Real world experience is the core of High School leadership class

Erin Reed, State Safe Routes to School coordinator, addresses the leadership class at the Martha's Vineyard Regional high School. — Photo by Tony Omer

Erin Reed, the state coordinator for Safe Routes to School (SRTS), visited Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) teacher Andrew Vandall’s leadership class on Friday and taught them how to use crosswalks and side walks safely. She also told them about the federally financed program she works for to help increase the health of school students by encouraging them to walk or ride bicycles to school. Mr. Vandall’s class takes on projects and Ms. Reed was asking for their help.

According to Mr. Vandall, in his first year teaching at the MVRHS, the leadership class is an elective open to juniors and seniors. It requires initiative and a desire to at least learn how to accomplish a task. It is a class that encourages real world experience. “It is the students’ job to not only decide which projects they will become involved with but how to make them happen,” he said, in a conversation within the caldron of activity that is the school cafeteria at lunchtime.

He said that so much of a high school education is centered on a fixed curriculum with teachers laying out what the students need to know. The leadership class, usually made up of 20 to 25 students, is an attempt to enable the students to apply some of what they learn in the classroom to real-world situations.

“The leadership class is an opportunity for students to develop meaningful projects during school to reach authentic, individual goals based on their interests personally, academically, or within the community,” said Mr. Vandall. “It is a great class, with a very serious, student-centered curriculum that allows the students to set and attain specific goals.”

Former MVRHS principal Peg Regan, program director for Mass in Motion-MV, funded by SRTS, was in the classroom during the presentation. She and Mr. Vandall came up with the idea of presenting the leadership class with the SRTS project. If they agree, the class would organize training sessions for Island elementary school students in road, bicycle, and sidewalk safety and would help identify areas around the Island’s schools, roads, and sidewalks that could use safety improvements.

After lunch, Ms. Reed presented an outline of what SRTS is all about. She said the SRTS programs attempt to involve parents, schools, community leaders and local, state, and federal governments to improve the health and well-being of children by enabling and encouraging them to walk and bicycle to school.

Some of the SRTS programs examine conditions around schools and work to improve safety and accessibility. She said she hopes the programs will reduce traffic and air pollution in the vicinity of schools making bicycling and walking to school safer and more appealing transportation choices. This should help encourage a healthy and active lifestyle from an early age, she said.

Ms. Reed then took the class out into the parking lot where she demonstrated the finer points of pedestrian safety — the safer places to walk on sidewalks, and crosswalk and stop sign etiquette, among others. The students were attentive and quickly volunteered when asked to illustrate different points.

Ms. Reed also touched on methods of teaching pedestrian safety. To emphasize the value of walking over running near traffic she had three volunteers sprint and then stop on command and made note of the lengthy stopping distances required as opposed to stopping from a walking speed.

The leadership class has already agreed to take on several projects. One of the projects to date is a gleaning project, taking excess produce that might not be good enough to put on a retail shelf from area farms and distributing it to schools and food banks. The class worked at Morning Glory Farm and with Kaila Binney at Island Grown Schools. They are planning a trip to The FARM Institute. They worked with second graders from the Oak Bluffs School on part of this project.

The class also has plans to help clean and replant the garden at Woodside Village elderly housing. The safe routes to school project may be in their future.

“I also am looking into working with The Boys and Girls Club,” Mr. Vandall said. “My idea is for students to gain mentor experience with the kids who attend after-school and weekend programs.”

Another program he would like his class to take on would be in conjunction with the West Tisbury School’s Students for Sustainability effort. The school won a state grant to fund the project to promote Island sustainable living.

Mr. Vandall said his role as the teacher in the leadership class “is solely to facilitate the direction of the interests and goals of the students.” He said that he stresses goal setting, public speaking, leadership skills, and learning for enjoyment.

It is important to actually be a better person, not just study how to be one, according to Mr. Vandall. He said he hopes that his classes will benefit the students, the Martha’s Vineyard community, and the world beyond.