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Summer Leadership Academy connects students with community, goals, solutions

Equity Partner Jasper Armstrong leads a discussion at the Summer Leadership Academy at Horizon Community Middle School in JulSmoky Hill High School sophomore Leana Gaafar wasn’t sure what to expect when she walked into the Cherry Creek School District’s first Summer Leadership Academy and Anti-Violence Initiative in June.

Gaafar, along with more than 20 other high school students, took part in a six-week summer program that culminated in a capstone project on how to reduce gun violence. Funded by the Cherry Creek Schools Foundation, the Leadership Academy aimed to teach students to set goals, create a social contract, communicate, and respectfully debate with others. The program stemmed from firsthand feedback from CCSD students following incidents of violence in local communities. At the end of the program, Gaafar and her peers were amazed at how much they had grown.

“It was 100% worth it,” Gaafar said. “I would do it over and over again if I’m given the opportunity. This has truly impacted my life in such a positive way. I believe my voice is important and I deserve to pursue being on stage giving a lecture at an Ivy League university.”

The students’ capstone presentation at Horizon Middle School on July 22 included statistics on gun violence, proposed strategies, and personal stories that offered a sense of sobering reality to the audience of parents, CCSD staff, and community members. Students also shared solutions, including investing in mental health professionals of color, creating a community that listens, and addressing gun laws.

These presentations stemmed from weeks’ worth of interactions, investment and engagement on the part of the students from the Overland and Smoky Hill high school communities. Tre Rangel, a 17-year-old incoming senior at Smoky Hill, said he decided to enroll in the program along with his brother to offer his younger sibling support and guidance. In the process, he gained valuable insights and resources that will serve him far beyond his time in CCSD.

“I’ve learned that I need to express myself more … In our main community group, we’ve talked about how to be able to stay out of the violence and how to help each other grow. In the individual classes, we talk more about how to connect with each other,” Rangel said, adding that he wants to return to the Leadership Academy as a mentor and a leader. “I’ve learned I can step up and use my voice.”

The Aurora Unit of the NAACP partnered with the CCSD Leadership Academy on a pipeline program that engages students about careers in journalism. There were workshops by the NAACP and coaching to assist students with their final projects. Many students will continue the program and present their projects at a future NAACP Meeting. The Leadership Academy Students received additional stipends from the Aurora Unit of the NAACP for participating in the journalism pipeline program. 

The foundational rules that students learned during the Leadership Academy – support, understanding, accountability, engagement, communication, and self-control – echoed the core values of the Cherry Creek School District – growth mindset, equity, whole wellbeing, engagement, and relationships. According to Jasper Armstrong, a partner in the Equity, Culture, and Community Engagement department and a leader of the Summer Leadership Academy program, aligning the mission of the academy with the values of the district added a valuable dynamic for the students and instructors alike.

“As an educator, that’s the stuff that you live for, to see the light bulb turn on for these students, to watch them teach one another, to watch them make real-world connections. That’s what curriculum should produce, a change in our actions and beliefs,” Armstrong said. “This program has touched every part of the district, from food to HR to operations. The Cherry Creek School Foundation stepping up and leading the way has really helped remove barriers and make this happen. It’s a testament to what can happen when we, as adults in the space, can say that it’s necessary.
“It’s a huge lesson for us as a district,” he added.Students at the Summer Leadership Academy at Horizon Community Middle School in July.

During their capstone presentation held at Horizon Community Middle School, students said that as a direct result of this program, they grew in their confidence, communication skills, and ability to connect with others. This supports the district’s core value of Whole Wellbeing: students, staff, and the community deserve to feel safe, supported, challenged, and have spaces where they can thrive.

Claudio Razuri Aranguri, a sophomore at Smoky Hill High School, shared his story with the help of a Spanish-language interpreter.

“I am really thankful to be part of this program,” Aranguri said. “When I initially came into the program, I had no intention of being part of the community. I said I would keep to myself and now it’s the end of the program. I did the opposite and I made so many friends.”

Jequiveonta Dreger, a sophomore at Overland High School, said that adults don’t always see young people as solution-finders.

“Adults should be more understanding,” Dreger said. “Kids are often treated differently and deserve equal respect and communication so that we can come together so we can be a unit.”

Armstrong thanked the students at the end of the presentation for their hard work and reminded the students that they had accomplished an incredible amount in six weeks.

“I affirm that there is greatness in each and every one of you,” Armstrong said. “Don’t ever in your life play second fiddle to anyone. The greatness I see in you comes from the authenticity inside of you.”

-- Posted 8/2/22 at 8 AM