The Christian Center launches leadership program at Ecker Hill | ParkRecord.com

The Christian Center launches leadership program at Ecker Hill

When you don't see someone who looks like you in a position of leadership, it can be difficult to picture yourself as a leader one day. The Christian Center hopes to change that.

The Park City Leadership Academy works to connect sixth-grade students to leaders in the community. Rob Harter, executive director of The Christian Center of Park City, recently started the program, which puts on monthly leadership-focused activities with students who are at risk of losing interest in school later down the road.

Max Ventura, Latino outreach coordinator for the center, and Harter said that the idea for the program emerged out of conversations with local organizations and individuals about how to better help students transition from elementary to secondary schools.

"We heard from administrators and teachers that kids, K through fifth, have great support, they were engaged and excited about school," Harter said. "In sixth grade, they started to see a shift."

He said that if those vulnerable students are not identified and helped in sixth grade, they are more likely to do worse with grades, performance and attendance and, eventually, may drop out entirely.

"Sixth grade was the turning point for either going south or continuing their education," he said.

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Harter presented the idea of the Park City Leadership Academy to the principal and vice principal of Ecker Hill Middle School, Traci Evans and Sam Salinas, respectively. They agreed, and selected 23 students.

The students so far have listened to local leaders such as Park City Mayor Jack Thomas, attended a multicultural leadership event in Sandy and, last week, sorted Christmas gifts for the center's Operation Hope. During each meeting, the speakers and PCLA organizers discuss the characteristics of leadership, such as dedication, honesty and service.

Liza Simpson, a volunteer for PCLA and former Park City Councilor, said that her goal is to show the students that there are different paths to success and that all leaders do not look the same. The philosophy she leads by is to teach leadership skills and then let the students develop and use the skills in their own way.

"Sometimes leader is sort of a scary term to people because they think that means you need to be elected to office or you need to be Bill Gates," she said. "They are much more focused on giving people skills to go out and make the world a better place, however they choose to do it."

Leslie Juarez, one of the students in the program, said that she has learned how important leadership skills are, which she never realized before the program. For her, the most important qualities are to be confident and believe in her abilities.

Alejandro Reynoso said he has learned that leaders always have barriers in life that they have to overcome. Esteban Rocha said leaders need to be kind and helpful.

Harter, Ventura and Simpson have events planned for the rest of the school year, and then plan to re-assess the program and make changes as needed. So far, it is hard for them to tell if they are making a difference, but hearing positive responses from kids is always a good sign.

After listening to a speaker at one of their events, Harter was surprised to hear that the majority of the kids raised their hands after to share what they learned.

Harter said that in this way, it feels like the program is successful. Still, he hopes that every student can leave the program saying that they know what leadership is and feel like they can be a leader themselves. Plus, he wants to hear from teachers and administrators at Ecker Hill that the students are behaving better and becoming involved.

During the last session, Harter plans on inviting members from the Latinos in Action and Bright Futures student groups so that the students can continue to participate in leadership roles and stay involved in extra-curricular activities.

"I've seen how these kids, now that they are growing, are starting to think on their own. They are experiencing a whole new world," Ventura said. "If they don't have a mentor or aspiring leaders, they are vulnerable. If you give them enough support, they will continue to move forward in schools and in any way they want to succeed."