Marcy welcomes new principal

Edison veteran Donna Andrews embraces ‘openness’ in her first tour as a principal

One month into the new school year, the most eager learner at Marcy Open School may be the new principal, Donna Andrews.

Andrews took over the job in mid-August, when district officials decided to transfer former Marcy principal Jane Ellis to Keewaydin Community School and promote Andrews, who had been the assistant principal at Edison High School in Northeast Minneapolis.

Andrews had just returned from a business trip when Karen Pedersen, superintendent for the Area B schools, told her she was being promoted. She was completely surprised; having been at Edison for 19 years, she thought she was “beneath the district’s radar” and would remain at the school. Though she had attended “principal school” and been encouraged by others to become a principal, she had never seriously considered it.

She was even more surprised when she found out her new school would be a K–8. “I had spent my whole career with high school kids,” she said, working as a special education teacher before moving into a series of administrative posts at Edison.

Surprise grew into shock when she found out her new school would be Marcy. “The first thing I did was log on to the Marcy Web site, and I was completely shocked by what I saw,” Andrews said. “Just a mile and a half away from Edison, there was a whole different style of school and a whole different community of very involved families.”

At Edison, she said, there is little parental and community involvement because so many students are very recent immigrants, and because the school is always under pressure to focus its energy on raising low standardized test scores. What Andrews saw on Marcy’s Web site and heard from others told her that things would be very different at her new school.

“There was some discussion with me about how different Marcy was in terms of parental involvement, almost as a warning, but I look forward to that because that’s what I like to do,” she said. As a parent herself, Andrews, who lives in Lakeville, said she understands parents’ desire to be involved in their children’s education. “I have three kids myself and despite my career, I am considered an involved parent, meaning that I stand up for what I think my children need,” she said.

While she misses the Edison staff and students, Andrews said she believes she has been given a great “change opportunity” at Marcy and says the transition has been a good one. One thing that’s helped, she said, is the amount of communication she’s had with parents and staff. “I’ve never received so much e-mail in my life,” she remarked. “People have been very welcoming, very nice, and very honest, but they’re letting me know very clearly what they hope to see in the future as Marcy moves forward.”

Commitment to the open-school philosophy
One thing many parents hope to see is a renewed focus and commitment to the open-school philosophy at Marcy, which many feel has been undermined in recent years by a variety of forces, including an emphasis on standardized testing, budget cuts, the “realignment” of veteran teachers in 2004, which forced many experienced Marcy teachers to take positions at other schools, and a perceived lack of support for open practices from the previous administration at the school. Andrews said she is committed to learning about the open philosophy and supporting it at Marcy.

“One of the tenets in the Marcy philosophical statement,” she said, “is that everyone is a learner,” and she said she looks forward to learning from people who have experience in the open, progressive style of education. Andrews said she studied open schools when she was a student in the 1970s and that the looser parameters of the open method and its focus on students’ individual needs were part of why she went into special education, which she felt took much the same approach.

To educate parents, staff, and herself about the open philosophy, Andrews said the school needs to draw on its current and past leaders and invite them to share their experiences and set up mentorships. She said she’s grateful for the many people who have expressed their willingness to help, and she plans to make open methods the focus of staff development. Andrews said she has also been in touch with experts across the district, such as Barton Open principal Steve DeLapp.

While a precise definition of “open” can be difficult to articulate, Andrews singled out some open practices she’s seen at Marcy. “Morning meetings are a really big deal around here,” she said, noting their importance for building classroom community. She also believes in the open emphasis on letting students shape school rules, so she met with middle school students the first week to hear their ideas about rules and expectations. Middle-schoolers are at an age where they are wired to rebel, Andrews said, so her emphasis in the middle school will be less on imposing rules than on building positive relationships between teachers and students. “Gum,” she said, “should not equal suspension.”

Her main goal as principal is “to make sure that every decision we make here at Marcy is about what’s best for the students: not really what’s best for the staff, not really what’s best for the schedule, not even what’s best for the district. I have to look at the kids,” she said. One example of that was when the fifth- and sixth-grade teachers came to her the second week of school with a last-minute request to use free tickets they had received to take their students to a Twins game. Andrews was surprised, but said she was happy to approve the trip, especially after the teachers explained how they would create assignments with a baseball theme. “I love that Marcy students get out into the community so much,” Andrews said. “They must just love this city by the time they graduate.”

And she’s not worried about the reputation Marcy students have for being independent thinkers. “I had heard that kids had picketed the office in the past, but I’m not intimidated by that—I’m excited about it,” she said. “They have to learn to have a voice in the world, and if we can create situations where they build their self-esteem and can be empowered by using their voices, that’s a big deal to me.”

Ultimately, her leadership style is about collaboration and listening. “If people want a quick decision, they’re not going to get it because I want to think about it and reflect on it,” she said. “I’ll make a decision based on all the input that I get. It’s not about making a decision by myself. I’ll never say ‘it’s my way or the highway.’”

Parents, staff optimistic about new leadership
Andrews’ collaborative style and her commitment to the open approach has many parents and staff feeling optimistic, though some initially had concerns about how the decision was made to change principals. Alison Hennen, a parent of two Marcy students and one Marcy graduate, said there are parents who feel that a small group of parents who had had negative experiences with Ellis put pressure on district officials to appoint a new principal. Of particular concern, she said, was a meeting this summer in which many parents, community members, and some district representatives expressed unhappiness about Ellis’ leadership style, which many felt was too authoritarian for Marcy and didn’t sufficiently support the open-school philosophy.

Rhonda Vopava Geyette, a veteran Marcy teacher, said that particular meeting was only one of a series of exchanges Marcy parents had had with district officials. “I think it was many meetings over many years and I think there’s been a change at the district level, and officials are now more willing to listen to parents,” she said. “Now there’s a leadership that wants families to stay in the Minneapolis schools and is willing to do what we need to do to keep them.”

Geyette said she is optimistic and excited about the opportunity to recommit to the open philosophy, which she said is all about child-directed learning. “It’s about giving students choices about how they live, learn, and work together,” she said. “The learners should be in charge and the teachers should be the facilitators.”

Bettina Dehnhard, chair of the Marcy Parent Council, agrees. She believes that though schools like Marcy have been through some rough times recently, “there’s a strong core group of people who still want that kind of progressive education for their kids and they are willing to do a lot to make that happen.”

last revised: October 16, 2006