In a classroom in a rustic mountain lodge situated at around 10,000 feet near Leadville, Colo., a group of 23 Colorado Academy students are sharing some of the things that matter most to them in the world.
For one, it’s connection and commitment. For another, it’s an adopted brother who opened their eyes to the world. There’s smiling and living life. Loyalty. Fly-fishing. Empathy. A mom who sacrificed for her family. A coach who taught respect for others and for oneself. Hard work. Dedication to the things you are passionate about. The beach. The mountains. Valuing people as individuals.
And being kind—kindness is a big one. In the words of one of the students, “At the end of the day, you can always be kind to people. We all need more kindness in our lives.”
It is August 2023, a few weeks before the start of the school year, and the students are Seniors in the Class 2024, participating in an intensive weekend training session at the High Mountain Institute (HMI) in preparation for joining CA’s Community Leadership Team, or CLT. The two dozen students were chosen from among more than 50 applicants in the spring of their Junior year for what Liza Skipwith, an Upper School counselor and CA’s Director of Counseling Services, describes as their approachability, trustworthiness, emotional intelligence, leadership qualities—and, yes, kindness.
“They’re not perfect—we don’t want that,” she explains. “They may have even made a few mistakes that they learned from.” But, she adds, “The one thing they all have in common is that these are students we know are ‘good citizens’ in the community.”
Established by Skipwith and colleagues at CA 17 years ago, CLT is a group of Seniors selected and trained each year by counselors, faculty, and administrators to facilitate discussion sessions with incoming Ninth Graders. These “peer support helpers,” as Skipwith describes them, receive ongoing training, learning skills and strategies to help younger students become acclimated to the Upper School and cope with issues relevant to the Ninth Grade experience. In essence, they extend and deepen the impact of parallel programs led by CA’s counselors, class deans, and faculty advisors, including substance-abuse education, mental health awareness efforts, talks about relationships and consent, and much more.
In partner teams of two or three, CLT Seniors meet with their assigned Ninth Grade advisory once or twice a month to build friendships, play games, cover key topics, and identify any emerging issues or concerns. The Seniors regularly convene with the CLT training staff to prepare for and process the discussions, activities, and dynamics of their groups. Together, CLT members practice skills such as active listening, withholding judgment, and knowing when to refer struggling students to the counseling team. Using effective communication, the leaders discover that they can help nurture a safe, understanding environment in which younger students are comfortable sharing personal situations and feel confident seeking out school resources that can provide assistance.
“We know from research, and from our experience with the CLT program here, that young people are simply more likely to listen to someone their own age than to an adult when it comes to those really important parts of the culture—dealing with stress, limiting the impacts of social media, handling conflicts, or even things like doing poorly in a class,” Skipwith explains. “The CLT leaders are our foot soldiers in the trenches: they can help, or they can let us know when more help is needed.”
Diversity as a virtue
But while these Seniors share a single charge, there’s no cookie cutter in the shape of the perfect CLT participant, Skipwith emphasizes. Amazingly, that’s because each member of the group is specifically chosen for the way they can help meet the varied needs of the incoming class of Ninth Graders. Their unique qualities—from experience with athletics or the arts to cultural or language background—mean that each year’s CLT looks different, and the personalities, interests, and abilities of the team’s Senior leaders are as diverse as the Ninth Grade class itself.
This becomes crystal clear on the first day of the training retreat at HMI, when the students—after sharing their most important life experiences, influences, and beliefs—take time to reflect on their personal leadership style. According to Colin Love, “I think I naturally like directing and organizing people—but that requires a foundation of relationships.” Bela Chaudhuri offers, “I am an enthusiastic leader. I like to bring a lot of energy and plan ahead.” For Domonique Megginson, leadership happens through connecting with people and working toward a common goal. “You can’t expect people to follow you if you haven’t built a partnership with them,” she insists.
There are quiet leaders and those who lead by example, too—every sort of leader is represented in this CLT group. But as Gabe Bernstein, Upper School Academic Coach and Twelfth Grade Dean, explains to them, “When those Ninth Graders show up in your room, they will look to you for a signal about where we are heading. And sometimes you will do that quietly; sometimes you will do that through action. Showing up authentically is one of the most important components of leadership. Ninth Graders can sense when you aren’t being authentic.”
