Minnehaha Academy Blog

A Caring School Environment in the Twin Cities

Posted by Rebekah Peterson on Feb 7, 2020

2019-LS-MS-Pep-Fest-MinnehahaAcademy-Minneapolis-Minnesota-50Making sure your children get an excellent education is important for their future success. However, it is the school environment and culture that makes a child excited to go to school each day and have positive memories of their school experience after they graduate.

8 Things to Look for in a School Environment

How do you know if a school community is a positive one? Here are eight things to look for when you are considering a school for your child.

  1. Teachers appear happy to be there. When you are touring a school and talk to the teachers, do their eyes light up when they talk about their students, education, and learning? Teachers that enjoy teaching children are creative, innovative, and love to learn themselves. They are engaged in the learning process and are always looking for new ways to inspire children to learn. 

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  2. Teachers demonstrate attention to each child. Children know when their teachers care about them as a person. When there are strong relationships between teachers and students, students put in more effort and look forward to attending class each day. Teachers who care about the children they teach are interested in learning about each child's particular hobbies. By understanding each child, they can teach to that child, encouraging them to develop their talents and uncover their true potential. 

  3. Words of kindness are heard in the hallways and classrooms. As you walk through the school you are considering, look for kindness and caring in the interactions you observe. Are you greeted in the halls with a smile or "hello"? Do faculty and staff greet each other as they pass? Do students say "hello" to you or give a friendly smile? These small gestures tell a lot about a school culture and how people feel about each other.

  4. Children are kind to each other. When you watch children interact with each other are they kind to each other? Do they greet one another and seem to care about the other child they are interacting with? Look for kindness in big and small ways. From a conversation to a hug to helping another student who may have dropped a book or notes, these are all ways children can show each other that they care about one another.

  5. Hallways and school classrooms are lively but not chaotic. Children exude joy and happiness naturally. In any given day, there will always be a lot of interaction happening between students at a school, but the overall feel in a school should not be one of chaos.

  6. Children demonstrate respect adults. Observe how children talk to adults such as teachers, faculty, and parents. Do they answer when a question is asked of them? Do they listen and do what is asked of them? Children respect adults when they feel safe, secure, and confident in their surroundings.

  7. Teachers and staff demonstrate respect children. A culture of kindness and respect is mutual. Adults also need to show respect to children, just as children show respect to adults. As you watch teachers interact with children do they show respect to each child by listening to each child as they speak? Children are very perceptive, and they follow the behavior that is modeled for them. By modeling positive behaviors and being a role model, adults provide a template for a child's behavior. 

  8. Teachers, staff, and students are happy. While you can't ask each person that you see if they enjoy attending or working at the school you are touring, you can get a general sense of how people feel about their environment if you observe their behavior. Genuine happiness can be contagious, so if you find yourself feeling your mood lift as you tour a school, chances are that others feel the same way as you. 

These intangibles are hard to pinpoint, but make a world of difference in the day-to-day life of your child and your family. If your child is happy at school, the entire school experience can be elevated from ho-hum to exceptional.

If you're in the Twin Cities and looking for a private school be sure to check out Minnehaha Academy. It's impossible to describe, but when you and your family walk into Minnehaha Academy, you'll feel it. Students and parents say that our culture of kindness and care is what makes us unique. 

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Topics: Cultivating Potential, Caring Community

Giving Back: Alumni Make the Classroom

Posted by Amy Barnard on Oct 17, 2019


Jai Hanson (’03) didn’t come to speak at Minnehaha Academy last year because he was looking for advice from teenagers.

He came because, like so many who make this campus what it is, he wanted to give back to the place that launched him into the world.

“I really enjoyed my time at Minnehaha,” he says. “I loved the staff, and I still have friendships with people I knew in seventh grade...once you’re part of the MA community you’re part of it for life.”

So when Director of Diversity Paulita Todhunter asked Hanson to come speak with some students who were expressing fear and anxiety regarding recent incidents between police and individuals of color, he said “Absolutely.”

At the time, Hanson had more than a decade of experience in law enforcement under his belt and was finishing his Master of Public Safety Administration. He also had a growing passion to see improvement in the relationship between the law enforcement community and youth.

“I think it was helpful for students to meet a police officer who was familiar with their story of being a Minnehaha student and a person of color, and what it's like to be in both of those worlds,” says Ms. Todhunter. “He also gave them insight into the world of a police officer, which isn't always as black and white as it may seem.”

Bringing Back Expertise

Over the years, alumni like Hanson have stepped up to speak in classes, invite students into their businesses, and even mentor students and recent grads. As a community, we’ve found that having alumni who come back to share their expertise with students fosters deeper learning, provides opportunities for exploration, and often can be the catalyst that casts vision for future direction.

“Speakers bringing in ‘real world’ related experiences help strengthen and solidify the material for my students,” shares Julie Johnson, psychology and business instructor.

