Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Student Leadership Dilemma

Providing our students with the opportunity to be leaders at their school site is one of my main core beliefs as a middle school principal. At my current middle school, we offer opportunities at leadership through a variety of ways. Right now, for example, we have five self-selected students vying for two seats on our school site council. In just one week, we have our annual UMS Reads night, put on by our 8th grade ELA department and supported by the rest of the school staff; here, students and adults will congregate to discuss the book Divergent, of which all conversation and topics will be student-generated and led. We have expanded our Intro to Leadership class this year to offer the opportunity at learning about leadership at the middle school level to twice as many students. At our school, there are so many ways for students to take on a leadership role. Perhaps the most coveted opportunity is our year long, 8th grade leadership class.

Our 8th grade year-long Leadership class is comprised of amazing students led by an amazing teacher and together they do amazing things. They host weekly events in our quad at lunch, create a sense of school pride among their peers, and perhaps most importantly, these students lead by example: they put their education first and support their friends in the same efforts. Rarely will we see one of these students leaving their lunch trash on the ground or being sent out of class. These students make our well-attended dances (over 50% of the students eligible for the dances attend!) an inclusive experience for all of their peers. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the 30 students enrolled in the class. And that's the thing... it's just 30 students.

What about the other 300 students in the 8th grade class? While it's true that many of these students may not have interest in what the leadership class may offer and that others would prefer to take a year long AVID, Spanish, or PLTW class instead (all great choices), there remains significant interest in the leadership class during the application process. In fact, approximately over 100 students apply each spring to participate in the leadership class. The application includes an extensive rubric for teacher recommendations, an exam on the ASB constitution, an interview with various members of the leadership team, and other additional factors. Once the dust settles, the top 30 students are offered a place into the class and they are all amazing students, each and every one of them.

At a former middle school, the leadership class was not one of the more "in demand" electives. Thus, any student who chose to participate in the class usually found it as part of their schedule. This led to a very interesting "leadership" class makeup; there were behavior problems, frequent student absences, poorly attended dances, and no general student leadership presence on the campus. There was, however, the opportunity for a teacher or administrator to place a student who had latent leadership skills into the class and watch them blossom over the course of the semester.

Reflecting forward to my current site, I know of one specific student who did not apply for Leadership. This student, however, embodies all of the qualities of a future leader: charismatic, friends with many, intelligent, and inclusive. This student will fully admit that a lot of their own growth didn't occur until second semester of their seventh grade. As the student began to focus on their academics and decided to make better choices in the classroom and elsewhere on the campus, the deadlines for the leadership application had passed. Truthfully, even if they had applied, I'm not sure this student would have been one of the top 30 students.

This is our current dilemma: how do we continue the amazing work our students currently produce in our leadership class while still providing these opportunities for those students who could also greatly benefit? Building upon this question, if we were to hand-select a few students as administrative placements, wouldn't they effectively be taking the place of other, "more qualified" students?

To address these concerns, I meet with the leadership adviser on a bi-weekly basis. We have a standing 9:30 am Monday meeting where we discuss the short term happenings and the long term vision for the leadership class. I also have met with various members of our school community, both formally and informally, to discuss these very same issues. The only conclusion I've come to thus far is that there is no "right" answer and instead just lots of different answers, all of which have their positives and their concerns. This doesn't mean that we're going to stop looking for ways to improve; it just means the answers aren't as easy as we'd hoped.

In the interim, we have 30 talented thirteen year olds outperforming the work of many high school ASB classes, making our school the best, the most inclusive and welcoming middle school I've ever been a part of. And for that other student who didn't apply to the leadership class? Well, I'm bringing this student to the UMS Reads night where they'll lead their peers and teachers in a book club conversation. The opportunities for leadership continue to exist throughout our campus in a variety of ways and not just in the 8th grade year long leadership class; perhaps that the "right" answer to our student leadership dilemma.

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