When the 2,000+ students of St. Paul Central High School returned on Sept. 8, 2021, dozens of staff members lined the front steps to welcome them back. The freshmen class was brand new to the building; the sophomore class spent last year learning remotely.
According to 11th grade assistant principal Salma Hussein, the first job of staff was to help the students get their bearings. She said, “Central is a Restorative Practice School, which means we lean heavily into building relationships. Each of our students belongs to an advisory group, so they are in relationship with at least one caring adult continuously during the school year. We are creating a community of trust and belonging at Central for our students, staff, and families.”
Hussein is a licensed independent clinical social worker (LICSW), and worked at South High School in Minneapolis in that capacity for four years. She went on to earn her master’s of social work degree (MSW) and K-12 principal license. As an administrator, Hussein has a history of building bridges between communities.
of assistant principals
The job of assistant principal used to be associated primarily with discipline, but that is changing.
Hussein said, “I see my role as assistant principal this way: I’m here to support students to be the best they can be. I say please and thank you a lot. I see myself as being in a role of servant leadership. At Central, we’re creating a culture where students can show up as their authentic selves. I don’t want students to identify with their worst experiences.”
This year, Hussein is the 11th grade assistant principal. Next year, she’ll be the 12th grade assistant principal. Each assistant principal follows the same class of students for four years, and then starts over again with ninth grade.
Hussein is determined to be part of building a community of caring adults at Central High School, with the power to close the opportunity gap that disproportionately affects Black, Brown and Indigenous students. She wants to be at the forefront of a systems change in education that forges a healing connection between educators and students.
Owning her story
Hussein was born in Somalia in 1988, three years before the Somali Civil War broke out. After a series of separations that included living in a refugee camp for five years with her father, her family was reunited with her mother and sister – and they resettled in Minneapolis in 1996.
Hussein said, “I had a hard time identifying with success as a young student, because none of my teachers looked like me. I also felt the stigma of living in low income housing: low income seemed to equal low expectations.
“By the time I got to high school, I was fortunate to get a Step-Up internship through Minneapolis Public Schools at the Star Tribune, and then another internship at Abbott Northwestern Hospital as a mental health advocate. I started to change the way I thought about myself.
“It’s important to own our stories as part of our healing process. One of the things that I did to foster my own healing a few years ago was to go on the public housing webpage for the city of Minneapolis. I thanked them publicly for their putting a roof over our heads when my family arrived here many years ago. Maybe one of our students will see that acknowledgement, and it will help them, too. There is no room for shame here.”
Works in progress
Hussein strives to be a change agent in reimagining the educational system. She is the recipient of a 2021 Bush Fellowship, which is making it possible for her to earn a doctoral degree in education at Hamline University and a Dare to Lead facilitator’s certificate concurrently.
She said, “My parents made so many sacrifices for me and my siblings. I am doing this work for my mom and dad. I’ve been fortunate to find champions like St. Paul School superintendent Dr. Joe Gothard and Central High School principal Christine Vang to help me along the way.”
“As a Somali woman, I come from a culture where I was encouraged to be quiet. Now I’ve stepped into a leadership role, where I’m boldly and unapologetically taking up space. I’m constantly working on being the best version of myself. Every one of us is a work in progress.”
All St. Paul schools are fully in-person this year. The school district recently passed a mandate that employees must get vaccinated, or agree to weekly COVID-19 tests. Masks are required in school buildings at all times.
Hussein believes that mental health issues will be more prevalent because of the pandemic. She said, “The level of student anxiety is going to be higher. There’s so much happening with families, and in our society at large. We have a long way to go toward supporting students in the way they need to be supported. We will use an extra measure of compassion when talking with our students, and when talking with ourselves.”
Looking back on the first year of the pandemic, Hussein said, “Teachers who had children of their own were experiencing anxiety over all of the unknowns. Our administrative team said, ’We see you and we embrace you – along with the demands of your life. If you need to stay home, stay home. We’re going to give you grace. That’s all we can ask of ourselves and of each other.”
Hussein’s approach to education has been influenced by the writer Brene Brown and, in particular, her book titled, ”Daring Greatly.”
Hussein said, “Brown writes about the necessity of vulnerability, and how being vulnerable makes authentic relationships possible. I feel that authentic relationships have been missing in education, but educators are committed to establishing the strong relationships necessary for learning to happen.
“Our young people need to be able to imagine themselves as successful, and that will only happen when they are validated.”
Hussein said, “It’s not just in health class that students are learning about wellness. Everybody shares positive comments with each other here. We talk in our staff meetings every week about how to improve communication with students. There isn’t one plan for success. We have to understand each student. There’s going to be a lot of talking, reflecting, and listening going on at Central High School this year.”
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