Johnson points to David Kvasnik (‘96) and wife Deena. The couple have been guest presenters to her Intro to Business class a number of times. Deena and David started their business, Deena's Gourmet, and grew it from a small family venture to a large business in a matter of years, ultimately selling it to Old Home. Their talks have given students real world examples and the opportunity to ask questions.

Fostering Deeper Learning


(L) Alum Diana Wallin speaks to Upper School students about brain science and (R) uses special goggles to teach Lower School students about the brain's adaptability.

Another campus visitor who leaves a mark every time she comes is Diana Wallin (‘03). While working on her Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Minnesota, Diana lived just over the river from Minnehaha Academy. During this time, she visited the Upper and Lower Schools multiple times with her “Brain Awareness” presentation, even bringing real brains (both human and animal) for students to study.

During one visit, Diana and fellow doctoral candidate Amanda Barks helped first graders develop their own scientific study:

Students stood in the hallway and tossed bean bags into a small cup. Then they put on special goggles that impaired their vision and tossed the bean bags again. All of the bean bags ended up to the right of the cup. They then took off the goggles and threw the bean bags again—this time they ended to the left of the cup. The students excitedly reviewed their “findings” to discover how the brain compensates for impaired vision.

Diana used this experience, along with a real human brain and spinal cord, to explain the concept of plasticity in the brain, as well as to teach students about brain health.

Even teacher Britt Guild was surprised at how much the students took away from the experience:

“Some students immediately made an intellectual connection between nerves and electricity while some connected emotionally to the experience after realizing the brain was from a real person. It was thrilling to see how no matter how complex we think an idea is, a young mind can surpass our expectations and understand so much more."

This opportunity to spark discovery in young minds is something Wallin herself finds rewarding:

“We always say you can’t do what you don’t see, or what you don’t know about.” She hopes that some students will discover a love for brain science and research, and that young women will see her work and recognize that there is a place for them in the world of science.

Offering Opportunities

debate photo copy

Mason Mitchell (far left) and Michael Everett (far right) back when Mason first started volunteering and Michael was still a student.

Alumni involvement also means more opportunities to explore beyond the classroom.

For a number of years Mason Mitchell (’09) and Michael Everett (’14) have blocked off numerous afternoons and Saturdays each fall to support MA’s debate students.

Mitchell is a circulation supervisor at the University of St. Thomas library, and as a veteran debater himself with degrees in philosophy, theology, and business, Mitchell is a prime choice to advise a debate team. A JD candidate at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Everett is also highly qualified to teach students the finer points of debating.

As a young college student roughly a decade ago, Mitchell both missed his debate experience at MA and saw a genuine need: Minnehaha faculty Nathan Johnson was the only coach for a growing number of students.

“One of the best things that Minnehaha has to offer is that students aren’t just treated like kids,” observes Mitchell. He points out that students get to interact with teachers on a very personal level in small classes and that this experience pushes them to excellence and maturity. Seeing the growing size of the debate team, Mitchell wanted to come alongside Mr. Johnson to help give students that personalized growth experience.

Mitchell shares that debate offers a very specific growing experience that meant a lot to him as a student, and now he enjoys walking current students through that process.

“Debate forces you to not just work on your research skills, not just work on presentation skills, but to put it all together in one package and be more spontaneous and engaging.” He points out that even students who start out as reserved or “wall flowers” grow through the process until four years later some of those same students are the ones jumping at the chance to get up in front of the whole school to give a presentation.

Thanks to Mitchell, Everett, and others who have stepped in pro bono over the years, Minnehaha Academy offers debaters the chance to grow exponentially over the course of their Upper School career.

Casting Vision

2019-Jonathan Thomas copy

One essential ingredient for growth is vision for where you are going. For Jonathan Thomas (‘11), speaking at MA was a chance to cast the same vision his mother set for him so many years ago: love Jesus and pursue education.

Thomas transferred to Minnehaha Academy as a seventh grader, a move instigated by his mother and one he was not happy about.

“I thought I was fine at the school I attended,” he says, “however my mother saw that I was going down a bad path with friends who didn’t have my best interests at heart.” His mother wanted to see Thomas in “a Christian environment that would foster healthy spiritual and intellectual development.” Thomas wasn’t particularly interested in either.

Fast forward nearly 15 years and Thomas is working towards a master’s degree in strategic leadership and has a side gig as a traveling preacher. He looks back on his time at MA as one of the most positive experiences in his life, and he wants current students to make the most of the opportunity they’ve been given.

Thomas, whose mother passed away while he was still at MA, exhorted students to trust God through trials and the sometimes bumpy transition to adulthood, as well as encouraged them to pursue higher education.

Because we never know what seed will be planted in a student’s heart—to nurture their spiritual walk, become an entrepreneur, face a challenge that feels bigger than themselves—we continue to invite alumni to share their stories with Minnehaha students.

