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Helping students feel confident in an uncertain world

By Camille Sandahl 

Like many children, Jayden had trouble adjusting to being in school after the pandemic shutdowns. She was incredibly quiet and shy. She didn’t answer questions or engage during class. She never had a chance to shine.  

The Student Leadership Project changed all that.

School Age Program Coordinator Jessica Hart loves watching kids learn. 

She gives an example: “Recently, one of my students figured out how to snap their fingers. It was fun seeing the look of absolute delight when they heard their first snap,” Jessica said. “I like watching things click into place.”  

That’s why she created the Student Leadership Project. The project is part of Neighborhood House’s School Age Program, where Jessica coordinates before- and after-school child care that offers children from working families a safe and nurturing “home away from home.”  

The Student Leadership Project has helped Jayden and many other students feel confident and secure returning to the classroom in an uncertain, post-pandemic world.  

Jessica notes that many children have had issues returning to school. “The pandemic really affected their ability to cope in a school setting. Our School Age program makes a huge difference with that,” she said. School Age staff can take more time with individual students to bolster the social lessons kids learn in a school setting. 

“This kid group is incredibly kind. No one is excluded. Everybody deserves a chance to be welcomed.”

Program Coordinator Jessica Hart

Jessica models the Student Leadership Project after a real-life job search process. Students take the process very seriously. They fill out a job application. Then Jessica invites them for an interview. She shakes their hand and sits down from them across a table. She asks interview questions like, “If you were a student leader, what activities would you plan for your classmates?” and what they think it means to be a good leader.

Their answers include common themes around kindness, empathy and respect.  

“This kid group is incredibly kind. No one is excluded. Everybody deserves a chance to be welcomed,” said Jessica. 

After the interview, Jessica presents each student, now brimming with importance, with an official Leadership Badge on a lanyard. Jessica said most of the students leave the interview “with beaming smiles on their faces.” It differs from a real job interview in one key way: every kid who applies is accepted.  

The student leaders then get to run the activity they proposed during their interview. They range from art projects and board games, journal prompts and clubs. “Sometimes I have to reign them in,” Jessica said. She has to consider the prep and cost of a given project, and make sure there’s always a variety of activities on offer. Even though it’s a kid favorite, “they can’t always be painting,” Jessica said. 

Student leaders are expected “to make good choices and help out,” Jessica said. But the program is designed to put the students first. “If they don’t feel like they’re in a good space to be a leader that day, they don’t have to wear their lanyard.” There’s no judgment.  

Jessica started the Student Leadership Project at Sabin Elementary. She was recognized as Employee of the Month for her efforts, and now her program will be replicated at all four PPS schools in N and NE Portland where the Neighborhood House School Age program is based.  

Jayden, once so quiet and clingy, has since earned her very own Leadership Badge. After seeing her friends apply, she asked Jessica for an application. Jayden interviewed and was, of course, accepted. Buoyed by her bravery and new sense of responsibility, Jayden “really came out of her shell,” said Jessica.  

Now Jayden engages daily with her peers as a true leader. She helps the younger kids with crafts and leads activities she’s planned.  She has started to share her thoughts and ideas during the Community Meeting — a group meeting where students and teachers plan for the week.

Jayden is just one student who benefits from Jessica’s patience and understanding. Sometimes all it takes is trust and time for a kid to shine.  We can all benefit by asking ourselves the same questions Jessica asks her students: “How can we make someone else feel good today? How can we put a smile on someone’s face?” 

“How can we make someone else feel good today?
How can we put a smile on someone’s face?”

jessica hart, school age program coordinator