Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of articles about ways that Colorado Academy is living its mission during challenging times.
Mackenzie Wagner, Senior
Mackenzie Wagner has the unenviable task of serving as Co-President of the Class of 2021 (with Catherine O’Halloran and Ryan Gaghen) during a Senior year like no other.
“Right now, we are trying to be optimistic,” she says. “Acknowledging that this is really tough, and sometimes overwhelming, helps everyone grow and not get trapped in negativity.”
Wagner praises the support she receives from her two co-presidents, but she also gives particular credit to the presidents of the Class of 2020: Jasmine Bilir ’20 and Matt Robinson ’20.
“They set a great precedent as leaders in the ways they dealt with the coronavirus,” she says. “They looked for ways to boost spirits, be creative with the situation, and make the best of it.”
Wagner believes Bilir and Robinson distinguished themselves as leaders because they “listened first,” asking students how they could help. In that vein, the leaders of the Class of 2021 have created a committee of Seniors who are brainstorming ways to keep spirits up. They have also paired with the leaders of the Freshman, Sophomore, and Junior classes, one Co-President for each class, in a new mentorship program.
Wagner also finds herself leading CA students during a time of national racial reckoning. She is President of the Upper School Asian Culture Club and is leading a new inclusivity committee within FACES, which is an umbrella group where students of color and from historically marginalized backgrounds can find a second home at CA.
“We are in a formative time of our lives, and that is running parallel with a formative time in the country,” Wagner says. “It’s exciting and gives me hope for the younger grades at CA and incoming students of color, so that they know they are loved and represented and can experience all the amazing things CA has to offer.”
Even though she is only 17, Wagner is already talking about her “legacy,” a sign, perhaps, of the weight young leaders carry during dual crises.
“When I leave CA, I hope the work I did on inclusivity will still stand and will empower other students to step up and make change,” she says. “At CA, a lot of change is student-led. It’s not over yet.”
Edie Esposito, Grade 6
Sixth Grader Edie Esposito’s Middle School teachers say she is a leader who does not realize that she is leading. Here, in her own words, is what Edie believes it means to lead during the challenges posed by a pandemic.
“I remember when I was in Fifth Grade, and we had to start Zoom learning, my teacher, Ms. Ohly, said, ‘You should just try to be the best person you can be every day.’ That stuck with me, and it’s what I’ve tried to do since then.
“Learning to be a good person started all the way back in Pre-K at CA. It meant being inclusive and sharing. It’s hard to learn sharing right now, because we can’t share anything! But I try to be caring, respectful, and engaged in the learning environment. I try to be a friendly and approachable person.
“I think for some people it may be hard to wear a mask all day, but if you keep doing what you are supposed to be doing and try not to be anxious about things you can’t control, it will clear your mind and make it easier to relax. I really appreciate that everyone at CA is working so hard to get us through this.
“I remember in one of Dr. Davis’s assemblies, he said CA’s mission was to create courageous, kind, curious, adventurous learners and leaders. That mission statement is important to me, because it gives me a goal. It tells me how I can be the best person I can be in the CA community.”
Fernando Prieto Lin, Senior
Fernando Prieto Lin says he was more flattered than surprised when Walt Jones ’20 sent him a job application to become a Student Activist Coordinator for Amnesty International. Jones had been active in Amnesty International before graduating, and now he was passing the torch.
“Human rights have always been important to me,” Prieto Lin says. “Being able to be make meaningful change around the world, not just around CA, sealed the deal. I didn’t think twice. I feel like my voice is finally being heard on a much larger scale.”
Amnesty International, which won the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize, is a nonpartisan grassroots organization that works to preserve human rights and dignity around the world through protests and activism.
“Since we are living with COVID, we have had to find many detours to achieve what’s important to us,” Prieto Lin says. “But what’s important hasn’t changed.
“My job is to rally people in the community against different injustices that Amnesty brings to light. The goal here is to take action and create good, impactful change.”
Prieto Lin says CA has helped him “cultivate leadership traits.” Partnered with fellow Seniors Sofie Rossman and Ryan Gaghen, he presented at the 2020 PlatFORUM on the subject of climate change, seen through the lens of human rights. He is working to bring the ACLU to CA to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, and human rights.
“Especially in times of COVID when people cannot see each other, a leader unifies people,” he says. “A leader doesn’t cause panic, but instead demonstrates essential goodness and encourages others to do the same.”
Third Grade Buddies
On a warm September Friday morning, Third Grade teacher Stephanie Stone led her class on a walk from the Lower School to the Pre-Kindergarten Casita. At the end of their journey they reached a milestone. The Third Graders lined up and, one by one, were matched as a Third Grade Buddy with a Pre-Kindergartner. For the Third Graders, this was a magical moment—their first opportunity to be official leaders at Colorado Academy. Not even a pandemic could stop it.
“They have been asking every day since the beginning of school, ‘When do we get our buddies?’” says Stone. “This is their chance to become a caretaker, and they take their responsibilities very seriously.”
Once matched, the small groups scattered with a writing activity, but before long, they were just having fun with the big blue blocks on the playground. Particularly for a Third Grader who is the youngest child in a family or an only child, this is an opportunity mentor a younger child, but for all Third Graders, it’s the beginning of their role as CA leaders.
“That’s the big deal I make about it to them,” Stone says. “I ask them to remember what they liked when they had Third Grade buddies. We talk about making good choices and being role models.”
With the pandemic, this year’s buddies will not go on field trips together. And despite COVID-19, the buddy tradition will continue, with many opportunities for CA’s youngest students to learn from its youngest leaders.
Oliver Dean, Junior
Oliver Dean has been a student at CA since Pre-Kindergarten. That was a year he does not remember, but in his own words, he describes how it altered his life forever.
“At CA, kindness is integral in the way students, faculty, coaches, everyone, treats each other. It starts in Pre-Kindergarten, when CA instills certain values in four-year-olds, teaching them that everyone deserves dignity, respect, and kindness.
“When I was in Pre-K, my father died. I don’t have memories of being in school, but I have been told about how supportive and curious my classmates were at the time. They wanted to know how I was feeling, and how my mom was coping. Looking back on it, those were exactly the right questions to ask. In a time of grief, loss, and sadness, CA was a support system—and then some—for my family. Even from a young age, students at CA are taught to be respectful of others, even if they don’t have a shared experience.
“I would not say that my life has been defined by loss, but it has been shaped by loss. Being raised by a single woman has shaped my view of gender, sexuality, and driven me to seek equality for all, no matter their race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or religion. The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake renewed my motivation. I remember learning about Emmett Till in the Fourth Grade when Ms. Kolsun Jackson had us read The Watsons go to Birmingham. She talked about how this very young boy was killed, even though he had done nothing wrong.
“I feel connected to people from diverse backgrounds, because I am Jewish. For generations, my family has sought a just and equal society. I feel I should stand shoulder to shoulder with Black Americans who are fighting for equal rights.
“I spend a lot of my free time in the Diversity Pod in the Upper School. It’s a safe space to create community and no one questions your presence. It’s a place for people who have had shared experiences at home and at school. I don’t have to fear walking out of my house and being shot for no reason, I don’t fear being denied access to education, health care, or civil rights, so I feel it’s my obligation to bridge the gap between different worlds.”