CharterFolk Contributors Jose Perez and Joe Nathan:  A Plea to Build on Students’ Strengths and Change the World

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Jose Perez and Joe Nathan.

A Plea to Build on Students’ Strengths and Change the World

Whether it’s high school students successfully challenging their state and bringing millions to students laid off because of the pandemic, or elementary students designing and building a playground, we urge – we plead with you to provide opportunities in the coming year for students to help lead and change the world as part of their work in your school.  You’ll find examples and resources below.

Who are we?

We’ve come to similar conclusions, though more than 50 years of age and vastly different life experiences separate us. Jose Perez, 22, is a recent graduate of the High School for Recording Arts (HSRA), a chartered public school in St. Paul.  Jose transferred to HSRA after experiencing considerable frustration at traditional district urban and suburban public schools.  While at HSRA, he became the Twin Cities’ youngest Chipotle manager and earned State of Minnesota Food Safety and Personal Care Assistant certifications.  In 2021, the St. Paul City Council  appointed him to the Reparations Committee. He has presented at two national conferences.

Jose now is a leader and board member of a group of youth system-challenging activists called, Bridgemakers, and a first generation college student.  He’s currently helping lead a statewide study on redesigning middle schools to dramatically reduce the school to prison pipeline.

Joe Nathan, 73, has spent 50+ years as a K-16 educator, working to help more students succeed.  He’s helped start innovative district and charter public schools, helped write charter public school laws in Minnesota and more than 30 other states, and served as a regular columnist for several newspapers since 1989. Nathan worked with David (TC) Ellis, founder of HSRA for more than 45 years, beginning when Ellis was a student at a K-12 district public alternative school where Nathan helped create and worked.  He founded and directs the Center for School Change.  He wrote one of the first books ever published about the charter public school movement Charter Schools: Creating Hope and Opportunity in American Education.

The experiences and suggestions offered below reflect cross-mentorship that has taken place over the last 2 years with Jose and Joe, and over 45 years with David and Joe. The column also builds on Dr. Fuller’s recommendations to help youngsters pursue justice.  

Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” – Deuteronomy 16.18-21.9

Based on an invitation from Jed Wallace, we’re sharing three strong recommendations for the coming school year.  These suggestions are based on our life experiences, research, and work together.

  1. Adopt a positive school culture that helps young people identify and build on their concerns, interests, and skills, as well as shortcomings.  Don’t emphasize the “deficit model” found so often in pandemic related public education, which focuses on youth depression, trauma, and shortcomings.
  2. Build into your school’s schedule early fall individual goal setting conferences, in which every student has an opportunity to share their concerns, interests, and skills.
  3. Ensure K-12 students have opportunities, as part of their work this year, to explore those interests and have a chance to help build a better world, now. Chartered public schools should NOT just focus mostly on constantly cited students’ deficits and problems.  Young people and educators can and should spend part of the coming year working on real problems, as we describe below.

Brief Research Summary

We agree with researchers: to maximize students’ learning and reduce frustration, educators should identify and build on students’ strengths, while helping with their shortcomings.  Moreover, students should have opportunities to study and help solve real problems that they’ve identified.  

University of Minnesota professor Andrew Furco has documented the immense value of the  student asset-based approach that combines work on academic skills with opportunities to help others – aka “service-learning.”  Along with stronger academic skills, he’s found that students develop “perseverance, resilience, and self-esteem.”  Here’s a link to a 1 page summary of this research

A recently released study of 20,000 American students, “Insights from a Year of Listening,” by a group named Transcend found that many students eagerly seek and gain from opportunities to improve the world, now.  Their most powerful learning experiences are “relevant, rigorous, and customized.”

Resources and Examples

Great examples at the terrific “What Kids Can Do” website can be found here.  Youngsters in kindergarten can start doing service-learning, (A group of 5-7 year-olds Joe worked with designed, gathered donated materials, and built a playground for their school, as part of studying the mathematical concepts of area and perimeter.)

