Sen. Tina Smith tours Onamia schools, reads to first graders

United State Sen. Tina Smith took a tour of Onamia Public Schools with first grade teacher Sarah Lancaster, the 2022 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.

Tina Smith in Onamia
Sarah Lancaster, a first grade teacher at Onamia Elementary School, holds the book given to her class by U.S. Sen. Tina Smith during a visit Thursday, April 13, 2023. Smith toured the school with Lancaster, who is the 2022 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

ONAMIA — Revealing how old she was and that she lived in Minnesota likely weren’t on the list of things U.S. Sen. Tina Smith planned to mention Thursday, April 13, but she fielded the questions with a smile nonetheless.

The comical queries from first grade students came during Smith’s visit to Onamia Public Schools, where she was led on a tour by first grade teacher Sarah Lancaster. Welcoming Smith to her school is one of many unique opportunities Lancaster has enjoyed since being named 2022 Minnesota Teacher of the Year last spring.

“I feel like I kind of live a double life,” Lancaster said. “So I go off and I be Teacher of the Year, and I go to the Capitol, and I testify or I speak in the rotunda, and I get to do these wonderful, amazing things. But then it’s so removed from this rural community, and I come back, and I’m this first grade teacher again.”

Some of Lancaster’s students think their teacher is famous after seeing her face all over the news during the past year. While she said that might be a bit of stretch, the impact the award has made on her students is still apparent, as meeting a U.S. senator is an experience they likely won’t forget.

Smith had equal praise for Lancaster and her accomplishments.


“It’s really exceptional that an educator from such a small school in a small district receives the recognition that she’s receiving,” Smith said. “So at Sarah’s invitation, I came. I wanted to see what was happening here, and it was great to see, especially the work that the school is doing to integrate Native culture and arts for all of the students in the school.”

Native American students make up the majority of the population at Onamia Public Schools, yet Lancaster — who is half Filipino — is the only licensed teacher of color in the district. She works to make all of her students feel seen and represented, which is what Smith aimed to do Thursday as well.

“A lot of times there’s a feeling that United States senators are sort of removed and distant and are in Washington all the time,” Smith said after fielding a question from a student about how often she travels to the nation’s capital.

“And so for me to be able to come to this community and make sure that everybody here understands that I represent them just as much as I represented anybody else in the state, it makes a visit to this particular school especially meaningful for me.”

After touring the halls of Onamia Public Schools, marveling at the library, music room and media center, Smith spoke briefly with the senior government class about her work. She talked about working with other senators after one student asked how difficult it is to work with people that have opposing political views.

Tina Smith in Onamia1
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith meets with Jared Barse's senior government class at Onamia High School Thursday, April 13, 2023. Smith visited the school at the invitation of first grade teacher Sarah Lancaster, the 2022 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

“That’s a really interesting question because it gets to the divisions that exist in our politics today,” Smith said. “And it kind of operates on two levels. So there is a level where the partisan differences are so dramatic that it is quite difficult to find common ground, and it’s very difficult to work with people that have a different perspective.”

Issues like reproductive rights and access to health care, she said, are two topics she cares deeply about as a member of the Democratic party, but her thoughts on the matters are drastically different than those of many in the other party.

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But there are other issues — like rural housing — on which Smith said she works extremely well with Republican senators.


“I might have a dramatic disagreement with my colleague Mike Rounds from South Dakota about women’s health care and health care generally, but yet he and I are working on a piece of legislation to improve rural housing and to improve the way folks that live on tribal trust land are able to get home mortgages,” she said. “And so we find a place where we can agree, even though there are other places where we will never agree.”

Tina Smith in Onamia2
U.S. Sen. Tina Smith reads "The Story of Ferdinand" to first graders Thursday, April 13, 2023, at Onamia Elementary School.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

After talking with the seniors, Smith switched gears and visited Lancaster’s classroom to read to the first graders. She chose the children’s classic “The Story of Ferdinand,” a book the senator said she used to read with her dad as a child.

That book now remains with Lancaster so she can remember Smith’s visit and continue to share the story with her students in the future.

Questions from the first graders differed quite a bit from those of the seniors, but the room was full of laughs after the students gasped at Smith’s disclosure that she was 65 years old.

And her answer of “I live in Minnesota” to the question of what state she lived in was met with an enthusiastic “me too!”

“I learn a lot by coming to districts like this,” Smith said. “And it takes the sometimes abstract policy work that we do, and it makes it real and human, and that — I think — makes me a better legislator and a better lawmaker.”

Her best ideas come from talking with educators like Lancaster, she said, which helps her translate what’s happening in Minnesota classrooms into legislation.

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U.S. Sen. Tina Smith and Onamia Elementary School first grade teacher Sarah Lancaster talk outside after Smith's visit to the school Thursday, April 13, 2023. Lancaster is the 2022 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

“For example, I have been very focused on how to address the shortage of teachers, especially in rural communities and what we can do to encourage teachers, especially teachers of color, to get into education, and it’s helpful — very helpful — to see what a difference it makes,” she said.


“Greater Minnesota is big,” Lancaster said, “but it is great.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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