Chartering a Radical Course

Justin Tiarks '06 tells his students that he will be at St. Paul City School until he is "old and gray."

Justin Tiarks ’06 tells his students that he will be at St. Paul City School until he is “old and gray.”

Less than seven years after graduating from Central, educator Justin Tiarks ’06 is making a splash in his career—not only with his students, but with the administration. Going from Pella to St. Paul, Minn. was a big change, but it was nothing he wasn’t prepared for. Now that he’s the chair of the board of directors at St. Paul City School, let’s take a look at where it all began.

The Council Bluffs native found his calling for helping others after graduating high school and working at a local YMCA camp. His love for teaching grew out of the time he spent with kids at the camp, and he decided to pursue an elementary education major with endorsements in special education and reading at Central College.

Tiarks took advantage of all that was offered on campus, participating in clubs and attending several mission trips with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship—and one trip to St. Louis, Mo. sticks in his memory.

“We went to the inner-city, and during this trip a passion for urban America began to develop in my heart,” Tiarks recalls. “I volunteered in an inner-city school and realized how different this school was from the school I had grown up in. I felt a calling towards inner-city teaching in order to fight for just and quality education for all students.”

His conviction to be placed in an inner-city school paid off. After graduating from Central, Tiarks snagged a job in Des Moines teaching fourth and fifth grades at a school with underprivileged students. For two years, Tiarks was challenged in new ways—but understanding his students’ lives wasn’t always easy. As a result, he took some time off from teaching and signed up for Mission Year in Chicago, a year-long program focused on urban ministry that places people in areas of need. Tiarks dropped everything to work full-time in a homeless shelter.

“I learned what it was like to live in a neighborhood ravaged by drugs and gangs,” he says. “I befriended broken men at the homeless shelter and saw what life could turn into for my students without the radical intervention a quality education can provide.”

Upon the completion of his year in the Windy City, Tiarks felt more prepared to teach in an urban school system. He saw issues that his students deal with firsthand and learned to speak to their experiences. From there, Tiarks moved to the Twin Cities area and landed a job as a fifth grade teacher in a charter school—a fully-funded, independent public school district in which families can choose to send their children as opposed to larger city schools.

The urban school caters to preschool through eighth grade students in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul where two-thirds of the students are English language learners and the population is primarily Latino, Hmong and African American. When Tiarks joined the school system, it was designated in the five percent of lowest achieving schools, based on No Child Left Behind. But with a strong focus on college readiness, the school is closing the gap.

“We have begun to turn around our program and have made Annual Yearly Progress through No Child Left Behind,” Tiarks says proudly. “We believe that if students can read, write and do math to a high level of proficiency, the doors of college will be open to them. Besides our academic rigor, we are also deeply committed to building the college expectation among our students.”

From the middle school level, the teachers built into the curriculum a program that teaches students about the college process. All middle school students visit at least one college per year and every Friday is college day—staff and students wear their favorite college T-shirt. And no worries, Tiarks still bleeds Central red.

“Our walls are decorated with college pennants—Central College is represented proudly!” he exclaims. “By teaching our students to start planning for their futures now, we are equipping our students with the skills and motivation to do great things with their lives.”

Tiarks’s enthusiasm for learning has rubbed off on his students and colleagues. After a number of veteran teachers left, Tiarks was chosen as the faculty representative to the board of directors. He had a lot of questions his first year on the board, but he grew into the position. And in his second year, he was nominated as vice chairman, where he created a new board committee primarily focused on school development issues. In August 2011, he was nominated to the board chair.

As the leader of the board of directors and a fifth grade teacher, Tiarks handles a unique situation on a daily basis.

“As the board chair, I serve as the direct supervisor of our executive director, the superintendent,” Tiarks says. “Our executive director is the direct supervisor of the principal, and my principal is the direct supervisor of me when I am teaching. Depending on the issue, I am my boss’s boss! Luckily, I have a fantastic working relationship with them, and we lead as a team.”

That teamwork has paid off in a big way—their vast improvement in No Child Left Behind during the past two years speaks for itself. But Tiarks sees major strides in his students every day. With so many of them struggling in a low-income environment, it is possible to see progress almost immediately.

“Many of our students start school without knowing any English at all, and we get to watch them learn a language in front of our eyes,” he says. “We get to teach our students and families why education is so important, and we get to watch motivation grow and develop.”

This passion for education is familiar. Tiarks encountered it at Central in his professors and mentors, particularly Chaplain Joel Brummel and professor of education Esther Streed. He learned to show compassion and follow his heart from those closest to him on campus.

“Central has heart. I felt Central would be a place to challenge me intellectually and spiritually, and it more than exceeded my expectations,” Tiarks says. “Central allowed me to develop a passion in my life, and it gave me the skills to pursue my passion.”

Like Tiarks chose Central, he has now chosen his school for life. He has no plans to leave, and Tiarks tells his students he will be there “until he is old and gray.” In the meantime, he is pursuing his master’s in educational leadership, and he then hopes to transition into a full-time administration position. As an educator and leader, Tiarks knows all about making a difference, and he is taking advantage of every moment.

“We are a lifeline for our students and families,” he says. “We have a huge population of immigrant families at our school, and we are the hope their children have of making a better life for themselves. It’s a blessing to be a part of every day!”


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