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December 10, 2019
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Empowering Student Leaders

In and out of the classroom, on the field and onstage, Newark Academy empowers its students to lead. The school’s curricular and extra-curricular programs seek to ensure that all students develop the qualities they will need to be effective leaders – now and long into the future – through a focus on skill development that extends far beyond what one might find at a typical school, where leadership is often seen as the domain of students serving on student government or organizing club activities. The dedication and innovation of NA’s faculty and coaches help students become young adults who are not only driven to contribute to their communities but also practiced in inspiring others to join them. Here we highlight three of the many ways in which lessons in leadership come alive on campus.

Tennis Greats

“We over me.” Three simple words, the mantra of the boys’ varsity tennis team last year, reflect a key aspect of the coaching philosophy of tennis coach Lou Scerra. Lou’s approach seeks to help his players develop more than just a powerful serve; he wants them to develop the skills of leadership – of listening to others, of putting team before self, and of acquitting oneself with character and grace. These, says Lou, are lifelong skills that will lead to success on and off the court.

“Leaders make the people around them better,” reflects Lou, who, in addition to coaching girls’ and boys’ tennis, teaches English, serves as NA’s director of institutional strategy and research, and recently earned his M.B.A. from Duke University with a concentration in leadership and ethics. “There’s a misplaced notion that high school tennis is an individual sport,” he says. “We work hard to reframe the tennis experience as one that prioritizes teamwork and collective growth.”

The team’s outstanding record reflects the impact of Lou’s philosophy. Last year, the team went 23–3, winning the conference, county and state titles; they ended the season ranked second in the state of New Jersey. While Lou is rightfully proud of the team’s tournament successes, he is equally proud of the ways in which his players have embraced the title and role of leader.

Major Intervals

To jazz musician and NA Jazz Director Julius Tolentino, leadership and musicianship go hand in hand. “Students and adults often think leaders are the most outspoken people in a group,” says Julius. “I try to foster leaders that first think of inclusion, listening to their fellow musicians and encouraging everyone’s strengths.” Real leaders, he notes, ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. “The star of the band is the band,” he tells his students.

Julius’ approach to student leadership development has attracted the attention of educators far beyond the band room at NA. In August 2019, he presented his philosophy of leadership development to Newark Academy’s varsity sports coaches, offering a profound yet simple message: “All players must see themselves as leaders – every practice, every performance. No one can shirk that responsibility and try to blend in with the crowd.” In February, Julius will deliver a keynote address on the same topic at the Jazz Outreach Initiative’s national conference in Las Vegas.

Under Julius’s directorship, Chameleon, NA’s elite jazz band, has qualified to compete five times in Essentially Ellington, the national competition of high-school jazz bands, placing second in the nation in 2018. For 10 consecutive years, Chameleon has placed first at the New Jersey Association for Jazz Education Band Competition.

While Julius credits much of the group’s success to his players’ technical skills, he is quick to point out that it rests equally on the leadership skills students practice every time they pick up their instruments.

Leading Everyday

Middle School Principal Tom Ashburn knows that leadership is something early adolescents both yearn for from others and seek to exercise themselves. “Middle-school-aged kids want boundaries,” reflects Tom, “but they also want to have a say in shaping those boundaries. When we give them that say, when we make them leaders, the entire community benefits.”

The 8th Grade Community Leadership Day is one of the ways that eighth graders at NA – often the de facto leaders in the Middle School – learn the importance of leadership and the ways in which they can and must be leaders. Throughout the day, students not only explore concepts of community, leadership and service but also develop the skills of advocacy, empathy and teamwork.

Each year, the day is full of engaging work. In the morning, students participate in simulations and role-play activities. In the afternoon, small groups complete service projects on campus. “It is such a joy to have time for deep conversations about why community matters and to give students the opportunity to practice leadership,” reflects science teacher and 8th Grade Team Leader Rachael Reeves, who helps organize the day each year. “Students have a lot of fun,” she says, “but more than that, they learn that they can lead in myriad ways – from standing up for others, to supporting younger students, to doing what’s right even when no one is watching.”

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