By Ned Leebrick-Stryker
Karen Duke may be walking into a new position as principal of St. Anthony Park Elementary School this fall, but her connection to the community runs deep. She grew up in the neighborhood, attended the school as a child and has been a parent there for the last six years.
On a recent afternoon in the Finnish Bistro, a soon-to-be second-grader recognized her classmate’s mother and approached Duke.
“Are you really going to turn into our principal?” she asked. “I sure am,” Duke said, and the two proceeded to chat back and forth about summer, the retirement of Duke’s predecessor, Ann Johnson, and the young girl’s missing tooth.
“The school is a really important part of our community,” Duke said. “My role will be to bring people together from one chapter of the elementary school to the next.”
And that next chapter begins with a challenge, as the elementary school is under major renovations for the next year. “It is going to create some stress for all of us because we’re existing in a smaller space,” she said. “There are going to be construction people around; there is a lot that will be going on.”
Still, she’s confident the construction will not hurt the experience of the students.
“It is not about the beautiful things on the walls; it’s not about the space or arrangement of the desks. It is about the relationship [teachers] have with the kids,” she said. “In a year, we are going to have one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.”
Having been raised in St. Anthony Park, Duke is now raising a family of her own in the neighborhood.
“My parents moved here from Ohio [and] my dad attended Luther Seminary,” Duke said, “I grew up in a house down on Scudder by the school.” She attended St. Anthony Park Elementary for only fifth and sixth grade, but it left a lasting impression.
“I loved it,” she said. “It was structured, smaller with a community, and it was a really good fit for me.”
The school still has these same qualities that she became fond of, she said. “It feels really similar in the sense that there are really strong ties to the community.
“We had the carnival [and] many of the same traditions. . . . We went to Isabella, now Wolf Ridge.”
The staff and the parents make a deliberate attempt to make it feel like a community, she said. “It’s its own community that really values making kids feel they are part of it.” And she wants to ensure that “kids who come in from other places feel like they [belong to] the school as much as my kids on Doswell.”
Duke will have a second-grader at the school this fall and a sixth-grader at Murray Middle School. She believes this gives her a unique perspective when it comes to her new job.
“I always have my parent hat on,” she said. “Whatever it is we are doing at the school,” she asks, “how is that being received by parents and how is that facilitating their success in parenting and how is that facilitating their ability to support their kids?” However, Duke’s priority is the children.
“It’s important they get the academics,” she said, “but just as important is: Do they love school? Do we foster that sense of curiosity, and do they feel safe? Do they feel like they belong?”
Duke began her career in SPPS as an American Sign Language (ASL) teacher, later becoming principal of Randolph Heights Elementary and training and coordinating professional development with principals across the district.
As the beginning of the school year approaches, Duke wants parents to know that she’s ready for the next chapter of St. Anthony Park Elementary School.
“I still feel like I’m very much a newcomer coming in,” she said. “I’ll be following the teachers’ lead for the year on what’s important to keeping the school up to its standards. I’m going in with humility and gratitude for the people willing to be patient and helpful. Anyone can always come to me with concerns. I want people to feel good as we go into this next chapter.”
Ned Leebrick-Stryker is a student in the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication.