Ten Ways to Pump Up the Volume on Student Leadership

By Linda Yaron

“I don’t know how we are going to do this, but we are going to do it,” I told my 25 Peer College Leaders (PCLs) on the first day of class last August.

The Peer College Leaders program was designed to create a greater college-going culture at our high school. In the process, it has come to mean so much more: a vehicle for student voice and leadership.

Through the course of the year, PCLs have developed the capacity to take action with a purpose, improve their school community, and develop leadership skills. All while filling a deep school need.

Positioning students at the center of change is good practice. Students gain the space and structure to actively shape their educational experience. Meanwhile, schools creatively leverage human resources to achieve more. Our school found the following ten elements to be essential to building a student-centered approach to leadership:

1) Cultivate a sense of purpose. The goal of our program is clear: to increase college information and access. When I once mentioned that our school had no college counselor, a PCL, Melony, corrected me, noting that we now have 25 college counselors. Students feel the weight of responsibility and know that the work they do can improve the opportunities their peers have in life.

2) Encourage investment and ownership. Students own the program. They choose to be part of the class, identify our goals and priority areas, and carry out meaningful tasks. Students are accountable for specific projects, with rotating leadership opportunities for students. One student wrote in a survey, “Every day I feel great coming to this class, knowing I’m here to aid my community, leaving my comfort zone and really becoming someone different, becoming a CHANGE!”

3) Focus on a genuine need of the school community. Increasing college access and completion is a high priority for our inner-city school, but our staff resources are stretched thin. Many of our students will be the first in their families to go to college, and need help navigating the system. This is where the PCL program comes in. It is not to say that a student-leadership program should be the sole component of an essential school need, but that it can deeply add dimension and effectiveness to a systemic effort.

4) Give students responsibility. Knowing exactly which responsibility to pass onto which student is key to our program. I had to learn about students’ strengths and interests, then match school needs with tasks that students were both interested in and had the capacity to lead.

It’s a delicate balance: setting students up for success while providing them with space to take risks. I had to be flexible as they tested their limits and strengths. And I had to identify multiple pathways to success. But they stepped up.

As one student said, “The job of teaching others about college made me more responsible and matured my way of thinking. Being in this class overall changed my perspective of what we are all capable of.”

5) Be visible. The idea of college-going is now visible at our school. It is plastered on the walls and evident in everyday conversations. A PCL recently said, “I have noticed that the culture of the school has changed with the implementation of the Peer College class in this school. I hear people talking about college and the academic life more often now than before.”

From creating posters to mentoring peers to leading college workshops with families, the PCLs have been visible in their efforts. They’ve even reached out beyond our school community: presenting to teachers and principals at a district conference, serving on a Common Core community panel, and coordinating a Community Career Day.

6) Involve enough students to make a difference. Only 25 students are PCLs. But since we are a small school of 450, the PCLs represent a third of our senior class. We involved enough students to make it cool to know about college—easily extending outward into the school population. A junior applying to be a PCL next year wrote in her application, “the word college excites me.”

7) Build Community. The PCLs designed and made group shirts and went on university field trips together, cultivating a greater sense of unity and community. In a presentation about our program, my student Steve referred to his fellow PCLs as his brothers, and to our class as a family.

8) Develop an accountability system. At the most basic level, accountability means that the future of the program—whether it will exist next year and beyond—is based on the results we produce.

PCLs hold each other accountable. Students worked together to create a rubric of follow-through, leadership, and impact. PCLs rotate point people for tasks. They create reports that detail bimonthly efforts in the areas of college awareness, visibility, community, family, and university connections. Committees lead each area, and students periodically reflect on their measurable impact on the school. Which brings us to …

9) Measure impact. We tracked success along the way: setting up some “early wins,” conducting student and family surveys and sharing results school-wide.

One student wrote that our Advisory Talks made her “look at college more carefully,” helping her to pick a college that she would want to go to. Another wrote, “They really get to us. They know what we are going through.”

Students across grade levels have won local and competitive national scholarships, due in part to the work of the PCLs. Once it became clear that tangible change was occurring, PCLs became even more engaged.

10) Celebrate success. Just as we all do, students want to see the fruits of their impact. Whether with clapping or cake (or preferably both), it is vitally important that we celebrate the success of our efforts. Our “Superstar Wall,” “College Knowledge Newsletter,” and school-wide announcements of accomplishments motivate future successes.

When the PCLs walk the stage in June, they will leave a lasting legacy of leadership: proof that students themselves can produce change through their actions. This change can be structured to maximize impact, and it can yield meaningful and tangible results that meet school needs. Though we still have a long way to go until we succeed in creating the college-going culture that we want at our school, we are on the way.

Interestingly, the most significant changes seem to be those within the lives of the students who have served as PCLs themselves for being part of this process. As one student commented, “The experience has motivated me to be someone in life to pass down the knowledge I have gained and what I will gain in the future. The experience has impacted me to pursue a career or dream that will help others in my community.”

Whatever your school situation is, it’s worth taking time to teach students to lead and involve them in the solution.