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Who’s the Man Behind Tangletown’s New School?

Former colleagues laud new Ramsey principal

For many Southwest Minneapolis parents this week, watching their children scramble up the wide steps to Tangletown’s just-launched Ramsey Middle School can be like watching the dearest things in their lives disappear into a near-impenetrable black box.

Minus state test scores or rumors and anecdotes passed around on the sidelines of a soccer game, one clue to the contents of that box can be its leader. According to teachers who’ve worked under Ramsey’s , Ramsey’s new leader is a bit of a rock star.

It probably doesn’t hurt that he bears a passing resemblance to Jake Gyllenhaal, either.

Skateboard In His Office

Marietta, said fifth grade math teacher Lisa Hartmann has a penchant for bringing an enormous amount of energy to everything he does.

One day, Hartmann said, Marietta dropped in on one of her classes at Bancroft Elementary School, where Marietta was principal before taking the helm at Ramsey.

“We were talking about circumference, what 360 degrees was, and what it would look at,” Hartmann said in a phone interview with Patch. Suddenly, “he was like ‘Hold on! Hold on!’ and ran upstairs to his office and grabbed his skateboard.”

The former teacher-turned-principal began using the skateboard’s wheels and describing skateboarding tricks to illustrate the concepts Hartmann had just been talking about.

“Talk about bringing math to life,” Hartmann exclaimed.

But being “the cool principal” pays off in more ways than simple personal pride. Little things like the impromptu skateboard lesson or sitting outside the cafeteria, strumming his guitar and wishing kids a good day as they left breakfast pay off in how students appreciate school, former Bancroft teacher and current principal-in-training Leah Lewis said in an interview.

“He got kids to do things that made them appreciate school,” she said.

Always Pushing Teachers

These days, a principal is less Trunchbull and more coach, intimately involved in the teaching that goes on inside every classroom—“instructional leader” is one current buzzword—advising teachers and making sure kids stay on track to learning what they need.

Marietta’s energy and a nose for leadership permeated the way he worked with his teachers at Bancroft, the teachers said.

“His approach was not only to be an evaluator, but to make sure you got the support to make sure you got better,” Lewis said.

Susan Francis, who coordinated Bancroft’s move to becoming an International Baccalaureate (IB) school starting this year, said Marietta got himself trained on the IB program “right away” so he could better support his teachers, all while preparing to take his current job at Ramsey.

“It only hurts kids when we make teachers feel bad or inadequate” as they try to fix small failings, Hartmann said.

“But I’ve also heard him get on staff if they’re not doing what they need to do,” she added. “Sometimes people tiptoe around an issue, but his philosophy is ‘If I can’t put my child in that classroom then we have a problem.’”

Marietta’s love for quality teaching at Bancroft, said Lewis, extended beyond simply helping weaker teachers improve to staying on the cutting edge of education research.

“I’m kind of a nerd. I like to read, I like research,” Lewis said, and chuckled. “And that’s what I value about Paul, too.”

Lewis was talking to Marietta in his office one day, when she saw a copy of a book she needed for one of her principal training classes sitting on his shelf. It was completely dog-eared, highlighted, and scribbled-in.

“Great leaders help teachers stretch their professional capabilities,” Lewis said. “When you find a leader like that who’s really challenging you to be the absolute best teacher you can be, you don’t want to leave that.”

Learned Parents' Home Languages 

According to teachers, some of those same instincts—looking for a person’s unique skills or how they can contribute to the group, and cajoling and encouraging people to be their best—carry over to how Marietta deals with parents.

Partly, teachers said, Marietta excels at wooing parents and intensively working with them to help their student if a discipline or academic issue comes up. But every teacher interviewed by Patch said Marietta prizes parent involvement and made roping Bancroft’s many poor, Latino families into more school involvement was one of his top priorities.

He learned Spanish, and would even go on local Spanish-language radio stations to plug the school, encourage parents to attend events, and generally try to make Latino families—who hadn’t traditionally been very involved at Bancroft—feel more welcome at the school.

“He really could see the value of bridging that gap, in breaking down that apprehension,” Lewis said. 

In an interview with Patch, Marietta said he hoped to add Arabic or Somali to his list of languages, to help better connect with the many East African families who will be coming to Ramsey from Lyndale Community School.

What Lies Ahead?

With the school year in full swing, though, Marietta’s biggest tests lie ahead. How will he forge lasting relationships with parents, deal with any future trouble in the classroom, and work with Ramsey’s teachers to meld students from several schools and a wide swath of backgrounds?

For now, though, Lewis, Hartmann, and Francis each said they felt Southwest Minneapolis’ parents are extremely lucky to be getting his skills as the entire Ramsey program gets off the ground.

“Minneapolis couldn’t have picked better leader to design this school,” Hartmann said.

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