Bright Idea: Leadership Programs Enable Middle Schoolers to Make Their Mark

Photograph of young people in front of Lisbon Central School.

Two years ago, a Connecticut seventh-grader named Peter helped his community’s senior citizens through a treacherous winter. A member of Lisbon Central School’s “student ambassador” program, which places students on local civic committees, Peter was serving on Lisbon’s Commission on Aging. When the group became stumped about the best material for melting ice, Peter researched options, enlisted his classmates to throw a fundraiser, and before long, orchestrated a communitywide effort to hand-deliver free snow removal kits to Lisbon’s senior citizens.

Steve Brown, director of service learning at Lisbon Central School, says the student ambassador program proves 12- to 14-year-olds aren’t too young to give back. “In movies, TV, everywhere, we’re told how obnoxious this age group is,” Brown says. “But the community response to the kids’ participation has been extremely positive. Board members have called to tell me how much they appreciate the youth input.”

More importantly, serving alongside adults has given youth a chance to increase their self-esteem and learn about their community. “Sometimes they say, ‘Oh this is so boring,’ or ‘That meeting lasted forever,’ but generally they love the drama,” Brown says.  “They come to know these issues and understand why adults are passionate about them. They’re asked for their opinions. Imagine being 13 and having adults take such an interest in your ideas.”

Here are tips for involving middle-school-aged youth in a communitywide leadership program:

Invite youth to prove themselves as leaders. The Central School’s service-learning staff choose youth from a pool of written applications, and the boys and girls are given membership seats on various committees, including parks and recreation, education and finance. To prevent hurt feelings, the Central School has also set up a school committee on dances and events for those youth who aren’t immediately chosen for the ambassador program.

Lead the way with your own board. “We took students on our service-learning committee first,” Brown says. “We had to change our ways, as well, and found that it worked.”

Match youth with the right organizations. Brown attends board meetings with two or three student ambassadors, where they make a presentation and let the board decide if they want to participate in the leadership program. “If they say yes, I go back to the school and the committee pores over the applications to find the best match between the kids and the organization, usually based on the kids’ interests.” Making a good match ensures that youth get the most out of the program.

Assign an “interpreter.” Once the Central School committee finds students to sit on a given board, Brown says, “I go back to another meeting, introduce the kids, and then leave.” Board members and youth are largely allowed to build their own relationships, but he remains, in his words, an “interpreter” between students and board members, helping explain adult topics to youth and addressing sensitive issues, like behavior, that adults might bring up. 

Recognize—and respect—everyone’s responsibilities. The Central School program works because students, board members and school staff all trust one another to uphold their piece. “I tell the boards that we expect the students to be listened to and treated as equals, but then also make it clear to the kids that they’re expected to participate and come to every meeting,” says Brown. “And I remain open to anyone, adult or student, who has a complaint or thinks we can improve the program.”

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