Innovation in the classroom: Students learn leadership skills at ‘Lead University’

HARLINGEN — They’ve taken the lead.

Students at Lead University are at the helm of a new approach in community service projects. It’s an approach which by necessity, opens new doors toward goals which continuously transform and mature.

“I like the general idea of speaking to people and expressing our ideas,” said Marco Benavides, a junior at Harlingen School for Health Professions.

Marco, 17, is a student at Lead University, an innovative leadership program developed last year by two teachers at Harlingen School for Health Professions. His group is working on the health hazards of smoking in public places. The other group is developing a mentorship program for students who are the first in their families to graduate from high school.

The concept for Lead University was developed by teachers Bianca Rodriguez and Ashley Perez. They had planned to open the university to 30 students who would meet once a month to work on one project.

However, the design changed quickly.

“At the beginning, when we first did the program we did one whole group,” Rodriguez said. “When we spoke to the students and heard their ideas, we felt it would be better if we didn’t force them to do one program.”

And so it was that the students at Lead University took the ball and ran with it. As part of Lead University, they’ve brainstormed issues in the community along with solutions. They’ve delegated authority for specific tasks, received input from guest speakers, and solved new challenges along the way.

Contemporary leadership skills involve the capacity for quick innovation. Such is the process of young minds seeking innovative answers to familiar questions.

“Our project is a city-wide ban on smoking in public places,” said Marco. “We want to educate people.”

In the course of researching the topic, Marco and his fellow leaders have accumulated a wealth of information. Apparently, even the tossing of cigarette butts onto grass and sidewalks can pose a heath hazard. They’re eagerly educating themselves on these matters for the purpose of educating others.

Education is what it’s all about, said Adriana Pacheco, 15. She’s in the other Lead University group which is developing a program to mentor students who will be the first in their families to graduate from high school.

While a great deal of attention has been focused on first-generation college graduates, little has been said about first generation high school graduates.

“Most of their parents didn’t go to college so they didn’t have the experience of filling out college applications,” said Adriana, a freshman at HSHP.

“We’re developing a sort of tutoring system for helping students,” Adriana said.

Lead University had originally been intended for eighth graders. However, the student body at Lead includes students in eighth through 11th grade. Rodriguez said she felt a broader range of students could provide more diversity of thought and action.

“They bring a different experience,” Rodriguez said. “They could have more guidance. The older students didn’t’ take over.”

The students at Lead are creating new experiences for themselves, pooling them together and discovering novel solutions.

These are solutions which serve both the community and the yearning of new generations seeking innovative solutions.