Throughout the three days of training at HMI—which have the Seniors diving deep into topics ranging from emotional intelligence to adolescent behavior, and from the psychology of groups to boundaries and trust—Skipwith repeatedly underscores that there is no “script” for CLT leaders to use. There may be a set topic on a given advisory session’s agenda, but the discussion and the exchange of ideas have to be organic. That’s why the Seniors spend time throughout the year role-playing different scenarios: bullying, a time management conflict, a friendship in crisis. There’s more than one valid way to approach a situation, Skipwith says; each CLT member’s different leadership style and life experiences come into play alongside the training they each receive.
But one thing is certain, Ninth Grade Dean Dr. Camille James adds. “More often than not, Ninth Graders will go to you first before they have any interactions with the adults in the building. That’s because they are adolescents, and they feel a different kind of support from their peers than they do from us.” In a survey completed at the end of the last school year, James reveals, there’s just one thing Ninth Graders said they want more of from the CLT program: extra time with their Senior leaders.
CLT, attests Skipwith, is much more than a box Twelfth Graders try to check off as they submit college applications, hoping to impress admission officers with their extracurricular credentials. “This isn’t for their transcript; they put their heart and soul into it.” In fact, many of those students who volunteer in the spring of their Junior year to serve on CLT do so precisely because they still treasure the experience they had as Ninth Graders in the program and want to be part of the team so central to nourishing the culture of the Upper School.
And that’s what Skipwith loves most about the program. Whereas Seniors, when they first join CLT, might envision themselves dispensing words of wisdom to their younger peers like a mini-counselor, the reality is that the program has as much impact on the leaders as it does on the Ninth Graders they support.
According to Henry Chesley-Vogels ’21, who was a CLT member his Senior year at CA, the role fundamentally changed the way he thought about himself and those around him. Before CLT, he recounts, he assumed he functioned best as the “typical” leader: extroverted, a vocal manager of others. But during his CLT year, he explains, he tapped into his more introverted side.
“I realized I could be someone who listens, who’s reserved, who follows the lead of the people in the room. I believe I became a much better listener, more patient. It’s something I still practice today.”
As a second-year chemistry major at Davidson College, Chesley-Vogels elaborates, peer tutoring is an essential part of learning. “Especially for students who are new to STEM,” he says, “it’s so important for them to have someone older who can explain a concept and reassure them, ‘Hey, it’s going to be okay,’ or tell them, ‘When I was in high school it was called Help Time—now it’s called office hours. Use them. Take advantage of the resources that are available to you.’ It’s rewarding to feel that I can do that for a younger student.”
The ability to empathize and support someone with a push toward helping themselves comes straight out of the CLT experience, says Chesley-Vogels. When he was a Ninth Grader, fresh from CA’s Middle School, he found great value in being able to turn to his own CLT leader for help with navigating a complicated high school landscape; the advice they gave stuck. “The thing they most instilled in me was that understanding of how to self-advocate. It’s something I used throughout high school and continue to use in college.”
Jess Brown ’18, the CLT leader who was actually responsible for impressing that message upon Chesley-Vogels and the other Ninth Graders in his advisory cohort, recalls the satisfaction of having younger students come to her for support.
“As I was walking down the hallways of the Upper School, knowing there were 12 Ninth Graders I felt really close to because of CLT was an excellent boost,” acknowledges Brown. “Sometimes, as a Senior, you lose some of those connections across the Upper School. But through the CLT program, my world expanded, and I made so many great friendships that I never would have made otherwise.”
The CLT program, Brown says simply, was the highlight of Senior year. Having signed on as a CLT member because of the transformative experience she had had with her own Senior leader when she was a Ninth Grader, Brown the Senior was hooked from the first moments of the summer training retreat, when, she says, empathy seemed to blossom.
“The retreat allowed you to be very vulnerable,” she remembers. “And you just realized that a lot of people were going through things that you would have no idea of otherwise. It was a window into everyone’s lives; it really put things in perspective.”
