Leadership program the pride of St. Laurence
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org December 7, 2012 5:12PM
Autographed portraits and letters from world leaders who have been written to by St. Laurence High School students are displayed in the school's Leadership Center in Burbank as students attend a leadership class Monday, November 19, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 10, 2013 6:04AM
A group of St. Laurence High School boys stand on a tarp and must figure out how to flip it over without stepping off of it.
The record is 31 seconds, but that doesn’t happen on the first attempt.
It’s an acquired skill, one learned in the leadership program at this all-boys Burbank high school.
With the belief that there is no such thing as a born leader. St. Laurence has set out to literally teach its students skills to become future leaders. Challenges like the tarp-flipping are part of the process.
As they walk the halls each day, students are visually reminded by painted slogans that St. Laurence is “where leadership begins,” and when they depart, they should “leave a leader.”
They may not be the next Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela, but they will carry a toolbox to help them succeed in college and careers, school officials believe.
Leadership is more than a class and a program at the Burbank high school — it’s a focus, a culture, a way of life that students envelop and develop, according to supporters.
“You can tell there is something different about this school,” said senior Andrew Zarnowski, of Chicago Ridge.
He has participated in the leadership program, which he said helped him grow from a “shy freshman” to a confident senior who converses easily with adults.
Others signed up for Mark Scott’s leadership class — offered twice a day — saying they did so because it is “unique” and a “really fun class.”
“Having fun and learning are not mutually exclusive,” said Scott, vice president of leadership at St. Laurence.
Miguel Perez, a senior, signed up for the class, which is offered as an elective.
“A lot of people say it is a really fun class,” he said. But they also discuss those who were not good leaders.
Michael Sanchez said it is the “most unique” class at St. Laurence.
“I’ve had experiences here like I’ve never had,” he said.
Their fellow 18 classmates in Scott’s second leadership class of the day said they like the class because it prepares them for job and college interviews, as well as for life.
“It’s a good way to approach all things in life,” Sanchez said.
They said they have learned confidence, communication skills, and how to listen, build trust and collaborate as a team.
Challenges provide foundation
A recent class offered a good example. Students voluntarily accepted “challenges” — quick tasks written on slips of paper by Scott, such as form a pyramid with six people, form a five-point star with people lying on the floor, list 10 dog breeds, name 25 faculty members or draw nine geometric shapes.
They had to complete each one in 90 seconds, with the help of any classmates they chose.
If they weren’t good at math, they enlisted those who were. Students also found value in other classmates, as they selected tall kids, small kids, and those who owned dogs to help complete their goal.
These seemingly simple and fun tasks also taught them oral, written and listening skills and the benefits of teamwork. They discovered their own strengths and weaknesses.
“They learn that they are much more powerful in a group than by themselves. Any great leader will tell you that you cannot do it by yourself,” Scott said.
But Scott doesn’t stop there. Students in his class and in the optional leadership program also learn about ethics, personal finances, how to set goals, resolve conflicts, manage resources and give speeches — essential skills in many walks of life.
According to Scott, the leadership program was inspired by St. Laurence alum and board member and Chicago business leader Tim O’Malley, who realized that businesses were in need of good leaders.
“He wanted St. Laurence to be ahead of the game,” Scott said. The school made Scott the full-time instructor, and provided space and funds to run the program, which he expands every year.
“No one can match our dedication, our commitment to this,” Scott said of St. Laurence’s focus on leadership.
Some students even decide to attend the school because of it, he said.
Trips and teamwork
In the leadership program, incoming freshmen may register for a summer field trip to Irons Oaks Adventure Center, in Olympia Fields, for an introduction to team-building activities.
Although it is optional, 80 percent of freshmen participate, Scott said.
There is an annual leadership seminar with Bradley University, and a leadership week at the high school filled with leadership-focused activities.
Program members have traveled to meet and talk to real-life leaders such as ambassador John Bruton, Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise and former Secretary of Commerce William Daley.
Students are given opportunities to put their skills to work as they serve the school as ambassadors, peer mediators and computer technicians.
With a background in graphics design, Scott relies on visuals to reinforce the leadership message.
The school adopted its motto “where leadership begins” 12 years ago, and painted it above the hallway where students pass throughout the day.
Autographed photos of those people whom students consider to be positive role models line the halls after students wrote letters requesting them. They include Phil Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Desmond Tutu, Bill Gates and Rosa Parks, to name a few.
While it’s difficult to quantify the effectiveness of the program, Scott said he has seen evidence. When upperclassmen approached him about a bullying problem they had observed among freshmen, they solved it themselves, by talking to their fellow students.
During a discussion group, a freshman student said he disagreed with Scott.
“I high-fived him afterwards for having enough confidence to say that,” Scott said. “We have to have honest discussions, and we have to listen to each other.”
St. Laurence defines a “leader” as anyone who says and does something that moves the group closer to its goal.
Sure, some people have natural talents, but anyone can learn to be a leader, Scott said.
He often uses Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps as an example.
“Phelps has hands like paddles. He was built to be a swimmer, but being an Olympian comes from the heart. It was a combination of passion and technique,” Scott said. “We are all born with certain strengths. We have to maximize them.”