Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education, Willie Jett, began what would become a lifelong journey in education at Garden City Elementary School for his kindergarten year. From there, he continued on as a student of Osseo Area Schools through graduation, including time at Crest View Elementary School, North View Middle School and Osseo Senior High School.
Though he was widely known as a basketball player during his school years, Jett was also a member of the band and track team, and he participated in school musicals.
“My parents wanted us to experience a little bit of everything,” Jett said. He credits those varied experiences as an important factor in shaping his life, along with having a supportive family and many outstanding educators to guide him through his growing years.
In particular, Jett credits his K-12 music teachers-Greg Lenz, Bob Naslund and Paul Schierenbeck-as people who helped foster his love for music and promote a positive sense of self-esteem. He also counts Kay Ferguson, his tenth grade English teacher, as an influential role model who took an interest in his success through high school and beyond.
“We all need somebody to believe in you, make you believe you can do some impactful things in this world, and that you can have joy while you’re doing it,” he said.
After graduation, Jett spent his first year of college at the United States Naval Academy, where he realized that his heart was in the world of education. He transferred to the University of Illinois-Chicago the following year to pursue that field of study and continue his college basketball career. While he eventually returned to his roots at Osseo Area Schools toward the beginning of his career, Jett first spent a decade living, working, obtaining a master’s degree and coaching basketball in many other cities around the country.
When he first returned to the district he once called his own, Jett worked as a teacher and coach at Park Center Senior High School for three years, then later as an assistant principal at the school for five. Though he then moved on to other Minnesota school districts as he progressed through the ranks of educational leadership, Jett said he often thinks back to the people he was fortunate to work with and learn from at Osseo Area Schools during his foundational years in the field, such as Dean Prekker, former principal of Park Center Senior High School, who he said taught him much about the administrative side of education, and Dave Thorp, a special education teacher and girl’s basketball coach at Osseo Senior High School, who left an impact on him about seeing the best in all students.
The experiences gained and people met along the way guided him, he said, as his career evolved and advanced to its current state, when Minnesota governor Tim Walz appointed him as Education Commissioner in January. He is the first Black man to serve in this role.
“I feel I’ve had a rich life, with varied experiences that brought me on the journey that got me here,” he said. “I didn’t originally envision being the Commissioner of Education in the state of Minnesota.”
To the upcoming graduates of Osseo Area Schools Class of 2023, Jett encouraged the teens to experience the world, get to know people and value new experiences as a means of broadening their perspectives as they enter a new phase of life.
“The biggest thing, I think, is to dare to dream and to chase that,” he said. “Pay attention to what’s in your gut and what’s in your heart. Find something that you really, truly like to do, and as long as you’re doing that in your future that’s a key to happiness, success and a key to keeping you going.”