One day, one great way to help students & yourself

Originally published by, April 5, 2017

One day, one great way to help students & yourself

In a single day later in April, you can listen to and help some of the most courageous, eloquent high school students from all over Minnesota. How? By volunteering to judge their presentations at the April 26-27 Minnesota Association of Alternative Programs STARS conference in Bloomington. This is one of the most emotionally powerful and, ultimately, uplifting events I attend each year.

Before saying more about the conference, let’s hear from students.

Here’s a portion of an award-winning speech by Jessenia, a student at Ivan Sand Community High School in Elk River:

“During the summer after 10th grade, my dad passed away from a rare type of cancer and his passing destroyed me. … I felt abandoned again. … I still remember that day like it was yesterday and it still hurts just as bad as when it happened. My dad was my hero. … After losing my dad, I couldn’t stay at home. I couldn’t stay with my mom because we did not get along. …

“I moved in with my oldest brother. … I remember sitting at dinner with my mom one night and telling her how much life sucked and how miserable I was. … I’m so blessed to have a mom who didn’t give up on me, even when I gave up on myself. My mom told me I needed to stay in school and that I could not drop out. I was very mad at my mom at the time, but thank goodness she was watching out for me. …

“I did not want to go to an ALC because all I thought was it was with people I didn’t want to be around. … At Ivan Sand the teachers give you emotional, verbal and any kind of support you need, and for that I’m blessed. … I now know what it’s like not to give up on someone even when they give up on themself (sic). I can’t count how many times I’ve said ‘screw it,’ but the teachers are right over my shoulder ready to help me.”

Here’s a portion of a speech by Aaron, a student at Northwest Passage High School, a charter school in Coon Rapids:

“Before I had found my current charter school and MAAP STARS, my life was dark, the everlasting pitch abyss of the night. I never would be the leader and person I am today without STARS. Never be able to have the friends I do now.

“While I was growing up through traditional schooling, I was drifting along. Letting others insult and spread rumors about me, expecting it all to get better one day. I was pulled down again and again with despair that I began to believe that nothing will get better. I even was led to bringing others down to feel better, but I wasn’t proud, I hated myself. I was not the Aaron I wanted to be, I was scared to go to school, back to where I wouldn’t find happiness.”

Many of the presentations are just as poignant and powerful as these two. The conference features individual and group presentations in areas including entrepreneurship, interviewing, community service, video production and personal reflections.

MAAP is seeking volunteer judges for either or both days. There are no special qualifications except a willingness to listen and comment briefly on student presentations. You can apply here:

The conference is coordinated by the remarkable Patti Haasch. She’s a veteran Minnesota educator, now retired, who has devoted her life to youngsters facing enormous challenges.

For more information about the conference, visit Read full copies of several award-winning speeches at

Please consider judging. Do it for the youngsters. Do it to remind yourself about challenges some young people face. Do it to learn how some of Minnesota’s finest educators help young people overcome obstacles and blossom like the most beautiful spring flowers.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at