It has been part of Marilyn McKeehen’s lifetime of work to listen to others, especially children. So, when her own children suggested she consider retiring this year from her 30-year teaching and administrative career, she seriously considered it — and ultimately heeded their advice.
She may not have realized it then, but when McKeehen — the woman, the leader and the champion of Champlin Brooklyn Park Academy — welcomed back students for the 2012-2013 school year, it was the last time she would do so as their principal. The energetic, dedicated principal of this magnet school of distinction will retire after this school year.
The news came as a surprise, said Curriculum Integrator Denise Schnabel. McKeehen might say she even caught herself off guard with her decision.
“People are asking me what I am going to do and I have no plans,” she said. “I only know how to work. I only know how to do this.”
It is a job she has done well, as evidenced by her legacy.
McKeehen graduated early from Winona State University in 1983. It was a difficult time for teacher hopefuls as there were drastic teacher cuts being made all over. However, McKeehen landed her first teacher job in Altura. She moved on to Rushford, Dover and eventually Rochester.
“I knew I wanted to teach in Rochester one day,” she said explaining that, as she made her moves up the Highway 14 corridor, teaching in the Rochester Public Schools was what she considered the real pinnacle of success at that point.
“Nobody got in there, nobody taught there,” she said. It was a first of many dreams come true. McKeehen went on to get her administrative degree, started a family and built the house of their dreams.
Then in a fateful turn of events, she met Myron Burscheim, then principal of Oxbow Creek Elementary School, at a conference. He suggested she interview for the principal position to open up Park View Early Childhood Center. The prospect was exciting but she was really in it for the interviewing experience.
By the time she’d made it back to Rochester after the interview, she’d received a call. They wanted to offer her the job. She had the weekend to decide to uproot her family from their dream home and take on the challenge.
“There were only three or four kindergarten centers in the state,” said McKeehen. The opportunity to open a school and one of such distinction felt like the right fit.
McKeehen hit the ground running in the summer of 1995 and has been a guiding light in Champlin ever since. Not only has she been a community leader as a principal, but she is a true member of the community, living locally and raising her children within the Champlin schools.
“There’s a lot of concerns that come with being a parent of a kindergartener,” said McKeehen.
She said she sometimes still gets calls from parents with questions or advice on what types of classes their child should pursue in high school.
“I have that K-12 experience because my boys went to school here,” she said. “There’s a connection.”
For 15 years she presided over Parkview Early Childhood Center where approximately 6,000 kindergarteners passed through the halls in that time. She also served as the head principal at Peter Enich Kindergarten Center in Anoka in 2009-2010.
A VISION FOR THE FUTURE
In 2010, the school district made some changes to the structure of their schools. The growth and overcrowding in the 1990s that precipitated opening the kindergarten centers had waned. Parkview and Peter Enich would be closed and kindergartners would return to their neighborhood schools. The district decided to combine Champlin Elementary School and Riverview Specialty School for Math and Environmental Science into one school. The new school would be called Champlin Brooklyn Park Academy for Math and Environmental Science.
McKeehen was tapped to be the new school’s principal. Once again, she found herself with the challenge of opening a new school. This time, the emotions ran high with school closings, changes and lots of questions about the unknown swirling in the air.
“It was an emotional time,” said McKeehen. “We made a promise to parents and students this would be a great school and we did it.”
CBPA was recognized this year as a Magnet School of Distinction by Magnet Schools of America, which McKeehen points to as further evidence of their success.
How did they do it?
“We focused on new beginnings and new traditions,” she said. One of the key factors McKeehen said, was locating the students into a neutral location. By moving the students from Champlin Elementary and Riverview into what was the Parkview Early Childhood Center building, it gave the sense of a true merge. McKeehen said relics from each school, such as statues and artwork, were taken and given new homes in the new building.
Students were involved in the process every step of the way. They held a contest to design the first yearbook cover and held a vote for the new mascot, which turns out to be a Husky.
“We were really concerned about continuing the specialty curriculum at Riverview,” said Bird Janhonen, a parent whose children are currently in 5th and 8th grades. “She really put her whole self into opening this school. She gives so much. I’m not sure anyone else could’ve put this school together in such a short time.”
McKeehen’s secretary, Bonnie Graving, echoed Janhonen’s comments.
“Opening this school was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever been through,” said Graving, who has 42 years on the job. “She is one of the hardest workers, physically and mentally, I’ve ever encountered.”
Graving said not only did she get the nuts and bolts of staffing, scheduling and organizing the school to open that first year, McKeehen could be seen on a daily basis carrying chairs, desks, computers or whatever needed to be done.
LEAVING A LEGACY
“I was very surprised to hear she would be retiring. This is her heart and soul. This school is just who she is,” said Graving. “She has developed this school into being a very student oriented school with high emphasis on academics and the importance of student success.”
Shelly Hedstrom, a special education teacher, has been with McKeehen every step of the way, first opening Parkview together in 1995.
“She is a big advocate for special education kids. She sets the tone for teachers,” said Hedstrom. “Everyone welcomes everyone. She strives always to look for kindness.”
Indeed, McKeehen has worked to make kindness a character trait that sets apart CBPA and its students. There are posters, artwork and curriculum integrating the quality of kindness into the everyday fabric of the staff and students at CBPA.
Hedstrom also said McKeehen was always encouraging of any ideas staff brought forth.
“She empowered us by saying, ‘yes, let’s try that,’” said Hedstrom, which she said motivated staff to keep reaching for success and to do better.
McKeehen’s successor has recently been named. Brian Mann, one of the six assistant principals McKeehen has mentored over the years, will step into her shoes.
“They are some awfully big shoes to fill,” said Mann, who spent the last year as interim principal at Monroe Elementary in Brooklyn Park. “Marylin has been an incredible mentor. She had a vision for CBPA; she knew what it should look like and she had the skills and ability to bring it to fruition.”
Mann, who opened CBPA with McKeehen says he’s looking forward to continuing her legacy at the school and knows he can call her up anytime because of the friendship they have developed.
McKeehen said she feels blessed to have had the opportunity not once, but twice, to open a new school. She has worked hard to be authentic and credible, to communicate, listen and let everyone have a voice. Recently, as she sorted through a box of mementos she has saved since the beginning, the notes of thanks and appreciation weave together a story of her experiences that proves she has done what she set out to do.
“It’s always been about relationships for Marylin, with the staff, students and families. She gives 100 percent to all of them,” said Mann. “She knows the most important thing is to be there for them.”
Contact Mindy Mateuszczyk at email@example.com