Student writers show how to destroy walls and build bridges

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by Joe Nathan • Strong writers like Alesha Horn, Natalie Gaffney and Jolene Bruska offer stunning honesty and insight. They help us be more open and compassionate. That’s part of these reason that almost 400 parents, grandparents, teachers, students, and state legislators came to the steps of Minnesota’s state capitol last week to honor them.

These and about 20 other young people had written essays judged best from more than 900 submitted to the Center for School Change, where I work. We are eager to promote writing and thinking, which is a part of every good piece of writing.

Large suburban public high schools are good places for some youngsters. But Natalie Gaffney of Apple Valley was not one of them. She became “ a student who really had to be watched out for, but the girls with the pretty little faces and evil hearts and sour words were loved.”

Gaffney had been a successful elementary and middle school student. But high school was tough, mostly NOT because of the classes. Gaffney described the “race to be the prettiest and the funniest…I was truly locked in a world I began to hate….”

She’s found far more success at Blue Sky Charter where “No judgment is made here, no dream hidden, no idea crushed.”

Alesha Horn of North Lakes Academy in Forest Lake explained that in her school of 200, “I feel super safe. I don’t even have a lock on my locker. “ Horn stresses the value of encouraging students: “… I absolutely love the feeling of being successful and having the teachers look at me and say ‘Good work Alesha. Keep it up!’… I look forward to coming to school everyday.”

Jolene Bruska of Spectrum High School in Elk River readily acknowledged mistakes she’s made. In her former school, “I did poorly…I am not blaming the school itself for my low cumulative GPA, because I did slack off during the freshman year. I take full responsibility.”

But Bruska sees huge differences between the district high school she attended, and Spectrum. At her former school in Monticello, “not a single school counselor took time to ask me why I was doing poorly…They never wanted to know who I was hanging out with or what my interests were. I was just a number with a dollar sign attached.

At Spectrum, a much smaller school, “the faculty cares about its students and knows each by his or her name…My school is like a family. We look out for one another. We support each other. There is only one school counselor, who also happens to be the school director. She is a busy person…but she cares.”

Aisha Adan praised a Minnesota International Middle School project that brought together Jewish and Somali students. “At first I thought our discussion was not going to be smooth because of what is happening in Palestine…I thought they would hate us because they probably think all Muslims are crazy terrorists, but I was wrong. They were kind people who were interested in learning about our culture and religion…At the end of the day I destroyed a wall and built a bridge.”

Joe Nathan (jnathan@umn.edu) directs the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.