Providing Opportunities for “Big Discussions”

All of this brings us back to Jai Hanson’s experience sharing at MA. In addition to sharing about his own journey as a police officer, Hanson wanted to open the floor for any lingering questions so students could process some of the “whys” behind law enforcement decisions. He also asked students what they wanted and needed from those in law enforcement.

To understand the dynamics of this discussion, it’s helpful to know that teachers work with Minnehaha students from a young age to develop the skills for having difficult conversations respectfully. This was an opportunity to put those skills into action, both for Hanson and the students.

What could have been a tense time actually resulted in a meaningful discussion that left an impact on both the students and Hanson himself.

“My intention was to go there to answer questions and help students,” says Hanson, “but I left with students’ perspectives that I brought back to my police department. The students really gave me more insight than I probably gave them. I took a lot away from that and I’m thankful for that.”

Ultimately, we’ve found that having an alumni community that reconnects with our students is a win-win: the students benefit from the experience and insight of alumni, and like Hanson often share that they took away something from the experience:

“It’s easy to get into your profession and just do your normal thing. When you talk to students it reminds you why you’re doing what you’re doing and why you got into your career.” For the students Hanson met with, it was a chance to both better understand all sides of a difficult story, as well as to have their voice heard in a meaningful way.

Topics: Alumni Stories, Academics, Cultivating Potential, Exceptional Academics

Student-Led Book Fair Marketing

Posted by Amy Barnard on Oct 10, 2019

A special thanks to the parents , teachers, and former parents whose artistic skills made this year's trip to Oz all the more special!

In order to connect the classroom more tightly to real-world scenarios, the Middle School called on eighth graders to take a lead role in marketing this year’s book fair.

Through the project, the students learned to examine and evaluate marketing materials, think through diverse audiences, pitch a concept, receive critique, and make adjustments based on feedback.

Product Conception

Taking the cue from methods used in current marketing practices, library assistant Susan Besser and art instructor Steve Taminga introduced the needs of the customer (the Lower and Middle School Library) to the marketing team (eighth grade art students).

They explained that the library was partnering with Scholastic to be the publisher’s “brick and mortar” store for the week October 7th, and they needed help advertising the event through promotional posters.

The instructors and students discussed the differences between their two primary audiences (Lower and Middle School students) and examined sample marketing materials, thinking through things that have and haven’t worked well in the past.

Taking Critique


From here the students were sent off to prepare pencil sketches of their proposals, which were then presented to Ms. Besser and Mr. Taminga for critique before making further revisions.

Once they had an approved design concept, students worked on their final project which they presented to the class as a whole, opening up the floor for “cool” and “warm” comments.

“We had students from the audience share what worked or what they thought could use improvement,” says Ms. Besser, explaining that being able to give gentle but constructive feedback (as well as being able to receive that feedback) is an important element of the unit.

Finally, faculty displayed the promotional posters along the main hall of the school as a way to draw students’ attention to the upcoming event.

One Step Further


In addition to posters created in the fine arts room, students who were part of Ms. Wildes’ 8th Grade Technology class designed promotional advertisements on Canva using the skills they’ve been learning this semester. Ms. Besser spoke to the students, presenting them with a similar challenge that she presented to the arts students, and then Ms. Wildes set them free to begin designing.

This opportunity to use their newly developing marketing skills in a real-life situation deepened students’ understanding of their craft as well as nudged them into new layers of receiving critique and finding ways to improve their work based on constructive feedback.

Topics: Middle School, Academics, Fine Arts, Cultivating Potential, Exceptional Academics

Sticky Faith at Minnehaha Academy

Posted by Amy Barnard on Jun 25, 2019


When then-junior Ava Perez Erickson’s faith hit “its lowest point,” she could have given up. She could have accepted that up to this point she had been a “circumstantial Christian,” that is, a Christian simply because the dice were rolled and she ended up in a Christian family attending a Christian school and surrounded by Christian ideals.

“I saw a world filled with multiple religions, each claiming to be the way,” she says, looking back on this season. “I watched people consciously attack their neighbors and fill the world with suffering...I no longer had complete trust or confidence in God; in fact, I was no longer sure if I had ever felt his presence.”

Ava’s questions nibbled away at her childhood faith, eventually leaving behind what felt like a shaky framework of ideals that couldn’t hold the weight of her doubt.

Ava's struggle mirrors that of many across the nation.

Roughly 50% of church-going, graduating seniors walk out of their school doors that last time and away from their faith journeys.

Some wrestle with similar questions to the ones Ava faced. Others struggle with the tension between faith and science. Some don’t see faith as relevant to their busy lives.

But this statistic leaves us with a question: What about the other 50%? Why did some face the questions and realities of an imperfect world and somehow continue the faith walk?

Sticky Faith

A few years back Fuller Seminary researcher, Kara Powell, came to Minnehaha Academy to discuss what she and research partner Chap Clark call “Sticky Faith,” that is, faith that sticks with individuals through the challenges and changes of life.

