Principal aimed to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline
Young lives matter. Theresa Neal, retiring Como Park High School principal, spent a career passionately committed to putting that assertion into practice. For just shy of 40 years she was hands-on practicing her life’s motto: Service over self to support and sustain the quality of life for youth, children, families, and communities.
“I don’t know if education was what I had planned,” Neal said. “I just knew I was destined to go into a career that allowed me to work with young people and, of course, schools are filled with young people. To this day, that’s my passion.”
Indeed, when Neal officially leaves the job toward the end of June, she won’t be done; she will simply transition to the post of site administrator at the Ramsey County residential facility, Boys Town Totem Juvenile Detention Center. She will be there until the end of August and then grudgingly call it a day, having held her shoulder to the wheel since 1979.
This speaks well enough for her, but Neal stepped into a crucial breach, salvaging those whom the system routinely lets fall by the wayside. She started out as a home-school liaison with the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul before deciding she could do greater good as a youth advocate. Then she worked as a school social worker on behalf of young men leaving correctional facilities who are taking on the task of returning to society and resuming their studies.
“That’s where it really all began,” she said. “Those are the young people often described in terms of adjectives like disconnected and disruptive. I found that’s where I flourished.”
She ascended to administration in 2000 after serving nearly 22 years at Highland Park Senior High School as a social worker, and when she made it to the top of the ladder it was as principal of correctional academic programs. She oversaw Boys Totem Town as well as the juvenile detention center. In all, there were 17 special programs over the course of nine years.
To say she found this rewarding understates the case. “It was life-changing. I realized the energy and effort I put into the lives of [students] is a dividend to me.” This goes for both the special settings and the traditional post she’s now vacating.
“If I can make a positive impact and they can go out and make an impact in the world, I’m served by their work. It’s extremely important to me as a servant leader that we have belief in all of our young people. That we don’t assume decisions they have made or situations they have found themselves in define them.
“I certainly like to think experience turns into wisdom, and that as young people grow, mature and develop that I’ve had some hand in that. That I’ve helped them to strive and thrive.”
A cruelly common fact of life is often the decried pipeline that virtually funnels kids of color who get off on the wrong foot in life straight into a career of incarceration. Intervention is “part of the job,” she stated. “My role is to be a change agent. To be an interrupter. My role is to disrupt that pipeline to prisons. It’s important to me, though it seems so clichéd, to build healthy, positive relationships with my students, with the young people I encounter, both within the four walls and outside the four walls of Como Senior High School.
“The obligation doesn’t begin at 7:30 am and end at 2:30 pm. As a professional, but also as a community member, the role is to be a champion, a spokesperson, and an advocate for how we interrupt that pipeline, what really happens from birth to prison.
“It doesn’t begin when they enter school. It really begins when young people come into this world.” History certainly corroborates that statement. Between the police, the courts, and the ever-increasing enterprise of penitentiary construction, a fate behind bars readily awaits scores of unsuspecting youth.
Neal posed the question, “How are we providing all the necessities for young people to thrive? With babies, we hear of the failure to thrive.” She continued, “That failure to thrive doesn’t stop at a toddler, you know, or an infant. [It] can permeate its way through life far beyond their primary years.
“So when you assume the role of building principal, you recognize the multiple hats that you wear. How you welcome young people into your school. How you relate to them in a way that helps them have a sense of belonging. [It’s] how you nurture them…mind, body, and soul, certainly with the foundation of education being the stepping stone to prepare them for the world.”
Determinedly dedicated as she is to look after those who are our future, Neal accepts she can’t go on forever. “It’s time to turn this over to other committed educators and pass the torch. Thirty-nine years. There are some…colleagues who’ve been doing this for 45, 50-plus years, and I idolize them, the shoulders I stand on, in particular female educators of color who have paved the way for me.”
Neal reflected on the community where she has given back: “I’m a child of Rondo, [where] I was born and raised in St. Paul and I still reside.” In addition to serving on multiple boards, including the JK Movement, which is a youth-serving nonprofit organization that is the brainchild of one of her former Highland Park High students, John Allen, Neal is a lifelong member of Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church as well as current chairperson of the Church Council Leadership Team.
Neal sums up how it has been for her since earning her undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate degrees that propelled her to embark on her calling and life’s work. It was always more about doing the work than being seen doing it, preferring to work, as it were, behind the scenes. “I love my kids. I love my job, but I really love my kids. When they walk into the building, each and every one of them are my children.”
Dwight Hobbes welcomes readers’ responses to P.O. Box 50357, Minneapolis, MN 55403.