You might associate leadership first and foremost with a magnetic personal charisma or a knack for speaking on stage in front of large groups. But students at Morgan Park Academy take a broader, deeper approach.
Beyond the obvious, often innate talents is a more substantive form of leadership focused on “we” instead of “me.” This means developing the ability to assess what a group needs to function well and to help make that happen. Learning to be inclusive and receptive to other people’s ideas, to lead through encouragement and support, and to thrive working alongside all kinds of people.
“We can’t teach someone to be a natural leader,” Lower & Middle School principal Heather Kurut said, “but we can teach them the skills and work habits that leadership involves. We work to help students find their leadership niche.”
That’s how Morgan Park Academy fulfills its mission to prepare tomorrow’s global leaders to make a positive difference in the world.
With small class sizes, students of all ages have the opportunity to speak up and stand out in the classroom, on stage, and on the athletic field. Graduates emerge as confident young adults, original thinkers, and creative problem solvers. They progress into the next stages of their lives well-prepared for advanced college coursework and poised to meet and exceed the high expectations that they refined at MPA.
“An environment that doesn’t limit kids is one that creates natural opportunities for leadership,” Head of School Mercedes Z. Sheppard said. “We’re a fertile ground for leaders to grow and flourish. We’re proud to be graduating students who truly have a chance to make a positive impact on society, who know that they have a responsibility to be a member of the global society that we live in.”
Leadership development begins in the elementary grades, as students are first beginning to recognize that they have an impact on the people around them — and it can be negative or positive.
In the dining hall each day, Lower School students eat in mixed groups from various grades, led at each table by fourth- and fifth-graders who facilitate cleanup and model appropriate lunchtime behavior. A reading buddies program pairs elementary students with younger friends in early childhood.
Much of it is about setting examples. Each year, teachers talk with fourth- and fifth-graders about their role as leaders and role models now that they’re “the big kids” in Lower School. At that age, that’s a big deal.
As they move through the day from reading, math, and science to art, music, and P.E., Lower School students have ample opportunity to find their comfort zones in different areas of interest and step into leadership roles in which they can help classmates. Collaborative work and group projects begin in earnest during third grade, while fifth-graders interview for house leadership roles.
Middle School students expand their focus beyond their immediate surroundings to encompass their wider community, taking on larger service projects and tackling more complicated global ideas. Impassioned by problems that need solutions, they create, develop, and execute service projects with modest faculty guidance. Recent projects include efforts to help Syrian refugees and children waiting for adoption and to gather children’s books for donation to low-income families.
“This age is special. Students want to be involved and feel a part of something,” said Colleen Amberg, who teaches humanities classes and directs the global studies program in the Middle School.
“I think Middle School is the ideal age to capture and inspire student leaders. Students want experiences that are real and that matter. When they realize they can do something to effect change, they learn to lead.”
Students gain experience both in official roles such as student council, house leadership, and National Junior Honor Society, and in unofficial roles throughout the school day.
Kurut, who also teaches chorus, said her individual award for that group will go this year to an eighth-grader who stands out for her commitment to building an ensemble feel, being a team player, and consistently volunteering to help.
“That’s what I see as informal leadership, when students understand what the group needs to function well,” Kurut said. “They figure out how they can help that happen without yelling at other people or trying to boss them around. That’s the difference between being a boss and a leader.”
In the Upper School, faculty moderators for organizations such as Student Council, Service Council, and Diversity Council provide guidance but allow students to take the reins and make the school year their own. The annual charity dance show, Dance for Life, continues to be driven by student directors, as it has for 16 years. And last school year, Upper School thespians had such a passion for drama that they mounted a third, student-run production in addition to the usual fall and spring plays.
“It was much more traditional when I started here; the students’ roles were very limited and restricted,” said Upper School principal Tom Drahozal, a member of the MPA faculty for more than 30 years. “Within the past 10 or 12 years, that’s definitely changed.
“Students are a lot more involved in the process of shaping their school and have more chances to be leaders. It’s not just driven from the top down. We’re looking for input from all levels.”
That’s why, Drahozal says, MPA graduates are ready to fulfill their leadership potential in college and beyond.
“They’re not waiting their turn to be leaders,” he said. “They feel prepared from what they’ve done here and they’re looking for their turn to be now.”