It has been little more than a month on the job for students returning to or starting school in Hopkins School District #270; it has been about four months for the district’s new superintendent, Dr. Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed.
The first few weeks in her new job have been very busy, scheduling meetings with faculty and parents and crisscrossing district sites in seven different municipalities. All this to get a better understanding of the district’s over 7,000 students, 47 new teachers, and a staff she describes as a great mix, which includes the recent hiring of more teachers of color.
As teachers and students spent the past few weeks getting acquainted with classrooms and lessons, Reed spent her time getting familiar with the mantle she assumed from her predecessor, Dr. John Schultz. After she was unanimously elected to the position, she spent time with Schultz to gain perspective from his 11 years in the district. Moreover, she could see the starting point to incorporate her leadership ideals for the faculty, students and staff.
MSR wanted to know how and why Reed chose Hopkins to continue her career as an educator and what would be her vision for the district’s nine school sites. She describes the district as a special place, “Not too big, not too small. The number of students felt right.”
She likes Hopkins’ small town yet metropolitan feel. She appreciates the complexity the system offers with students and families from seven different municipalities along with seven different mayors and city councils.
Reed came from Northern California, where she had to deal with a lot of “turn around” and a fair amount of staff changes. She wanted a change; she was ready for the kind of “world class trajectory” Hopkins offered.
“I saw that Hopkins built a strong foundation with world language [and] immersion programs.” She points out that the schools are technology-rich and that the instructional support is very strong. “People really know what they’re doing…and that was also very attractive to me.”
Her goal is to be the leader who asks for input from staff. “If you have something to help me learn and study the context, then please come forward and let’s chat.”
It is through her conversations with faculty and parents that she learned there were families who weren’t happy with the system. She says there were people who felt like they weren’t being heard and that the distribution of resources wasn’t being handled equitably. These are challenges Schultz has been working to resolve.
When asked what she sees as the three biggest challenges over the next three years, she says the first would be addressing opportunity and learning depth. Having students from different racial backgrounds and different economic levels presents a gap. “The learning outcomes we have as a country are predictable along lines of race and class.”
MSR asked her to expand on that thought. What, in her opinion, caused the achievement gap and low math scores, particularly among African American students?
Reed expresses a need for a blend of strong beliefs and strong practices. She describes it as a “collective efficacy”: “If we all believe that we have the power and the skill to help all students achieve at higher levels, that will be a really strong starting point.”
She thinks faculty should be able to identify students by name in grades k-12. Further, faculty should be able to identify who is not on track and identify what skills the child requires to be more masterful.
She says that while a great deal of focus on reading and proficiency is placed on third graders, it’s not enough. “We need to go back to kindergarten.” She adds that although third grade is not too late, it isn’t the earliest viable starting point. “We are going to start from kindergarten.”
She wants to address Hopkins’ proximity to districts that are racially less diverse. In many cases there is the perception that there is a higher quality of education in those districts. “We have families who choose Minnetonka instead of Hopkins, who choose Wayzata instead of Hopkins, or Edina instead of Hopkins.” She says children with limited racial and ethnic exposure may not be prepared for the demographics of the world.
The second challenge is helping Hopkins schools to build an identity. “What’s going to be our brand?” She described it as kind of a mix of pride with a minor identity crisis. She points out that some folks are saying Hopkins is not as good. “If families want to choose something else, let them. Let’s figure out what we do best.”
The third challenge is how to recruit, select, and retain the best staff, those who will be able to cultivate the kinds of young people the market needs. “CEOs and managers are articulating a skills gap,” and young people are lacking soft skills and critical skills. Reed wants to ensure Hopkins has a system where graduates will not be caught in that skills gap. She emphasized a goal to hire the best and the brightest. “It has to be a diverse collection of instructors.”
Dr. Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed is constantly on the move. Her office is sparse and she barely spends time in it. But there is something that illustrates her personality as part of District #207 — it’s a framed painting of a blue and red lion, a congratulatory gift painted by her father from his art gallery in Bloomington.
She seems pleased to share the significance of the lion: It symbolizes the Hopkins mascot, and blue is the district-wide color. Moreover, the lion is a symbol of Africa, her father being born in Zimbabwe. That lion also symbolizes her determination to continue making positive changes in the Hopkins school district.
Judith Hence welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Judith Hence is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.