Right Around the Corner

There can be big payoffs when advisers connect with organizations in the community—from churches or social service organizations to colleges, foundations, and large and small businesses. The organizations can provide expertise or financial support for a project, help schools network to find other resources, and can mentor students or provide work experience so teens can learn “soft skills”—being a team player; leadership; communication; and being decisive, persistent, and resourceful.

As a student leadership adviser, you can tap into valuable community resources more easily than you think.

You just have to ask.

“I’m told all the time by people in local businesses that they’d love to get involved in schools and student leadership organizations, but just need the right opportunity,” says Michelle McGrath. She knows both sides, as she serves as the executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Councils and was recently elected president of the 500-member Rotary Club of Madison, WI. Rotary International is a national service organization with about 35,000 community clubs that work closely with educators and students.

“If students can show that their organizations are developing strong leaders with a good work ethic, chances are that business and community officials will support them in any way they can,” agrees Vicki Gray Carstens, executive director of the Iowa Association of Student Councils and a former student leadership adviser.

McGrath’s research shows that those skills will not only benefit students in the workforce, but are part of the Common Core State Standards that are intended to guide the nation’s schools.

“Teaching students effective communication or problem solving without the opportunity to practice those skills is negligent on our part,” she writes in an article reviewing the need for thorough leadership training. In it, she notes that “teaching key behavioral skills and allowing the students to practice them is essential for success,” and that having a “vibrant support system and mentors are also key.”

Carstens says by working with community leaders in real-life situations, students can learn about careers and make connections for potential internships or jobs—or obtain letters of recommendation and résumé items.

In the meantime, local organizations typically want to be involved in local schools as part of their community outreach and, more practically, to network and improve community relations or advertise their product or service, often reaching a different audience. They may also benefit by finding future workers.

“Local leaders always are looking for employees,” Carstens says. “They want strong leaders with a good work ethic. Working with schools is a good way to find them.”

Meanwhile, those connections can benefit the school, since having those community representatives involved might result in support in other ways.

“After-school programs can serve as bridges that connect schools and communities, positively benefiting youth and families, schools, community-based organizations, and the community as a whole,” says Priscilla Little, the author of a recent report titled “School-Community Learning Partnerships: Essential to Expanded Learning Success.” She helps manage nearly $8 million in grants from The Wallace Foundation for such efforts.

Getting Started

Jean Wyatt, a retired teacher/administrator who is a student leadership sponsor and consultant to statewide student leadership organizations, says there are a wide range of potential partners, and advisers should think about the options creatively.

Student organizations should first work with their school and district administrators to connect with community organizations because those officials often are part of an existing network of community leaders, she says. They should also solicit help from all levels of the school staff and their families and friends, and broaden their network as much as possible.

“District superintendents are often members of various community organizations,” McGrath says. “They can direct student groups and follow up after you’ve reached out. And it’s good that they hear about such efforts.”

Wyatt notes that advisers should be certain to spell out their needs in detail and give willing community members specific tasks. Advisers should also take time to listen to their advice or involve them in a project from the ground up. “People support that which they have a hand in creating,” she says.

It’s important for students to take control, McGrath says, noting that such an approach often makes such partners more likely to participate and stay involved, plus it teaches students valuable skills and gives them useful experience.

“An adviser can certainly be their cheerleader and supporter, but the students should do the work,” McGrath says. “Give them the tools, perhaps through teaching a lesson about the ways to approach someone, set up a meeting, and develop a plan. But it is important from both perspectives for students to do the work.”

Business Class

Community organizations often have involvement in education as part of their mission, McGrath notes, and businesses want future employees with attributes that student leadership organizations typically teach. “They don’t want to train them,” McGrath says. “And it’s not just math and science that they want them to know. How good are you at communicating? How good are you at working with a team? Those are the sorts of things they are saying they need, and those are the skills we want our students to gain.”

She says new thinking in the business community focuses even more concretely on these skills, especially among businesses that have an entrepreneurial approach.

“They aren’t even soft skills anymore,” says Jean Buckley, president and CEO of Future Business Leaders of America. The organization works with some 230,000 students in state and local chapters nationwide and encourages them to connect with local businesses to gain real-life experiences which include “these critical but less obvious skills that businesses are seeking.”

Forbes magazine has discussed top traits needed in rising leaders and Entrepreneur magazine has reported details about the top leadership skills we need to teach children—and their ideas closely match those skills that school leadership groups want to teach, such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.”

