washburn, with just over 1,300 students, is a more manageable size than South and Andover, which both have 1,700 students.
She also said she feels that Washburn has a more “wholistic” student body than what she remembers from South, where students were more separated according to their academic program. “I thought that Washburn was a better fit for me and as a high school principal, we put in a lot of hours,” she said.
She said she’s purposely delayed visiting the Washburn campus since her hiring because of the time of year. “For me, this is the most important month of the years for our seniors,” she said. “I don’t want people talking about next year and not having those students have their moment.”