Over much of the past couple of decades, DeSoto County has been known for its rapid population growth. It’s seen with schools spread across the county and in its municipalities, including eight high schools.
And in such a large geographic area, those students don’t have an opportunity to get to know each other, other than maybe when they compete in sports. But eight years ago a benefactor approached DeSoto County Schools with the desire to start something new for the district. The leadership saw an opportunity to bring the students from across the county together, and the Superintendent Youth Leadership Council was born.
The council is a two-year program that accepts two juniors from each of the county’s eight high schools. It’s meant to bring students together from across the district to interact and learn from each other.
Students come together twice a month to study a curriculum led by a facilitator. They’re also encouraged to gather on their own.
Schools play no role in selecting the students. In fact, students who are interested in being part of the leadership organization are encouraged to pick up an application packet in each school’s respective guidance counselor’s office. Students nominate themselves, and an outside group of community business leaders select the finalists.
In fact, all names and identifying features are removed from the application package.
“The only thing we do is announce over the intercom that it’s a leadership organization and if they’re interested in applying to pick up a packet,” said Emily Nelson, executive director of the Leadership Development office for DeSoto County Schools. “They’re putting up a hand and saying, ‘You know, I think I’m a leader and want to know more about how to be a good leader.’ There are a lot of kids out there with leadership potential but maybe they’ve not explored it or have something put on that desire to let it blossom.”
Typically there are 10 to 15 applicants per school. Many times, Nelson said, the application process is the first time many of the students have the opportunity to write a resume. They also include a description of a service project they’d like to accomplish. The application process also includes two informal letters of recommendation from teachers.
“It’s designed to give judges the opportunity to see how they think,” Nelson said. “After three judges are finished we look at the scores and rank by school.”
The top two from each school is chosen, making up a yearly class of 16 high school juniors.
“They are an eclectic bunch,” Nelson said. “We’ve had valedictorians, students who are not good students but captain of a football team. Every race, every financial level.”
In fact, race, grades and financial background information isn’t included in the application.
The idea for the program came when a small group came together to offer up ideas for what they’d do with a major financial donation. Nelson, who takes care of spotlight programs and academic competitions for the district, said it was music to her ears. She works to help students find ways to discover themselves, she said.
“We said we’d like to put together something to have kids across the district meet together and develop leadership,” she recalled. “We then pulled into the leadership element financial literacy. It was probably a weakness, and we recognize that. We wanted our kids to think about leadership from financial literacy.”
Students have curriculum they follow over the course of the two years that teach leadership and financial literacy. The first is centered on the book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens.” Students have assignments to examine win-win and win-lose situations.
Students also discuss politics. Speakers representing the local board of supervisors and mayors present to the group. There also is a road trip to Jackson, Mississippi, to witness the state legislature in session. The students also meet some of the attorneys in the state Attorney General’s office where many eyes are opened to the realities of “political” careers.
“A lot of ambitious kids want to be politicians but don’t realize those jobs are few and far between,” Nelson said.
A visit to one of the state’s universities also happens in the first year. But possibly a favorite is a long weekend in Washington where the students meet with members of U.S. Congress and tour the Capitol building.
In the second year of the program, the focus is centered on the book, “Rich Dad Poor Dad for Teens: The Secrets about Money,” which teaches the students how to save and invest well.
“It helps kids look at wealth in that way, especially from a strong entrepreneurial perspective,” Nelson said.
Guest speakers during the senior year include bankers and stockbrokers. Tours of local businesses follow. There also is a trip to New York City where students tour Wall Street and get a closer understanding of the heartbeat of the financial world.
The students are surveyed at the end of the year and some interesting facts are discovered. Often times it’s the first time many of them have flown on an airplane and sometimes is the first time to attend an overnight trip with a multiracial group.
The students contribute financially to the trips both years, but Nelson said the organization works to make sure it’s not a financial burden for anyone. In fact, she said the biggest part of the annual $30,000 needed to make the program work goes to pay for the two trips.
New funding is needed if the program is to continue past this academic year. Nelson said the hope is to come up with a group of benefactors that can come up with the $30,000 that’s needed to keep it running each year.
Ultimately, she said, the dream is to grow with wild card entrants of students that could take it past the 16 current students. For now, though, she’ll stick to the 16 if the $30,000 annual funding can be secured.
“We need benefactors who like the idea of a self-nominated group that has members of the business community who donate time to judge,” Nelson said. “The only thing they have in common is they’re brave enough to say, ‘I want to be a leader.’ That’s where it starts. It’s been so wonderful to see this group of students come together.”
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