MADISON TOWNSHIP -- From a global pandemic to renewed conversations about racial injustice, the summer of 2020 was a challenging and intense time.
Students have returned to school, again diving into topics like history, science and math. Except now, a select group of Madison high schoolers have a new subject on their class schedule -- leadership.
The students are part of a new leadership and diversity training cohort run by Unlimited Potential for Achievement (UPA), a consulting firm out of Columbus. Students had their first meeting last month with UPA founder Renée Thompson and Phil Mazzocco, an associate professor of psychology at the Ohio State University Mansfield.
Principal Sean Conway hopes the training will equip students to model the skills they learn to the larger student body.
“This is definitely something that we all believe in. And we think it could have a positive impact on our students and our school community as a whole,” Conway said.
There are about 25 students enrolled in the training program. At the end of the school year, administrators will decide if it's something they want to continue to offer in the future.
Students in the cohort have wide-ranging interests, from sports and clubs to music and academics, but all were identified by school administrators as leaders in their peer group.
“Often times kids are identified as a leader within their group, but what are people doing to actually build leadership capacity within those children?" said Scott Musser, director of career-technical education. "I think that this is one effort that we're taking to kind of raise the bar for what it means to be a leader in Madison."
Over the course of the school year, students will learn about different leadership styles and how to lean into their own strengths.
“We want to try to convince the students that there's not just one kind of leader. There's diversity in leadership too,” Mazzocco said. “All of these students have diverse motivations and personality characteristics and they can leverage their diversity to be any kind of leader they'd like to be. Ideally, these students will turn their passions into leadership opportunities and help to lead us all into the next several decades in these chaotic times.”
Leaders don't just come on the scene, Thompson noted.
"They need to be cultivated; they need to be nurtured,” Thompson said. “They need to be able to recognize skills so they can strengthen those skills even more. We hope that we're a catalyst to be able to do that.”
The training will also focus on how diversity can be a resource, rather than a source of division. Students will learn about how to identify and overcome implicit biases.
Implicit biases are subconscious beliefs about a group of people. People aren’t typically aware of their own implicit biases, but everyone has them -- it’s just a part of being human. We form implicit biases based on our experiences and exposure to media and culture.
“When you confuse implicit and explicit (conscious) biases, it creates this impression that if I have an implicit bias, I'm a bad person. And so it's a topic where there's a bit of shame and avoidance and resistance,” Mazzocco said. “But the consensus scientifically is we all have these biases, largely we're not at fault for them. The choice you have once you realize that you have a bias is to do something about it, because you can counteract these biases.
“We know that these implicit biases can have real world impacts on the way we perceive people, the way we interact with others, decisions we make. Just because these biases are subconscious doesn't mean they don't have real world impacts.”
Thompson and Mazzocco also hope to give students tools for critical thinking and meaningful debate.
“It would be like icing on the cake to me, if we could get young people to really think about -- ‘I can disagree with you without being disagreeable. I could debate with you and that doesn't make you a bad person because you disagree with me,’” Thompson said.
School administrators agreed these skills are especially crucial for high school students.
“There's a very divisive political climate out there. Our goal is to be proactive and kind of address these issues that they're seeing on TV, in the hallways or out in public, and have good conversation and grow from it,” Conway said.
“The goal is not always to change everyone's mind, but I think it's to teach mutual respect amongst everybody. We're never going to agree on everything, but at the same time, learning opposing sides and respecting each other I think is something that's sometimes missing in society, and that's something that I think we want to bring to this.”
Students can take their differences, and then put them together for the greater common good, Musser sad.
"That's really where the magic starts to happen. I think that that's really what our goal is. It's not to change people's minds or their political views or anything like that. What we're trying to do is get the students to come together in a cohesive student body," Musser said.