Skip to main content

Rohan Nuttall is the Executive Director for Student Voice Initiative Canada, the Vice-Curator for the World Economic Forum Global Shapers Vancouver Hub, a TD Scholar, and a first-year student at the University of British Columbia.

"As one who serves." This is the motto of Strathcona Composite High School, the Albertan secondary school that raised $360,000 for charity in just five weeks — breaking the fund raising record for any high school in the country (according to figures from the Canadian Student Leadership Conference). Dubbed the Treehouse Project, Strathcona students spent an entire school year planning a campaign that will support organizations working to alleviate poverty both in the City of Edmonton and the heart of the Ecuadorian rainforest.

For more than seven years, the school has built an impressive portfolio of community initiatives ranging from financing schools for youth affected by HIV in rural Africa, human-trafficking awareness, micro-loans, water sanitation, and the provision of robust bicycles to isolated regions around the world. With a net philanthropic impact of close to $1-million, the question is germane: how on earth can a school of 1,400 students build such a strong culture of giving and leadership?

Amidst increasing pressures on today's young people to be entrepreneurial, ethical and engaged citizens, it is no surprise that superintendents, principals and teachers across the country are looking at Strathcona's Leadership Program as a model for their own. As an alumni, it did not take long for me to appreciate the immense teaching talent, unique pedagogical approach and exceptional commitment to societal improvement that the school's reputation boasts.

Tom Yonge and Jane Grant are the two leadership co-ordinators at the school. Together, they have managed to boost participation in the program from 23 students (in 2007) to more than 450 today. Mr. Yonge states the primary reason behind the growth as being simply responding to "the students' natural needs for enjoyment of community and connection." Recognizing that students desire an opportunity to interact with their peers at a deeper level beyond social cliques, the two teachers have developed a class model that utilizes experiential community service projects as a conduit for fostering intimate relationships, powerful skill sets and compassionate minds. However, activating a youth's underlying appetite for engagement and civic participation must of course go far beyond a syllabus. Perhaps the nebulous concept of leadership is to blame in this case. Not everyone is comfortable with the notions of control, supremacy, power or influence — aspects of the conventional definition of leadership that most young people are familiar with.  Rather, "leadership is leaving any situation or interaction better than one found it," Mr. Yonge says. "We believe that if high school students can make this philosophy a way of life, then these micro actions will create macro change in our society."

But what's this all worth? Sure, you manage to raise some money and make some students proud of their accomplishments, but after they graduate won't it all be forgotten about? Not at all. It is important to remember that high school is often a time of remarkable character development. One begins to discover his or her strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes — the ebb and flow of life itself. For many, it's also the first time they are exposed to stress, time management, greater responsibilities, good/bad learning strategies and so on. Furthermore, ensuring the students of today develop strong emotional intelligence, resilient characters and academic adeptness as early as possible is fundamental to the economic growth and political stability of tomorrow. With this in mind, it is worrying to note that a recent report by the World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group, A New Vision for Education, exposes large gaps amongst students in core competencies such as critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration, as well as key character qualities such as curiosity, persistence and leadership. With governments, universities and companies pushing for 21st-century skills, high school leadership programs must play an increasingly large role in developing students with highly-tuned communication, creativity, persistence, and collaboration skills.

"The process of working with small groups to accomplish big things", Mr. Yonge says, will set students up to achieve success in the 'real' world. He identifies the three most important characteristics of young leaders to be grit, inclusivity and selflessness, enabling them to identify critical problems, self-organize and bring about change where it is needed. In this way, the success of Strathcona Composite High School goes far beyond fundraising. Indeed, provincial governments across Canada should be paying attention to how leadership programs in secondary schools can be utilized to close the imminent skills gap, strengthen community cohesiveness, and ensure long-term competitiveness is retained.