Drs. Powell and Clark point out that while parents hold the most important role in their child’s faith development, the wider community must also come alongside students’ growth—and struggles—in order to nurture a vibrant faith that actually grows instead of shrivels in the face of questions. 

While each student must take ownership for their own faith journey, we as a community have a responsibility to provide scaffolding for that journey. Following are just a few of the areas of "Sticky Faith" that MA integrates into our community.

Understand the Core


Sticky Faith starts with understanding the core of what it means to walk with Christ, as opposed to simply affirming certain beliefs.

Powell and Clark say that young people (and their elders) often equate faith with “spiritual disciplines, ‘good works,’ and living as an example of Christianity that would please God.”

You might reread that last line and wonder, is that really so off?

But this lifestyle of external faith—dos and don’ts, if you will—doesn’t sustain Sticky Faith; at the end of the day, it misses the point of our faith.

From their earliest years at Minnehaha, students engage with the Bible. The awesome parts, the beautiful parts, the confusing parts, and the disturbing ones.

“We’re with the Israelites right now, and things aren’t going well,” laughs first grade teacher Britt Guild. ‘’They keep making mistakes and worshipping idols.” But this, she points out, is an opportunity to ask, what is God trying to tell us?

And what is he saying? What is the point of faith, if not to be a good person and do things that please God?

“At the heart of Sticky Faith is a faith that trusts in God and that understands that obedience is a response to that trust, in everything,” explain Powell and Clark.

When, during advisory or a class discussion, students engage in difficult discussions about race, family culture, or differing beliefs, this is an opportunity to trust. We call them to speak with respect and to listen well not because “it’s what nice people do,” but because we know that God calls us to act in love. We trust that when we relate in ways that honor God and his principles he will bring greater good in those conversations than we could make happen on our own.

Wrestle Openly With Doubt


Doubt, explains Powell, "is most toxic when it goes unexpressed."

For Ava, doubt had been building slowly but deeply. Unspoken doubt tends to overwhelm our vision, keeping us stuck in the questions. This is the place so many leave their faith.

“When asked about my faith, I said what I was supposed to say rather than truthfully admitting my anger towards a God who did not pay attention to me, despite my constant pleas for direction and assurance [in my faith],” Ava admits.

There is, however, great hope in the face of doubt.

Research shows that when their community allows students to express and openly struggle with their doubt, those students are actually more likely to develop a rich, deeply rooted spiritual life that flourishes

We want students to know that hard questions and difficult discussions are honored and even welcomed here.

This spring during advisory time, Middle School students explored Lee Strobel’s work The Case for Christ. While Strobel’s book is a journalistic look at the evidence for Christ from the fields of science, philosophy, and history, faculty didn’t push students to ignore any lingering doubts.

Instead, they offered time to be open about and wrestle honestly with their uncertainty. For some, Strobel’s work offered many helpful answers. For others, new questions arose which allowed for deeper discussion.

At the Upper School, Dr. Jeffrey Crafton’s Senior Capstone gives students an opportunity to discuss and even challenge the foundational beliefs of Christianity. From the existence of God to the problem of evil, Dr. Crafton gives an overview of the topic and then opens the floor for discussion.

“The thing I loved most about his class is that not everyone had to have the same viewpoint,” says 2015 grad Alexander Ramos. “That stirred up so much conversation, and that was completely okay.”

Dr. Crafton explains that the class “is designed to help students make the transition from ‘this is what I’ve been told to believe’ to ‘these are decisions I’m making for myself about what I believe.’”

This, says ‘01 grad Stephanie Williams O’Brien, helped prepare her when she faced her own crisis of faith just a few years after graduation. “I felt equipped to wrestle through it because of my experience at MA and the ways that Dr. Crafton would push us to ask these questions and not just settle for lame answers.”

Take Part in the 5:1 Ratio


On that fateful day in January, when Ava felt the crushing weight of her many questions, she climbed the steps to Mr. Hoffner’s room. “Mr. Hoffner," she said, "I need your help."

By seeking out David Hoffner, her New Testament teacher, Ava was actually taking one of the most important steps for those who develop a faith that sticks: connecting with older mentors.

Powell’s work suggests that students flourish when they have at least five adult, non-parent mentors who can provide a listening ear as well as engage in faith and life discussions.

Faculty members, like Middle School math teacher Andrew Beach, look for open doors to share pieces of their own faith journeys with students, both the victories and the disappointments. Because of this openness, students are more likely to feel safe sharing their questions and struggles, as well as asking for prayer.

“I am truly impressed," Beach says, when noting his students' willingness to be vulnerable about these things, "because they seem to have a trust of our advisory class. And then to hear the responses of the students! I think that’s been the neatest part—to hear the students respond respectfully and then to come alongside and encourage, especially when someone is struggling with something that's deeper.”

