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Burnsville Elementry classroomOne of Burnsville's elementary school's classrooms - school year 2022. Photo compliments of School District 191.
Mohamed Selim - Byrne School - honored for leadership First-year principal honored for leadership

by John Gessner May 8, 2020 - Burnsville Eagan Sun/Thisweek News

Mohamed Selim, first-year principal of William Byrne Elementary School, won a School District 191 leadership award and was nominated by five Byrne teachers. For Selim, education was the great equalizer.

At his first staff meeting, rookie principal Mohamed Selim played a video of “The Lone Nut,” a shirtless guy alone in a crowd whose uninhibited dance moves eventually inspire a gleeful mob.

In Selim’s first year at William Byrne Elementary School in Burnsville, the staff seems to have responded to his inducement.

Selim is the winner of the Leadership in Action Award, one of this year’s One91 Community of Excellence Awards in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191.

His nominators were five William Byrne teachers.

“I was inviting them to join me,” he said of the video. “And I would say everyone really stepped up this year. I can’t speak highly enough of our staff here at Bryne. I like to brag about them all the time, because I think we just have a group of phenomenal educators.”

The principal “leads by example, frequently modeling and coaching us in new instructional strategies that motivate staff and students,” said a testimonial from Lisa Hanson, Pattie Hansmann, Sarah Gant, Deb Wurdeman and Jennifer Schemenauer.

Under his leadership, teachers “feel safe to dream big and take risks,” they said. Selim has rebuilt the Parent-Teacher Organization “from the ground up,” stepped in as substitute gym teacher or math inteventionist when needed and proven himself an empathetic problem-solver.

“An example of this was seen at the beginning of the year when we had to downsize a grade level,” the teachers said. “Thinking outside of the box, Mr. Selim reached out to staff and was able to facilitate the movement of four teachers to different grade levels in a way that made everyone feel heard and satisfied.”

Only through education

Born in Egypt, Selim came to Minnesota as an adolescent with his mother and two siblings. His father had come earlier, working in nursing homes and sending money home.

The one-income family was “extremely poor,” said Selim, who lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Richfield and grew up believing education was the great equalizer.

After struggling with a new language and new environment in middle school, Selim gained confidence at Richfield High School, where he graduated in 2002.

He earned his bachelor’s degree, masters in elementary education and K-12 principal license from the University of Minnesota. Selim is finishing doctoral studies at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.

“It’s the American dream in a lot of ways,” said Selim, who was the first in his family to attend college and was followed by his younger siblings.

He became an educator 12 years ago, teaching sixth grade at Global Academy, a first-year charter school then in Columbia Heights. More than 90 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, Selim said.

“But they’re also a school that is beating the odds in terms of student performance year after year,” he said. “It’s been a valuable experience for me. I was there as a first-year teacher but also as a founding teacher.”

He developed curriculum for the school, was promoted to dean of students and joined the School Board, serving for four years.

Selim then worked as math coordinator for the Harvest Network of charter schools in north Minneapolis. He was then hired as assistant director of another charter, Tesfa International School in Columbia Heights.

“I would say charter schools in particular really often started in areas where there is a perception that perhaps certain students are not getting their needs met in traditional schools,” Selim said. “Not all charter schools are created equal. Some are phenomenal and some should not exist because they are not run very well.”

A Burnsville resident looking for his first principalship, Selim jumped at the chance to apply for the William Byrne job.

His beliefs about education apply to both charter and traditional public schools.

“I believe that all students, regardless of their background, can perform extremely well academically,” Selim said. “Often what’s missing is perhaps the expectations were not there, or we haven’t created the culture and the environment that kids really need to perform at their peak. And I think that’s our job as educators, to create that environment, create that culture, remove barriers.”

District 191 gets it, according to Selim.

“We have the right mindset around the equity work,” said Selim, whose daughter Lara is in first grade at Harriet Bishop Elementary and son Adam is in preschool at Hidden Valley Elementary. “It’s been kind of the umbrella for everything that we do, and it’s the lens we use to make any decisions as well. I’ve been overly impressed by that work in our district.”

