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Retiring Principals: Thank you for transforming lives

A single teacher impacts the lives of thousands of children throughout their career. Imagine the impact of a school principal. As school leaders, principals are responsible for creating and maintaining high-quality schools, hiring and retaining high-quality teachers, creating a positive school culture, setting academic goals, managing budgets, and overseeing day-to-day operations. They have a big job. They are often among the first to arrive at school each morning and the last to leave. 

In Cambridge-Isanti Schools, we are fortunate to have dedicated leaders. They have answered a calling to make a difference in the lives of children and families. So, it’s bitter-sweet that two long-time principals will retire this year: Mrs. Rhonda Malecha at Cambridge Primary School and Mr. Mark Ziebarth at Isanti Intermediate and C-I STEAM School. 

Neither Mr. Ziebarth nor Mrs. Malecha dreamed of becoming a principal when they were young. Instead, both answered the call as teachers when a mentor tapped them on the shoulder. We are thankful they did.

"I've been slimed. I’ve been taped to the wall. I was a mermaid last month,” shared Mrs. Malecha. “My office is full of costumes. I do it because the kids love it; I’m willing to do anything for them.”

She recalls that her first-grade teacher inspired her love of learning and teaching. “I still have my Curious George bookmark from that class! I loved my teacher, Mrs. Nelson. My grandmother was also a teacher then, so I played school all the time.” She started teaching as a long-term substitute at Isanti Middle School almost 37 years ago. Her career later included teaching special education and general education, serving as an academic coach, and being a curriculum coordinator before becoming interim principal of Cambridge Primary School in 2014.

With a master’s degree in educational psychology, she helps parents and teachers better understand childhood behavior. “I really want to see every child grow,” she said. “I wanted to develop a school community where everyone feels welcome, safe, and supported.”

"I remember a student from early in my career who had some emotional and behavioral challenges, and I was able to make a connection,” she shared. Decades later, “he showed up as a parent in my school. He asked, ‘Do you remember me?’ ‘Of course, how could I not?’ I was so proud to see how well he was parenting. The connections we make, they really matter.”

Mr. Ziebarth’s connections and community involvement will live on long after retirement. In addition to always being willing to take on new initiatives—he helped start the Minnesota Center and C-I STEAM School—he has brought a wealth of knowledge to our school leadership team. Most people don’t realize that Mr. Ziebarth has been a principal at every school level, preschool through grade 12, which is unique.

He started his career as a high school social studies teacher and got his first principal job as a 7-12 principal in Ogilvie after teaching for only five years. He joined C-I Schools in 1997 as principal at Isanti Middle School, starting Minnesota Center and then moving to Isanti Intermediate and School For All Seasons (now C-I STEAM). “I’d always assumed I was meant to work with high school students,” he said. But being an elementary principal is his favorite position. “Our school culture is very accepting of creativity,” he says. “I am energized by exploring how children learn and how to support them as they grow into learners and achievers.” 

Mr. Ziebarth’s involvement at the state level with the Minnesota Elementary Principals Association and as a statewide trainer for MN Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) has brought many benefits to our schools through grants, training, and recognition. He has won significant awards over the years, but he shares that some of the most meaningful moments are the small things. 

It’s the relationships and connections educators make. “Why do we go into this field?” he reflected. “It’s the Walmart moments… You run to the local Walmart, and inevitably, someone comes down the aisle and points at you. They’ll say something like, ‘Remember when I was in third grade, and I was always in trouble? You sat me down and told me I could be anything. Well, I’m graduating from college, and I want you to know. Thank you for helping me.’ It’s memorable—knowing that I’ve helped students and families over the years. That’s all I need.” 

For Mrs. Melacha, community partnerships are also key. “A few years ago, I saw a book vending machine at a school, and I said I couldn’t retire until we got one. Now, it is standing in our school today. Without our community connections, we would never have been able to purchase it. We received support to acquire the machine and a grant to buy the books. I love watching students stand before the machine, looking at all the possibilities inside. Then, choosing a book they’re more than excited to take home — that’s everything. That’s priceless.”

Good principals are known beyond their schools. They are actively involved in the community, just like Mrs. Melacha and Mr. Zeibarth. They don’t just know students; they know families. And as elementary principals, they are a go-to resource for first-time parents. 

"We always tell the parents of incoming Kindergarten students they won’t believe the changes their student will go through in just one school year. Don’t blink,” says Mr. Ziebarth, “because it goes so fast. I learned that with my own three children, and I see it every year with each new class of students.”

Mr. Ziebarth and Mrs. Melecha, your career has gone by just as fast. Thank you for your decades of service in C-I Schools. Your work with children and families has transformed lives.

Nate Rudolph


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