Want more learning and better mental health? Build on students’ strengths


The following column was originally published 9-15-2022 by the St Paul Pioneer Press, the Minnesota newspaper with the

state’s second largest daily circulation.


Perez, Nathan: Want more learning and better mental health? Build on students’ strengths

SEPTEMBER 15, 2022 AT 1:03 P.M.

Focusing mostly on students’ deficits won’t work.


Co-author Jose Perez

Students will do far better in the coming year if given opportunities to help make a positive difference in their community as part of their course work. Helping successfully challenge Minnesota’s high school student unemployment policies, resolving actual consumer problems or designing and building a playground have helped K-12 students develop stronger “3-r” skills and justified self-confidence.

While counseling can help, it’s vital that schools NOT just focus mostly on students’ deficits and problems.

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.”

Jose’s life illustrates this. His journey began on a Guatemalan mountainside three hours from the nearest city. Jose’s mother, Marta Hernandez, was one of eight children of farmers.

Since 2020, HSRA students helped lead (as part of school work) a successful effort to change Minnesota state policies about students who’d been laid off. 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. Judges ruled Minnesota high school youth who’d been laid off due to the pandemic were eligible. This produced more than $30 million for laid-off Minnesota high school students.

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.

Other service-learning examples include a group of St. Paul elementary students designing, gathering materials  and building a playground, and St. Paul students receiving, working on and successfully resolving 80% of 300+ consumer problems that adults referred to them. These projects were part of classes in which students improved their reading and writing skills.

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.” A just-released 2022 national survey of 2,600 students by ACT found most are optimistic about the future. Schools should build on and encourage this.

Youth leadership helps produce significant learning. Students need opportunities to do this in class, not just in extracurriculars.

Focusing mostly on students’ deficits won’t work. Encouraging youth to develop interests, skills and passions as they help others is vital. Schools doing this will produce more graduates who are competent, constructive citizens.

Jose Perez, 22, is a board member of Bridgemakers, an artist and activist. Joe Nathan, PhD, former public school educator, directs the Center for School Change. He’s glad to provide references to interested readers; his email address is joe@centerforschoolchange.org