Youth Leadership Series: High School Programs Provide Opportunities to Transform Youth into Leaders

At the Summer Learning Summit on March 22, 2016, site directors from the Boston Summer Learning Community learned about the Youth Leadership Policy and Practice Brief and committed to expanding the opportunities they offer for youth leadership within their respective programs. Two programs that work with high school students, the LEAH Project and Artward Bound, are among those that have pledged to increase opportunities for youth leadership and autonomy this summer.

The LEAH Project, which stands for Leaders through Education, Action, and Hope, has “leader” built into its name and empowers students through STEM curricula and relationship building skills. Allyson Shifley, Program Associate at the LEAH Project, described the program as “steeped in a youth development approach that works to harness the assets of every youth to help them grow as individuals in their communities.”

“The LEAH Project demands youth leadership as we work with high school students to teach, and therefore be leaders and role models, to elementary-aged students at summer camp programs,” Shifley said. The high schoolers, called LEAH Mentors, develop their leadership skills in a variety of ways—leading workshops for peers, tailoring curricula to meet their wants and needs, planning college field trips, serving on the LEAH Project’s Advisory Board, and participating in interviews for LEAH staff candidates.

With its built-in leadership roles and students who return year-to-year, the LEAH Project gives youth a variety of chances to develop leadership skills. One method in particular that LEAH prides itself on is having youth practice public speaking by leading a portion of weekly meetings to discuss a topic or issue affecting the group, their work, and their lives.

“By providing this space, we hope to establish an environment where youth feel they can share, participate, and steer the group to talk about particular issues or topics,” Shifley said.

Students’ public speaking opportunities are not limited to these weekly meetings.

“We [help youth become comfortable speaking in public] by having youth work in pairs to present a workshop to their peers and LEAH staff on a topic of their choosing,” Shifley said. “The workshops, especially when youth are given the freedom to choose something they want to present on, leads to creativity, passion, and confidence in public speaking. The ability to create an engaging workshop, present it to your peers, and handle feedback are important traits for leaders.”

The LEAH Project’s dedication to letting youth take on important responsibilities extends so far that Shifley indicated that the program’s ultimate goal is to become entirely student-led.

“Ideally, youth should run the LEAH Project with adult staff there in the background for support, logistics, and administration assistance. It should be the youth who present the LEAH Project at conferences and in interviews,” Shifley said. “While this gold standard takes a significant amount of time and effort on the part of the staff, it results in benefits both to the program and the youth participants.”

Artward Bound is another program that exhibits excellence in youth leadership opportunities. Hosted at Massachusetts College of Arts and Design, Artward Bound is a four-year program that students return to each summer of high school to prepare them for college and help them develop artistic, social-emotional, and academic skills. With this comes a focus on youth leadership, which Program Coordinator Bethany Strohm says is “incorporated both explicitly and implicitly” into programming.

All students at Artward Bound were involved in voting on the schedule and classes taught this summer. However, some students were granted elevated responsibility—three exemplary students served as interns at MassArt this summer, one with a partnering department and two directly with Artward Bound.

“The two Artward Bound interns worked with the program’s content creator to work on the program’s logo, design water bottles, and document other students in action,” Strohm said. “They were also crucial in helping our newest cohort of students find their classes, [chaperoning] a field trip, and model[ing] mature, professional behavior.”

Additionally, in line with Artward Bound’s promise from the Youth Leadership Summit, students this summer had the opportunity to choose classes based on interest rather than grade level. While this initiative is still in its early stages, students for the responsibilities of this free choice. The benefits are already visible to onlookers.

“Students were prepared for this experience with activities the first week of the program, an entire week of team building and theater games for the whole group. The effects of this choice are already noticeable,” Strohm observed. “There are more cross-cohort friendships, and some of the older students are taking some of the newer students under their wing.”

With students progressing further into the program each year of high school, they climb a ladder of increasing responsibility. Though they’re generally very responsive to leadership opportunities, Strohm says they are “hungry for more responsibility.”

“It is important at all grade levels that students have the opportunity to affect Artward Bound programming and take ownership of their own learning,” Strohm said. “This quality is crucial to develop as artists and as future college students.”