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School Spotlight - Harriet Thompson is growing student leaders

Fifth grade student leaders walk administrators and community members through HT. When Ava Medina was in kindergarten she remembers looking up to the fifth graders at Harriet Thompson Elementary School. She always knew when she made it to fifth grade, she too would be a leader of the school.

“They teach us that we’re leaders and that we can do these things,” said Medina, who is a fifth grader this year.

It’s a message ingrained in the culture of the school – Harriet Thompson is growing student leaders.

Principal Julie Wysong said it’s always been important to her that her students feel like they have a stake in their school.

“I want them to have that sense of ownership,” Wysong said.

She said growing student leaders is an idea that starts as soon as the kids enter school at Harriet Thompson.

“In kindergarten and first grade they hear about being a leader of the school,” Wysong said.

And at the end of every school year – during their last all-school assembly in June – students are given a chance to celebrate their growth. Kindergarteners are introduced as the new first graders, first graders as the new second graders and finally – the big one – fourth graders as the new fifth graders and school leaders.

Creating a culture where students know that one day they’re expected to be leaders of the school is so ingrained in every day life at Harriet Thompson that students don’t get a chance to doubt their role.

Fifth grade teacher Abel Aguilera said he’s never had a class come in questioning their place in the school.

“I think it comes back to the growth mindset,” Aguilera said.

He said when students enter his classroom in the fall, they come in knowing they are the school leaders. They know that they need to set a good example and they know what is expected of them.

That’s one reason this year’s fifth graders are being given an added responsibility.

Wysong is asking every fifth grade student to participate in a classroom walkthrough before the end of the year.

This year the district has had a strong focus on classroom walkthroughs – pushing for administrators, teachers and staff to spend time visiting different classrooms to see what is happening outside of their specific roles.

The idea was spawned after watching last year’s fifth grade WE Day kids step into stronger leadership roles. The WE Day students were responsible for helping during TEAM assemblies and taking on some tutoring duties.

The idea of expanded leadership roles for WE Day students was so well received that this year the number of fifth grade WE Day students skyrocketed. The group went from 17 members last year to 35 members this year.

The immense interest in the group led Wysong to decide to offer some of those leadership responsibilities to every fifth grader in the school, including the classroom walkthroughs.

Walkthroughs happen at Harriet Thompson on a regular basis. Teachers and administrators will walkthrough classrooms to see what other staff are doing and how they’re engaging students. It’s a way to see first-hand some of the different strategies teachers are employing in their classrooms.

Wysong said fifth graders take part in the walkthroughs twice a week during their recess – when kindergarten and first-grade classes are still in session. Students are instructed to pay attention to learning targets, student engagement and the different things that are in the classroom. A different group of fifth graders accompanies administrators during walkthroughs every time – with the idea that every fifth grader will get a chance to do a walkthrough before the end of the year.

“They need to know what’s going on in their own school,” Wysong said.

Aguilera said the students who participate are given a quick pep talk before they enter their first classroom. Wysong tells the students what’s expected of them and what the purpose of the visit is, then they go in.

The first group of fifth graders to do the walkthroughs served as tour guides during February’s Day with Our Student event. The students led community members through classrooms pointing out certain things they should take note of and answering questions.

Aguilera said his students took the responsibility seriously.

Students prepped for the big day, took part in a rehearsal walkthrough and then talked to their fellow students about what to expect when they get called on to do walkthroughs.

First grade teacher Sondra Aguilar has both walked through classrooms with fifth graders and had fifth graders walk through her classroom.

Aguilar said after students walked through her classroom she was impressed to hear them making the connection between what her first graders were doing in math and they were doing in math in fifth grade.

Aguilar said the students also have a unique perspective. They’ve been in these classrooms before as first graders. They have experience in the classroom and know what’s happening. They can take what they observe and really put it into context.

And as a teacher, Aguilar said it’s been great to see her former students blossom into fifth graders who aren’t afraid to ask questions, make observations and have conversations with teachers. It’s also been a good learning experience for her first graders.

“I told them that one day when they’re in fifth grade, that they’ll be able to do this too,” Aguilar said.