Former Washburn principal’s supporters rally

Families and staff speak out against Carol Markham-CousinsÂ’ reassignment

A supporter of former Washburn principal Carol Markham-Cousins held up a sign during packed School Board meeting. Credit: Dylan Thomas
A supporter of former Washburn principal Carol Markham-Cousins held up a sign during packed School Board meeting. Credit: Dylan Thomas

The Minneapolis Board of Education heard “somebody else’s truth” about Washburn High School and Carol Markham-Cousins when dozens of the former principal’s supporters rallied at the Tuesday night board meeting.

That was how Markham-Cousins described the forceful response to her removal from the high school one month earlier, although she wasn’t in the room to hear it. While her husband, Rick Cousins, cheered on speaker after speaker from the front row of the boardroom seating area, Markham-Cousins arrived only later, by bicycle, and chatted with a small group of supporters outside of district headquarters.

Inside, some of her former staff members, students and their parents pointedly criticized Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s decision to reassign Markham-Cousins in April. In several speakers’ point of view, it amounted to a undeserved public shaming of a principal who turned around a high school so troubled when Markham-Cousins arrived six years ago that it was given a so-called fresh start by the district.

“I want you to know I’m angry and I’m sad that a person I admire and love and have learned so much from has been made to feel like a failure, a criminal, embarrassed to go out in public,” said Marylynn Boone, the school’s dean of students.

At a previous School Board meeting Johnson said the decision was made to “ensure the continuation of a positive learning environment” at Washburn and was “not based on one single incident or event.”

Johnson’s decision followed a week of student protests over a district investigation of Dan Pratt, the school’s athletic director. It was the second time in a few months when the school was the subject of unflattering headlines. In January, Markham-Cousins led the school’s response to an incident in which students briefly hung a dark-skinned baby doll in a Washburn hallway, winning praise from some and criticism from others who felt she’d acted too slowly.

Parent Rich Renikoff said Markham-Cousins “could have taken the easy route and expelled all the students involved” in that incident but instead “took the high road” and led the school in a discussion of what happened and why it provoked such a strong reaction. Renikoff noted that Johnson herself commended Markham-Cousins’ response.

Many of the speakers also praised Markham-Cousins’ “honors for all” approach at Washburn, an educational strategy that emphasized high expectations for all students. It was a purposeful move away from a system that tracks students and separates them into different classes based on ability.

Parents and students who objected to “honors for all” took their complaints public last school year, arguing Markham-Cousins’ approach shortchanged high-achieving students. But on Tuesday night her supporters said those voices never represented a majority opinion in the school community.

Washburn senior Joseph Froehlich praised his former principal for her hands-on and caring leadership.

“I know plenty of kids who would not be graduating in two weeks if not for her,” Froehlich said.

During the meeting, a woman held up a hand-written sign calling on district leadership to apologize to Markham-Cousins. Later, Boone, the Washburn dean of students, stepped aside from a small group chatting with the former principal and said she, too, felt the district should help repair the wounds to Markham-Cousins’ reputation.

“She needs to be apologized to,” she said. “She’s been treated poorly by a district she gave her all to.”