Twenty years ago actress Reese Witherspoon forever changed the image of high school student government with her portrayal of Tracy Flick, the smiling, overachieving, cut-throat, aspiring high school student-body president in the 1999 movie Election.
That’s not the way student government operates at Mid-Pen.
First of all, says school counselor Wendi Wells, there are no elections or try-outs for Mid-Pen’s Peer Leadership program, which serves as the school’s untraditional version of a student council.
“Any student who wants to join can be a member of Peer Leadership,” says Wendi, “so we have students in all grade levels, which gives the group a wide range of opinions and perspectives that are representative of the larger student body. And we call them peer leaders, not class reps, because they model our community values of respect, kindness, acceptance, and responsibility. These values drive everything they do.”
As the group’s faculty advisor, Wendi meets with the peer leaders every other week. Like student councils everywhere, the group offers suggestions and advice to the school administration and often organizes student activities. The group sponsored a Club Fair at the beginning of the year, for example, so that students could learn about and sign up for a variety of student clubs. In the spring it also helped organize a schoolwide “coin war” and shoe drive, which contributed over $400 and donated 150 shoes to the Jennifer Memorial Deaf Community School in Zambia.
Peer leaders are often consulted on their opinions by Head of School Phil Gutierrez, whether on matters as mundane as selecting beverages for the Student Center vending machine or as significant as implementing a new restorative justice program.
Peer leaders are always listening to their classmates and bringing new ideas to the group. “We added a winter dance this year because the peer leaders heard that students were hoping to have one,” she notes. “The group was heavily involved in planning and decorating for the event, and they are really invested in working together with school community to create a great event.”
The impact of Mid-Pen’s Peer Leadership program, however, goes beyond that of a traditional student council. Wendi believes the growth and success of the program (there were 12 students in the program during the 2018-2019 school year) has contributed to an improvement in the overall school culture. Peer leaders feel responsible for helping to foster and maintain a positive school climate, she says. They display ownership in the school, and their positive behavior spreads throughout the campus.
They take particular pride in helping new students feel welcome and let Wendi know if they have any concerns about how a student is integrating into the school. The group’s meetings often focus on current issues facing teenagers, such as the growth of vaping among teens, and they help the school bring speakers to campus and facilitate other activities to address areas of need.
“There is so much that the Peer Leadership group contributes to the school,” observes Wendi. “They have truly made Mid-Pen a better place.”