Selim will remain next year at William Byrne, now a STEM magnet school that will adopt the Pathways model with the rest of the district’s elementary schools.

“You provide students with all those experiences,” he said. “That’s what you want to see in an elementary school, when kids are young enough and they’re super-motivated and excited about all these opportunities.”

The current distance learning has its silver linings, Selim said. William Byrne is achieving about 95 percent attendance, and some students have re-engaged in a way that was missing before, he said.

“For a few of our kids, this format seems to really suit them. ... Obviously, we miss our kids. Education is about relationships and that personal connection. We’re trying to do that in this new format and stay connected to our families. but it is challenging, and we really do miss our kids.”

Community of Excellence winners

Other winners of the district’s 2020 Community of Excellence awards are:

Excellence in Educational Support — Maggie Kaurman and Shelly Felton, both educational assistants at Nicollet Middle School.

Teaching Excellence —Janelle Grueneich, teacher at Nicollet Middle School; and Julia Ulrich, teacher at Sky Oaks Elementary.

Collaboration and Partnership — Rahn Elementary WIN (What I Need) Time team: Lori Keuler, Keri Peterson, Lisa Lauer, Kayla Zwicke, Kim Olson and Angie Arias.

Community Engagement — Hamde Daoud, clerical, Community Education.

Innovation — Anne Werner Dempsey, teacher, Burnsville High School.

Spirit of Excellence — Rebecca Buck, teacher, Gideon Pond Elementary.
Nurse Barbara Wardell retiring 2020Burnsville Eagan Sun/Thisweek News - June 19, 2020 by John Gessner

Nurse Wardell retiring
PHOTO CUTLINE: Health assistant Donita Luth, left, and nurse Barbara Wardell have worked together for 25 years at Vista View Elementary School in Burnsville. Wardell retired June 5.

Retirement is breaking up the old gang in the health office at Burnsville’s Vista View Elementary School.

Certified nursing assistant Donita Luth says she has a few years left to work, but they’ll be without nurse Barbara Wardell, who put in her last day June 5.

Hired a week apart in August 1995, the gang of two has more years at Vista View than all but one other staff member. The pair bonded through work, proximity (they live a mile apart in Savage), the shared challenges of having young sons with special medical needs and sheer chemistry. They’ve been through nine principals and interim principals together.

With her higher certification Wardell carried more medical responsibility than Luth, but both were on the front lines for a generation.

“Basically I see all the kids that come in that are sick or injured,” Luth said. “I’ve had to call 911.”

Sometimes teachers coming to the health office wouldn’t know one from the other, Wardell said.

“We just really liked working together,” she said. “If I was not in the building I knew it was in excellent hands because I fully trust Donita to be able to do stuff or to call me if she had a question.”

Both were a bit overwhelmed when they started in 1995. Wardell had moved back to the Twin Cities with her husband, Scott, after six years as director of nursing Watonwan Memorial Hospital in St. James, Minnesota.

Luth recalls being handed a 4-inch-thick health and safety manual by then-Principal Paul McDowall that she studied at the cabin on summer vacation.

“We just flew by the seat of our pants,” Wardell said. “Paul McDowall had to show us what head lice looked like, because neither one of us had ever seen head lice. Now we have a little collection on a piece of paper in the office.”

It’s instructive for parents, she said.

“Lice happens,” Wardell said. “Anybody can get it. It does not determine if you are clean or dirty or rich or poor or anything. You get it.”

Wardell quickly learned that school nursing is different than leading a team of nurses with a medical staff for backup.

“You have no respiratory team, you have no extra nursing staff — it’s all you, your office, your call,” she said. “A kid comes in in distress, what are you going to do about it?”

At the end of their first year the pair made a pinky-swear deal to return together or not at all.

“If we needed to take time off, we’d cover for each other,” Wardell said. “If we had concerns, we supported each other. We became bonded — it just happened.”

Originally, Wardell worked 15 hours a week and Luth 25. Under a newer system, Wardell has been working 24 hours and Luth 36.

