About a week ago, our Senior Wall went up. Covering the entirety of one wall in the PLUS Center are the faces of each and every senior, with space for their accomplishments this year. Students came in all day, and the day after, most screeching when they saw their pictures. “Miss, why did you put that one up?” “I’ll find you a better picture, let me just go on Instagram!” and “That’s it, I’m tearing mine down,” were the most common reactions. I’m used to this. Every picture we take demands a re-do. Especially if we trick them into smiling. Even their senior pictures, for which they were proudly prepared and in perfect lighting, were met with collective horror when they saw the results.
Despite their self-conscious outcries, I know how excited they were to receive this tribute to themselves. (Just as they not-so-secretly loved showing us their senior pictures knowing we would quite sincerely ooh and ahh over each one.) I know they’ll be even more excited when they see their accomplishments, from completing their senior projects to receiving college acceptances, marked for everyone to see. So much of senior year for our students is about racing to the finish line that they don’t often stop to appreciate their accomplishments on the way.
As a Flight Fellow, one of the most satisfying aspects of my work is the chance I get to not only push students towards those achievements, but also to celebrate them. From the beginning of the year, I’ve read and reread personal essays, teasing out real and moving stories from students convinced they had nothing to share. I’ve seen those same essays elicit college acceptances and scholarships, and I've been the person yelling in joy when they show me their acceptance letters. I’ve seen students scramble to the PLUS Center in packs to tackle a giant project, labor over it with them for weeks, and been the only one to celebrate its completion (they’ve moved on to the next one at this point). Even smaller moments – an English concept clicking for the first time for an ESL student, finishing an outline for their senior project where before they hadn’t even known where to start, or hearing a speech for their English class get better and better – these are all moments I celebrate.
As the end of the school year rapidly approaches for our seniors, they feel the clock running out. In the beginning of the year they might have stopped to appreciate what they had done a second longer, but now they race past to the next big goal. As the Senior Wall becomes studded with achievements and reminders of their work, I hope they stop and admire themselves and each other a bit more. I know I will. Whether they stop to do so or not, I know their photos up on that wall will do more than give our seniors a pat on the back. The Senior Wall will remind me of what these students can and have accomplished. It will give a face back to the hours of work we do at Kensington. And most importantly, it will remind KHSA juniors, sophomores, and freshmen of the road ahead and, hopefully, inspire them to reach for their own goals.
Even now, the faces in the PLUS Center are constantly changing. Some students have dropped out, others have just transferred. Seniors who have figured out plans for next year rarely come by, while others now frantically search in the PLUS Center for opportunities after graduation. The humor and level of noise is always changing too. At 4th lunch, we have close to thirty freshmen and seniors in our room with kids spilling out into the hall. 7th and 8th period, we tend to have three or four kids, some typing silently on computers, others gossiping and giggling. Hour by hour, day by day, and season to season, the culture at 12 PLUS Penn Treaty transforms.
“This...is something that is slowly healing many students while giving them newfound strength. It fights this tremendous hopelessness even when we are not there. ”
As the school year is slowly yet quickly coming to a close, students are asking the Fellows if we’ll be staying. Even though we’d mentioned many times that our Fellowship was for a year, there is still disappointment and sadness. It is perfectly right that they would feel so. The personalities, the different brands of humor that we all brought, the diverse ways in which we engaged everyone and related to them, has grown on our students. And amidst the craziness in the halls and the difficulties in the classroom, coming to 12+ and sitting on our couches, playing board games with staff and volunteers, and eating lunch side by side, makes the PLUS Center a home and our team a family for many of our students. Even with the changes within the center, there is stability. To know that many students will have difficulty with the massive transition into the next school year hurts me, but I am optimistic.
Current Fellows will leave, seniors will graduate, and 8th graders will rise up as freshmen, but something lingers at 12+. There will of course be something different about the incoming fellows and therefore, the programming, but I think there is something that is constant and powerful in this place, that doesn’t change year to year but instead grows. To call it a “legacy” or “culture” doesn’t completely touch on what this is, but I know that it affects all our students. It even affects the teachers and administration. I believe at times we aren’t just helping our students to achieve “post-secondary success.” We are quite literally fighting hopelessness. It is often shrouded in self-deprecating humor, narcissistic behavior, or complaints about the district, but I can feel it ooze out of many of our kids. This legacy or culture that 12+ is instilling in Penn Treaty is something that is slowly healing many students while giving them newfound strength. It fights this tremendous hopelessness even when we are not there. Julia’s jokes, Alex’s mentoring, Andrea’s encouragement, and all of the ways in which we gave to our students, will last here, and I cannot wait to see how this “something” that we brought to Penn Treaty will grow even more with next year’s Fellows.
“What is a PLUS Leader?”
Often I hear students ask this, wondering what exactly a “PLUS Leader” is and what is the process of becoming one. Well, according to our programming description, a PLUS Leader is someone who internalizes our core values of Believe, Act, and Inspire through workshops, college visits, and service projects. They join a community of leaders on campus to assist their peers in the pursuit of postsecondary education and help cultivate college-going culture within the school community. But honestly, it’s so much more than that.
I don’t think my words can fully illustrate the impact of the PLUS Leader program, or describe just how much I love watching my students grow as individuals and as leaders. So here are some words from some of my recently graduated PLUS Leaders:
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned as a PLUS Leader would have to be: Never doubting what you feel. Never fearing who you are, and being content with the decisions you make. What being a PLUS Leader means to me would be that I know myself, I can create an impact on others and their decisions, keep them from being the wrong ones. It means having the courage, the heart, and confidence to know I can help whoever it is that needs a push forward. I can help others and I should do so with no shame. I want to pass on what it is I’ve learned from being a PLUS Leader to younger and fresher minds. I want to have the opportunity to let future PLUS Leaders know that they should embrace who they are and they have the potential to do so much more than they see around them. I want to be the person that brings out the best in them.” - VO; 11th grade
“The biggest lesson I have learned as a PLUS Leader is that anybody can be a leader. A leader is just a person that shows its best effort at something. Not only is it effort but willingness to try new things. To grow as a person and show a good example. To be a PLUS Leader is a challenging thing but a possible goal. As a PLUS Leader you see what really needs help and what is the most important weakness in someone. As a PLUS Leader I was able to know how I can help everyone because most people don’t let other people help them. A leader is not always an outstanding person but a person that never gives up. Also, someone that can get back on track when they fall off. As a PLUS Leader I was able to help myself grow as a leader in general… I want to show other people how to embrace their leadership. I want to show them what helped me to become a better leader. Also, I would tell all the next PLUS Leaders that 12+ is a perfect place to help you grow as a student and leader.” – JZ; 10th grade
As we get ready to interview and accept a new cohort for the Spring semester, I find that I can’t quite contain my excitement. As I look over this semester’s applicants I see determined and passionate students that want to make a difference in our community. I’ve seen some of them soar towards the top of their classes. I’ve seen some of them overcome academic obstacles. I see some of them with a drive to help others. There’s so much untapped potential within these students, they have yet to realize it, and throughout the semester, I have the opportunity to watch them grow through working with them in our workshops and personally, through building relationships. Over a period of a semester, we’ll explore topics such as personal narratives, leadership styles, social issues, and service. In our time together, the students will be challenged to consider what it means to take these things and use them to impact the community around them. Having seen how much my PLUS Leaders have grown over the past few months, I can’t wait to know this new cohort of PLUS Leaders and see how they’ll impact our community here at Kensington Health Sciences.