Deering High School’s interim co-principals received permanent appointments April 7, in the process providing Maine’s first black principal and a boost of confidence in the school’s unique, inclusive identity.
The School Board unanimously approved the appointments of Abdullahi Ahmed and Alyson Dame in a remote meeting. Ahmed and Dame have been the acting co-principals since former Principal Gregg Palmer resigned in August 2019.
Palmer left during an inquiry into a drop in enrollment that some attributed to an image problem and rumored safety concerns at the school. But students now say that perception couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“Deering High School has been a safe school and is a safe school,” sophomore Balqies Mohamed said April 10. “It is the most diverse school in Maine and north of Boston actually. So, Deering High School works perfectly fine for me and I’m sure most students will say that as well.”
At Deering, minorities make up 49 percent of the student population, with students from more than 30 countries on five continents.
Ladi Nzeyimana, the student body president, described his school as “beautiful,” and said Deering students have been accepted at top colleges, including Columbia, Yale and Bowdoin.
“One of the best things about it is that the environment is very safe; it’s very welcoming for anyone and for everyone,” he said last week. “We work tirelessly to make sure that everybody’s included, regardless of their race, social-economic (status), where they come from, whether they speak English, or whether the English is good or bad, we always work to ensure and they’re heard.”
Nzeyimana said the appointment of Dame and Ahmed was a great decision because “they go above and beyond to respond to the needs of students and ensure that the environment of the school is good for everyone.”
Dame, who became an assistant principal in 2018, said the perception problems at Deering galvanized the community to reclaim its identity.
“I really give credit to all the members of the community for being able to open the curtains on what’s wonderful about Deering, and to get better at grabbing our own narrative and showing the community what a great school it has always been,” she said April 10. “I’ve loved working at Deering ever since I got there. But I would say there’s been an energy this past year as we work to reclaim that positive momentum and that has been really inspiring.”
Ahmed said April 10 that Deering is in a better place than it was last year, but that this is the goal from any year to the next.
“The climate at the school is more conducive to learning,” he said. “Staff morale is higher and community trust is renewed.”
Ahmed said he hopes his appointment will inspire more minorities, as well as young people, to enter careers in education.
“Being the first (black principal) may sound like a compliment but also it is very scary, so I do want more minorities to come and join the teaching forces,” he said. “It benefits the minority kids when they see someone who looks like them and who has had the same struggles that they have now.”
Ahmed was born in Somalia. After the Somali Civil War, he stayed in Pakistan as a refugee for 10 years and earned a degree in mining engineering. In 2000, he and his wife were resettled as refugees in Maine. He began working temporary jobs in manufacturing and as a security guard for JC Penney. In 2001, he got his first job with Portland Public Schools, as an educational technician at the former Jack Elementary School (now East End Community School).
He said it was challenging for him that year, as a black Muslim refugee, when the 9/11 attacks occurred. But soon he was being recognized for the quality of his work with students. The classroom teacher he worked with and the principal at the time both suggested that he get certification to teach. He joined the extended teacher education program at the University of Southern Maine and became a certified science teacher in 2004.
Ahmed worked at Lyman Moore, teaching physical science, and then at Deering High School, where he taught earth science.
In the meantime, he continued his own studies. He received his Master of Science degree in education from USM, and worked evenings and weekends to attain a doctorate in educational leadership in 2015 from the University of Maine at Orono.
Also in 2015, he started the first Arabic language class in the state at Deering, and then joined the administration as assistant principal. He stayed in that role until he became interim principal with Dame.
Dame, a Maine native, said she was attracted to Deering because of all the English language learners. Working with immigrants and students who are learning the language while trying to learn high school content at the same time continues to be a passion of hers, she said.
“For the students, going to school in such a diverse setting is in itself a lesson in democracy that we couldn’t really teach from a chalkboard,” she said.
Dame started her career as an English teacher in New York at Abraham Lincoln High School in the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn, where she worked for 10 years. In her last three years there, she was the assistant principal of the English Language Learner Academy, overseeing and creating programming for about 400 ELL students.
Both Ahmed and Dame said they are happy to be able to continue their partnership.
Ahmed described sharing leadership as a thinking process, and that in the conversation their thinking matures and becomes much more than when it is just one person.
“The bigger capacity comes with a lot of humility and knowing your strengths while also leaning on someone when you have limitations and having the confidence to bounce ideas to each other,” he said.
The pair were chosen from a pool of 21 applicants from six states by an interview committee of 23 Deering staff, students and parents.
“A nationwide search confirmed that we already had the best people for the job right here at Deering,” School Board Chairman Roberto Rodriguez said after the vote approving the appointments.