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Supporting Student and Teacher Leadership Across Grade Levels: A Guide for Principals
Many principals support student leadership in various ways, such as student government and community service clubs. However, not all principals consider how to involve students in important decisions about their learning environment and community.
Julie Scott, the principal of R.L. Wright Elementary School in Kansas, has made it a priority to create authentic student leadership opportunities. By fostering collaboration among students of different grade levels and connecting them with adults and elders in their school and town, Scott has created a dynamic culture of leadership at R.L. Wright. This dedication earned the school a prestigious National Blue Ribbon School designation in 2022.
I recently spoke with Scott to learn more about her approach to building empowered relationships among teachers, parents, and students. She emphasized the importance of meaningful connections and the impact they can have on leadership and learning.
BRITTANY COLLINS: What accomplishment are you most proud of as a school leader?
JULIE SCOTT: I am incredibly proud of my staff and the direct result they have on everything we do at our small district of 500 students. When I first joined Sedgwick, teachers and parents expressed a need for early learning. After analyzing various data sets, we opened a pre-K program in the first year of the Covid pandemic.
We also introduced a parent-teacher program that focuses on children from birth to three years old. Parent educators visit homes once or twice a month, providing developmental milestones and discussing any concerns parents may have. They also engage the children with activities. This program is available to all without any qualifications or costs.
Additionally, I established a principal advisory team based on recommendations from teachers. This team, which initially met monthly, has now evolved into a student council. By involving students in decision-making, we have implemented changes such as selecting quotes to be displayed throughout the building and fundraising for a new playground. The community even participated in building the playground, fostering a sense of collaboration and ownership.
COLLINS: What kind of projects has the principal advisory team or student council worked on?
SCOTT: The students have been involved in various projects. For example, they selected quotes to be displayed throughout the school building, actively participated in planning and fundraising for a new playground, and even organized a community-wide event to build the playground together. These initiatives have provided valuable learning experiences for the students, and some continue to be active in student leadership as they move on to middle school.
COLLINS: How have you connected student leaders with the local community?
SCOTT: We have collaborated with our senior citizen center by having our high school student council serve breakfast to senior citizens once a month. This year, our elementary students will also participate in serving breakfast. This effort aims to bridge the gap between student leadership and the wider community.
COLLINS: How do you facilitate connections between students across different grade levels?
SCOTT: We have implemented a program called “champ leaders,” which pairs older students with younger ones in a mentorship role. This program provides positive connections for students who may benefit from additional support. High school students also have opportunities to assist in the elementary school, and we have a program called “FAB” (Family Activity Builders) where each adult staff member is assigned a family group consisting of students from every grade level. These groups meet monthly to engage in non-academic activities and foster meaningful relationships.
COLLINS: How do you promote collaboration among teachers across different grade levels?
SCOTT: When I started, I noticed that teachers felt isolated and lacked time for professional learning. I decided to prioritize collaboration and team-building activities. We organize regular professional development days with small challenges that accumulate throughout the year. We also have friendly competitions between teachers, such as a Great Cookie Bake-Off, which fosters camaraderie and trust. Additionally, we have established professional learning communities where teachers can explore topics of interest and share ideas and practices.
COLLINS: Who has influenced your passion for leadership?
SCOTT: My high school basketball coach played a significant role in inspiring me. She would begin each practice with a quote and encourage us to reflect on its meaning. This experience taught me the power of meaningful conversations and deep reflection. She instilled in us a love for being reflective leaders. Her name is Jean Gibbs.
COLLINS: Speaking of quotes, is there one that particularly inspires you?
SCOTT: One quote that has resonated with me and my third graders is: “Those who think they can, and those who think they can’t, are absolutely right.” It serves as a reminder of the power of mindset and belief in oneself.
This interview has been edited for brevity, clarity, and flow.