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In high school, James Farnsworth, now 23, pushed for greater student voice on the St. Paul school board. Now, he’s running for a seat on it. 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.

James Farnsworth, 23, is executive director of the Highland Business Association.

Describe yourself in 10 words or fewer.

Describe yourself in 10 words or fewer.

“I’m a SPPS graduate and committed public education advocate.”

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

“As a graduate of St. Paul Public Schools, someone who’s been deeply engaged in district issues for a number of years, someone who has a wide range of governance experience at a variety of institutions, and as someone who works in community organizing and advocacy in the city of St. Paul every day, I believe my background, my knowledge, my experiences at this particular time where the district needs strong stewardship would be of value and prepare me for school board service.”

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.

  • “Continue to build out and invest in robust communication and engagement with families that have left the district to understand why. And to do that in a culturally responsive way because traditional survey and engagement methodology does not reach all the families that we need to be engaging on this issue.”
  • “Focus on careful stewardship and engagement steps with the Envision SPPS”—the district plan to close some schools and consolidate programs and resources—“which is the most important long-term investment that the school board is going to make regarding our declining enrollment crisis. That’s why it’s so important that it’s done in a way that’s collaborative, that’s approached with empathy, but that gets to the right decision and reverses some of the program duplication and issues as to why we’re having this declining enrollment. We haven’t been responsive to what programs families actually want in areas across the city.”
  • “Look to the charter and private schools in St. Paul that have been attracting a large number of SPPS-eligible students. We need to learn from what the successful schools are doing around us to replicate that programming in St. Paul Public Schools.”

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.

Farnsworth said the district excelled at providing nutritional services, as well as providing other resources to students. The district served over 17 million meals to students through pick-ups and home drop-offs during the 2020–21 school year. He praised the way teaching assistants, nutrition services staff, and bus drivers all stepped in to play different roles providing resources to families. 

He also applauded teachers who went “above and beyond” for families who needed support. “Because of the amount of caregiving that particularly older students were doing with younger students in their homes, a lot of teachers were teaching students at 7, 8, 9, 10 o’clock at night. Because that’s when they had time to engage with their distance learning coursework,” he said.

Family engagement and consistent communication continue to present challenges, he said. That includes notifying families about COVID-19 exposures in their students’ schools. “Some of the communication and engagement around these governance practices around policies and decisions that were being made aren’t being understood or translated down to the family level,” he said.

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

Farnsworth cited “the lack of comprehensive, culturally relevant curriculum in all schools in St. Paul,” which students have been requesting for years. He serves as an alumnus on the district’s Critical Ethnic Studies Steering Committee, which provided input on an ethnic studies course that several SPPS high schools are piloting this fall. The board is expected to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement starting with the class of 2025.

He’d also like to see the district measure and address educational disparities holistically, rather than relying on “traditional methods of assessment” like test scores.  The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated these disparities while compounding trauma, especially for marginalized students, he said. As a board member, he would work with his colleagues, the district, and community members to help develop those metrics and make sure the district is taking a well-rounded approach—and then monitor the outcomes.

“I think we are addressing this question within the Envision SPPS initiative, because moving every student in the district towards something that they greatly deserve—a well-rounded education—will get at some of these disparities and lift up schools in neighborhoods where the district quite frankly has not been making the appropriate investments.”

Who was the best teacher you ever had and why?

“Kari Rise, who is a human geography teacher at Highland Park Senior High. She had a unique ability to give her students life experiences outside the classroom, whether it was through fieldwork in urban geography in Cedar Riverside, or bringing in fantastic, engaging guest speakers. She’s someone who really was able to spark in me, and many friends, our curiosity for learning.”

What community partnerships need to be in place to really get our unsheltered youth who are enrolled in St. Paul Public Schools the resources they need and deserve?”

james farnsworth

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

“Another issue that is of particular importance to me and again has been highlighted by the pandemic, but I don’t think received nearly enough attention, is the issue of unsheltered youth in St. Paul Public Schools. Something that I would want to be particularly active about is reengaging that conversation at the St. Paul School Board level and figuring out what community partnerships we have. What community partnerships need to be in place to really get our unsheltered youth who are enrolled in St. Paul Public Schools the resources they need and deserve?”

candidate pop quizzes

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