Youth Leadership Series: Boston Summer Learning Community Middle School Programs Focus on Youth Leadership

At the Summer Learning Summit on March 22, 2016, site directors from the Boston Summer Learning Community committed to expanding the opportunities they offer for youth leadership within their respective programs. Two programs that work with middle school students, Sociedad Latina STEAM Team and the Steppingstone Foundation, are among those that have pledged to allow for youth to take more initiative in their summer learning experience.

“Sociedad Latina’s mission, and that of many other organizations that do this work, is to build the next generation of leaders,” Jenna Nackel, Sociedad Latina STEAM Coordinator, said. “Our hope is to empower youth to see themselves as change makers in their communities. They begin to build those skills when they have opportunities to be leaders in their program.”

Transforming this hope into action, Nackel and Sociedad Latina grant youth many opportunities to take charge. Ranging from empowering youth to lead opening activities, serve lunch, and clean up to co-leading academic and enrichment activities together with instructors, the program has certainly fulfilled its commitment of allowing students to lead an activity in academic classes or enrichment activities twice per week with the assistance of staff.

Nackel says they have “had positive experiences integrating more leadership opportunities via having students lead activities or sections of class. It has allowed students to bring their own interests and strengths into class time.”

According to Nackel, this has strengthened student-staff relationships as well, helping teachers and staff get to know the students and build relationships despite the short six weeks of programming. The clear positive impacts on students include the sense of pride that comes with being placed into a leadership position.

“We always see that students rise to the occasion when offered leadership opportunities,” Nackel said. “It is a form of positive reinforcement that goes a long way in shaping a student’s sense of themselves.”

Youth leadership initiatives continue at the Steppingstone Foundation, which pledged to allow students to share testimonials during Community Time and to help plan enrichment activities.

Scholars at this organization enjoy a number of opportunities, including weekly presentations of work and ideas in Community Time and weekly rotating classroom leadership. A scholar on “Pillar Patrol” recognizes classmates who embody Steppingstone community values by awarding “Scholar Dollars” accordingly, and “cleanup captains” ensure the lunch area is clean and hold peers accountable for keeping the area tidy. Youth also have the opportunity to voice their ideas to Steppingstone Directors about how to improve the program and their community at “Director Lunches.” Moreover, Steppingstone has a leadership council elective, and scholars work on leadership initiatives in the community to visit classrooms to speak to younger scholars.

According to Kristin Arcangeli, Director of Counseling Services at Steppingstone, youth have responded very well to taking on leadership positions. Thus far, they have shown enthusiasm in Community Time presentations and during Director Lunches, even proposing to add a fifth pillar—responsibility—to the 4 Community Pillars that already exist at Steppingstone. These initiatives have proven successful for all scholars.

“We went on a field trip recently, and one of the older scholars planned ahead and brought Scholar Dollars and a pen with him, and was writing out recognitions to classmates who were engaged during their tour of the ICA,” Arcangeli said. “This is a scholar who has previously struggled with behavior, so it was awesome to see him take this initiative and embrace this leadership opportunity.”

At Steppingstone and in general, Arcangeli feels that leadership allows youth to feel like they are a part of the program.

“I think that [youth leadership] is important because it helps scholars to feel some responsibility and ownership of the program’s culture,” Arcangeli said. “When they feel invested and see themselves as an important part of the program, I think that they are happier about being more engaged. They see the value I being here, and they feel that they add value to the community.”