Elaine Mehdizadeh came to Rahn Elementary as a pinch-hitting principal in early 2009. Little did she know the transformation awaiting the Eagan school under her leadership.
Once a neighborhood school with sagging enrollment, Rahn is now an in-demand magnet school with a unique mix of arts and technology emphases.
Enrollment, which fell as low as 349 students her first year, is forecast to hit 460 next school year.
“We have over 100 children who attend Rahn from outside our attendance area,” Mehdizadeh said. “That’s without magnet school busing. I think we’d be full (525) if we had the busing, but that’s just me.”
Mehdizadeh is leaving Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191 on June 30 to become principal of the Robbinsdale Spanish Immersion School in New Hope. She begins work for the Robbinsdale Area Schools on July 29.
After 24 years in District 191, Mehdizadeh seized on an opportunity she hadn’t had since college, when the Spanish minor spent two semesters soaking up the language and culture of Mexico.
“I loved learning about other cultures and I loved learning languages,” said Mehdizadeh, who also professed her love of Rahn Elementary.
“I was in this district for 24 years. I obviously loved this district,” she said. “But this opportunity presented itself, and I decided to apply.”
The Mankato State University graduate started her career here in 1989 as a student teacher at Gideon Pond Elementary (kindergarten) and Sky Oaks Elementary (fifth grade).
She then taught kindergarten and first grade for nine years at Gideon Pond, followed by one year of teaching third grade at Harriet Bishop and seven teaching fourth grade at William Byrne.
Mehdizadeh then worked for two years as the district’s curriculum coordinator while earning her principal’s license. Missing contact with students, she returned to Gideon Pond as an enrichment resource teacher and the school’s administrative assistant.
When then-Principal Laura Pierce went on medical leave, Mehdizadeh filled in for several months.
She was named interim principal at Rahn in February 2009 on the heels of a complaint against then-Principal Doug Steele over a student discipline matter. The School Board later disciplined and reassigned Steele, and Mehdizadeh lost the “interim” tag in March 2010.
In an effort to boost Rahn’s numbers and smooth out district enrollment imbalances, the board offered sliding-fee discounts for full-day kindergarten at Rahn in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
“We did add a section of kindergarten,” Mehdizadeh said. “But then in the meantime, the staff had expressed an interest in looking at becoming a magnet school. It really did come from the grass roots at Rahn.”
With district leaders’ encouragement, Mehdizadeh and her staff researched magnet offerings in the metro area and Minnesota, surveyed parents and teachers, pored over research and consulted with the school site council.
“When we surveyed our families and staff, we not only looked at what the theme would be, but we looked at how we would implement the theme,” Mehdizadeh said.
Arts and technology was a unique combination, she said. The magnet launched in 2011-12 and is coordinated by teacher Cara Slattery.
“If you look at the careers of the future, creativity is going to be essential,” she said. “And the use of technology is important for children. We want them to see that as an integrated tool in their life.”
Hallmarks of the arts emphasis include annual schoolwide music and dance productions (there were three this year, combining various grade levels), a jazz band, artists in residency, a schoolwide mural project and choirs (including the audition-only Select Choir).
Next year strings will be added, with 52 students registered, Mehdizadeh said.
The technology emphasis was launched with careful planning and few shiny new gadgets, she said.
“We started with a lot of professional development and curriculum-writing,” Mehdizadeh said. “We did not purchase a lot of hardware.”
That has since changed. Now, nearly every classroom as an LCD projector, a document camera and an amplification system that keeps the teacher turned up even when her back is to the class.
The school has a mobile iPad lab, digital cameras, GPS units and a mobile laptop lab purchased by the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization.
This summer teachers will take their third yearly round of training in integrating the arts and technology across the curriculum.
“We have found that to be essential in moving forward,” Mehdizadeh said.
The principal’s exit from District 191 earned her a shout-out at the June 6 School Board meeting from Board Member DeeDee Currier, a former district principal.
“I hired Elaine as a kindergarten teacher 24 years ago, and she never disappointed me or the district,” Currier said. “Every challenge put to her as a professional and every challenge she has sought, “success” in capital letters would be the description of its outcome … She is the gold standard of an A-plus employee.”