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Students learn today — and also lead today

Editor’s note: ‘How Schools Work’ is a column explaining the day-to-day workings of public schools. Our writer is Carol Lautenbach, a veteran educator and School News Network contributor.

All districts — Back in 2007, I wrote an article for The Alan Review about youth leadership qualities, making the point that phrases like “Today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders” is misleading. After all, today’s youth are leading today, in many varied and meaningful ways. 

But has that argument held up? What does student leadership look like, in real terms, in schools today?

Since my own research was old, I reached out to my friend and colleague Debbie McFalone, a former public school educator and current author and presenter. Leadership is her specialty, citing courage and integrity as essential leadership traits, and she has collaborated with countless school leaders in the area. 

Student Leadership Starts Young

A high school student council may be the first image that comes to mind when thinking of student leadership. But McFalone is quick to include the elementary level, too, where many schools pair older students with younger ones. For example, more experienced readers can encourage those who are just beginning to read.

‘(Students) provide the direction, the North Star, for our climate and culture initiatives.’

— Jon Haga, Forest Hills Central Middle School principal

At Forest Hills’ Knapp Forest, she said, some act as docents during art fairs, while others are student ambassadors for new students, showing them hospitality and friendship. 

Some student leaders take the initiative when they see a chance to lead. At Godfrey-Lee’s Early Childhood Center, Friday video announcements are usually delivered by a team of educators each Friday. Students really enjoyed these weather reports, community news updates, and weekly birthday notifications. 

But Kara Jones’ second-grade class had an idea: Why couldn’t they take the lead on the announcements? So, they created a proposal and presented it to Marissa Ramsunder, KSSN community school coordinator and producer of the “Good Morning Little Legends!” weekly show. 

“The students’ proposal was creative, organized, and student-centered,” Ramsunder said, and a new era in ECC video announcements was born. “The response to the broadcasts has been ‘electric.’” 

Godfrey-Lee second-graders Isabel Ortiz and Jesse Hansen appear on the student announcements (courtesy)

The second-graders’ initiative made a difference for others, too. Now students from each grade have an opportunity to provide the announcements. And they learned the power of using their voice to make changes for the benefit of all. 

According to Ramsunder, the confidence and pride these student leaders feel has contributed to the school’s goal of intentional community-building. Their parents feel it too, she said, noticing talents they didn’t know their child had. For example, after his experience in front of the camera, first-grade student Cristiano Oliveres-Hernandez said he now wants to become an actor. 

What Difference Does it Make?

Debbie McFalone helps adult leaders create environments where students to lead (courtesy)

Opportunities to lead go beyond the classroom walls, too, McFalone notes. Interestingly, she says, “productive struggle is an essential part of leadership.” Programs like robotics, theater and athletics are areas where young people can find their areas of strength by working hard at something new. 

Encouraging all areas of student leadership like this, she said, benefits more than just the student. She shared what some local district leaders had to say about the nature of student leadership:

  • Student leadership benefits the student leader: Stacy Voskuil, assistant superintendent of student services in Cedar Springs Public Schools, says that student leadership is not only about building future leaders; “it also builds confidence and critical skills for the workforce, quality relationships and future quality of life.”
  • Student leadership benefits the community: Jon Haga, principal at Forest Hills Central Middle School, asks the student leadership team each year if the activities they are planning, from fundraisers to community outreach, are meeting the school vision. The school strives for every student being seen, heard, and cared for everyday. “They provide the direction, the North Star, for our climate and culture initiatives,” he said.

    Similarly, Northview Public Schools curriculum director Becky Roy said that planning directly with students allows adults to help students learn, lead and grow when challenges, changes and celebrations come along. 

  • Student leadership benefits learning: Roy said when she was an elementary principal, the 22-person second-grade student council would “generate ideas around a problem at school they hoped to solve or improve.” These young leaders sponsored fundraisers so they could provide materials and rewards to impact the problem they’d chosen. These actions increased student learning opportunities.

    At Cedar View Elementary in Cedar Springs, students who contribute to their school environment by being Honest, Accepting, Hardworking, Kind, and Safe (HAWKS) are celebrated publicly. “We embolden them to be leaders,” principal Sam Becker says.