At Peace with the Process


Sticky Faith develops when we help students recognize that the faith walk is a process. You don’t suddenly “arrive” one day, with every question answered.

That day Mr. Hoffner didn’t pluck all of the stones from Ava’s path to make it question-free. He didn’t offer her the three-step plan to demolish doubt or an apologetic to help her feel God’s presence again.

Instead he entered into the place of doubt alongside her, allowing her to process her questions and acknowledging that there were some things he couldn’t answer.

“Mr. Hoffner told me that questions allow us to delve deeper into faith because they require us to search out answers through prayer or reading the Bible,” Ava shares. He also warned her that she wouldn’t find answers to every single question: if we understood all things completely, faith—that is, trust—would be unnecessary.

“My questions have taught me to never stop seeking answers,” Ava shared in her graduation Baccalaureate speech. “By seeking answers we grow in faith.” The very process forces us to come face to face with the God who is, as opposed to the incomplete and weak images of God passed down by culture or influenced by our own biases.

Today Ava studies Biomedical Sciences at Liberty University. Instead of being afraid of the questions that her studies might stir up, she has learned to lean into them and ask, what is God trying to tell us?

Instead of crushing her faith, Ava's season of doubt, combined with a community willing to give her space to process, birthed a deeper trust and a more integrated faith walk.


Topics: Middle School, Upper School, Lower School, Academics, Cultivating Potential

Minnehaha Mini-Grant Recipients: Developing Resiliency and Growth Mindset

Posted by Rebekah Peterson on May 29, 2019
2019-Camino-MinnehahaAcademy-Minneapolis-Minnesota-5 copy
Congratulations to Minnehaha faculty Nancy Cripe, Diane Hallberg, Wendy McDonald, and Mary Quello. These four teachers are recipients of the 2019 Minnehaha mini-grant. Their application was part of a competitive process. 
The mini-grant program was created to provide creative, self-designed, inspiring opportunities for faculty to reflect on their teaching and re-energize their vision for high quality, faithful teaching, and learning.  

Together We Rise Camino

The four faculty members will use the mini-grant funds to support their Together We Rise Camino.
On June 4th, they will embark on pilgrimage on the historic 200-mile Camino Primitivo trail in Northern Spain. "This rugged, beautiful trail dates from the 9th century, part of the Camino de Santiago trail network," wrote the teachers in their mini-grant application.
Learning Resiliency Through Tragedy
"This past year and a half has been, for those of us at Minnehaha Academy, an intensive lesson in resilience, the ability to return to original form after being stretched; to recover readily from adversity.  After the 2017 fatal explosion that killed two of our staff, the phrase “Together We Rise” became our guiding principle as a school community.  Our team has decided to name our effort the “Together We Rise Camino” as an extension of our school community’s spirit and purpose.
A Deep Hope
Our deep hope for our students through our Camino Primitivo hike (and through our school community’s determination to rebuild in the face of tragedy and unimaginable loss) is to “teach our children to love challenges” (Carol Dweck's work in Growth Mindset). We desire that our students and our school community will learn to embrace difficulty as doorway to growth. We desire to help our students flourish as they invest effort in gaining skills and strategies that create a love for learning and a resilient spirit.
Follow Along
The four will be posting their observations and reflections as they hike the Camino. Follow along with them as they make this 200-mile trek. 

Topics: Upper School, Cultivating Potential

Katerina Misa '17: Getting Out of Her Comfort Zone

Posted by Amy Barnard on Apr 18, 2019

2019-Katerina Misa landscape-1

 She was the shy girl who insisted she hated writing, but kept coming back to the Talon and Reid Westrem’s journalism class year after year. Today, as a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University, she manages the Twitter account for Dr. Steve Hanke, one of the world’s leading experts on troubled currencies.

With over 100,000 followers to keep informed and plans to increase that following, Katerina Misa manages ten others who work on the account. She also keeps an eye on the global economic news cycle and connects with journalists she thinks might be interested in what Dr. Hanke has to say. (Did we mention that she's only a sophomore?)

You could say that this experience almost didn’t happen: Dr. Hanke met and ultimately hired Katerina thanks to skills gained during her years with Mr. Westrem, in classes she found too writing-heavy for her taste.

“I think that every year except for my senior year I tried to quit,” she admits. But then a counselor would point out how well she was doing and encourage her to stick it out, and she eventually found her niche in design and leadership roles.

A year later, at JHU, Katerina faced a new challenge. She had already worked on multiple marketing projects for established brands, but she wanted to strengthen her economics muscles. She set her heart on working for economist Steve Hanke, who was right there on campus. But how could Katerina, a sophomore with few connections, catch the ear of one of the world’s leading economists?

“Networking is always a bit out of my comfort zone,” Katerina says, “I’m more on the introverted side.” But she decided to push through her inhibitions and cold-called a number of people in Dr. Hanke's network, asking about his office culture and what the man himself was like, developing connections even as she was doing her own fact-finding.

