This article originally appeared in the winter 2010 Harker Quarterly.
Harker’s reputation as an academically rigorous school sometimes outshines the breadth of other key elements of student life, such as its many clubs and after-school programs. Another overlooked but highly important aspect of the K-12 experience is the emphasis on character and leadership, which has been a value at Harker since the school’s founding.
“The concepts of character and leadership have always been intertwined in what it means to be a Harker graduate, going back to the days of the Palo Alto Military Academy and Miss Harker’s School for Girls,” said Kevin Williamson, upper school dean of students.
Harker students are instilled with these values from their very first days at the school, and these values are reinforced through various programs for the entirety of their Harker careers.
“Children begin learning right from wrong at a very early age, even before school begins,” said Joe Connolly, dean of students at the lower school. “The development of strong character is part of that process. Values learned at an early age tend to stay with the child throughout life.”
Upon entering Harker, kindergartners are enrolled in a required character development class that they continue to attend until they complete grade 5. “They learn about respect, treating others like you would like to be treated, being kind and polite,” Connolly said. This year, the lower school is focusing on compassion as a theme. “It is a theme we choose to bring up whenever the opportunity presents itself. Compassion can be different things depending on the age level.”
The lower school also runs service projects for each grade level every year. Grade 5 ran its annual food drive in November, for example, and grade 4 students collected toys for their annual toy drive in December. Character building is also a valued component of the lower school athletics program, where values of fairness and good sportsmanship are constantly reinforced. After-school programs such as Share, Care and Be Fair and Students Play and Learning All Together (SPLAT) teach students about good playground conduct and how to treat one another while at school.
Upon entering the middle school, students build upon the groundwork laid during their time as lower school students. “Middle school students learn about character, leadership and academic integrity through the assembly and advisory programs,” said Lana Morrison, middle school dean of students. Throughout the year, outside speakers are invited to speak at assemblies on various topics. Students later discuss the topics brought up during the speaker’s appearance at advisory meetings. “Some students find the smaller setting easier to freely discuss how and what they are feeling,” Morrison said.
Middle school students also have access to several clubs and programs to strengthen character and leadership qualities. Recently, middle school students earned several regional awards from the eCYBERMISSION national competition, which challenges students to solve problems in their communities using science, math and technology. Several students also collaborate each year to create the middle school literary magazine “enlight’ning,” which this year received recognition from the National Scholastic Press Association, American Scholastic Press Association and the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.
A recent development at the middle school is the KidLead program. Designed specifically for kids aged 10 to 13, KidLead is a program intended to develop the leadership skills of young students. The program consists of weekly 90-minute sessions that are run by certified instructors, during which students lead groups in various problem-solving activities. Although specially trained “Koaches” oversee each session, they are intentionally set up so that students are the ones designated to lead the activities.
Greg Lawson, assistant head of school for student affairs and a certified KidLead instructor, said he believes the program has great potential for teaching valuable leadership skills. “All you need to do is look at the dozens of community service opportunities, sports teams, performing arts groups, extracurriculars in general, student government, along with all the team academics like robotics, Future Problem Solvers, etc., to know that these skills have the potential to augment the development of this next generation of Harker leaders,” he said.
By the time students reach the upper school, character and leadership values have ideally become a part of their everyday lives. The upper school’s myriad programs and clubs are designed to further reinforce and develop these values within students.
“There is a lot of buzz about ‘leadership development’ programs these days,” Williamson said. “Leadership comes in a variety of forms. I think the wealth of volunteer programs that our students and faculty create and participate in speaks to this fact.”
Although Harker’s upper school population numbers fewer than 700 students, the Saratoga campus surprisingly houses more than 46 student clubs and organizations. “Our students are very self-motivated, and there is a lot of positive student encouragement to have peers step up and develop their own unique leadership styles,” Williamson said.
The Global Empowerment and Outreach (GEO) club, for example, runs an extensive program on international issues each year, while the Harker chapter of the Key Club focuses on community service in the South Bay area. Outside of clubs, students use the leadership qualities they’ve developed at events and classes such as the Research Symposium, Student-Directed Showcase and the many debate tournaments that students attend throughout the year.
The Honor Council, established by students and faculty in 2001 to create standards for academic integrity, is an important outgrowth of Harker’s commitment to the primacy of building character in its students. The group established the Honor Code, which is a central facet of academic life at Harker, and the Honor Council works to remind the student body about the Honor Code in a variety of ways. For instance, the Honor Codes and Honor Councils forum will be hosted in February and will draw similar organizations from independent schools across the country.
Leadership and character development principles are also a key part of the Living with Intention, Focus and Enthusiasm (LIFE) program, which teaches students about the value of maintaining good physical, mental and emotional well-being. “The freshmen will be using the book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens’ as a base, and they will spend two sessions working through the seven themes,” said Jane Keller, upper school mathematics teacher, who is running the program with Connolly and Jeffrey Draper, upper school dean and theater teacher, as well as a committee of students. “The beauty of this is that it will be an ongoing lesson for the next three years,” she said.