Nate Wilkins remembers seeing a change after a friend attended the Delaware Valley Consortium for Excellence & Equity’s High School Leadership Institute.
When Wilkins’ friend returned from his day at the Penn GSE conference, he told Wilkins and others in a group of minority students at Lower Merion’s Harrington High School that they had to do more to support one another. The message made an impact. Wilkins and his friend started having deep conversations about the pressures they faced, and how they could push themselves to be better students and people.
This year, Wilkins, now a 10th grader, attended the High School DVCEE Leadership Institute to be inspired, with the hopes that he can inspire others.
“I wanted to learn different ways to cope with all of the difficulties I have to deal with as a young Black male,” Wilkins said.
For a decade, the one-day Middle and High School Student Leadership Institutes have been helping Greater Philadelphia area students find their voice. This year, the two conferences geared toward diverse students who may have been traditionally unrecognized as student leaders in their schools drew more than 500 students from districts in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.
“We want this to be a stepping stone for kids to grasp their own greatness,” said Dr. Robert Jarvis, Director of the DVCEE, part of Penn GSE’s Center for Educational Leadership.
“Many of these students would be first-generation college goers, and they might not be hearing much encouragement at home or school to pursue higher education. Many of their opportunities for success in school, and aspirations for college, have unfortunately, in many cases, been defined by race and class."
The institutes are designed to broaden students’ horizons, with sessions on creativity, personal expression, and reflecting on their goals and how they can accomplish them. Teachers and counselors who bring students every year say the programing works.
Past attendees have gotten involved in school government, started Black student unions, and addressed school boards. One institute alum became his high school’s first Black class president.
“Even though they are still young, I want them to understand they have a place in the world and their voice can have an impact,” said Damon Moreland, a social studies teacher who brought students from New Jersey’s Lindenwold High School. “When kids take that back to school, it can have a snowball effect.”
Most of the students who attend the institutes are doing “fine” in their schools, said Charles Baxter, an Assistant Principal at the Harris School in the Southeast Delco School District. They don’t get in trouble. Their grades are good enough. Because they aren’t problems, Baxter said, these “diamonds in the rough” don’t always receive a lot of attention or extra encouragement at school.
A trip to Philadelphia and The University of Pennsylvania for the Leadership Institute is the first time many of these students have been selected for their potential, said Denise James, at Abington Junior High Schools. It’s also the first time they have been brought together with so many peers from different schools facing similar challenges.
“At school, our kids don’t think they can stand out,” James said. “They can come here and see that it’s OK to be a leader.”
That change in perspective can change lives, James said.
“They don’t know who they are just yet,” James said. “This helps them to develop their voice.”