“[Journalism is] what helped me…I know how to interview someone when I’m just talking to them." she says.

Ultimately, Katerina's efforts paid off: she landed an interview with Dr. Hanke, who noticed that some of Katerina’s Talon work had been recognized by the prestigious Quill & Scroll. Combined with her history of leadership and marketing, she stood out as a unique potential addition to his economically-schooled team.

Hanke created a new role for Katerina, putting her over the ten students already working on his Twitter account, as well as in charge of building his visibility in the media world.

“Bringing it back to journalism,” Katerina says, laughing at the irony of it all, “I guess it was my most beneficial class.”

2019 - Steve Hanke Twitter for blog 

Place of Influence:
Johns Hopkins University


Chief of Communications for professor, economist, author and currency expert Dr. Steve Hanke.

Economics, Major

Marketing & Communications, Minor
Entrepreneurship & Management, Minor

Biggest MA Takeaway:
The value of community. Persistence: MA offers a lot to prepare you for college, but you need to be willing to take the opportunities offered and then stick with them to see the long-term benefits.

Advice to Current Students:
Connect with your teachers and advisors. Go up to them after class and talk to them. Also ask them to help you understand how you can best allocate your little time at Minnehaha.

Topics: Alumni Stories, Cultivating Potential, Exceptional Academics

Academics, Athletics, and the Arts: Junior Andrew Gives His Perspective

Posted by Rebekah Peterson on Mar 27, 2019

2019-Andrew-Karpenko-Minnehaha-Academy-Minneapolis-Minnesota-6 copyWhat is it like to be an academic, an athlete, and an artist at Minnehaha? We talked to one Minnehaha student about what it is like to pursue a variety of interests at MA.

AP Courses, Fine Arts, and Championship-Level Athletics

Junior Andrew certainly has a full schedule. He currently takes four Advanced Placement courses - Latin, English, biology, and calculus II. You'll also find him playing oboe with the symphony orchestra and playing the trombone in pep and jazz band. He's also a championship swimmer. This season he broke the all-time Class A state record in both the 200-yard individual medley and the 100-yard breastroke.

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(Photo by Annika from 2018 State Swim Tournament.)

Andrew has attended Minnehaha Academy since second grade, and says it's the community and the teachers that have made a difference for him.

"One thing that has been constant at Minnehaha is the community. Despite anything the community goes through, we go through it together. We support each other. If anyone is in need of anything, people are there to help. It's a really close knit group."

Balance and Supportive Teachers

So how can a student succeed in academics, the arts, and athletics? Andrew says that for him sometimes there are a few late nights, but it mostly takes time management.

"As long as you put in the work, everything else is going to fall into place," said Andrew. "Teachers are willing to work with you. If I have a swim meet one day and I can’t get an assignment done on time, teachers will let me turn it in the next day. Teachers are very accommodating."


Feeling at Home with Minnehaha Students

When asked what advice he'd give others who were thinking of transferring to Minnehaha, he talked about how welcoming the other students are - and how they collaborate, rather than compete.

"If you’re worried about a small school - don’t be," said Andrew. "While the school can be a little small, the ability to know everyone in your grade by name and personality is much more of a blessing than a curse. You may feel that you'll stick out more in a small school, but everyone is going to have your back and there’s no reason to worry about being left out or left alone because everyone will support you and make you feel at home."

"The students here work together a lot. You can always ask someone for help with homework or studying. The environment is supportive, really safe, and I personally haven’t experienced anything with bullying or fighting or drama between students."

A Faith-Focused School, Without Being Pushy

At Minnehaha, Andrew appreciates the faith-driven learning. "It is comforting that the teachers will help you with your faith journey, and whatever step that may be [for each student]. You can go to a math teacher, you don’t have to just go to a bible teacher with questions."

"One thing that I have liked is that not every student here is a strong Christian or even would regard themselves as a Christian at all. The school, while faith focused, isn't pushy about anything. I've found teachers to be extremely respectful about different viewpoints, whether that is about religion or politics."

"Being in an environment that is both a welcoming Christian environment and is also open to a variety of different viewpoints is a great space to be in."

Senior Year at the Re-Imagined Upper School

Andrew's class is the only class that spent their freshman year at the Upper School before the explosion, had two years of school at the Mendota Campus, and then will be returning to the re-imagined Upper School for their senior year. 

"I’m excited about the new campus. It looks amazing just from a physical standpoint. It will be nice to get some breathing room and be able to find quiet places during a free period or flex, small meeting spaces where you can hang out with friends. It is going to be a fun learning environment and conducive to collaborative and stimulating learning."

"I know for my class especially, the senior class, we will be the only class to be in all three campuses, so that sense of coming home is going to be really strong. It will be fun to pick the new senior hang out spots. My classmates are going to have a fun time coming back, even though some spaces will look a lot different."