‘Productive struggle is an essential part of leadership.’

— Debbie McFalone, author and leadership consultant
  • Student leadership benefits systems: In Northview, high school student leaders look at Board of Education policies that are up for review and share with board members how they see the policy affecting students. “We are repeatedly impressed by the depth of insights they share,” Roy said.
  • Student leadership benefits school safety: This happens through open and effective peer communication, Cedar Springs’ Voskuil said: “Having student leaders within a school establishes a system of support and guidance for students through an approachable and achievable path.”

Leadership: Inspiring Others by Doing

Kentwood’s Kerim Suleman is inspired by leaders who act on their beliefs (courtesy)

Kerim Suleman graduated in May from East Kentwood High School. He is an accomplished leader in everything from sports to student government to journalism. He serves as a leader beyond school walls, too, as part of student leadership groups at the county and state level. 

As assistant producer of East Kentwood’s own Falcon News Network, he helped develop a partnership with School News Network this year. He and other student journalists provide short clips of life on campus that are shared on SNN. He’s proud of the collaboration — but not for the reason you might think. 

“It will last long after I graduate,” he said. Focusing on impact, not accolades, seems to be his style.

This idea of leaving something better than when you first came across it runs through everything Kerim does, and he does a lot. 

When I asked him what motivates him as a leader, he said he used to think that a leader was someone whom others believed in and followed. Now, though, he thinks it is more than that: “A leader has to inspire others by what they do to make the world a better place,” he said.

Many others have helped him along the way, he added:

  • His parents who came to the United States in 1983 
  • Many teachers — too many to mention them all
  • Kentwood’s diverse student body
  • Superintendent Kevin Polston, who recommended he apply for a student leadership opportunity with the Michigan Department of Education 

He’s a Falcon for life, Kerim says, having started in the district in preschool. And while he knows that leaders can come from any environment, he thinks that East Kentwood creates great leaders because it’s a great environment. 

‘A leader has to inspire others by what they do to make the world a better place.’

— Kerim Suleman, East Kentwood High School senior

People care about community in Kentwood, he said, and its diversity has helped him develop into who he is. He thinks individual effort is important, but he also believes deeply in the power of the collective. This is something his father taught him when he said to “always choose to help others by doing whatever is within your power to do.” 

Echoing his father, Kerim summarized what guides his leadership: “The simple fact is, helping others is beneficial for society.”

That sure sounds to me like a learner today leading today

How can families encourage leadership in their children?

  • Ask: McFalone encourages parents to help their child develop a servant leader attitude. Ask your child what their strengths or interests are, such as caring for pets, making art or appreciating nature. Then ask how they could help make that interest or strength even better. She quotes Dewitt Jones, a nationally-known photographer, who puts a fine point on the importance of the common good: “Instead of being the best in the world, be the best for the world.”
  • Do: Kerim’s father’s advice has helped the Kentwood graduate in his quest to make a difference in the world: “Helping people can never be wrong.” Watch for opportunities and experiences for your child, and encourage her/him to look for ways to lead in helping others — at school, at home and in the community.
  • Read: Learn more about the character-driven leadership of everyday young people by listening to the The Lil’ Leaders Podcast: Conversations with kids for both interviews and recommended picture books focused on leadership for young learners. For older students, The Alan Review article includes a selection of Newbery-award winners that demonstrate how adolescent leadership can look in different times, places and situations.
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Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach is a reporter and columnist for School News Network. She has been a writer since second grade when her semi-autobiographical story, "The Magic Pencil," earned her a shiny Kennedy half-dollar in a metro-Detroit contest. For three wonderful decades, Carol served Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in a variety of teaching and administrative roles. In her current work as a consultant and at SNN, she continues to be part of telling the story of the great promise of public education. Carol has also written for The Alan Review, The Rapidian and Midwest Living, and is co-author of the book, “Making Schools Work: Bringing the Science of Learning to Joyful Classroom Practice.” She loves to not cook, and she keeps her bag packed for art, outdoor and writing adventures.


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