Joe Nathan: Minnesota Charter Students Showcase Writing, Win Awards

MN Sen. Scott Dibble with winner Denisse Sanchez.

by Joe Nathan

Jack Wickenhauser, De’shawnte Taylor, Vincent Smith Jr. and Denisse Sanchez are eloquent young people.  They recently earned honors in a statewide Minnesota charter public school writing contest that attracted more than 2,200 entries.  Whether you are an educator or parent, I think you’ll learn a lot if you ask youngsters this question at the end of the year.

Wickenhauser, a seventh grader from Cologne Academy, wrote that his best day “was every day since the end of February. “ He started staying “after school by choice” to “help watch the little kids…I mostly look after one kid who has ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) because I know what it’s like.  I try to help him to do the best…When I look in his eyes I see a younger me.”

De’shawnte Taylor  of Excell Academy in Brooklyn Park described the day an essay he wrote for the “D.A.R.E” program won a first place award.  “My mom came to the school to watch our D.A.R.E. graduation.  I felt so happy when I first saw her.  I gave her a huge hug.   It was very special because it showed me that she cared about me.”

Taylor’s essay was a forceful reminder that some of the most important things families can do for their youngsters don’t involve spending money on them…showing up can make a huge difference.

MN Sen. Sandra Pappas with K-2 award-winner.

Another powerful essay by a St. Paul second grader contained a surprise.  Vincent Smith Jr. of Urban Academy  believes his best day in school was when “I got suspended for punching a classmate.  I had not been behaving well in school.  I have been rude.  I have been talking and fighting instead of working.…”

He continued, “Getting suspended got me thinking.  My Dad is in prison but he often calls me.  He is good but he did something bad. I figured I was the same. I am good but I do bad things. Being bad is not cool.  The day I got suspended was my best day because it helped me change.  Now I stay away from trouble…It feels great to be a leader and not a follower.”

Wah Nay Moo, a sixth grader at the College Prep Elementary (CPE) earned top honors in her division.  She described the first day she attended CPE, in September, 2011.  “Prior to this day, I had never attended school in America. I had my first experience learning with materials that were in good shape, unlike my school materials in Thailand that were over 30 years old.”

Finally, Denisse Sanchez, a Minneapolis tenth grader earned first place among high school students.  Formerly, “I hated school and had all F’s.”  Then she and her English class read an essay by James Baldwin.  It reminded her that “Mom and Dad never finished high school and now are living the life of poverty….I want something bigger and better in life…the only way to do that is to get an education.”

Several leading state legislators, including Senate President Sandy Pappas and Senator Scott Dibble welcomed the students to the Capitol.

TCF Foundation co-sponsored the writing contest, and provided cash awards for the best essays. To see humor, honesty, insight and courage, read the winning essays at

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, and he can be reached at [email protected]

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