Topics: Upper School, Athletics, Fine Arts, Cultivating Potential, Exceptional Academics

Good News About Who Our Students Are Becoming, Pt. 2

Posted by Amy Barnard on Jan 21, 2019


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In this two-part series we look at how students at the Middle School are learning to find the "I can" in the midst of challenges they face, choosing to make this sometimes awkward yet very special season of life their time to shine.

In Part 1 we saw how students at Minnehaha Academy are learning to develop the mindsets "I can do hard things" and "I can take responsibility for my success". Today we want to look at two more mindsets that are foundational to who our students are becoming as they make their way through the incredibly important Middle School years. 


I Can Try New Things

If you walk into Katie Humason’s 7th grade digestion unit this winter you’ll see something slightly alarming: students sifting through lumps of digestive waste.

The waste in question is the product of the working digestive systems that Ms. Humason’s students create each winter. And while some students may initially feel squeamish about the idea, this is continually one of the favorite projects at the Middle School.

"It really helps them to visualize and understand how a digestive system works,” Ms. Humason explains.

"They plan it and then they build it. They decide what materials they use; they have to have all of the major organs...they put real food through it and we collect the waste at the end and it’s evaluated. Only in Middle School, right?"


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From Ms. Humason's highly exploratory life science classes to Emily Firkus's robotics and autoCad units, where students code working tools and learn to use the same software modern-day engineers design with, trying new things is built into the DNA of how the Middle School operates.

Beyond the classroom, Middle School students can choose from nearly 30 extracurricular opportunities. Many take part in multiple activities, with a dizzying array of combinations that you might not expect to see together, from soccer to Diversity Club, football to GeoBee.

"[Middle School] kids are still open; they haven’t yet self-identified so narrowly," explains Principal Balmer.

By developing this habit of trying new things students are more likely to discover their own special niche earlier in life, as well as approach unexpected changes in their career journey with a willingness to adapt.


I Can Face A Challenge

It's been said that people often approach challenges with one of two mental refrains: I can, or I can't.

We don't expect our students to succeed in every challenge they meet, but we do want to see them face these challenges with tenacity and creativity

Whether it's saying "I can explore more ways to connect with reading" or "I can try new things and find creative responses when my plans fall through," we want our students to find the "I can" in the challenges they face.

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This is the good news about who our students are becoming: developing a "can do" identity empowers students to step into the fullness of their God-given potential and reflect His glory, shining amidst the challenging, the mundane, and the extraordinary moments of life.

If you're curious about what sort of things this mindset can lead to, we encourage you to explore the blog posts tagged "alumni stories", where we share stories of where Minnehaha Academy graduates making their mark on the world.

Join Minnehaha Academy! Learn how your child can shine at Minnehaha Academy - request Admission information today!

Topics: Middle School, Academics, Cultivating Potential, Exceptional Academics

Good News About Who Our Students Are Becoming, Pt. 1

Posted by Amy Barnard on Jan 14, 2019

Science teacher Katie Humason helps a student troubleshoot his work

In this two-part series we look at how students at the Middle School are learning to find the "I can" in the midst of challenges they face, choosing to make this sometimes awkward yet very special season of life their time to shine.

Last year English teacher Chantal Ulferts worked with a student who just couldn’t seem to connect with books.

Reading wasn’t a joy, and the boy was close to writing himself off as a non-reader.

Recognizing the importance of finding stories with characters you can relate to, Ulferts invited the student to join her on a search for books with characters who looked and sounded like him: male, young, African-American.

As the student explored authors like Walter Dean Myers and Jason Reynolds he was drawn into new worlds, and reading captured his imagination in a fresh way.

“He wrote down the fact that he now feels like he is good reader,” Ms. Ulferts shares.

This story is important on many levels: Representation in literature. The tight connection between reading for joy and academic success. Identity.

It’s the third one we want to look at today.

A Key Season for Identity

Who Am I Becoming?

Between the ages of 11 and 14 students go through an explosion of brain growth paralleled only by the growth during infanthood.

This growth impacts a number of critical areas of development, from belief systems and problem-solving skills to perception of identity.

The key moment between Ms. Ulferts and her student connected to multiple aspects of his identity: Am I a reader? Am I someone who keeps trying until I find success? Do people like me do big things?

One key area of identity we are working to nurture in our students is a mindset that responds to questions like these with the answer: “I am someone who can.”

Following we will look a just a few examples of how our students are learning to stretch their "I can" muscles.

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I Can Do Hard Things

Sometimes we don’t realize just how much we can accomplish until we step into the unknown.

Each winter band instructor Brandon Delbow turns his class and the spring band concert over to his students.

Dividing the students into groups, he instructs them to find their own music, figure out how to make it work for their group's instrumentation, rehearse, and prepare an introduction. They then perform that music during an event patterned after an art crawl, where the audience moves from space to space to experience the performance of each group.

