DVCEE Leadership Institutes encourage students to speak up

March 3, 2023
A teacher – a Black man with a trimmed beard in a white shirt and tie – sits facing the camera. He is at a table during a breakout session. He is smiling animatedly and speaking with a small, diverse group of students. Similar groups working at other tables are slightly out of focus in the background.

Upper Merion Area High School hosted the 2023 Middle and High School Student Leadership Institutes earlier this month. More than 700 student leaders and educators from 25+ Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey districts attended.

Now in its 19th year, the event is organized by the Delaware Valley Consortium for Equity and Excellence, a project of Penn GSE’s Coalition for Educational Equity.

The training program was designed to help young leaders realize their full potential, according to Tomea Sippio-Smith, the Coalition's new director.

“Every child is entitled to a high-quality education that addresses their needs and nurtures their talents. This event empowers students to build upon their strengths, encourages them to strive for success, and provides them with tools to take concrete steps to make it happen."

Participants chose sessions aligned with their goals and learned techniques for accomplishing them, including how to speak up effectively. High schoolers, for example, were asked to focus on real-world issues that were important to them, then taught to use new information to think critically and innovatively about solutions and to collaborate with other students from across the region to address those problems. Middle School students learned about mental health, how to express themselves with poetry and how to leverage social media. Educators attended sessions on how to support and amplify student voices.

The Consortium again partnered with youth engagement company CoolSpeak to conduct many of the workshops. Carlos Ojeda Jr., CoolSpeak’s CEO, said listening to students is more critical than ever before.

"One thing became abundantly clear: the voices of the students we serve have been muted by the pandemic,” he said. “As behavioral issues increased and a feeling of apathy has set in, this is not the time for increased discipline or punishment, but a time for healing, resetting of school culture and re-igniting inspiration.”

Students at the Leadership Institute enjoying a presentation

Another upside to the conference: the sessions were led by a diverse group of professionals – an experience some students might not typically have in their own districts. Sippio-Smith said that many high school students thought increasing the number of teachers of color in their schools was a project they wanted to tackle together. 

Isabelle, an eighth grader who attended, said she was “pleasantly surprised by how inspiring and amazing” the event was.

“This is an event that I wish more students were able to attend! It is very rewarding to witness students journey through building their confidence to find their voices and create meaningful change,” added another attendee, Whitney Howard, a counselor at Upper Merion High School.