Eye-Opening Peer Leadership Evening for Parents and Students:
Eye-Opening Peer Leadership Evening for Parents and Students:

Student Leadership Programs at PDS Create Distinctive, Breakthrough Community Impact

When it's time for high school, most students and their parents look at the road ahead with a strong mix of excitement and fear. The range of pressures and decisions students are faced with can be daunting at this time of life both in and out of school. For several years, Head of School Paul Stellato has been on a mission to ensure that the student community actively embraces the mission and ethical values of the School. One of the chief areas of his focus: prioritizing comprehensive and sought-after leadership development for students across all divisions designed to emphasize positive values, behaviors, decision-making and mentorship.

This week's Peer Leadership evening for Upper School parents and students exemplifies the best in student-led community-building at PDS. Director of Wellness Services Dr. Candy Shah, who was tasked with a leading role in coordinating leadership programming, is eager to share about the School's distinctive and highly intentional student leadership efforts. "Student leadership at PDS is probably one of the biggest mission skills we try to impart in our students to prepare them for the world beyond graduation," notes Dr. Shah.

Building consistent, complete training for positive student leadership across PDS

"Our program development focuses on how to hone and practice and excel through positive leadership competencies. What we are doing at PDS is truly distinctive and unique," she explains, "and we continue to build on our successes." She adds, "Our goal is consistent and complete training and leadership approaches, whether or not you're a student government member, on an athletic team, part of any affinity or cultural group, or a member of our peer group programs."

PDS leadership programming strength was in evidence this year even before September, as PDS students in peer-to-peer mentorship, student government, athletics, affinity groups and cultural clubs across Grades 9-12 set the stage for efforts throughout 2018-19. August activities included the Peer Group and Bridges Leadership Retreat (at a camp in PA), student-athlete participation in the "Panthers Are" character program, Student Council strategy meetings with Dr. Monroe and the Anti-Defamation League's "A World of Difference" Institute training and follow-up for student leaders. These programs touch many different groups, grades and interests in the Upper School and demonstrate not only a commitment to giving students opportunities to lead, but to providing the tools and training ensuring their success and growth as leaders.

"The Peer Leadership Program is our signature program, receiving an impressive number of applications annually from our students" Dr. Shah states. "The 18 seniors selected each year embody the diversity of experience, the depth of training and also the expectation that all of our student leaders need to work hard to be their best selves," she notes. The Senior Peer leaders are paired with groups of freshman students and participate in a full year of meetings and activities designed to create connections, impart leadership skills and foster positive community culture.

An evening of scenarios, fishbowl discussion groups and feedback

Freshman parents came out in force last night to see what Peer Group leadership is all about at Princeton Day School. Parents of freshman -- and parents of seniors in the program, along with their children, began the evening in McAneny Theater. There, Peer leaders enacted several role-play scenarios with humor and genuine insight into the high school environment's challenges and today's family dynamics.

Next, they moved to classroom spaces segmented into multiple "fishbowl" groups, which featuring peer leadership in action while also allowing freshman parents and their children opportunities to observe, reflect and ask questions without the other present. (Parents of seniors observed their own children in their roles as Peer Leaders.) Questions typically range from academic honesty, stress and anxiety, to high-risk behaviors, school culture and fitting in – key issues confronting 9th graders everywhere. Peer Leaders answer questions with 'I" stories to help parents and students understand how they work through their own journeys.

The evening ended back in the theater at about 9pm with an opportunity to hear feedback about how attendees felt about the information that was shared. Peer leaders encouraged families to continue ongoing conversations at home. By all accounts, it was an invaluable evening of growth and enhanced appreciation for each PDS family in attendance. As Dr. Shah notes, "This experience offers unique resources and a slice of life that perhaps our parents don't see so transparently in their own family situations. It's also a little bit of a look into the future and the leadership in action their students may embody as they journey through Upper School at PDS."

US teacher Tom Quigley sums up leadership at PDS this way: "The goal is for all of us to mentor leaders with vision, integrity and compassion every day. As a Peer Leadership Group faculty advisor, it's clear that the best part of the Peer Leadership experience is that the seniors are working with 9th graders for a large chunk of the year looking to learn from them. Their goal when the freshmen walk across the threshold each week is to connect, motivate and figure out what it takes for these kids to develop trust and respect them." Quigley's role as a Peer Group advisor is a critical component of the program, along with fellow Peer Group faculty advisors Jill Thomas, Michelle Simonds and Jamie McCollough.

Congratulations to PDS senior Peer Leaders Gwen Allen, Samuel Bernardi, Madeline Birch, Benjamin Blitz, David Coit, Walter Emann, Flynn Gorman, Jake Harris, Zoe Jackson, Kelsey Lane, Margaret Laughlin, Connor McIntyre, James O'Connor, Rakesh Potluri, Nashleen Salazar Rodriguez, Sasha Sindhwani, Aidan York and Hailey Young for your positive leadership in action. -Melanie Shaw

Photos: Senior Peer Leaders sharing with parents and students in McAneny Theater; role-play scenarios performed by Peer Leaders involved peer pressure, academic honesty and family communication themes.