As a K-8 school, Epstein Hillel School (EHS) teaches about both the qualities and skills of strong leaders. From the time students are in third grade, they are already big buddies to the students in the Masoret Room (ages 4 and 5) at the neighboring JCC. By fourth grade, students serve as mentors and big buddies to EHS kindergarten students, and it continues from there.

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Developing leadership skills is a significant part of the middle school curriculum. Under the tutelage of our physical education and leadership teacher Lori Goldenberg, students explore what it means to be role models in the community. Middle school students work throughout each term to identify, research and ultimately present and teach students in younger grades about important issues.

The leadership program consists of three projects, each with three sections, all with a focus on raising awareness about important community issues. Students are asked to identify an issue, learn as much as they can about it and then come up with a “business” plan designed to be part of the solution. Students then submit written requests to the head of school for a loan so they can initiate their projects.

The first project focused on identifying and then raising awareness about a justice/equity issue in our society. One group led a Zoom information session and invited people to zoom in on the “stigma of mental health.” Another group turned its attention to something happening in real time: COVID-19 challenges. The students bought, tie-dyed and sold face masks not only at school, but also in locations around Marblehead. They sold their inventory and sent the proceeds directly to My Brother’s Table. Another group of students made and sold hand sanitizer. They also sold all their products and then sent the money to Boston Children’s Hospital.

Social Action 1
(Photo: Epstein Hillel School)

“I think the leadership program was an exciting way to bring school and community together and I enjoyed that aspect of it. I also enjoyed getting to know the seventh graders, and I thought it was especially nice that we got to work on solving these issues together. I liked getting involved with what is happening in our community and working on ways to help people. The program has made me realize that I can help, and that I do have the ability to make a difference, even as an eighth grade student. I hope that I’ll contribute to causes both in and outside of my community whenever I can.”
—Sarina, eighth grade

Other issues that students addressed in middle school leadership included the challenges and prevalence of prejudice; the enormous role community helpers (fire, police, EMTs, doctors, nurses) play in society; and the need and importance of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After researching these issues, students created PowerPoint presentations, which they presented to the community. For this project, seventh graders learned about the ADA and then taught the kindergarten class about concepts such as “universal design.” They further explained the challenges that individuals with physical differences face while trying to do everyday tasks that many of us take for granted. They demonstrated great leadership by showing empathy, keeping the conversation age-appropriate and answering questions that arose.

Upper School Leadership 2
(Photo: Epstein Hillel School)

For the final project of the 2020-2021 school year, the middle school students explored the similarities and differences between their own and other nearby communities. After speaking with a teacher from Chelsea, and through discussion, they learned about families’ spectrum of needs and wants. They came to realize that this exists in their communities as well. With the new understanding that acquiring something as simple (to them) as a backpack for school might be difficult, if not impossible, for others, they created a backpack donation drive. They developed signage soliciting donations to raise awareness. With the goal of supplying as many new and gently used backpacks to children in neighboring school districts as possible, students enthusiastically used resources around the school to create drop boxes and shelving for collection. In a quest to gather the most backpacks, they even broadened their reach to the Marblehead/Swampscott community at large. It was a very successful endeavor.

“Our leadership program has inspired all of us to be more giving and helpful to our community, and other communities. I love working with my peers and accomplishing our goals together, which we’ve worked so hard for. An example: Our mini-group raised over $1,000 to donate to My Brother’s Table, a food pantry in Lynn. We felt so proud when we realized how much we were helping those in need. I’ve noticed how everybody, including myself, in the leadership program has been more generous and open-minded about helping people in other communities, even our own. I’ve also noticed how younger EHS students seem interested and excited about what our leadership team will accomplish next, which is a real confidence boost. Overall, I’ve really enjoyed the leadership program and would love to continue doing good things for others.”
—Jamison, seventh grade

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(Photo: Epstein Hillel School)

Through these projects, EHS middle school students embody every one of the school’s core values: potential, identity, curiosity, intellect, compassion and community. They expand their learning beyond the classroom and into acts of repairing their world, known in Hebrew as tikkun olam.

This article was originally published in Epstein Hillel School’s spring 2021 magazine.

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