While New Haveners voted on Tuesday for new leaders, newly elected High School in the Community (HSC) leader Ny’Asia Davis elected to spend the day studying just what grownups mean by “leadership” — or lack thereof.
She was one of 30 kids attending HSC‘s first-ever “leaders retreat” on a day when schools citywide were closed for regular academic business.
The event reflects one of the new directions in which third-year Building Leader Matt Brown is helping to take the teacher-led, personalized-learning-centered small high school.
He’s aiming to expand the magnet school’s law and social justice theme to include “leadership and public service” and in the process help grow enrollment from 230 kids to around 300.
In the school’s “courtroom,” a comfortable space, facilitator Christian Shaboo of the group The Future Project ceded the floor throughout Tuesday afternoon to students like twelfth-graders Kiana Nhem and Matt Perez who conceived and organized exercises to explore leadership in a personal way.
These students, who are part of a cohort of 40 in the school who participate in the an international organization called the Future Project, guided their peers in a listing on large pieces of construction paper what other people — parents, friends, teachers—think of them.
Listing good and the bad attributes, students did a self-assessment as Shaboo played mood music and Kiana and Matt orchestrated the discussion.
In a “de-brief” after the exercise, Kiana, who had recently run the school’s Halloween party, said that she appreciated the nice comments people made, but also took from that occasion ideas for areas in which she can improve, like communication.
The point was the kids to help each other become the leaders first in their own lives, and then the school’s, the city, and beyond, wherever their skills and grit take them.
In the debrief, Matt and Kiana asked students: What listed qualities do you agree with? How do you feel about them, and the exercise?
“I feel great that someone cares about me,” answered junior Tymaine Loweryr.
Another student voice called out an observation both simple and profound, which may be acute for high schoolers but also obtains throughout life: “It feels good that people notice you.”
Ny’Asia noted that people call her both “crazy” and inspirational.
“ I like when they say I’m ‘crazy,’” she explained, because that means she has people’s attention and also that she is funny. At the descriptor “inspirational,” she paused and said: “Because that’s important, I need to work on it.”
Another exercise challenge: Take 90 seconds and put post-its on the wall naming famous leaders. Take three minutes to itemize their qualities. Then bring it close to home by imagining yourself as the leader you most want to be and what someone might say of you in that light.
Senior Matt Feliciano, who intends to join the Marines as soon as he graduates, wrote, “I’m telling my kids about how I led my squadron to victory.”
In the last seven minutes, before the retreat ended with group hugs and a group photo, Shaboo and the student leaders — monikered “dream coordinators” — orchestrated a “declaration of leadership.”
“This is not something you’ll be graded on. This is not for me. It’s for you. You have seven minutes. Make it happen,” Shaboo directed.
And the students did.
Corey Douglass, a sophomore, who had been quiet for most of the session, raised his hand, and said his declaration had as its centerpiece: “Leaders are not leaders without following first.”
Another student said the heart of being a leader is to “help others achieve their goals.”
Matt Feliciano said this distillation, this declaration of leadership, was for him the most important take-away from the day he gave to the retreat.
Before she left, Ny’Asia Davis said that as the newly elected school student leader she aims to “establish connection” between students and teachers who are not feeling as comfortable as they should with each other because of color.
“Ny’s words are powerful. I’m proud to work in a school that encourages students to speak out and find their voices. This is a particularly important and sensitive time in our country’s history to tackle these issues, and we’re going to keep at it,” added HSC Curriculum Leader Cari Strand.
In addition to the personalized learning of such a retreat, other “structures” to develop leadership on a personalized basis include the school’s student court, its many student-led clubs, and “WILD,” or Wilderness Inspired Leadership Development program. School Counselor Chris LeSieur and science teacher Paul Jones plan to take a group of WILD participants to scope out West Rock and the Judges’ Cave area.