James Barnett '04

Sara Jacobson

“I cherished the place, because it provided a lot of stability and was very special to me.  It was the most stable part of that period of my life.”  James had been living in a foster home since he was 9 years old after his mother lost custody. He never met his father. He was attending a charter school in St. Paul, MN, where Ellen (Higginbotham) Ruiters ‘93 was his 8th grade English teacher.  She would tell the story of Minnehaha often to her students and he always thought it sounded like a special place. He never thought attending MA would be a possibility.  

Finding Community

One day, Miss Higginbotham asked him if he would like to go on a tour of MA, and he jumped at the chance. He came to the realization that a learning environment should be fun and joyful, and students should have a vision for what they want for their lives.  He observed interactions with students and teachers, saw that students learned from their peers, and felt that attending Minnehaha was an “all-consuming great opportunity.”  “When I was accepted, I was very much aware of what this could mean for me. My social worker, my guardian ad litem, everyone was so positive about me going to Minnehaha.  I felt like if there was one right thing that I could do for my life, it was to go to MA and graduate.” 

Mentorship, Faith & Identity

Dan Bergstrom taught his 9th grade Bible class.  “I was going through a tough time in my life.  I was trying to reconcile my turbulent home life and personal life. My life had a ton of uncertainty. I really wanted to change my circumstances. I knew that my life was deserving of more, and I wanted more for myself.”  Rev B put him at ease with his concerns and helped him deepen his faith.  “He let me know that God was with me along the way and I was not alone; I would come out stronger on the other side.”  Having a person like that who invested in his life helped him stay the course and be optimistic about what life and God had in store for him.  James questioned a lot of things and found a lot of certainty in engaging with Rev B.  “I needed a lot of character coaching and development. He took me as I was.” 

Another significant person to James was David Glenn, his history teacher and football coach.  “He had a great presence about him--he understood that ‘kids would be kids’ and they grow and develop, and you need to meet them along the way.  He was always encouraging, positive and supportive.”  James knew that if he could get his vote of approval it would go far in giving him the confidence needed to take on a challenge or opportunity.  When James was accepted to St. Olaf College, Mr. Glenn told him that it was a tough school but reassured him, “You can do this!  You are going to be really successful there.”  “I was so emotional getting that affirmation from him.  I knew he would shoot straight with me if I was in over my head. He sent me on my way with a vote of confidence, which meant a lot.”    

Paulita Toddhunter helped him process, interpret and engage the experiences he was having.  “She was invaluable.  To have a person of color understand and talk through some of the challenges I was going through was great.  She was a mom--her own kids were at the school--and I leaned on her for nurturing and emotional support as well.  She was always there for me.” 

From Student to Career Educator

James graduated from St. Olaf with a major in Post-Secondary Education.  After college he worked for Teach for America for several years, which led him to teach middle school social studies and science in North Carolina.  His goal was to be a transformational teacher, and he was sold on the fact that he’d had these opportunities in life because at Minnehaha, he had the chance to have amazing teachers, go to a great school, and be in an environment dedicated to his success.  He is currently on the leadership staff of a network of charter schools where his team and work is focused on opening and working in schools regionally in the Twin Cities. His title is Resident Principal.  He is working now at a middle school, and the vision is to keep opening schools, including a high school in North Minneapolis.  Once opened, he is slated to be the Principal. 

“We’re trying to help kids see that with someone there to help them, they can end up in college--even a college of their choice—and that can take them places they could never imagine.  The MA community wanted me to reach my greatest potential.  My professional aspiration is to create that same space for kids in Minneapolis.” 

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