Cultivating Student Leaders

Throughout the United States and beyond, schools that sponsor chapters of all three National Honor Societies—the venerable National Honor Society (NHS) for high school students, plus the National Elementary Honor Society (NEHS) and National Junior Honor Society (NJHS)—are finding that the effort encourages students to make learning a habit that starts in the youngest grades and continues for a lifetime.

Starting at the elementary level and continuing through secondary, these schools have not only elevated the pursuit of excellence as a priority throughout their institutions, but have also cultivated methods for ushering students from one level of Honor Society to the next. They also weave in the work of their student councils and rely on resources from the National Association of Student Councils (NASC) to strengthen their approach.

The desired result is young adults who graduate fully prepared to take on their roles as productive citizens.

Refining Leadership Skills

Adelphi Academy of Brooklyn in New York began its National Honor Society chapter in 2000 and found it a perfect fit for its school and, especially, its college preparatory program. School officials developed such trust and respect for the brand that they were excited to establish NJHS and NEHS chapters in later years, says Principal Iphigenia Romanos.

“So many of the principles of the National Honor Society organization, including NJHS, NEHS, and the National Association of Student Councils, connect so directly and naturally with Adelphi’s founding philosophy and core principles that it makes for a very natural partnership,” says Romanos.

Many school officials agree: NHS involvement cultivates student leaders. Chapter activities focus on school and community service in projects selected and implemented by students themselves. At Ivy Academia Entrepreneurial Charter School, a preK–12 school on two Los Angeles-area campuses, the halls are filled with students from affluent families mixing with those who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Honor Society members there have cleaned beaches, raised money for animal shelters, held blood drives, and conducted after-school tutoring. Their service positions them to act as ambassadors for their school and their community.

At Adelphi, NHS member students work as school ambassadors and participate in community and school service, mentoring, and leadership activities.”Students are very participatory and hands-on with ideas, projects, and new concepts, and our faculty is very accepting of their input,” says Romanos.

Many schools meld NHS-related activities with other school functions. Adelphi is now incorporating NHS activities into other programs, including mentoring and leadership programs, and especially its Lockwood Society, a First Honors Program named for the Academy’s founder.

Prattville Christian Academy, a life readiness school with a strong academic focus in Alabama, also sees Honor Society membership as an opportunity for students to drive its community-service agenda. The students in NJHS, for example, share ideas for service projects that might include volunteering at a food bank or cleaning up the school’s outdoor classroom. In past years, students have held food drives and clothing drives, says chapter sponsor Kaylon Cantrell.

At Lotus School for Excellence, a college prep school based in Aurora, CO, Honor Society membership is a conduit for instilling in students the importance of community and school service.

“Advisers work with the students on leadership by modeling skills for them and providing opportunities for them to develop their own skills,” says Heather Chol, English language development coordinator and secondary National Honor Society adviser and chapter coordinator. “We hold them accountable to high expectations for behavior.”

Transitioning Among Levels

Students transitioning from one level of schooling to the next always require careful attention, and that includes their membership in the Honor Societies, educators say.

At Ivy Academia, junior and senior NHS members have traveled to the school’s separate campus for grades preK–6 and read books for Dr. Seuss’ birthday celebrations. In 2017, the high school and middle school students added a book drive, bringing in old favorites to help build the elementary school library.

Such efforts, plus mentoring opportunities and overlapping programs, introduce young children to the value of the Honor Societies. “The kids can really see the end game,” says NHS adviser Jessica Jimenez, English and world history teacher. “The kids can see the evolution of an Honor Society student.”

By the time Ivy Academia students join NJHS, they are inducted in a joint ceremony with high school students. “The junior society members get to hear the high school members speak about why NHS is important to them, to hopefully foster that continued commitment,” says Jimenez. “They get to mentor them.”

Ivy high school NHS members also mentor their NJHS peers through such efforts as a Catalina Island science camp. Those high school students hone their mentoring skills at weekly NHS meetings, where they discuss ethical choices, student pride, entrepreneurial skills, and creation of programs that have a broad benefit, Jimenez says.

Adelphi Academy of Brooklyn helps students transition from one level to the next through meetings and orientations regarding eligibility with chapter advisers and current chapter members. Regular monitoring and constant communication help the school minimize the risk of students losing eligibility due to poor grades.

Collaboration among chapters at different levels is “one of the highlights” of Adelphi’s NHS approach, says Romanos. The preK–12 school offers opportunities for students of all ages to interact, she says.

“Adelphi believes in ‘over-communication,’ with frequent calls, emails, and parent meetings,” says Romanos. “Additionally, every parent and student knows that Adelphi believes in a strong open-door policy. We are always available to our families, and our methods are designed to be preventative and not reactive regarding grades, marking periods, and student eligibility issues.”

Schoolwide service projects offer ideal opportunities for Honor Society members at different levels to collaborate and learn from each other. At Prattville Christian Academy, students have collaborated on chapter induction ceremonies and supported the Panther Prowl 5K and One-Mile Fun Run—a fundraiser for the school—by collecting runner registrations and sponsorships in advance, directing runners on race day, and providing post-race drinks and snacks.

