When Minnetonka High School students return to classes next week, they should recognize at least one familiar face in the hallway.

Jeff Erickson, the school’s former assistant principal, is back after a yearlong stint in Mounds View. This year, however, Erickson is returning as principal, a post long occupied by the enigmatic Dave Adney.

“I don’t make commitments lightly,” Erickson said. “When I left, my intention was to be at Mounds View. But I’ve been a part of the culture at Minnetonka for 19 years. It was an opportunity I just couldn’t refuse.”

Minnetonka administrators saying the feeling was mutual. When Adney resigned last spring to lead the state secondary school principals’ group, Erickson was an obvious choice to lead the high school, said Superintendent Dennis Peterson.

“We had a number of exceptional candidates for the job,” he said. “But Jeff was just head and shoulders above them. He’s going to be an amazing leader for our school.”

One thing Erickson won’t be, he says, is confined to the principal’s office. That’s because he aims to be a highly visible leader, interacting with staff and students every day in the classroom, not just at the occasional football game.

What’s less clear is whether Erickson plans to resume Adney’s tradition of dancing in a school-produced video, but don’t rule it out.

“I can’t be Dave Adney,” Erickson said. “I won’t be. Certainly not in the hair department, anyway.”

Teachers, parents and administrators give Erickson high marks for his commitment to improving instructional quality, his ability to inspire colleagues, and a wry sense of humor that rivals that of his predecessor.

The new principal first came to Minnetonka in 1993 as a Spanish teacher. While Erickson enjoyed teaching, he decided to make the move to administration after realizing he was somewhat limited on the impact he could have on the high school.

He became an assistant principal at the high school in 2006 and quickly established himself as a go-to guy for many of the district’s key initiatives.

Among them was a major overhaul of grading and attendance policies.

After looking at five years of attendance and grading data, the district abandoned a policy that lowered students’ grades for missing class without a valid excuse. It found that using grades as a deterrent was ineffective.

Consequently, unexecuted absences were cut by more than 50 percent.

While his role in the grading initiative has earned him national recognition, it’s Erickson’s ability to inspire teachers that has earned him the most kudos in high school hallways.

“I think he empowers people,”said Stephanie Brondani, the school’s reading specialist. “That’s really his leadership style.”

Brondani served on an instructional leadership team led by Erickson a few years ago. But early into the team’s work, he turned the reins over to the teachers. That was a signal, Brondani said, that he was interested in their ideas and trusted the teachers enough to let them shape instructional strategy.

“He listened to us,” she said. “And that really boosted my confidence and convinced me that I could become a leader.”

Math teacher Matt Breen said Erickson is a tremendous resource, especially in the realm of instructional research.

“I can always go to him and ask him advice about books on how to improve classroom instruction,” Breen said. “Usually, he either has read the book or knows the authors. I really trust him.”

Erickson said he’s not ready to unveil a suite of changes at the high school this year. Instead, he’s most excited about seeing some of the district’s new programs roll out.

That includes the Vantage program, which provides real-life work experiences for students who earn credits while they work with local companies. Also on tap is the expansion of the district’s iPad program, which will put tablet computers in the hands of students in eighth through 11th grades.

“Honestly, I’m just ready for the kids to get here,” he said.