Emily Lilja Palmer said she hadn’t planned on applying for the Washburn High School principalship when the job opened this spring.
But that changed after she started talking with district leaders and Washburn staff and parents about the school.
Palmer said Washburn appealed to her because of its strong community, noting the love and enthusiasm people have for the school. She said she appreciates the notion of balance presented by the school’s academics, arts and athletics focus.
Palmer added that she sees Washburn as a school that’s “doing well but has goals for itself in terms of where they want to go.”
“My whole entire career has been going to schools that are doing well and helping make them become awesome,” Palmer said. “That sort of take-it-to-the-next-level, without any intentionality on my part, has kind of become what I do, and I think that’s part of why Washburn was interested in me coming is that they’re very stable … but they definitely have ambition to be the absolute best they can be.”
Palmer hopes to lead Washburn in that effort, after taking over as the school’s principal on July 2. She replaces Rhonda Dean, who resigned after four years.
A graduate of Minneapolis Public Schools and the University of Minnesota, Palmer said she has naturally gravitated to leadership roles throughout her teaching and administrative career. She described herself as a “process person” who likes things to flow and has no problem with lots of things going on at once.
Palmer attended Minneapolis schools from kindergarten through 12th grade and graduated from Southwest High School. She subsequently enrolled at the university, where she initially studied journalism before moving to English. Her foray into education came as she contemplated what to do after graduating college in the early ’90s.
Palmer went straight into grad school after college and subsequently student-taught at South High School and before being hired to teach at Anthony Middle School. She taught there for nine years, holding multiple leadership positions and becoming an assistant principal intern in 2002.
Palmer then coordinated the commercial and fine arts program at Patrick Henry High School for four years was assistant principal at Richfield Middle School for six years. She started at Sanford in 2013 and also earned a doctorate in education from the University of Minnesota that year.
Encouraged to apply
Palmer said her associate superintendent encouraged her to look at the Washburn job after it opened this spring. She said she was initially hesitant but that the associate superintendent noted how jobs such as Washburn’s don’t come around all that often.
Her interest became further piqued after she talked with Dean about the job at the district’s annual principal luncheon. Palmer said Dean looked at her “completely unsolicited” and said, “You should take Washburn. You would love it.”
“That meant something to me, because obviously Rhonda loves Washburn and she and I have been friends and she knows me,” Palmer said, noting subsequent encouragement from the district’s associate superintendent for high schools.
Palmer also spent time with Dean and Washburn’s assistant principals, Shannon Tenner and Michelle Terpening, at a principals’ conference last month. She started reaching out to people she knew who had students at Washburn and having conversations with them. She also was approached by some Washburn teachers who were former colleagues at Henry, who encouraged her to apply.
“It just kept feeling more like a fit, more like a fit, more like a fit,” Palmer said.
Palmer said she has a lot to learn before she can say what’s going to happen at Washburn or what the school needs. She noted the school’s strong arts program and praised Washburn’s staff and the collaborative work they are doing.
When asked about school safety, Palmer said Washburn has a good system in place as far as its physical setup and how it locks down. But she said the bigger concept with safety is making students feel connected to school. That was something she and her Sanford staff worked to do in part by greeting everyone who walks in the door and by having kids collaborate in the classroom.
Palmer also discussed on the School Board’s 5-4 vote in April to restore over $6 million in time-adjustment funding to middle and high schools. The district had begun providing the funding to middle and high schools several years ago so the schools could meet the requirements of the International Baccalaureate program. District leaders cut the time-adjustment funding from the 2018-19 budget this past winter to help address a projected $33 million budget shortfall.
Washburn parents began advocating for the district to restore the time-adjustment funding after discovering the school faced an initial 13 percent, or $1.7 million, budget cut for 2018- 19. Washburn’s chunk of time-adjustment funding this year was about $780,000.
Parents and students rallied against the cuts and for restoring the time-adjustment funding at packed board meetings in March and April.
The subsequent board vote forced district leaders to make millions in additional cuts to the central office over a 10-day period in April.
Palmer, who is president of the district’s secondary principal group, said she believes the board solved a $1 million problem with $6 million, which wasn’t a good thing to do. But she also recognized that Washburn and Patrick Henry and FAIR high schools had unique needs that weren’t getting addressed through the traditional budgeting process, something at which she said the district will look (FAIR and Henry initially faced 21 and 15 percent budget cuts, respectively, before the board restored the time-adjustment funding).
“How that whole thing unfolded created a lot of unnecessary drama and unnecessary inequity,” Palmer said, noting that Sanford received funding back but not enough to re-implement its seven-period day. She added that her wish would be to make sure that a budget can get rectified without budget public outcry or controversial board motions if the budget doesn’t come back the way it should.
“We shouldn’t need either of those things, because we should be able to get what we need,” Palmer said.
Palmer said she’s not afraid to advocate for what her students need and that the people who hear her requests know she’s going to be professional. District spokesperson Dirk Tedmon said during the interview that Palmer expects to be held accountable for her requests.
Tedmon said a challenge for the district as a whole in 2018-19 will be balancing the needs and wants of students and families while creating a sustainable district. He noted a comprehensive design process is currently underway, adding that the district is trying to get to a point where every school has a baseline level of programming.
“What we’re trying to get to is, ‘what does MPS look like moving forward?’” Tedmon said.
The process will lead to positive changes for students and families, Tedmon said, noting, as an example, that it could mean every student getting exposure to arts. But he added that it’s also going to be an adjustment for people who are used to having things at their schools stay the way they’ve always existed.
Palmer is still working out of her office at Sanford since Washburn is closed for construction work this summer. The district is adding a new science wing and renovating existing science classrooms and the school’s band and choir rooms.
She said the goal is for teachers to return to the building on Aug. 21. A welcome-back night is scheduled for Aug. 22, and school is scheduled to begin Aug. 27.
Palmer will be joined in the administration by assistant principals Tenner and Terpening, who have each been at the school for at least 10 years. She is also helping to serve at Sanford until the school chooses a new principal.