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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Leadership program aims to help teenagers make schools, sports more welcoming

Feb 02, 2024 10:27AM ● By Julie Slama

During a student leadership program, Canyons Director of Student Services Brian McGill speaks to student representatives from all five comprehensive high schools. (Tom Sherwood/Canyons School District)

Hillcrest High senior Brooklyn Glover is a captain of her school’s basketball team and is learning how to lead.

“It’s hard because you want to be a leader, but you also want to be a friend,” she said. “I’m learning to find that balance of leading and being a good teammate.”

She is one of about 45 students from Hillcrest who are part of Canyons School District’s new student leadership program. 

Each of Canyons’ five comprehensive high schools can invite up to 60 students to participate in the program from sports teams and activities sanctioned by the Utah High School Activities Association as well as 10 other students who may be identified as leaders or future leaders in their schools. 

Partnering with Sunlight Works, an organization that helps deliver leadership and communication tools, about 300 students meet four mornings during the school year to address topics such as school culture, sportsmanship and resilience and then discuss them in break-out sessions. They’ve heard from guest speakers such as Brighton High alumni Bryan Kehl, who, as a former NFL linebacker, talked about what it means to be a champion; and former Utah State University basketball player Brock Miller, who addressed sportsmanship and accountability.

Four other mornings, each high school group meets to take what they’ve learned in the districtwide sessions and apply it to their own school.

Canyons’ Director of High Schools Tom Sherwood is overseeing the district program, which began in September talking about school culture.

“We’re wanting students to take ownership of their school culture and collectively, identify what they value and are about, and sharing that message with their community,” he said. “We want them to be intentional about what they’re putting out there, their behaviors with their peers and on social media, the interactions they may have on the court, in a competition and with people they’re interacting with.”

In November, the students learned about sportsmanship.

“We talked about what’s OK what’s not OK, how to be positive, supportive and how these extracurricular activities are an extension of the classroom where they’re learning to be part of a team, working hard and learning how to persevere through adversity and other life lessons,” Sherwood said. “We want everyone to feel welcome and safe—whether they’re a spectator, an athlete or participant—and it’s part of their responsibility to ensure that takes place.”

In late January, the topic is slated to focus on resilience and positivity. Brighton High alumnus Todd Sylvester, who showed great promise as a basketball player only to be derailed with alcohol and drugs, will speak.

“We’re wanting to make sure our students are taking care of themselves and their own social emotional needs, having that life balance, especially when they participate in extracurricular activities or sports, because it’s tough to do it all well,” Sherwood said. “They have to stay on top of things academically and make sure that they’re mentally good, and they have time to spend with family and with friends. We’re going to go over being self-aware and developing some stress management techniques and good organizational skills and prioritization.”

Together, students and administrators will decide a topic for March.

“I think we all—the school administrators, Brian (McGill, director of student services) Rick (Robbins, superintendent) and I—just saw a need to begin this,” Sherwood said. “We can help these students see things through a different light and learn what it means to be respectful and responsible and to help take some responsibility for their school culture. We hope they can influence their peers. That’s why this isn’t meant just for seniors; we want this to carry on, year after year and help change the culture. We’ve seen a significant uptick in challenging behaviors in the last few years, post-COVID, so we want to help students make smart choices whether it’s in the classroom, athletics, music or hanging out with their friends and have them share the message with their peers. This is a great leadership opportunity.”

On months when they don’t meet together, school advisers lead discussions on the topics to focus on what they can do at their particular high school.

Hillcrest High’s Athletic Director Scott Carrell is the school’s student leadership academy adviser. He has taken workshops at conferences about student leadership academies, saying there has been “a big push across the country.”

“We want students to build a more positive culture and have students to be more involved in school,” he said. “Every school is different and has different issues, but at Hillcrest, we have a lot of students who work, so we want to find ways to involve them and have school be a positive experience. We brainstormed ways to pack the games and build a better atmosphere, one that is more inclusive with more school spirit.”

During the first meeting at the school, Carrell challenged his students, who he calls Leaders of the Pack—tying into the Husky mascot, to come up with five things they could do personally to be more inclusive at Hillcrest.

“A lot of them said they could constantly try to meet new people every day and invite them to activities, going to a game or seeing a play,” he said. “We were looking at small impacts they could do. Then, we talked about how they could take this back to their groups or teams and what they could do. We have some groups buying into this, and I’ve talked with the coaches and advisers to support this along.”

Glover said they’ve taken that brainstorming into motivating their peers to become involved or attend school functions and games.

“A lot of people know Hillcrest for the arts, so now we’re trying to support each other to play or come to the games,” she said. “We want to get rid of high school cliques and build community and have fun.” 

The program might still be in its infancy, but Carrell is optimistic.

“I feel it is working,” he said. “It’s going to take us a year or two to get it implemented where it’s the norm. Hillcrest already is welcoming and inclusive, but we can build more on that. This was something that I wanted to do on a school level, but I think at the district level, we’re not seeing as much involvement in school activities. I don’t know why. I feel this program can help us a lot and we want to have opportunities for our students, and we want them to be positive.”

Carrell also said they break into groups to discuss situations and how, as leaders, they would handle the situation.

“We help them develop some leadership skills that will benefit them with their teams or club, but also, ultimately they’re learning skills that will not just help them in high school, but after high school,” he said.

Sherwood agrees.

“The kids have genuinely felt they are learning something,” he said. “It’s been good to learn and get tips from different schools. We’re all in this together, and we’re here to learn. This, already, has been a game-changer.” λ