When St. Louis Park High School students return to school Tuesday, Sept. 5, two new administrators at the school will greet them.
Charles Johnson-Nixon came to St. Louis Park from Robbinsdale Area Schools to serve as a full-time assistant principal while Penny Dupris, who has taught at Susan Lindgren and Peter Hobart elementary schools, will serve as an interim assistant principal.
Kari Schwietering, who has served as an assistant principal at the high school, will become the interim principal at Peter Hobart while Principal Shelley Nielsen takes a medical leave of absence.
Dupris, who received an administrative license in June, noted she has worked under Nielsen and put in hours at the middle school and high school.
“For me, it’s been such a pleasure to watch our kids transition from elementary to middle school and then to the high school,” Dupris said. “It’s been fun to not only see them grow into graduates but really a blessing to see how well our schools are aligned academically and the supports that have been put into place to have smooth transitions and to get our kids ready for their careers and college.”
Johnson-Nixon has already served as an assistant principal for two years at Robbinsdale schools after 18 years as an art teacher in Minneapolis. He noted that he worked at Cooper High School before serving at an elementary school.
“I love being at the high school,” Johnson-Nixon said. “High school is where I feel I belong.”
He said he had been drawn to the St. Louis Park district by its focus on students of color.
“The way they approach culturally responsive issues and racial equity is better than any other district I’ve worked in,” Johnson-Nixon said. “It’s very impressive. St. Louis Park is doing things very well. … It’s a powerful statement to walk into a room and see teachers put students of color at the forefront of what they’re doing. It’s a driving force of what they’re doing to educate all students so everyone is successful.”
While Johnson-Nixon said he has planned for the beginning of the school year for several weeks since joining the district, he said, “You can only do so much planning. At some point, things need to start.”
He and Dupris anticipated that they could put their ideas into action as teachers prepare to welcome students back to school.
“I’m extremely excited,” Johnson-Nixon said. “I can’t wait for it to happen.”
They had already begun meeting with new teachers along with professional development and leadership teams as of an Aug. 24 interview.
“It’s been such a pleasure having meetings with teachers, witnessing their passion and commitment to our students and their enthusiasm for a brand new school year,” Dupris said.
The two new administrators want to streamline how staff members interact with students and the community, Johnson-Nixon indicated.
“We want to make sure everything we do in the building is student-centered,” Johnson-Nixon said.
He added that the administrators wanted to encourage parents to communicate with teachers in the beginning of the school year. He emphasized a need to build relationships with students “so they have the idea from the beginning that teachers and staff are here to help them so they can all be successful.”
The district has implemented its Building Assets – Reducing Risks program with freshmen and sophomores, but Dupris said high school administrators want to implement more accountability measures for juniors and seniors as well. While Building Assets – Reducing Risks is more formal, Dupris said administrators want to continue the philosophy for the older grades.
Staff members, including counselors, social workers and administrators, can work in teams to ensure “that no students are falling through the cracks,” Johnson-Nixon said.
The strategy involves meeting with students to inform them about where they are academically so they can take ownership of their learning and make good choices, he added.
“We’re giving them the choices to really manage themselves after they get out of school and contribute to society,” Johnson-Nixon said.
The incoming administrators began their new roles in the same summer as Supt. Astein Osei moved into the district’s top leadership position.
Johnson-Nixon said Osei “brings a level of excitement into the equation.”
Johnson-Nixon added, “He’s leading a clear vision of how the school should be a vital part of the community.”
As wonderful a community as St. Louis Park is, the district still needs to focus on helping its students of color, Johnson-Nixon said. He added that Osei, who he noted is a black man, has “really laid that message out there” and emphasized that “race equity is who we are so we’re really helping all of our students.”
Johnson-Nixon also noted the ethnicities of the two new high school administrators.
“The idea that pairing and placing a Native American woman and an African-American male on the leadership team really sends a powerful message to our students,” said Johnson-Nixon, referring to Dupris, who is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and himself. “They see two figures who look like them as guides that education is a powerful force that can bring them where they need to be.”
Dupris said, “I feel very honored and very blessed to have this wonderful opportunity to work in the high school, continue to work in the district that I love that has a strong community support and presence and leaders who lead courageously and value all of our children.”
She said many of the district administrators have served as mentors for her.
“I feel very fortunate to be a part of this team,” Dupris said.
Johnson-Nixon said, “As a black man living in the world today, it is so refreshing to see a district that is fighting the institutional racist system that we have to deal with so often. When I looked at the mission statement and equity work they’re doing, it was a really strong component to come and be a part of this district.”
Turning his thoughts to the return of students to the high school, Johnson-Nixon said, “The beginning of a school year is always an electric time of year. I’m looking forward to meeting our students and helping them on their way and doing things the St. Louis Park way.”
He expressed a strong interest in supporting the arts and helping teachers create lesson plans that attract student interest.
“If kids are engaged in class and excited about doing what they’re doing, excited about learning, you generally don’t have a lot of problems,” he said.
Dupris said, “High school is such an exciting time in a young adult’s life, and it’s just a blessing to be a part of that and share that experience with them. We have a really strong group of teachers, committed to providing opportunities to them. Charles and I feel really blessed to be a part of this community.”