“The leadership class has made it popular not to pick on the freshmen, but to mentor and model decency to them,” said Eric Phillips, athletic director and teacher at CHS. “It has really caught on and been a great experience. The freshmen are no longer afraid of the upperclassmen.”
Leadership students complete service projects on and off campus, run tailgating parties at school, encourage team spirit, and mentor incoming freshmen as well as fifth-grade students at Mayfield Elementary school.
“Our main focus right now is to work on respect for adults in the building, and these students’ peers,” said Zach Riggins, assistant principal at Mayfield.
Ten boys and 10 girls from fifth grade, called little buddies, are matched with CHS leadership students. A weekly lesson is given every week by the older students.
“We are seeing huge benefits from these lessons,” Riggins said. “This is not only in the students’ behavior, but in their demeanors. They are looking me in the eyes and shaking my hand in the morning.”
Little buddies get to spend about an hour with the leadership students every week. They learn a lesson and then eat lunch with their big buddies.
“One thing Eric really picked up on was the kids had a tendency to pick on each other. They have really put a focus on building each other up, versus tearing each other down,” Riggins said. “We are showing them building each other up builds your respect level, too.”
Riggins said he is excited about the program and hopes to see it grow.
“We want to instill in these students a true sense of future,” Riggins said. “I’m really hoping their attitudes and their work in this will bleed into their academic world.”
Three years ago, this program did not exist. A change began when Principal Autumn O’Bryan appointed Phillips as the new Leadership I teacher. Only seniors were permitted to take the course.
Phillips began by pouring the principles of leadership into his students. These included service, self-awareness, and self-reflection among others. The class soon branched out into service-learning assignments.
“William Lamb at Lee University’s Leonard Center has been instrumental in teaching me service learning is not community service, but learning while you serve,” Phillips said.
This lesson was in turn learned by his senior leadership class. Students studied leadership principles and practicing them through community service. Students were taught to reflect on their service and learn from their experiences.
Leadership I expanded to include students from all grade levels. Phillip’s original seniors pointed out another change needed to be made. Incoming freshmen needed a helping hand — specifically from the upperclassmen who ruled the school.
“[Students said] ‘Coach, when we were freshmen we used to eat lunch in the bathroom. We were in the fourth lunch with mostly seniors. There was just this sea of people and it was overwhelming. ... We need a mentor program for the freshmen,’” Phillips recalled.
Phillips created Leadership II to host the freshmen mentoring program. The course also served to continue the budding leadership of students in Leadership I. Only students who apply themselves in Leadership I are chosen for the next level.
“I warned them this class would take them so far out of their comfort zone. It is not about them, it is about serving others,” Phillips said. “I said if you are in here because of some popularity contest, or because it will look good on your college resume, then get out.”
Incoming freshmen are placed in gender-specific homeroom classes called Connections. Approximately 400 freshmen began school at CHS this year. There is one junior or senior Leadership II student for each homeroom. They give a weekly lesson to their freshmen Connections class.
The same juniors and seniors can be seen wearing green shirts the first week of school. These green shirts let freshmen know who to go to for directions around the school.
“They are high-fiving freshmen and eating with them the first week of school,” Phillips said. “They make sure the freshmen have a group of friends around them.”
Students in Phillips’ leadership class then cited a new problem.
“They said, ‘Coach, some of these new folks are transfers and do not know anyone. These other guys at least have friends they know from middle school.’”
A new Raider Outreach program began for new students from other school systems.
“Anytime a new student comes to school we introduce them to a leadership student. The leadership student will then take them to their first class and meet them between each class change to go to their next one,” Phillips said. “The leadership student will also eat lunch with them and meet them in the library before school the next day. They will exchange numbers and the leadership student will be there for the new student.”
All new students to Cleveland High receive a CHS bag and a sports schedule.
“[Leadership students] are going to be graded for it, but they don’t do it for that. They do it because they take pride in serving,” Phillips said.
Leadership students complete service projects on and off campus. They run tailgate parties before games and encourage school spirit. Phillips’ students are constantly seeing new ways to help others in their school and within the Cleveland community.
“Brenda Lawson spoke to our class and asked for their help in attaining more diapers for her DiaperLove program,” Phillips said.
Brainstorming led to the creation of a diaper drive competition between CHS and Bradley Central High School. Leadership students promoted the cause and asked local elementary schools to get involved. Arnold Elementary raised $681 through their Dimes for Diapers competition.
A total of 11,867 diapers were raised by Cleveland students. Phillips is proud of his students. He is also looking to expand the leadership program to include a third year course. Students looking to “major” in leadership will need to take all three years.
“I said if I am going to do this, then I don’t want to prepare our top leadership students who are going off to college,” Phillips said. “I want to prepare our ninth-, 10th-, 11th- and 12-graders so we can enjoy that leadership for four years.”