Jose’s life illustrates this research.  He experienced frustration in traditional schools and success at HSRA.  His journey began on San Jose Del Golfo, a Guatemalan mountainside three hours from the nearest city.  Jose’s mother, Marta Hernandez, was one of eight children of farmers, the type of farmers that if the crops didn’t grow, they didn’t eat.

At 17, Jose’s mother left Guatemala forever, bringing only the clothes on her back.  She came to America like millions of others: to pursue the dream of a better life for her and her children.  Her vision of success for Jose required an education.

Jose never knew his dad.  He was deported when Jose was 1.

For more than a decade, Jose struggled and failed in traditional Twin Cities urban and suburban  public schools that focused on his shortcomings.

Ultimately, Jose succeeded as explained above.  He graduated from the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, a chartered public school that helped identify, develop, and encourage his singing and leadership skills. 

Part of Jose’s success comes from HSRA’s individualized approach.  Each August, the school holds individual goal-setting conferences with each student.  Advisors get to know students as whole people, with challenges, strengths, priorities, and interests.  District schools can do this too: The St. Paul district’s Open World Learning Community has held August goal-setting conferences for 50 years. HSRA’s founder, David TC Ellis, graduated from Open School. He experienced the value of these meetings.

Ellis (who was a student 45 years ago) also learned the value of combining classroom work and community service.  Ellis thrived in a class “Protect Your Rights and Money” that helped students develop research, writing, and public speaking skills.  Part of the class involved students studying and (in 80% of more than 400 cases) solving, real consumer problems adults referred to them.  Ellis has written about this, saying these experiences “taught me to use my passion to help others.”

Ellis and Nathan 45 years ago (above) and Ellis today (below)

Jose’s progress also came from HSRA making students’ interests and concerns part of what they study.  The school helps strengthen reading, writing, and research skills by giving students credit for identifying and working on issues and problems that concern them.

Dramatic HSRA Service-learning Projects with Huge, Long-lasting Impact

We offer two historic HSRA examples of service learning during the pandemic.

During the last several years, HSRA students helped lead (as part of school work) a successful effort to change Minnesota state policies about students who’d been laid off.  Some HSRA students, including Walter Cortina, were laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, like thousands of other high school students.  Their employers encouraged them to apply for unemployment insurance. 

But the state of Minnesota, citing a 1939 law, said they were not eligible.  This was terrible for thousands of Minnesota youth who used their jobs to help their families pay for heat, rent, and food. 

With help from their teachers, HSRA students developed two basic strategies in 2020: 1) try to change the state law so that they would be eligible for state unemployment assistance, and 2) convince the state that they should receive federal unemployment assistance.

During March-July 2022 (when the legislature adjourned), students were unable to produce a change in the state law.

However, with help from Attorney General Keith Ellison, a pro-bono attorney, and a terrific group called Youthprise students convinced the Minnesota Court of Appeals that the state government was wrong to deny them federal pandemic unemployment assistance.  The Court ruled Minnesota high school youth who’d been laid off due to the pandemic were eligible. So more than $30 million went to these Minnesota high school students!

Again as part of school work, HSRA students teamed with Youthprise, Bridgemakers, and AARP-MN to change Minnesota state law. Effective July 2022, Minnesota high school students who are laid off are eligible for state unemployment funds.  


Thanks for reading this far, and for your strong commitment to more learning and better schools.  Deeper, effective learning requires youth leadership.  It requires giving students opportunities to help make a difference – now.  Students need opportunities to do this as part of developing stronger academic skills.

Focusing mostly on students’ deficits won’t work.  Encouraging youth to identify and develop interests, skills, and passions as they help others is vital.  Schools doing this will have many more graduates who are active, positive, competent, constructive citizens.  As Jose explains, “Deeper learning changes lives.  It changed mine.”

Perez welcomes inquiries about Bridgemakers:

Contact Nathan if you want to get a sample of his 2/month newspaper column, or discuss him  offering a free 1 hour webinar on service-learning to charter faculty: