Beloved Principal Ray Aponte will leave South on a high note


Kinsley Wilcox-McBride

Above is Mr. Aponte with his favorite mural that has gone up in his time as Principal at South. “I’m hoping that we can continue working on a lot of the things that he was responsible for in his time at South… I’m hoping that some of the visibility for particular groups of students and some of the work that we’ve been doing to try to improve things for them will continue to happen,” said history teacher Joshua Fisher. Aponte considers South the “pinnacle of his career” and is proud of improvements made, including South’s various murals.

On March 19, beloved Principal Ray Aponte made a huge announcement: with the end of the 2018-19 school year, he will officially end his time as principal of South High. Aponte has served as South’s Principal for the past five years.

“I was really struggling with it all the way up until December or January… But I am going to leave on my terms and not when somebody tells me to leave, so I am leaving on top. I feel like I have accomplished a lot here and in Minneapolis,” explained Aponte. “Now it’s time for me to move on and maybe take my talents and go somewhere else where somebody else might need some help. I don’t plan on retiring. I plan on taking some time off and reevaluating my position and my own personal track, but I suspect I will probably end up at a school some place.”

Aponte has worked in academic administration for 34 years, and for the Minneapolis Public School District for 25 of those years. This long history in the district has made him the longest-serving principal in Minneapolis Public School District history. He has been both an assistant principal and principal at a plethora of schools, including Northeast Middle School, Anderson, Waite Park, and Jefferson.

His announcement was made to the South High staff at a meeting after school on the 19th, and a letter written by him was emailed out to students later in the afternoon. For the meeting, Aponte had to ask somebody else to read the letter because of the emotion it brought out in him. “I thought ‘I better not read this letter in front of staff, because I don’t want to break down’… it was very emotional,” Aponte said.

The heartfelt announcement letter began with a recount of his struggle to acclimate to the schools in America, after his move from Puerto Rico as a young child.

“In my career as an administrator—34 years in all— never forgetting that the kids who might not be making it in the classroom, might only need an experience bigger than the classroom,” the letter read. “A garden to nurture, a trip to the Black Hills, advanced learning, music, theater, and art,” he continued, all examples of opportunities for students created during his term as principal, thanks to his passion for supporting “learning outside of the classroom.”

Students and staff all respect Mr. Aponte’s efforts to connect to the members of his school community. “I really like the fact that Aponte interacts with students, no matter what their personality is,” said sophomore Abrea Woller.  Aponte affirmed this in saying that “to be a principal, you have to love all children.”

“He really made an effort to connect,” agreed sophomore Beatrice Kennedy-Logan.

“Every morning I have to set the tone in the commons, in the halls,” Aponte said. He feels his involvement in the school and communication with students is vital to the health of our community.

After his announcement, there has been a lot of talk within South, the District, and online. “Just reading some of the things people are saying online about their experiences with me, it touches my heart,” Aponte said. He shared that he feels very happy to hear all of the ways people remember and appreciate their time with him.

“I’m hoping that we can continue working on a lot of the things that he was responsible for in his time at South,…that some of the visibility for particular groups of students and some of the work that we’ve been doing to try to improve things for them will continue,” said history teacher Joshua Fisher. Examples include South’s various murals and field trips taken this year to Hamilton or the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.

Aponte feels that his five years at South High have been the pinnacle of his career. “It’s not an easy job,” he said. He went on to explain how the diversity of the student body has taken a lot of commitment and education to properly lead. “We have five huge populations here, and you have to be able to kind of meander in and out of those cultures,” he said.

Aponte has also been a cheerleader for the All Nations Program, an often overlooked group. He has passionately supported cultural opportunities for Native students, such as a buffalo hunt, a trip to the Black Hills, and the building of lacrosse sticks.

“I spent about 45 minutes yesterday in All Nations…That is the population that continues not to meet the achievement levels that other cultures here do…They were worried because I have been their advocate…They wanted me to talk about what was going to happen,” Aponte explained. “The new Principal has to love Native children and understand the historical trauma that they have been under, and how desperate that community is in regards to outcomes academically and even with jobs.”