Luth has at times covered at other schools in District 191, including Sky Oaks and Sioux Trail elementaries and Burnsville Alternative High School. She said she turned down a chance to go full time at the alternative school.

“Vista View’s my home,” said Luth, whose husband, Dan, is a former District 191 School Board member. “I know the families. I know the staff.”

Wardell, 65, has a second job helping run Montgomery Orchard, an apple orchard, winery and cidery she and her husband own. Now it will be her first job.

“And with the schools closing (District 191 schools Marion W. Savage, Sioux Trail and Metcalf) and the changes that were going on, I thought, you know what, there are a couple of young nurses here that really need to stay,” she said. “It’s been great, but if I step away at this point, that will give them an opportunity.”

Said Luth, “It’s been a good combination. We’ve made a good team.”

Her new partner in health care will be nurse Jo Ann Nagy, who’s coming to Vista View from Nicollet Middle School.
William Byrne School 1976Being a brick structure, the look of the building is consistent throughout the years. The school is named in honor of town founder - William Byrne.
Byrne School 1978Face painting at a kids event at Byrne School, South River Hills, 1978.
Neill School 1977School students enjoy Halloween 1977.
William Byrne School 1977The Burnsville Current captures two students studying at the William Byrne Elementary School.
William Byrne School 1979Principal Marilyn Kjolien with students.
Intro to computers 1970sOne of the first computers being introduced to students in Burnsville schools.
School lunchA Burnsville Currnet photo of - Students during lunch at one of the Burnsville Elementary schools.
Sky Oaks School 1977Located at 100 E 134th Street. Today, Sky Oaks Elementary School, serves a diverse community of about 550 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
School PatrolStudents from an unidentified Burnsville School 1982.
Marion Savage School to closeMarion Savage Elementary is one of the schools scheduled to be closed as the end of school year 2020. This was drawn by one of the students.
Marion Savage School to closeMarion Savage Elementary is one of the schools scheduled to be closed as the end of school year 2020. This was drawn by one of the students.
Sioux Trail SchoolMary Crawford (teacher) with Amy Hansen at Sioux Trail School. May 31, 1978 Burnsville Current.
Getting ready for schoolAn unidentified teacher and school in August circa 1977 Burnsville Current.
Byrne School 1978Marcia Glanz Byrne School first grade teacher. November 16, 1977 Burnsville Current.
Dorothy Cote Dorothy taught at Sky Oaks School. February 1, 1978 Burnsville Current photo.
Vista View Teachers 1977Vista View teachers Steve George and Dick Heideman, appear in a Burnsville Current April 13, 1977 photo.
Dorothy ReeseScott Leer with Dorothy Reese at Sioux Trail School. Circa 1977 Burnsville Current.
Sky Oaks SchoolFirst graders at Sky Oaks school learn about Hannukah from Merle Rosenberg. December 14, 1977 Burnsville Current.
Vista View SchoolLast day of school fun - Burnsville Current June 15, 1977 photo.
Heidi and Mike BobergHeidi and Mike are students at Neill School in this September 15, 1979 Burnsville Current photo.
Amy Baumer - Vista View SchoolAmy Baumer plays at Vista View School. May 11, 1977 Burnsville Current photo.
Burnsville SchoolsWilliam Byrne school - Kristi Dehnel and Jill Anderson - April 12, 1978 Burnsville Current.
Sioux Trail SchoolReid McInroy at Sioux Trail School. September 13, 1978 Burnsville Current.
Vista View SchoolThe Vista View Webelos - June 1, 1977 Burnsville Current.
Rahn School EaganJoe Carroll Eagan Fire Department visits Rahn School. Shown with Patrick Johnston. Oct 18, 1978 Burnsville Current photo.
Sioux Trail SchoolThe Superstar Olympics at Sioux Trail School. July 6, 1978 Burnsville Current photo.
Neill SchoolNeill School collects food and gifts for Armful of Love, December 7, 1977 Burnsville Current.
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