“I guess I’m a loser,” 16-year old Michael told me when I asked why he was going to drop out, “and school is a waste of time.” Needless to say I was disturbed by his decision, but even more so by his self-assessment of being a loser. I shared with him my own experiences in high school and the fact that I too had failed, but then turned it around and became a leader. “I’m no leader,” he retorted and soon after dropped out. That got me thinking about the potential role of leadership development for at-risk youth. I concluded that it was one of the most important, yet often neglected, factors in motivating these students to reach their maximum potential. I needed to do something about it, but first I needed to think differently.
Since the release of my book I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with various groups across the country, including school district leaders, principals, teachers, and troubled students. During one of my visits to a high school, I met a principal with a problem. He had a dropout prevention program that wasn’t working. He couldn’t get his at-risk students to show up for counseling, or to show any interest at all in being helped. Michael popped into my head. I needed to think differently. I suggested a radical change—transform the dropout prevention program into a leadership program, target at-risk students, and make it invite-only. He agreed to try it and we hatched a plan.
Nearly a hundred students were invited to join a new leadership committee. The students were all potential dropouts, due mainly to high absences. The staff worked hard to “rebrand” the program from yet-another-don’t-drop-out lecture to a unique and special opportunity. The key to making this work, I advised, was that the selected students were joining the committee not to help themselves, but to help other struggling students. They would be the team that would help reshape their school and possibly even their entire district. Their input was needed, because the adversity they had experienced brought with it unique perspectives that couldn’t be found elsewhere. It did not matter whether they had actually overcome their adversity yet, just experiencing it was enough. They were important.
Official invitations to the first meeting were hand-delivered to each student by the principal himself. We used the term “leader” a lot, as I believe that most kids respond well to leadership and want to become leaders at something. Nearly every kid I knew at my old urban school wanted to one day run their own business, a sure sign of leadership ambition. But life has dealt many of these kids a Joker and they just haven’t figured out how to play that hand yet. So when we approached these students to help us start a leadership movement, most were in shock. People just didn’t think about them like that.
Over the following week the new leadership committee was hyped by teachers and staff and had created quite a buzz. This was going to be more than just a one-time brainstorming session, but rather a group that met on a regular basis, worked collaboratively, and affected real change. This was a rare opportunity and it was our hope that it would begin to transform the mentality of the students from “losing” to leading.
The program launch took place in the school’s media center and surprisingly nearly every student invited showed up. There were multiple tables with a moderator (assistant principal, guidance counselor, teacher, etc.) at each. The principal thanked the students for being a part of the new leadership team and told them they had an opportunity to impact the world here, one school at a time. He then introduced me and I engaged them for 20 minutes about opportunities and the future. Given my own background, and subsequent turnaround, they instantly related to me and seemed inspired. “If this guy can do it, then I can too,” they surmised.
When I finished, the students were then asked by their table moderator to fill out a one-page information sheet about themselves with very specific questions. Then it was their turn to talk. Simultaneously, each moderator went around their respective table and asked the students to share their personal stories. They talked about the problems they had and potential solutions for those who may have similar issues. Because this was for others, the students let loose, relating stories of poverty, abuse, neglect, apathy, peer-pressure, and bullying. It often got emotional and tears were not uncommon for the kids and the adults.
It turns out the students were very creative. During the meeting the principal, and a visiting Area Superintendent, spent time at each table listening and praising good ideas. It was clear that something special was occurring. The same students who wouldn’t show up for counseling or, if they did, would simply shut down, were now emphatically engaged. They were so intent on helping others that it never occurred to them how much they were now allowing us to help them as well. Or maybe deep down they did know and this was a cry for help that this leadership format made socially acceptable.
Either way the committee was a success. The teachers and staff began to think about at-risk students differently and the kids knew it. They suddenly felt inspired, motivated, valued, and respected. Many started to attend school more regularly and even recruited other struggling students to join the cause. They were being listened to by the highest authorities they knew. They had a purpose. A voice. Everything had changed. I often think back to Michael and how different our conversation might have been had he been exposed to a culture of leadership like this. I believe he would have succeeded because he was smart, just lost. Because he was unique, just invisible. But mostly because he would have invariably helped himself through the helping of others— the very hallmark of a leader, not a loser.
This is a reprint of my original article originally published in Education Week in July 2015.