Students Take Hutchison Leads In Unexpected Directions

By Bill Dries

Mary Elizabeth Kakales has been grappling with school reform concepts like how to scale reforms so that they can prevail in different schools in different communities. And she has thought through teacher accountability standards.

She’s talked with those leading reform efforts in private schools, charter schools and conventional public schools. And Kakales has spent a lot of time in different classrooms as well as the ones she knows so well at Hutchison School, where she is a student.

The Hutchison senior has put together a still evolving prototype for her ideal school as part of the Hutchison Leads program that just turned a year old.

The program was made possible by a gift from Hutchison alumna Abbie Ware Williams and her husband, Duncan Williams.

“I developed more friendships with students from other schools – public, charter and private,” Kakales said of the origins of her fellowship. “I realized everything is so different, it was interesting. I really wanted to learn more.”

With that in mind, she developed a fellowship program and this school year immersed herself in the volatile and burgeoning education reform discussion. She visited as many schools as she could. She spent 40 to 50 hours at The Collegiate School of Memphis. She went to Power Center Academy in Hickory Hill, Veritas Academy and Cornerstone Schools as well as talked with teachers and administrators at other schools.

“I learned so much,” she said. “However I could get in I tried to sneak in and see whatever I could.”

Most welcomed her and lots of discussions followed.

“A lot of the schools that I visited their doors were always open. It was everyday we are ready for anyone to walk in. They functioned that way,” Kakales said of the schools that were her models. “Their test results showed it. I think the main thing is that I want my school to be an area of change. I want it to incite a renewal in the neighborhood.”

Caroline Blatti, director of Hutchison Leads, said a year into the endowed leadership initiative that is open to students in other schools as well as Hutchison that the students have taken the program in some unanticipated directions. And that was always part of the plan for the leadership training.

“We noticed that the very best programs were the ones that were driven by the passions of the student,” Blatti said. “You really can make the mistake of creating canned programs where the administration and the media marketing team decides what it should look like.”

Hutchison Leads works with students at the East Memphis girls school specifically on leadership skills as they learn academic skills.

Blatti begins with students in their freshmen year by helping them develop a sense of themselves as well as how students at the school communicate with each other on issues including disagreeing on some points. That is followed with an introduction to Memphis issues and institutions the next year and from there the students begin to focus on a specific area they want to pursue.

Kakales tried the medical field initially because she thought she wanted to pursue premed studies when she goes to the University of Mississippi this summer. She will be majoring in public policy leadership.

“We are running to keep up with the kids now,” Blatti said. “That’s the greatest gift.”

The leadership program is not a specific course taught at only one time of the school day or limited to the school day.

“I really see myself as being someone who can connect the dots for the kids and help them understand,” Blatti said. “We embed them in the community. We want them to see the issues. We also want them to not see differences but to see commonalities.”

Part of the financial literacy program at the school includes a group of nine Hutchison seniors who sit on a board that awards a grant from a student-funded endowment program. The students take applications from agencies and programs seeking the funding and debate where the money will do the most good before awarding it.

The leadership training is infused throughout the curriculum and Hutchison offers the leadership program to other schools – public and private – as the program has built a network in the community just as it encourages the students to build the same network.

“We’ve built up a number of community partners,” Blatti said. “We spend a lot of time talking with schools … building out any kind of relationship that we think could help build this program into other schools, community centers and after school programs.”

The Abigail Ware Williams Leadership Institute is offering a set of summer leadership internships and workshops during the summer for boys and girls.

“These are core skills that every girl and every boy – they all need it in this generation,” Blatti said. “We want to share it.”