Friday was not the typical last day of school at Minneapolis’ South High School. It was the most dreaded day for this tight-knit school community since their beloved principal Ray Aponte announced his retirement earlier this year.

Aponte, 57, was leaving after five years as the school’s principal and 25 years as a principal in the Minneapolis Public Schools — making him the longest-serving principal in the district.

Sporting a white T-shirt with the words “South High Pride” on it and blue jeans with a walkie-talkie tucked on his belt, he walked the hallways one last time. His young admirers often stopped him and begged to take one last picture together. As he bounced from one corner of the building to the other, he showered students with uplifting messages and reminded them to have fun but do well in school.

“It’s about the kids for me,” he said. “I know the stories behind their faces. When they shine, I shine.”

South High students say their next principal must have Aponte’s friendly demeanor and ability to connect with them. But Aponte, a district employee for 33 years, said a good principal has to have grit and the ability to set the right tone. Students, he said, feel their best when they are learning something.

“It’s been so much fun,” he said reminiscing about his time at the school and his students. “They are my story.”

Aponte came to the United States from Puerto Rico when he was 8 years old, speaking not a word of English. He grew up in the middle of a farm town in Wisconsin and came to Minnesota after graduating from college. He has been an elementary and middle school principal and assistant principal since the late 1980s, and along the way he has earned respect and recognition from the Minneapolis school community.

He took the helm at South High during a tumultuous time. Constant fights at the school left a rift between American Indian, Somali-American and black students. Many students skipped school, and administrators didn’t know how to restore normalcy and peace. At the time, Aponte’s daughter was going to the school, and another one of his children had graduated from South. Aponte filled the long-vacant principal post to keep the South community from breaking apart, he said.

“The first year was challenging,” Aponte said. “But all students wanted was a voice. All they wanted was an opportunity and leadership.”

His efforts have paid off. In 2015, a year after he became principal, South High earned its highest graduation rate in five years, with 79% of all students graduating on time. During the same period, graduation rates for American Indian students more than doubled.

Aponte said he has never challenged students who opted out of standardized tests. Instead, he urges them to graduate on time, take advanced and college-level courses and pursue their dreams. His goal, he said, is to make sure every graduating senior has a plan before leaving high school.

“Not all of them go to college, and that’s fine,” he said. “As long as they have a professional plan, I’m happy.”

Claire Hennen, a South High junior, said she’s known Aponte since she was in third grade at Northrop elementary school. Aponte, she said, has been an uplifting presence in her life.

“We’re going to miss him so much,” she said. “We will bring him back for graduation next year.”

In his retirement, Aponte said he plans to do equity and race work to help improve things in the community. An avid cyclist and cross-country skier, he will also help coach cross-country skiing at the Loppet Foundation.

Other principals’ last days

Aponte is not the only well-known high school principal retiring this year in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

In St. Paul, three principals marked their final days at the helm in the state’s second-largest district.

Departing high school leaders include Mary Mackbee; longtime principal of Central High who recently had the school’s auditorium named after her; Doug Revsbeck, who retired after 12 years at Harding High; and Mike McCollor, who led the grades 6-12 Washington Technology Magnet and was honored this year as high school principal of the year by the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals.

Back at South High, former students showed up Friday with their children to pay tribute to Aponte. One of them came with her little daughter to meet the man she’s known since kindergarten. In awe, Aponte tapped the little girl’s nose and rubbed his own head. He said he knows it’s time to retire when his former students and their children come to visit him.

“They are my glory,” Aponte said, smiling. “That’s how I built my career.”