By speaking with and engaging the business community, students get a very real understanding of the types of skills that are needed for success in their future careers,” Wyatt says.  “And of course, bringing business leaders into efforts to develop student leadership is a natural way for the business community to give back and mentor future leaders in their community.”

Looking Elsewhere

Student leadership groups often develop relationships with government bodies and politicians through student internships or mentorship opportunities or by bringing in public officials to speak to students about their work and the functions of their organizations. The officials perform a public service, create good will, and potentially reach other segments of the public—including future voters.

Vista Murrieta High School student leaders give a presentation to the local city council and school board in Murrieta, CA, each month, and invite local leaders to their meetings—to both gain experience presenting and get tips from adults. Meanwhile, Terry Sanford High School in Fayetteville, NC, holds candidate forums for local politicians as they run for office.

Social service agencies, too, are willing to spread their message and often can join with students to develop programs that benefit their cause—a food bank, clothing drive, a blood collection program, or informational program about the services they offer. Organizations that work on health issues and fitness, for instance, are often happy to help with a health fair, and those that work with emotional health might assist with suicide or stress prevention initiatives. Students often can help satisfy their student service requirements with such efforts, Carstens notes.

For example:

  • This year in Fort Wayne, IN, high school leaders working in a local food bank found the facility had a bookshelf but no books and began soliciting books for the patrons of the service. Word of their effort spread, and within about a year, more than 10,000 books had been given away and the students had received support from a number of local organizations and a $500 Disney Summer of Creativity Grant.
  • Student leaders at Milwaukee High School of the Arts in Wisconsin sponsored a cancer health fair for students and the community with student displays and information from local health organizations.
  • Several NHS chapters sponsored blood drives this spring, including the chapter at Zionsville (IN) Community High School, which is one of the local Red Cross’ most consistent partners. (The Red Cross helps students organize drives and claims nearly 25 percent of its donations come from drives led by student leaders.)
  • Last April, the Colleyville Heritage High School student council in Texas worked with its school’s counseling department and local social service agencies to hold a “Skate Away from Self-Harm” event at a local roller-skating facility to raise awareness about teen suicide.

Local service groups like Rotary (which has a popular Youth Leadership Awards program that features symposiums with student and community leaders), Kiwanis International (Key Leaders), Lions Clubs International, and chambers of commerce are happy to help with student organizations, and many include working with educators as part of their mission.

Rotary clubs have helped student leaders in Ewing, NJ, with a soup kitchen, autism walk, and Special Olympics program. In Miami, the local chapter worked with students to help a homeless shelter and veterans group, and in Knoxville, they worked with students to provide support for refugees.

Colleges and Foundations

Local colleges and universities are also an optimal place for student leadership groups to develop relationships, experts say. They often already have a connection to the schools through the alumni who attend the college and through other education system structures. College students, staff, and resources (even space) can benefit a leadership group, while the colleges are able to tap into a good market for potential students.

Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C., recently invited 60 student leaders for a daylong retreat to hear college speakers and learn about service opportunities. Ithaca, NY-based Cornell University has a summer college program that teaches leadership skills and partners with local schools to build “personal development exercises and reflective analysis to arrive at a clearer understanding of your unique leadership strengths and objectives.”

Foundations at the local, regional, and national levels are often looking for ways to support education, and experts suggest that networking by students, advisers, and through the administration is the best way to find out about them. Nearly every large national foundation has education support programs, often dedicated to student leadership.

Some support can be directed by student leaders. For instance, the Michigan Community Foundation Youth Project provides funding for student organizations to then make grants to student-run service projects, and runs a two-day conference for youth leaders to review the grants. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has a Youth Challenge for Community Foundations program that allows nearly 200 youth advisory committees to allocate funds to deserving student projects. The Winston-Salem Foundation in North Carolina has a Youth Grantmakers in Action program that supports student-led anti-bullying, homeless support, and financial education programs, in addition to a wide variety of other school-based service projects, with funding determined by youth leaders.

“There are a lot of resources available if advisers can find ways to tap into them,” Buckley says. “Even more importantly, they can structure their group so responsibility for those connections is on the students. That makes them even more valuable.”


Jim Paterson is a writer and former school counselor based in Lewes, DE. He is a frequent contributor to Advise.