For thirty years as an educator, Principal James Sonju’s mission has been to inspire students to succeed by “providing opportunities and knocking down barriers” and to approach challenges to teaching and learning.
Principal Sonju knew he wanted to be an educator from an early age. He began his career through a graduate program teaching at the elementary school level and eventually spent 10 years teaching sixth grade and coaching at the high school level after receiving his Master’s degree in Education. Principal Sonju knew that as a teacher he was making a difference in the lives of the students he worked with on a daily basis, but he wanted to do more. He understood that by moving into a leadership position, he would be able to impact more students by making changes at the systems level. He eventually became Assistant Principal at the middle school where he taught and then moved into the principal position at Lincoln K-8, where he has served for 15 years.
When Principal Sonju became principal at Lincoln, the school had experienced a great deal of leadership turnover. The staff were experienced and dedicated, but they were frustrated with continuous leadership changes. Principal Sonju knew they needed a unifying vision. He and the staff created a STEM focus that would bring opportunities to all students in the school and provide partnerships and mentoring with science researchers. He forged a partnership with the Mayo Clinic and applied for grants to incorporate inquiry-based instruction and build new curriculum to support the school’s new STEM focus. The opportunities Principal Sonju created through the STEM program and partnership with the Mayo Clinic transformed the way staff approached instruction to be more collaborative, data-driven, and tied to hands-on, experiential learning. It not only inspired teachers to be more creative, the STEM focus and partnership with the Mayo Clinic opened the door for many students to see themselves as success stories with unlimited potential.
Creatively approaching problems is a hallmark of Principal Sonju’s leadership and educational philosophy. Throughout his career, he held the conviction that building inspiration, academic support, and meaningful enrichment for all students has the potential to address racial, economic, and opportunity gaps. Above all, he believes that one of the pillars to creating a collaborative and positive culture in a school requires deep understanding and respect for all voices. He has been dedicated to creating mentoring opportunities aimed at empowering students to become leaders. Through leadership and support, students were provided a voice, which changed their view of education for themselves and changed the culture of the school. The combination of mentorship and hands-on STEM programming provided Principal Sonju’s students with opportunities that took some of them to the Neuro-Science Meeting in Washington, D.C. to present their research findings and meet the President of the United States.
This spirit of honoring all voices and ideas extends to teaching staff and families. Principal Sonju created a teaching culture that embraced risk-taking and creativity. He established trust and forged strong relationships built on having the best intentions for students while maintaining high expectations. As one nominator noted, Principal Sonju has “the ability to humanize people in every situation…he knows and understands them beyond the surface level. I’m talking at their core.” He is noted for focusing on what can be learned from trying something new, rather than seeing something as a failure. Principal Sonju encourages teachers to think outside of the box and do what it takes to support students. He has instilled a core belief that failure means you tried something new and if it works you keep going and constantly improve, if it didn’t, you learned something.
Through positivity and innovation, Principal Sonju has inspired the entire school community to strive for excellence, challenge the status quo, and aim for making Lincoln K-8 the best school in the universe.