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Citizenship in the Upper School

How can we partner in order to ensure that our children develop the habits of mind to contemplate what is meaningful and to look for and embrace opportunities to positively impact the world around them?

by Upper School Principal Jon Leef

In September of 2014 at my previous school in New Jersey, I sat with my eight junior advisees in our regular advisory meeting. We were enjoying a snack and exchanging pleasantries about the previous weekend when one of the juniors mentioned that she had attended the People's Climate March in New York City. She was not a "mover and shaker" in the school's environmental club, but something inside her told her to go. She told all of us that it had taken approximately three hours of her Sunday to get to the city and meet up with her schoolmates. Needless to say, my other advisees reacted strongly to this nightmare commute—a typical central New Jersey reaction.

"Why didn't you turn around?"

"You aren't President of the Enviro Club, are you?"

"I would have turned around."

This particular advisee was comfortable in her own skin, and while she was slightly embarrassed fielding the indignant reactions of her peers, she simply looked around the faces of the group and said, "I thought it was important." So was created an advisory exercise that I did each subsequent year. I asked each of my advisees to reflect on the question: What issue would inspire you to march? This question remains pertinent in my current role as Upper School Principal at Rye Country Day.

It is a tough question for adolescents to answer—after all, their focus tends to be inward—but if we can shepherd our youngsters toward seriously considering the question by the time they are juniors and seniors, I think we are doing something right. How do we get there? I submit that focusing on empathy, encouraging reflection, and providing opportunities to practice citizenship are critical steps along the journey.

At the opening assembly of the year, I remind students that every person in our community has a story that has led them to Rye Country Day. Some chapters of the stories are familiar to us while others may challenge our ability to empathize. Some chapters hold allure while others may frighten or intimidate. Being among individuals who are open to learning about one another's chapters makes a school community a special place where good citizenship thrives. At this same assembly, I also acknowledge that the incredible opportunities available to us at RCDS fuel an energetic, fast-paced experience. Students work hard and are busy—and they must think deeply about the choices they make. To close the assembly, I make a promise to our new Upper School students and faculty members on behalf of the returning students and faculty: Even in the midst of our (sometimes) frenetic school lives, we will stop what we are doing to help you. This choice, this priority, is a building block for the community, and we act upon its importance.

What happens in the Upper School that encourages community members to rise above cultural forces that tell our students to focus solely on themselves and future college applications? What urges our students to thoughtfully consider and develop their citizenship at RCDS and beyond? As it turns out, a great deal. Here are just a few highlights:

  • In late August, we host a Leadership Conference for Upper Schoolers who hold leadership roles in athletics, Student Government, or our extensive club offerings. The workshops focus on the responsibilities of student leaders within the community, and the leaders set goals and begin to develop their plans to attain them.

  • The summer is also time for the RCDS Ethics Project, a retreat developed by an interdisciplinary faculty collaboration aimed at expanding students' knowledge and analytical skills around matters pertaining to ethical awareness and active, purpose-driven engagement. This year's theme was ethics and the law. The participants were thrilled to tell me about their discussion of restorative justice and their hope to promote and contribute to open dialogue around campus. I should note that several students are actively (and independently) leading campus initiatives to foster "brave spaces," places where students can openly discuss important issues.

  • The RCDS Advisory program also offers opportunities for students to contemplate their roles as citizens within the community. Throughout the year, older students have the opportunity to give advice to their younger schoolmates. Advisor groups engage in challenging discussions, and individuals are encouraged to reflect on their own roles within these dialogues and within the community.

  • Through our Peer Leadership program, a group of juniors and seniors who have devoted well over 50 hours to leadership training help to guide our youngest Upper Schoolers through their first year of high school. Working with faculty mentors, these Peer Leaders deliver our Life Skills program to freshmen. The program addresses topics related to health and wellness, transition to high school, communication, and relationships. The Life Skills program encourages freshmen to find their voices while contributing positively to the school community.

  • Citizenship also finds its way into the more formal curriculum. For the third year, a group of our Spanish students will use their language skills while supporting the efforts of the Caritas Food Bank and Pantry. Our Coding for a Cause class is also supporting this Port Chester organization. Also for the third year, our AP Computer Science A students will take on a service project within the College Board's AP with WE Service program. This year, students in our AP Biology and AP Environmental Science classes will also embrace this service opportunity.

How can we partner in order to ensure that our children develop the habits of mind to contemplate what is meaningful and to look for and embrace opportunities to positively impact the world around them? They are developing within a school community—and a moment in history—that can feel "high stakes and high stress." I think it is critical to ask great questions and then listen. What issues outside themselves do they find engaging and important? What inspires them? How and when do they feel that they can make their voice heard? We should take great interest in these answers.

It is also important for our children to self-advocate. This helps develop voice and efficacy, and it is a key step in preparing the child for the path rather than the path for the child. Finally, we must be great role models. Do we demonstrate a growth mindset? Do we positively impact those around us—simply because we can? Do we model the engagement, curiosity, kindness, and leadership we wish to see in our youth?

And, one more thing: What issues would inspire us to march?

On September 20, 2019, about 75 members of RCDS Upper School community answered the question when they marched to the Rye Village Green as part of the Global Climate Strike. Let's work together to empower and make space for all of our students to contemplate that question.

In partnership,
Jon Leef
Upper School Principal