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Halla Henderson, a policy director at a youth nonprofit, seeks to bring “student-centered” leadership to the St. Paul school board. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

St. Paul voters will choose four school board members out of eight candidates. Six of them—James Farnsworth, Halla Henderson, Jennifer McPherson, Jim Vue, Uriah Ward, and Ryan Williams—are running for four-year terms; three will win. Two candidates, Jeannie Foster and Clayton Howatt, are competing in a special election for a two-year term. One will win. You can find the rest of our school board candidate interviews here.

Halla Henderson, 27, is policy director for the Minnesota Alliance with Youth.

Describe yourself in 10 words or fewer.

Describe yourself in 10 words or fewer.

“Organizer, student-centered, strategic thinker, bridge for community and governance.”

In one sentence, why should people in St. Paul vote for you?

“I have built a campaign that is run by students, and I understand what it means to directly work with folks on really complex issues—and I’m excited to build with community as opposed to for community.”

How would you help St. Paul Public Schools reverse enrollment declines and attract and retain students? Please give your answer in bullet points/action steps.

  • “Establish a really robust and responsive evaluation for why families of color and new immigrant families are leaving the district.”
  • “Build deeper and more transparent relationships with community, including explanations of how the district comes to decisions.”
  • “Make sure that we’re recruiting, supporting, and hiring additional teachers and educators of color, particularly folks who speak the languages of our students.”
  • “Ensure that we have curriculum and classes that are reflective of our shared history as opposed to the same history that we’ve taught our kids for generations.”

Name 2-3 things the district has done well in its response to the COVID-19 crisis, and 2-3 areas in need of improvement.

“I think the district as a whole pivoted really quickly from the strike to distance learning,” Henderson said. (St. Paul teachers went on strike in March 2020, days before COVID-19 forced schools across the country into remote learning.) She attributed that success to teachers’ flexibility and dedication to meeting students’ needs. She also cited the development and implementation of the district’s online school as a success.

However, she added, “Communication has historically been difficult, and it was even more difficult to get consistent information that was not in response to a crisis. It felt like the district was only coming and talking about what was happening after decisions had already been made.”

Families need timely information about when and whether their children are going to school, she said. 

Give an example of a racial equity problem at St. Paul Public Schools, and tell us what you would do to address it.

Henderson cited the setup of Central High School, where “we have literal floors that a lot of times are segregated.” Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes are disproportionately white, she said, and more students of color attend classes on the lower floors. 

“I think that that creates a culture of separation, but it also keeps kids of color specifically out of spaces where they could have access to college courses, to additional resources.” To address the disparity, the first step is identifying why these course access gaps exist, she said—some students may not be invited to pursue advanced coursework like International Baccalaureate classes or Postsecondary Enrollment Options.

She’d like to see more college and career readiness counselors in schools that serve primarily students of color. “I’d also like to see us integrate English Language Learner services into traditional classrooms as possible, as opposed to pulling kids out and keeping them separated.”

Who was the best teacher you ever had and why?

“My best teacher was Miss Cathy Clemons at Putnam Elementary, in Minneapolis. She was my third- and fourth-grade teacher. For me, what made her so incredible was that she was the first teacher that I ever had who looked like me. To have a Black woman as my educator, seeing her in a position of both power and wisdom, was really really powerful. It  shaped how I saw myself and my place in the building. I learned a lot of really good lessons from her, not to mention the fact that she was an excellent educator.”

“Top of mind right now for me is school closures. I don’t know that there’s ever an instance where cutting programs or closing schools gets us to the result that we want: a well-rounded education for our kids.”

halla henderson

In two sentences, what’s another issue facing SPPS we haven’t talked about and what’s your plan to tackle it?

“Top of mind right now for me is school closures: I don’t know that there’s ever an instance where cutting programs or closing schools gets us to the result that we want—a well-rounded education for our kids. I think that while there are a lot of problems the district has been facing, we need folks who are ready to advocate for it, as opposed to just cut; connect with community partners and our state legislature; and get the resources we need into our buildings.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.