Aponte hopes that there will continue to be support for South’s Native community, as that is one area of the school where he does not feel his job has been “finished.”

“I am hoping that students here can continue to help support that program by…understanding that it is very difficult to be a Native child… People with more privilege need to be advocates for them,” Aponte said.

“To be a Principal, you have to be very centered around what you believe in regards to how students should be treated and how schools should be run, and that just doesn’t happen overnight. But I’m pretty centered around what I believe,” Aponte said. He feels that type of relationship which students are so fond of is his responsibility.

After 34 years as a dedicated administrator, Aponte’s hiatus may not be a shock to some people, but it is certainly emotional to many. “It was sad to hear that it is official… I hope that we have the chance to find another person who is an advocate for South in the same way,” said Fisher.

Aponte didn’t always foresee the path he would follow: “I never would have imagined that I’d be [an administrator]. Never.” Yet with all the growth he nurtured for South in his time here, his legacy will be hard to follow. “He’s had a long career. It will be big shoes to fill,” said Woldum.

There is a standard district process for hiring principals, and the MPS Superintendent will make the final decision. However, Aponte will be a part of that hiring process, as well as other staff and members of the Minneapolis Public School community.

As for next year, Aponte has plans of self-improvement. “It’s really hard for me to think past today, because this is an encompassing job, but I think I’m really going to try to simplify my life, make good meals and become healthier mentally and physically,” he said. “This job is taxing mentally… I’m going to do yoga and keep biking and try to eat good food. And my family, my brothers and sisters and my mama, I hardly ever see them because I am almost always here.”

“It’s been an honor to work alongside hard-working teachers and to know brilliant student minds…Thank you, beyond words, for the privilege of being your principal,” the letter concluded. “I am a better person now, than I was before South High School.”

Aponte is leaving big shoes to fill, but the search for a new principal is beginning. On April 10, there was a Site Council meeting to discuss the process of selecting a new principal. After a few brief statements from Assistant Principal Isabel Rodriguez and Student Council Representative Marie Stebbings, Daniel Glass, who leads school leadership hiring for Minneapolis Public Schools, began to describe the process of finding a new principal for South High School.

First, the Site Council and others need to create a finalized survey for students, staff, and parents. The survey results will create a profile that Glass will use to find potential matches from a pool of candidates. Those candidates will be interviewed by a committee of South High community members who will give a recommendation to the superintendent. The superintendent then makes the final decision.

Glass said his role is “to make sure we have a deep pool of people to draw from.” Applicants must complete a set of rigorous assessments to be considered. These include an interview with an associate superintendent and two sitting MPS principals, presenting a plan to their hypothetical associate superintendent on how to deal with a hypothetical challenge at a school, a role-playing activity with an upset parent, and an observational activity where they give feedback to a teacher. Glass also emphasized that “this is not a district-driven process. This will be a South High-driven process.”

Glass also discussed the need to move quickly in order to secure a highly-qualified applicant. “There’s competition for people, but that being said I don’t want you to go any faster than you feel comfortable with,” he expanded.

After Glass took a few questions from teachers and parents, Assistant Principal Mercedes Walker discussed the survey. Many people had comments regarding the format and content of the survey questions. In the end, people at the meeting made suggestions on physical copies of the survey that were handed out. Lisa Ramirez and other members of Site Council will make changes to the current survey, then on Monday April 15th a smaller group will meet to finalize the survey.

LaCresha Dotson, parent of South junior Jordan Dotson, attended the meeting. “I think it went fairly well. I think what I heard, though, is that we’re a little bit behind the eight ball. We’ve got this monumental decision to make and not a whole lot of time to make it if we want to get the best candidates. I think there’s some good ideas that came out of here. There are some really concerned parents, but I also recognize that there are lots of parents and stakeholders that are not here as well. So I’m looking forward to seeing how this process plays out,” Dotson said.

Associate Superintendent Carla Steinbach, who also attended the meeting and will oversee the hiring process, said she hopes the hiring process will be complete in time for the new principal to begin work on July 1st.