“See the game through all sets of your teammates’ eyes” is one of the lifelong leadership lessons I learned in high school from Mark Ritter, my varsity basketball coach. Simple words with a profound influence. To me, the lesson has always centered on the importance of empathy, perspective-taking, focus, collaboration, shared vision, and goals and communication. My basketball coach and mentor continues to serve our school and district as a math and data science teacher. His words and inspiration lift our school’s commitment to see the school day through our 1,400 students’ eyes as we strive to maximize their engagement, learning, and leadership development.

At Brookfield East High School (BEHS), we recognize the need to build all students’ leadership skills for success beyond high school. That’s why our mission is “Dedicated to Academic and Human Excellence” and why our vision is that “100% of our students will be ready to access and succeed in their selected path or pathways.” Our core values enable us to equip students with the knowledge, skills, authentic sense of confidence, and impactful leadership skills that will change the trajectory of their lives.

Student Leadership in Classroom Learning

At BEHS we strive to create rigorous, relationship-driven, and relevant learning environments and experiences for all students. A primary factor in the academic success and leadership of our students is our school’s teaching and learning framework of WICOR (Writing, Inquiry, Collaboration, Organization, and Reading) modeled by our amazing AVID program. By investing significant time and energy to build a system of reading and writing within every content area, students develop necessary academic skills and confidence to thrive and lead in all learning environments.

Students with a passion for business fully operate Brookfield East High School’s coffee shop, The Spartan Union. PHOTOS COURTESY OF ANDY FARLEY

Last school year, 99% of our graduating class successfully completed at least one college credit-bearing course while at BEHS. This is a huge celebration for our school and system and proof that we are creating many diverse pathways and opportunities for students to access and succeed in rigorous curricular opportunities. The partnership between teachers and students to ensure every student feels safe (physically and psychologically), appropriately stretched or challenged, and supported in complex learning experiences accelerates student achievement, leadership capacity, and confidence. With the support of their educators, students know they can do hard things.

With the development of student leadership in mind, LAUNCH, an experiential-based instructional model was created to connect challenging course work with career-based learning through real-world, industry-supported professional learning experiences. Lily Huebschen, a 2023 BEHS graduate who is now a student at the University of South Carolina, credits her experiences in LAUNCH with providing her the opportunity to work hands-on with business professionals, acquire internships, gain real-world experience, and meet new people in a business setting. “As I continue in my college career,” she says, “thanks to LAUNCH and the opportunities I had, I feel prepared for my future.”

BEHS also supports a business leadership capstone course where students serve as the entrepreneurs, managers, financers, and marketing team members to fully operate our school coffee shop, The Spartan Union. The Spartan Union generates over $55,000 of revenue annually and allows students with a passion for the field of business to build their academic and professional skills to prepare for future goals and success.

Student Leadership in Professional Learning and Development

For educators, seeing the school day through the eyes of students can help grow our impact. At BEHS, most of our professional development days include analysis of student learning connected to reading and writing and include student facilitators and presenters. One session, a staff favorite, was facilitated by University of Wisconsin-Madison freshman, Nina Anglim, a 2023 BEHS graduate. Nina facilitated multiple sessions based on her AP Research project of building success (soft) skills throughout our classrooms and school. Nina helped elevate the importance of organization, dependability, collaboration, and flexibility in leadership and learning.

“Brookfield East helped me grow as a leader by giving me a platform to share a research project about soft skills I was extremely passionate about,” she says. “Not only was it a great opportunity for me to share my findings with diverse audiences, but it helped spur a movement in our school culture to critically think about, not what, but how we learn.”

“With the support of their educators, students know they can do hard things.”

Student leaders have also led all-school instructional efforts focused on reflection practices, school mission, vision, core values, goal setting, time management, and wellness. Student leaders facilitating learning opportunities for their peers and their teachers can be a powerful tool as schools serve as learning organizations committed to the growth of all by helping everyone be better today than yesterday.

Student Leadership in Wellness

BEHS is a proud Hope Squad school, one of the first in the state of Wisconsin. The peer-to-peer suicide prevention program has 150 chapters in our state and more than 1,600 nationwide. Hope Squad has the power to transform schools as students lead communities focused on a comprehensive approach to wellness, including mental health. As peer-nominated leaders, our 50 amazing Hope Squad students in grades 9–12 are go-to individuals for their peers in times of need. The Hope Squad is facilitated by three educators, including our school psychologist and one of our school counselors and meets weekly to build the knowledge, skills, and practices of these student leaders to serve their peers.

Our student leaders elevate a comprehensive approach to wellness to share and model the importance of positive connections/community, organizational skills, perseverance, physical and mental wellness, nutrition, sleep, and right sizing the role and use of technology. Current Hope Squad junior Tyler Kloida shares, “Hope Squad has been very influential in shaping me into a leader through community panels, trainings, events, and day-to-day interactions. This experience has made me more empathetic and gives me a new lens on how I should approach difficult situations. The skills I have gained have already contributed to leadership growth in both my extracurricular activities and everyday interactions.” A schoolwide commitment to wellness, led by students, can redefine schools and communities.

Student Leadership Structures

Farley with junior Tyler Kloida in The Spartan Union.

Building structures and opportunities for students to grow is critical to increasing the leadership capacity of all students. At BEHS, we have established a Principal’s Cabinet, consisting of approximately 60 students representing grades 9–12. Student leaders are selected in various ways, including through student council membership; leadership in co-curricular activities such as arts, athletics, and service-based activities; and teacher recommendations.

The Principal’s Cabinet has been an integral part of our school community. Representatives of the cabinet have led facility upgrades such as the renovation of our learning commons/library. For this project, students met with architects, provided tours to our school board members, and presented the need and rationale for the renovation to our school board. Student leadership resulted in our renovated space becoming the academic hub of our school and the home for all of our peer-led, educator-supported tutorial programming and our Spartan technology team. The cabinet also helped lead the addition of the “Excellence Period” (named after our mission) to our daily schedule. This 30-minute resource period enables students to meet with teachers to receive academic support; attend assessment review sessions for their classes, ACT, or Advanced Placement; meet with a representative from a university, college, or military branch; or access class-specific technology or programming. Student leaders partnered with faculty to develop the rationale, expectations, and opportunities for students to select the teacher/program that best meets their academic needs.

Student leaders have also helped navigate operational challenges such as cafeteria capacity. They designed plans to create outdoor dining spaces as well as an addition of a “quiet cafeteria” to ensure all students have a desirable eating location every day. Most importantly, the cabinet routinely reviews our school’s mission, vision, and core values to ensure we are maximizing the student experience in engagement and learning. Student leaders serve on all interview teams and selection committees as we know that hiring amazing educators directly impacts the lives of our students. Student leaders also facilitate many of our all-school resource periods during the Excellence Period, which includes setting goals for wellness and academics and best practices and approaches to wellness. They also facilitate our freshman transition program, “Freshman University.”

Our Job as Educators

Each summer, my administrative team and I write a welcome-back letter to our staff to build momentum for upcoming school goals and to re-energize them for the 1,400 students who will soon walk through our doors. Mr. Ritter (my previously mentioned mentor) helped craft another inspiring message this past year: “Our job as educators is to have students see themselves as we see them…to their full potential.” By seeing not only the school day through the eyes of our students, but also their potential as readers, writers, critical thinkers, and leaders, we will never lose sight that they will continue to change the world.

Andy Farley is the principal of Brookfield East High School in Brookfield, WI, a 1996 graduate of the school, and the 2024 National Principal of the Year.