For Washburn’s new principal, it’s a return Minneapolis

Rhonda Dean rejoins the district after 17 years in suburban schools

Washburn High School Principal Rhonda Dean Credit: Submitted image

TANGLETOWN — One of Minneapolis Public Schools’ newest hires, Rhonda Dean, on Tuesday gave her first interview since she was announced as the Washburn High School principal May 2.

Dean was busy wrapping up the school year at Andover High School, where she’s been principal six years. She said she put off an earlier conversation with reporters because she didn’t want the “hoopla” over her new job to be a distraction, especially for her seniors, for whom May is the most important month of the year.

Dean’s time in Andover followed 11 years as assistant principal of Wayzata High School in Plymouth. But she started her career in Minneapolis, where she was first a math teacher at the former Benjamin Banneker Middle School, then an administrator there and at South High School before leaving for the suburbs in 1997.

Andover is, as Dean noted, just “20 minutes up the road” from Minneapolis, but it’s a high school that looks very different from Washburn, at least on paper.

More than 92 percent of Andover High School’s student body is white. At Washburn, it’s just less than half.

Fewer than 15 percent of Andover students qualify for free and reduced price lunch. At Washburn, it’s nearly half.

At Andover, less than 2 percent of students speak English as a second language. Fourteen percent of Washburn students have limited English proficiency.

Dean said she’s prepared to work with a more-diverse student body, and recalled her experience helping an early wave of Somali students integrate at Banneker.

“I’m a woman of color and I’ve grown up in this community all my life, and I grew up in an environment at a time when it wasn’t very kind,” she said. “So, in terms of being able to work with families of color and understand families of color — first of all, I am a woman of color and, for me, I’m going back home.”

It’s home in more ways than one for Dean. She was raised in Minneapolis and Fridley, and her father, Russell Henderson, was the art teacher at the now-closed Franklin Junior High School.

“I have fond memories running through that building as a child, as a little girl, running on the wood floors,” she said.

Hers is a family of teachers, she said. In addition to her father, several siblings and in-laws are in the profession.

It was when she was at South that Dean first met Linda Conley. Then a school counselor, Conley is currently serving as interim principal at Washburn.

The school’s former principal, Carol Markham-Cousins, was removed at the end of the 2012–2013 school year, and the district faltered in finding a replacement. Patrick Exner was hired and fired within days last summer after allegations came to light that he’d help students cheat on standardized tests.

Dean declined to address that aspect of the school’s recent history, but she said: “I respect Linda, and I respect that she was able to step up at a time when the school needed leadership.”

She didn’t answer directly, either, when asked whether she’d applied for the still-open principal position at South, a school she’s familiar with. But she said Washburn was the “better fit” for her, in part because of its size. With just over 1,300 students enrolled at Washburn this fall, it was about 400 students smaller than either Andover or South.

“There’s something to a size that’s manageable and that’s personable,” she said.

Dean said she also appreciated the Washburn’s traditions and its drive to increase rigor.

“The fact that they have an [International Baccalaureate] program and [Advanced Placement] classes, for me indicates that they’re looking at ratcheting up the rigor and increasing the achievement for all students, and that’s something I’ve always been interested in,” she said.