Brown carried that new understanding with her throughout her Senior year at CA and beyond. “I think the lens through which I look at people is different now,” she observes. A psychology and government double major in the early stages of a career on the tech side of fitness and wellness, she says, “I’m always conscious that there may be things going on that I may not be aware of with folks. I try to give people a little more grace.”
Working remotely for her tech startup well past the end of COVID-19, Brown believes that what she learned through CLT is now more relevant than ever. “In the professional world, especially with remote work, you have to try even harder to remember that people have more going on in their lives than they may let on. I’ve had struggling coworkers come to me, and that would never have happened without my being intentional about communication. If you don’t make time to share with people, then you’re never going to have those strong relationships.”
Reflecting on the weekend at HMI and their initial meetings with their Ninth Grade advisory groups, Twelfth Graders echo many of the same lessons that Brown and Chesley-Vogels say they learned in CLT.
For Tyler Schulte, withholding judgment was one of the most difficult skills he had to master with the younger students. “I’ve always struggled with not immediately making assumptions about people,” he says. “The CLT retreat really helped me see the value of being as open-minded as possible, and it definitely has allowed me to form better connections with my Ninth Graders.”
Tess Taplin adds that the retreat’s emphasis on “putting yourself in a Ninth Grader’s shoes” brought real empathy to the way she has led her group. “When I met my advisees, I think I understood much better how nervous they were, and how they were trying to take in this entirely new school environment. It all came back to me—how you’d be unsure of what to do and form little cliques. I could see it so clearly.”
Taplin is surprised at how much the connections between the CLT leaders themselves have evolved in just a short time. With friendship groups seemingly cemented in place after three years in the Upper School, she explains, she didn’t have high hopes that a few days at HMI would bring the 23 Seniors closer together. But, she says, “I was really surprised with the dedication that all of us showed toward making new bonds, because we knew that we were going to be partnered up with someone we didn’t necessarily know well as a co-leader.”
Jessica Zinn concurs, “We were all in the same situation, and all of a sudden, everyone was on the same page. Cliques didn’t matter anymore. We could trust each other.” Once the school year began, she continues, “We met our Ninth Graders, and we realized we’re all new to this, including me and my CLT co-leader. Slowly we started getting more comfortable with each other, and now it’s beginning to feel like we’re a family.”
In many ways, that CLT experience—both for the Seniors and for the Ninth Graders they lead—mirrors the aspirations of CA as a school.
According to Brown, being part of a supportive community is at the heart of CA, and, she argues, “CLT is just a smaller version of that—the support and the kindness that, even at the beginning of Senior year, when we didn’t know each other very well, still brought us together.”
For Chesley-Vogels, the connections that span Pre-K through Grade 12 at CA are characteristic of the school and themselves echo the mission of the CLT program. “When I think of my CA experience, I picture older students mentoring younger ones. And much like our Senior-Kindergarten Buddies, CLT showcases CA’s commitment to nurturing an all-school community across divisions.”
“Bridge-builders” is how Skipwith describes the CLT leaders: the Seniors aren’t there to dispense advice, she reiterates, but to enmesh younger high schoolers in the many supportive systems that ensure every CA student is taken care of.
“It’s such a beautiful thing,” Skipwith says. “The Twelfth Graders are actually there to equip the Ninth Graders with the tools and skills to troubleshoot their own problems and make their own decisions. And if that’s not possible, they’re connecting them with the counseling team, faculty advisors, deans, coaches—everyone who’s prepared to help them.”
CLT leaders hear about every issue one can imagine facing a high schooler, Skipwith says: from being too intimidated to talk to a teacher, to coping with depression. And their ongoing training guarantees there’s help, whether that means a Senior walking a Ninth Grader to a teacher’s office for a talk, or referring the student to a counselor or even Safe2Tell, the anonymous Colorado hotline aimed at preventing imminent harm.
“Because we, as the adults, can’t be with our students 24/7, it’s our CLT leaders who do so much to keep the kids safe,” says Skipwith. “They’re on a sports team together; they’re in the same art class. They have a bond. And one day, that younger student is going to go to their leader and ask, ‘Hey, what do I do?’ And that leader will think, ‘I can do this. I’m prepared for this. I’m actually good at this.’ And they’ll say, ‘Don’t worry; I can help.’”