Future of Learning

Helping even middle-of-the-pack students see themselves as leaders

A leadership program aims to drive school improvement by empowering kids

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The February 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, gave new life to student activism, prompting a level of civic engagement among students that many had never considered. In Hebron Public Schools in Hebron, Connecticut, students get leadership training as early as elementary school, and Timothy Van Tasel, the superintendent, sees it as an education in civic-mindedness – and one that is particularly relevant now.

“They are learning what it means to be a contributing member of their society in a positive way,” Van Tasel said.

A group of about 20 kids in third, fourth and fifth grades spent much of the last school year working on service projects, following a training through the Bonstingl Leaders for the Future program. The program, designed by a former veteran teacher, John Jay Bonstingl, is meant for students who don’t necessarily consider themselves leaders. These students are often in the middle of the achievement spectrum and Bonstingl said his first job is helping them recognize their own potential.

The first day of Bonstingl’s two-day training gives students a chance to define the characteristics of good leaders and discover the overlap in their own personalities and skillsets. The program then builds on these strengths. It also teaches students how to do a needs-assessment on their school and asks them to brainstorm project ideas to make the school better.

Related: Student Voice: ‘The youth movement extends beyond gun violence’

Bonstingl said most school improvement efforts that focus on leadership develop the skills among the adults in the building. Seventeen years in the classroom taught him the importance of expanding that work to students.

A group of sixth graders in Hebron Public Schools outlined a peer mediation program during Bonstingl’s workshop last fall and spent the rest of the school year developing it. Students aren’t always comfortable telling teachers or administrators the problems they’re having with their friends, students said, and the adults in the building are busy.

“As much as we tell the kids we’re accessible, they thought a better way to support teachers, principals and also their classmates was to develop a peer mediation program where peers would be trained on how to work with students and talk through problems,” Van Tasel said.

The sixth graders asked for help finding a trainer so students could receive formal training in peer mediation. In addition to getting the training themselves, they invited older and younger students, ensuring the program will continue and even expand after they move on to middle school this fall.

Van Tasel made sure students had time during the school day to work on their projects. For him, the lessons students learn in this program are as important as the ones they learn in the traditional curriculum. And for this particular group of students, the program can change the way they see themselves.

“It gives them an opportunity for empowerment,” Van Tasel said. “Here are these kids who maybe don’t even see themselves as leaders, realizing how powerful they really can be.”

This story about youth leadership training was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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