In an ever-changing world that is constantly demanding more from its leaders, Head of School Brent Bell saw a need for more comprehensive leadership education at Darlington. In partnership with the University of Georgia’s J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, this idea became a reality for students in grades 7 and 8 last spring.
The Darlington School Leadership Institute (DSLI) met during Exploratory period, and students began learning from the Fanning Institute’s Youth Leadership in Action curriculum, guided by a variety of faculty facilitators.
“Darlington students are constantly asked to be leaders, whether that be in the classroom, on athletic teams or in performing arts groups, in clubs, and more; however, our leadership training didn’t match the expectations placed on them,” said Bell. “It is my hope that DSLI will help all of our students grow as question-askers, doers and servant leaders. This is an opportunity for them to think about who they are, who they want to be, and their role as a citizen in our community and beyond. They are developing these skills today so that they can make a difference in the future in whatever environment they are in.”
Students involved in the program began by learning foundational leadership principles like communication and understanding differences. This curriculum will serve as an introductory course, and students will progress in knowledge as they move throughout the program.
Bell acknowledged that these can be heavy topics for 13- and 14-year-olds; however, he feels that it is important for students to have these conversations early.
“Leadership isn’t about holding a certain position. We want to teach our students that leadership is positionless before they reach Upper School-age and someone tells them differently,” he said. “Because they are already engaged in an active learning process in their other courses, our students were well-equipped to gain a deep understanding of leadership principles. They were able to relate the lessons to their personal lives, helping them make deeper connections to the curriculum.”
Seventh- and eighth-graders welcomed the new program with open minds. Students were excited to engage with classmates that were outside of their regular social circles as they tackled questions of identity and leadership.
Isha Garg (‘27) said she enjoyed the structure of the class and felt that she learned valuable lessons in leadership simply by getting to interact with a variety of faculty members that she didn’t see on a regular basis.
“It was a good idea to have different leaders on campus teach the class,” she said. “Getting to know these leaders helped me learn how to be a better leader and what a leader really is.”
Murray Ellington (‘26) feels he experienced significant growth as a result of the class. During DSLI sessions, he saw how a group of different individuals could most effectively work together to accomplish a common goal, and he put that into practice in his role on the National Junior Honor Society leadership team last year.
“I learned a lot from the program and my classmates did, too,” said Ellington. “It will be really beneficial to expand this to the Upper School.”
DSLI has also launched an annual speaker series that will feature a wide variety of leaders in their fields and communities. The inaugural speaker was Laura Whitaker, CEO of Extra Special People (ESP), a nonprofit that aims to create transformative experiences for people with disabilities and their families, changing communities for the better.
“Seventh- and eighth-graders joined Upper School students for Laura’s address, in which she shared personal lessons gained from her experience as a young leader who became the executive director of ESP at the age of 19,” said Bell. “The principles of leadership should be accessible to all students, and that’s what we hope to accomplish with the speaker series.”
Additional Upper School expansions include engaging with student-leaders during Leader Week at the beginning of the school year and a collaboration with the Boys & Girls Life program, where the curriculum is adapted to address relevant topics to each grade level. For example, ninth-graders might explore their sense of self, while seniors might learn about transitional leadership as they prepare to graduate.
“Darlington is a great example of how leadership education can be embedded into everyday curriculum to support student and school development,” said Lauren Healey, senior public service faculty member with the Fanning Institute, a unit of UGA Public Service and Outreach. “In addition to working with students, we’ve held workshops for Darlington educators that focus on their personal leadership development. The commitment Darlington has made to build leadership capacity at all levels of learning is to be commended.”