A peek into the principals office

A reporter is Principal for a Day

LORING PARK — Most schooldays, Principal Mark Quinn is one of the first people to report to work at Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center, arriving around 6:30 a.m. when a custodian is the only other body in the building.

On Oct. 26, though, Quinn was delayed about two hours. The reason? He was hosting one of the participants in AchieveMpls’ Principal for the Day program: this reporter.

In my morning at Emerson, I watched Quinn balance the dual responsibilities of the districts’ principals. The chief administrators of their schools, they are increasingly expected also to be instructional leaders, helping teachers to hone their craft and driving student achievement.

Then, there are the unexpected challenges that can pop up on any given day. On this day it meant dealing with a transportation snafu that delayed an after-school activity bus the previous evening.

“The goal is really to introduce community leaders to what’s really going on in the Minneapolis Public Schools,” said Pam Costain, the former School Board member who now heads AchieveMpls, the district’s non-profit fundraising partner and manager of Principal for a Day.

Costain said it’s an opportunity to counter “misperceptions” about district schools. For participants, it makes clear both the challenges of delivering an education in an urban setting and highlights “the really good work that goes on,” Costain said.

To be clear, it’s an exercise in public relations, one that aims to win the hearts and minds of leaders in government, business and higher education — as well as upbeat stories from local media.

Off to school

After gathering with the other Principals for a Day at 7:30 a.m. at Whittier International Elementary School, I rode with Quinn to the Emerson building, constructed in 1925 and nestled among the three- and four-story brownstones of the Loring Park neighborhood.

On the drive over Quinn answered questions about his experience as an educator, which included a stint as a Minneapolis substitute after college and two years at a bilingual school in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He taught 16 years in a Robbinsdale Spanish-language immersion program and was an administrative intern in that district before he was hired to lead Emerson about three years ago.

Arriving at the school, Quinn walked directly to the main office, where he greeted administrative aide Kristen Goral and budget clerk Sylvia Lattin before stepping through a side door into his private office.

The small space snugly fit Quinn’s desk, a mini-fridge supporting a coffee maker, a round table with four chairs and a low shelf bowing under the weight of bulging three-ring binders. Quinn took a seat, roused his computer from sleep mode and began the day by reviewing several dozen new email messages.

Quinn picked up the phone to check that a substitute teacher had come in that morning, then dialed up his voicemail. Despite contacting parents the previous evening to warn about the late bus, one of the messages was from an upset father.

“[It is] totally unacceptable to have my kids missing for an hour,” said the exasperated voice on speakerphone.

Quinn returned the call, was diverted to voicemail and left a brief message, agreeing the delay was “unacceptable.”

“What I’ve learned is to call back immediately,” he said after hanging up.

Making the rounds

Quinn left the office and began a tour of the school, first stopping in one of Emerson’s Hi-5 classrooms. The preschool students and their two teachers were seated in a circle that Quinn, grinning, joined for a few rounds of “pato, pato, ganso” — Spanish-language duck, duck, goose.

A compact figure in a navy suit with rosy cheeks and a shining pate, Quinn seemed a friendly and familiar face to his students. In calm, quiet tones, he conversed with students in both Spanish and English.

Visits to other classrooms followed a pattern. Quinn quietly observed teachers, then chatted with students about the work and prodded daydreamers to stay on task.

On his way between classrooms, Quinn passed a first-floor reception desk where after-school coordinator Michelle Wiese was on the phone with the bus company. Also a fourth-grade teacher, Wiese would spend that day’s prep time making sure the after-school activity bus did not run late again.

Shortly after 9 a.m. Quinn joined the weekly attendance meeting in school social worker Nancy Hovland’s office.

A small group spent nearly an hour going through a list of student names, tallying tardies and unexcused absences and comparing notes on who had contacted the students’ parents. When that was finished, behavioral specialist Jose Chipoco shared the success he’d had in designing assigned seating charts for some troublesome bus routes.

As Quinn walked out of the meeting, he glanced out the window. There was a light drizzle falling from overcast skies, but he held out hope for outdoor recess that day.

A busy morning

Quinn stopped in first-year teacher Margaret Anderson’s third-grade classroom while her students were away. He’d watched Anderson deliver a lesson the day before and, going over his hand-written notes, offered a few suggestions.

The meeting was brief and cordial, and as Quinn was ready to leave Anderson mentioned the graffiti found in a bathroom near her classroom, probably the work of one of her students. Quinn offered to come in later in the day to talk to the entire class, and penned a reminder to himself on the palm of his hand.

It was 10:15 a.m., and Quinn — who hadn’t paused for even a moment that morning — made his way downstairs to Emerson’s lunchroom, where six or seven dozen kindergarten students ate a lunch of burritos, chocolate milk and fruit. He walked between the tables, stopping to help one student open a plastic bag of apple slices.

The rest of the morning played out much the same: classroom observations, check-ins with teachers, short chats in the school’s hallways. He reluctantly cancelled outdoor recess when the rain picked up before noon.

At one point, immersion coordinator Deborah Anderson stopped Quinn to share some exciting news: an English-speaking student had used a particularly sophisticated sentence structure during a recent Spanish assessment.

This mono-linguistic reporter didn’t quite follow the exchange, but that didn’t matter. The pride in Quinn’s smile required no translation.

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected]