Leaders of the (Harding Wolf) Pack

Harding Middle School students are known as the Timberwolves. A few years ago, after the school instituted a uniform dress code policy, a program called The Wolf Pack was launched. Students were given the opportunity to join once they agreed to a pledge requiring them to be positive role models and perform some community service. Last year over half of the student body took the pledge and, not coincidentally, Harding led all DMPS middle schools with the lowest number of days lost to suspension.

So this summer Vice Principal Jake Troja decided to build on the Wolf Pack foundation with an invitational leadership academy for returning 7th and 8th graders. Those students spent last Thursday and Friday engaged in teambuilding activities at school, Camp Dodge and Sky Zone, an indoor trampoline park.  

The field trips were used to generate a basis for small group exercises back at the school built around buzzwords like GGI (Guided Group Instruction), core norms, levels of intervention and rules of feedback. The 40 or so students who participated adopted a Wolf Pack slogan (“Respect the Pack”) and established goals for each grade level in terms of attendance rate, suspension days and the number of fighting incidents. As the culmination of the academy on Friday afternoon a competency exam was administered on the academy concepts and everyone who passed it will receive a certificate and a distinctive polo shirt that will identify them as a student leader at an all-school assembly on August 27. Candidates for student government positions will also come from the academy cohort.

Troja explains that the whole idea behind the Wolf Pack and the leadership academy is to exploit the natural social dynamics of adolescents and use peer pressure in ways that benefit the entire school and its surrounding community. “We are just taking principles from business that are well-researched and documented in changing behavior within groups and applying them to a middle school environment,” he says. “We are redefining what it means to be cool at school.”

The Wolf Pack sells Harding “swag” throughout the year to raise funds (over $16,000 last year) and also has started its own deejay service to provide entertainment at school dances and other functions. Money the school saves by staffing its events in-house helps make programs like the leadership academy possible. The deejay service is available to other schools at a discounted rate that saves them money while also raising funds for Harding; a true win/win arrangement that Troja is looking to expand.

Troja staffed the academy with enthusiastic teachers from Harding who know the kids already. As a group they collaborated on identifying invitees over the summer. The emphasis was on kids with influence on their peers, not necessarily the ones with the best grades and behavior histories. In other words, potential leaders as opposed to proven ones were sought. The trick is convincing them to channel their power to influence positively.

After returning from running a series of obstacle courses at Camp Dodge Thursday morning the kids were separated into small groups by grade level to practice how to give and receive feedback, a process Troja stressed they should refer to as “helping each other out.” One girl was challenged as to why she balked at one of the water hurdles, to the detriment of her team. “I wasn’t going into that nasty, green water,” she explained.

“Help her out,” Troja encouraged the rest of the group.

Finally, after some nervous glances at one another, one boy spoke up: “You need to act like a 7th grader, not a 4th grader,” he declared matter-of-factly.

The girl smiled. Others nodded. Respect the pack.

Photos of the Harding Wolf Pack Leadership Academy

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