Salma Hussein, the principal of Gideon Pond Elementary School, greeted students on the first day of school. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Half an hour before school buses start arriving, a Somali boy with braces is sitting in the principal’s office at Gideon Pond Elementary School in Burnsville. He’s not in trouble. He just arrived early; now he’s ready for the school day to begin.

It’s his second year at the school, he explains, so the first-day jitters aren’t so bad.

“Last year I was a little nervous,” he says.

“I’m a little nervous, too,” confesses his principal, Salma Hussein.

It’s Salma’s first day at Gideon Pond. She spent last year as an assistant principal for Central High School, in St. Paul; before that, she served as a social worker in Minneapolis Public Schools. Now, she’s the building leader in a new community. It’s her first day working in an elementary school setting, and her first day ever as principal.

Burnsville schools have quickly grown more diverse in recent years. State data show that 15 percent of all kids in the Burnsville–Eagan–Savage district now speak Somali at home. At Gideon Pond, 40 percent of students are Somali, Salma says. 

But representation among teachers and administrators has lagged. In July 2020, Minnesota’s first two Somali public-school principals began their positions in St. Paul and Bloomington. A third Somali principal has since been hired in Minneapolis. In Burnsville, Salma has now joined the small but growing group. She believes she’s the only female Somali principal in Minnesota.

“I really believe that representation matters,” she said.

Like many of her students, Salma picked out a special outfit for the first day of school and got temporary henna tattoos on her hands. She’s already started to get to know students and families at back-to-school events and ice cream socials.

“​The kids here really want to connect and be in community with one another,” she says. “Minneapolis is diverse, but I don’t always see a lot of interactions between different communities. Here, people want to be in community together. I love that.”

As parents drop their children off at the school entrance by the parking lot, marked with a sign that reads “Gideon Pond Elementary Values All,” Salma greets them in English or Somali. Sometimes she calls a parent “abaayo” or a child “habaryar,” Somali terms of familial affection. 

A little girl smiles shyly as her principal, Salma Hussein, compliments her shirt on the first day of school at Gideon Pond Elementary School in Burnsville. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“I’m really excited to be here,” she says to one family. “It’s going to be a really good year, InshaAllah!”

One little girl wears a white hijab and a pink shirt that says “Be kind to all kinds.” As Salma compliments her shirt, the little girl grins ear to ear, exposing a missing front tooth.

One little girl wears a white hijab and a pink shirt that says “Be kind to all kinds.” As Salma compliments her shirt, the little girl grins ear to ear, exposing a missing front tooth.

It’s a challenging time to become a school principal. Daunting academic and social challenges—many grounded in the pandemic—have heightened Minnesota’s already wide racial academic disparities. Salma hopes to use her social-work background to create an environment where students feel loved and supported—and better able to learn. She also hopes to connect with kids through shared culture—like wearing henna, and bringing Somali words to school.

“I grew up just focusing so much on learning English, that I am now just beginning to learn Somali,” she said. “How do we change those experiences so that kids know that they’re amazing, and that school is the space that allows them to be the best version of themselves?”


Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...