Administration & Leadership

How Principals Can Support Student and Teacher Leadership Across Grade Levels

Fostering leadership skills across the school is a way to forge a strong community. See how one award-winning principal makes this happen.

December 14, 2023
Courtesy of Ryan Suppes

Many school leaders are supportive of student leadership, whether through student government, community service clubs, or other outlets that allow students to take initiative and have an impact on what happens in their school. Not every principal, however, thinks intentionally about adult-student collaboration in leadership endeavors—how to create spaces in which young people have a say in important decisions about their learning space and community. 

When Julie Scott joined R.L. Wright Elementary School in the Sedgwick Public School Unified School District in Kansas as principal five years ago, she was determined to do just that. By instituting authentic student leadership initiatives that connect students to each other across grade levels as well as to the adults in their school and elders in their town, Scott catalyzed meaningful collaboration and action at school, earning R.L. Wright a National Blue Ribbon School designation from the U.S. Department of Education in 2022. 

I spoke with Scott about her approach to building empowered relationships—between teachers, including across grade levels; between parent educators and new parents in the community; and between students of all ages—that support leadership and learning through meaningful connection. 

BRITTANY COLLINS: What are you most proud of from your tenure as a school leader?

JULIE SCOTT: The district I’m in right now is very small—we have 500 students in the whole district, one elementary school. Everything we do is a direct result of my incredible, hardworking staff. When I came to Sedgwick, I kept hearing teachers and parents say, “We need early learning.” And after looking at various supporting data sets, we opened the pre-K in what turned out to be the first year of Covid. 

We have also added parent-teacher programs to try to get that birth-to-3-year-old age range going, through a home visiting program. Parent educators go into the homes once or twice a month, prenatal through 3 years old. They go in with developmental milestones that the kids should have. They talk to the parents about what concerns they have and do a monthly assessment of where the child is. They bring activities. My own granddaughter is in the program—it’s free to anybody, and there are no qualifications.

Also, when I came six years ago, I spent the first year trying to gather information from every staff member the summer before I started. I found out what they liked, what they didn’t like, what they wished they could change. And I thought, “I need to put that in practice with students,” so I took recommendations about student leaders from teachers and created a principal advisory team. We met once a month for the first two to three years. It’s transitioned into a student council now. 

COLLINS: What types of projects have students in the principal advisory team or the student council engaged in?

SCOTT: I wanted the kids’ input on any changes we made. I’m a big quotes person—I love quotes, and I incorporate them with the students—so I told them I wanted some quotes throughout the building, painted or vinyl, and I let the kids select the quotes, and they helped me figure out where we were going to put them. 

We also raised money with our PTO to create a new playground area. The team did research on the different types of equipment and figured out what they wanted, and then they had to look at the prices. Once we actually got it ordered and in, instead of having a company install it, we hired one guy who had the tools and knowledge. We paid him to come and spend a day, and we invited the community to come out and build it. We had 50 or 60 kids, parents, grandparents, teachers, and even a couple of community members who didn’t even have kids in the school. And we built the playground.

It was a really great learning experience. Those kids are now in middle school, and some of them are still active in their student council.

COLLINS: How else have you connected student leaders with their local community?

SCOTT: We have a senior citizen center, and they have a breakfast every Tuesday. Last year our high school student council served breakfast once a month, and this year, our elementary students are going to serve breakfast to the senior citizens. Next week is our first one, and we’re really excited about that—trying to bring student leadership and community together for different purposes.

COLLINS: You’re passionate about making connections across grade levels. Can you tell me how you do that?

SCOTT: My building is pre-K through sixth, and we have a seventh-through-12th principal who I work really closely with. We have a program for which students interview to be a champ leader. It’s like a big brother, big sister program for kids whose teachers recommend them, who for whatever reason might be at risk or need that extra connection. They meet weekly, they have lunch together, they’ll go play basketball together. It’s a positive connection. 

High school kids can also come over and be aides in the elementary school; we have a couple who work with our pre-K. We also have a “FAB” program that I’m proud of. It’s kind of like a family group—“family activity builders” is what the acronym is for. Every adult in our building has a FAB family they meet with once a month that includes at least one student from every grade level, kindergarten through sixth grade. 

They stay a FAB family the whole time they’re here. My first grader becomes my second grader next year, and so on. The purpose supports that relationship piece—trying to make sure that every student has a consistent adult. 

Each family has a different color, and we take FAB family pictures and put them on the wall. The monthly activity is usually nonacademic—we might do friendship bracelets or something fun to get to know each other. 

It allows teachers to make connections with kids they wouldn’t normally connect with. 

COLLINS: How do you connect teachers across grade levels?

SCOTT: When I started and met with teachers, there were two really big ideas that came out. One was they felt like they were all on their own island—they didn’t have connections outside of a co-teacher. The other idea was they didn’t have time for professional learning. 

So I focused the first three or four years on collaboration and team-building. I always say, “The teachers that play together stay together.” Every professional development day, there’s some small challenge, and the points accumulate all year. This Monday, my teachers did Minute to Win It challenges. Last month they did a Great Cookie Bake-Off. The high school teachers are doing the same thing, judging our cookies, and we judge theirs—it’s a yearlong contest. Winners get bragging rights throughout the year and get to select the lunch menu for the next in-service day.

It’s fun to get to know our colleagues on a different level. It’s taken four or five years to get to where we trust each other more. Now we know each other—just knowing each other is a big deal. 

We created professional learning communities right off the bat. I had them at my previous school and felt that was really important. While we do look at student data, it’s also a time that we look into what teacher teams want to learn about. We’ve had teachers do a book study and bring ideas back to the team, and then they all try it and talk about what worked, what didn’t work.

We meet once a week for 45 minutes, not just with co-teachers but third and fourth grade, then fifth and sixth. The feedback has been very positive. I want to do even more cross-grade-level collaboration. 

COLLINS: Who sparked your passion for leadership?

SCOTT: I grew up very involved in sports, and my high school basketball coach inspired me more than anyone else. She would start every day, every practice, with a quote. She would have us not just listen to the quote and go to practice, but think about it, and then she would pick one of us to share what it meant to us. I think that instilled my love of being a reflective leader—thinking about how, sometimes, conversations mean more than what they mean on the surface. She brought that out in us. She was, and still is, a fierce competitor. But she also reflected and found deep meaning in many things. Her name was Jean Gibbs.

COLLINS: That brings us full circle to your quote project with student leadership. Is there a quote that most inspires you? 

SCOTT: There is one that I taught my third graders every single year. They had to memorize it, and then I would use it all year long. It’s “Those who think they can, and those who think they can’t, are absolutely right.”

This interview has been edited for brevity, clarity, and flow.

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