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Sasha Au Yong delved into research on Parkinson’s disease and published a children’s book called Something’s Different about Grandpa.Alex Franklin/The Globe and Mail

Sasha Au Yong took on her school’s leadership challenge at Pickering College when she was in Grade 11, and now she has a story to tell.

Ms. Au Yong, who graduated from the Newmarket, Ont., private school in 2021, delved into research on Parkinson’s disease as a participant in Pickering’s schoolwide Global Leadership Program. That led to her writing and illustrating a children’s book called Something’s Different about Grandpa, earning her a grant from the school to publish her first run.

“My character learns that sometimes the little things you can do to help the person with Parkinson’s, or the family, can make a big difference,” says Ms. Au Yong, now studying graphic arts and journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University.

“We want our students to believe in themselves and learn that they can make a difference, too,” explains Julia Hunt, Pickering’s senior director of strategic innovation.

Instilling leadership skills is a high priority for private schools across Canada. While the programming may vary from school to school, educators agree that the real learning comes not just in the classroom, but when students acquire the ability to collaborate and lead.

“To be honest, we’re doubling down on ensuring that all our students have leadership fundamentals at an advanced level so that they can apply them, both now and in the future, to some of the big issues of our time,” says John Wray, head of school at Mulgrave School in Vancouver.

He lists the big issues for his students as climate change, political polarization, conflict resolution, and living with automation and digitalization.

“It’s easy to focus on glitzy new programs and electives, and we have lot of them. But actually, what’s most important is to prepare students to manage their own well-being. We want them to be equipped to thrive in a more diverse, equitable and inclusive world, to be digitally and media literate, to be critical thinkers and problem solvers and to have communication and collaboration skills,” he says.

Ms. Hunt notes that at Pickering, “we believe in our leadership program so strongly that we have every student participate, from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

“The outcomes are different at different ages, of course, but it’s all geared to develop students who are innovative, creative and compassionate global citizens who take action.”

Pickering offers enhanced Global Leadership Diplomas that students can earn in addition to their regular secondary school diploma, based on taking on projects such as the one Ms. Au Yong worked on, doing community service and completing a credit course in global leadership.

The school’s high-school level students are also invited to pitch their leadership projects to a panel that provides grants, such as the $1,000 Ms. Au Yong received to publish her children’s book. Pickering’s younger students start their leadership education through a series of challenges and projects that culminate with delivering a “My Key Idea” speech at the end of Grade 5.

In Sherbrooke, Bishop’s College School teaches leadership by having every one of its 275 students participate in its cadet leadership program.

“It’s a long tradition, and it really kind of stands out. Our program began in 1861 and it’s the longest cadet corps program in the country,” says Michel Lafrance, Bishop’s head of school.

“The program is based on teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking and communication. It is mostly student-run, by the senior students, with a few adults overseeing the program. The students learn to work together and work out problems themselves,” he says.

Throughout the school year, students at Bishop’s take part in activities that push them out of their comfort zones – marching, hiking, archery, zip lining, orienteering, traversing a high ropes course, camping survival skills and team building games.

The cadet program also enables Bishop’s students to work toward the skill component of the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award, and all students get trained by St. John Ambulance in emergency first aid.

“Our students go off to university and beyond and apply the leadership skills they learned here. Our alumni say the skills they acquire here apply to all kinds of different areas,” he says.

At Mulgrave School in Vancouver, students learn leadership through an entrepreneurial program that has them collaborate on solving the kinds of problems that come up regularly in the real world, Mr. Wray says.

“Our entrepreneurial courses allow students to apply the skills they learn in their other courses. More and more, the issues they face are related to the social and environmental side of entrepreneurial issues. They learn not just how to lead, but how to be accountable,” he says.

Ultimately, the goal of teaching leadership is to have students leave with strong values, Pickering College’s Ms. Hunt says.

“Our school is founded by Quakers, and we teach Quaker values – simplicity, peace, integrity, equality, compassion and stewardship of resources. These values help students become good leaders,” she says.

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