At Lotus School, advisers “work with each group as a new school year begins to help members who are continuing from the previous year start out smoothly,” says Chol.

Lotus School chapters also work together on some projects, especially schoolwide initiatives such as the annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner and the Taste of Lotus cuisine and fashion event. When high school students read Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” to elementary students, they showed leadership and compassion.

“The thankful reflections were thought provoking and allowed the students to connect as a community,” Chol says. “I also found volunteer hours and planning of large events such as homecoming helpful for students to develop initiative, communication and collaboration skills, and organizational skills.”

Academic and Personal Growth

With “entrepreneurial” in its name, Ivy Academia has found that Honor Society involvement is an ideal fit. From the time students are in transitional kindergarten, all their lessons incorporate entrepreneurial standards, equipping them to spot problems and devise solutions.

“Participants in the National Honor Society get to put the skills they learned into action,” says 7th–12th grade Principal Maria Gennaro. As juniors and seniors in a focused business class, they seek solutions to the seemingly intractable issues of the day, including immigration challenges and sex trafficking, she says.

Ivy Academia’s Honor Society tutoring initiatives help younger students perform well academically, while older students doing the tutoring can get extra credit. Plus, GPA requirements for Honor Society and student council membership demonstrate to students that “we put a high expectation on them to maintain those standards,” says NASC Adviser Christine Musgrove, a math teacher. “That is helping with overall academics.”

The aspects of service, leadership, and mentoring are essential not only in Adelphi’s NHS chapters, but throughout its school, says Romanos. “While service and leadership are such important aspects of what it means to be an Adelphi student, they are especially important to the honored members of the chapters and are promoted regularly through meetings, assemblies, student forums, and events.”

Students’ social growth can be equally important as academic growth, and involvement in the National Honor Societies “helps merge the two tremendously,” says Romanos. “What might at first start out as a service assignment or requirement later helps a student discover something about themselves and, most importantly, discover the joy of giving, helping, and contributing.”

Cantrell, the NJHS adviser for Prattville Christian Academy, believes that students maintain good grades so they can retain their membership. She credits NJHS membership for much of the tremendous academic and social growth she saw in one particular student, who is now “a leader among her friends.”

“Students are also inducted in front of their peers and friends, so I think most of them want to uphold their end of the bargain,” she says. “They want to be known as a student in that Honor Society.”

The same expectations apply at Lotus School. “Membership gives students another reason to stay accountable for their grades,” says Chol. “They are able to include membership on their college applications, and they receive a special stole to wear at graduation. As student leaders in the school, their responsibility and level of character rise and are noticeable.”

Team of Advisers

Collaboration among advisers at the different levels is another key to guiding students from the elementary through high school levels of the Honor Societies.

At Adelphi, chapter advisers at each level “know and work with all of the students at each individual level personally,” says Romanos. “They take the time to get to know the students not just academically and socially, but personally.” The advisers’ focus contributes to the strength of the “intentional school community” working toward common goals, she says. Adelphi chapter advisers meet regularly, and they also advise and report as part of other important school committees.

At many schools, advisers work according to plans crafted at the beginning of the year. Lotus School for Excellence advisers establish a vision for the year, followed by several meetings as they plan for larger events.

“We communicate regularly through emails and brief conversations,” says Chol. “We enjoy being able to meet and share ideas with each other.”

NASC Ties

Adelphi considers NASC, plus the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals, “tremendous resources for students and faculty,” says Romanos. “These are trusted names to Adelphi and very much a part of our ‘intentional community.’ ” Student councils and Honor Society chapters “work together constantly on charity and fundraising events, holiday celebrations, community causes, and school projects, all of which are student driven and supported.”

At Ivy Academia, serving as student council president or vice president comes with service requirements, positioning them to serve as role models for their peers. Deirdra Brasch, business teacher and past NASC adviser, incorporated NASC curriculum into some of her business classes to further infuse leadership lessons in the classroom and beyond. “At what grade level do we really need to drive this so we get the outcome we want at senior year to create that whole person who’s community invested, who’s school invested, who’s representing their class, who’s really the well-rounded student we’re trying to create?” she says.

NASC provides Prattville Christian Academy “with great resources and encouragement as we take on the task of creating student leaders,” says Cantrell.

Lotus draws on the experiences, best practices, and expertise culled by NASC: “We see what other groups across the nation are doing and incorporate some of their successful ideas in our school and share our success,” says Lotus School high school biology teacher and student council leader Sarah Baysden. Student council and Honor Society members “work alongside each other often at school events and always support the work of each group.”

“Respected Students”

On Ivy Academia’s “Well-Dressed Wednesdays,” when students dress in entrepreneurial attire, most NHS members “are proud to wear their pin,” says Gennaro.

“A lot of times, these students in other schools might be seen as dorks or geeks, but here they’re seen as the respected students,” she says. “They’re the leaders of our school and they’re definitely well-liked. They’re admired by other students, and the National Honor Society is something that other students strive to join.”


M. Diane McCormick is a writer based in Pennsylvania.