“Every year students are editing something they've been given to better fit their group,” Delbow says. Some students compose their own music or write new parts to match their instruments.

“During this unit, I purposefully don't tell them what to do, but ask them questions...then they think of ways to do it on their own.”

Requiring this deeper level of ownership over the process changes how students understand their music as well as their own potential.

“When they come back to full ensemble after the small ensemble unit they sound a grade older because they've had to think, learn, and perform with greater understanding,” Delbow says.

By encouraging students to push the edges of their perceived abilities and giving greater independence, faculty members prepare them for the day when there won’t be a parent or kindly teacher at their side guiding them. Students develop a mindset that looks at challenging tasks and says, I can do that.


I Can Take Responsibility for My Success

The steps needed in order to do hard things can feel mundane and boring. Both in class and during advisory teachers work to help students understand the responsibility they have for their own success.

This is a challenge instructor Michelle Vitt takes seriously.

Every year her students bring home national honors on their French and Latin exams, but she sees "life skills" equally important as academic skills.

During advisory, for example, she spends a lot of time discussing organization and helping her students connect their habits with their success in class.

“I realized that trying to impose my organization on others was not the way to do it,” Vitt says. “Unless they bought into it, it wasn’t going to last.”

Instead, she explains her expectations (i.e., that you come to school with your iPad charged), and asks the students what methods to meet these expectations have worked for them.

When crowdsourcing solutions the students generally hear a method that resonates with them, take greater ownership for their choices, and that ownership leads to increased follow-through.

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“We equip them [the students] and expect them to become increasingly independent and responsible for their work, their time management, and their decisions,” says Principal Karen Balmer.

The result? Students realize that they can take a greater measure of responsibility over the many little choices that foster day-to-day success.

Watch next week for Part 2 of this article.

Join Minnehaha Academy! Learn how your child can shine at Minnehaha Academy - request Admission information today!

Topics: Middle School, Academics, Cultivating Potential, Exceptional Academics

Encouraging Reluctant Writers: Preparing Students for Success Part 4

Posted by Amy Barnard on Dec 13, 2018


2018-FirstDayofSchool-boy writing for mag SMALLER

Developing the drive for effective communication and the ability to connect literacy with areas of passion.

Recap: What's the Why?

If you've read our first post in this series, The Jobs That Don't Exist, you already know that more than half of the jobs our students will step into don't even exist today.

Our faculty work to prepare students not only with excellent academic skills, but also with the so-called "soft skills" that research shows are key to success in any job market. From clear communication to follow-through, research suggests that these soft skills may be even more important than academic success.

The final area we will look at in this series is how the Lower School writing curriculum both fosters a joy in communication and helps students to tap into the drive that is necessary to finish a project.


Kindergartners in the earliest stages of becoming communicators via the written word.

The Goal: Developing Communicators

“Write six sentences that contain at least four adjectives, an adverb, and have proper spelling and punctuation.”

Does this sound familiar?

How about boring?

Elementary level teachers across the nation express frustration over the difficulty of inspiring kids to write...and write well.

“Minnehaha graduates should be excellent communicators,” says Julie Winn, Curriculum and Instructional Specialist, “who have gone through the discipline of sorting through their own belief systems, developing well reasoned perspectives, and who are also able to effectively express them in ways that are persuasive and designed for the intended audience—that is the definition of impactful communication.”

The Method: Writer's Workshop

To that end, in 2017 Minnehaha Academy implemented a writer’s workshop approach to their literacy program.

Students immerse themselves in a variety of genres, analyzing texts and determining key characteristics. They then try their hand at writing in that genre. Over time, they develop a sense of who the audience might be for a given genre, and how to express their ideas well using that form.

Instead of giving students a prescribed set of writing prompts, teachers invite them to generate and explore their own ideas.

Within that student-created writing, teachers work with students on spelling, grammar, and other good writing practices.

Students better internalize the lessons because the information is connected to something matters to them.

The highlight of the program was last year’s Writing Celebration, when students’ work was displayed around the school and parents came to read and offer feedback on the work.

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Students reading each other's work during the Writing Celebration, the culmination of the Writer's Workshop.

Case Study: The Reluctant Writer

Does this new approach to teaching literacy work? Yes, on a number of fronts.

When Winn first started the early versions of this teaching format in her own classroom she worked with a fourth grade boy who, by the end of the first unit, only managed to create two sentences for his final piece.

As they worked together, the student improved in technical ability and drive for excellence.

By the beginning of fifth grade the same student wrote a 5,000 word novel—without complaint.

Because the writer's workshop format connects writing to things students already care about, faculty tap into their natural drive to communicate. As students see both what they can accomplish and how their work is received by others, they become more excited to find ways to better communicate, encouraging a positive cycle of drive and output.

Not every student is called to be a writer, but we do want students to become solid communicators who can clearly articulate their beliefs, vision, and passion.

Topics: Lower School, Academics, Cultivating Potential

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