Many longtime teachers and staff members at Como Park Senior High School will welcome a familiar face back to the school when Theresa Neal steps in as principal this fall.
Neal spent three years as an assistant principal at Como, from 2002 to 2005. She was named principal on June 2. Her predecessor, Dan Mesick, who led the school since 2005, has been put on special assignment with the St. Paul Public Schools Office of College and Career Readiness.
Since 2005, Neal has served as principal at Journeys Secondary School and 16 other alternative care and treatment programs that provide education programs within St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS). The programs include Boys Totem Town, Juvenile Detention Center, Transitions for Success, five hospitals (where programs are offered to children with long-term illnesses) and the Emily Program, which has residential and day treatment programs for eating disorders in St. Anthony Park.
Born and raised in the Rondo community of St. Paul, Neal is a graduate of Concordia Academy. She has a bachelor’s degree from Augsburg College in Minneapolis, a master’s from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and her principal licensure from St. Mary’s University in Winona.
Her work in special education and with troubled teens runs deep. She began her career more than 35 years ago as a youth advocate at Highland Park Senior High School.
In a letter to the Como Park school community, SPPS Superintendent Valeria Silva said she wanted to choose “a passionate educator to lead Como.” An online survey conducted at the school this year “was instrumental in helping identify a leader who understands how to help students and families who face extra challenges both inside and outside of school. Theresa Neal is that leader,” Silva wrote.
Neal sees a principal’s role as “finding a balance” between helping each student accelerate and creating a school community that works, she said.
“We all believe that the common piece is ‘it’s about the kids,’ ” she said. “As principal, the balance and challenge is how do we escalate the children who are excelling and accelerate those who are challenged by adversity beyond their control?”
“There are 1,300-plus individuals at Como Park Senior High School,” she said, “yet 1,300 and X amount of staff make up a whole, collectively. How do we find the balance with what’s good for the individual is good for the whole?”
Students, staff and the community need to be listened to “to know what is working, what we want to improve and enhance,” she said. “How do we collaboratively do that?”
She plans to launch a community council at the school that will include parents, business people and community leaders to do just that. The school community will also welcome back Amy Dutton, a former business teacher at Como, as an assistant principal. Dutton has been working with Neal as an administrative intern and teacher on special assignment.
Neal is a widow (she was married to Howard Porter, a Ramsey County probation officer and Villanova University basketball star who was murdered in 2007), mom and grandmother. Her granddaughter just finished her 4- year-old program at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School.
“I am now connected [to SPPS] as a grandmother,” she said, which has made her realize that her job is educating “our 1,300 here [at Como] but also paving the way for those who follow.”