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Annual Leadership Summit comes out of the woods


As part of David Douglas School District’s Fir Ridge Campus Leadership Summit held last month, students, from left, juniors Sharon Lamb, Sofia Rosales, Estefania Cruz, and freshman Brenda Ramos wait to go on the giant swing at the Camp Namanu ropes course. The early portion of the Summit concentrated on teambuilding exercises utilizing obstacle and high ropes courses, which forged bonds early on.
Courtesy Elizabeth Sommo
Fir Ridge Leadership Summit students, staff, and OHSU social workers, from left, junior Kirk Cromwell, junior Sofia Rosales, Fir Ridge Campus Intern Kellie Pierson, junior Estefania Cruz, Fir Ridge School-to-Work Coordinator, Elizabeth Sommo, sophomore Jesus Orozco, junior Yumi Marcus, junior Jackie Cruz, OHSU Oncology Social Worker Keren McCord, and junior Mark Rivera, pause to pose after their tour of the Oregon Health Sciences Emergency Department. Students network with professionals during the Leadership Summit’s mini-internships.
Courtesy Brandy Price
As the school-to-work coordinator at David Douglas’s Fir Ridge Campus, Elizabeth Sommo doesn’t just match students up with want ads. Instead, she cultivates the skills and motivations necessary for students to navigate their own career track.

“If they want to get a part-time job, then they are able to do that on their own,” Sommo said. “If they have the motivation, then they can be successful, so I feel like I should focus my attention on other activities that can help them enhance their resume(s).”

Last April, Sommo helped direct Fir Ridge Campus’s annual Leadership Summit toward these aims, resulting in the most successful summit thus far.

The 2009 Leadership Summit differed from previous years in that it endeavored to link self-management skills with real world applications, a concept in sync with the new Oregon diploma requirements due to take full effect by 2012. The new diploma requirements were designed in partnership with employers concerned that graduates lack the essential skills necessary to perform entry-level positions. They propose to ensure that graduates cannot only recite learned information in a classroom, but also demonstrate the ability to apply knowledge necessary to succeed outside the structure of school.

In addition to reading comprehension and writing coherence, a graduate entering the workforce must also think critically, apply mathematics to balance budgets or figure rates, adapt to new technologies used in a variety of settings, work independently or as part of a team, and function with respect to the greater community.

The leadership element in the Leadership Summit’s title — though ostensibly absent from the summit’s curriculum which focused on team-building and interpersonal relationships — provided the core foundation for the program’s goals. This was most evident in the beginning and end of the program: first when Fir Ridge teachers selected exclusively student role models with a commitment to self-improvement as qualified participants, and afterwards when the 20 junior and sophomore leadership students shared the summit’s lessons with their peers.

Financed by an Oregon Department of Education Learn and Serve Grant written by Cheryl Bland, grant coordinator for the Curriculum Department, the two previous summits took place exclusively at Camp Namanu and were conducted in partnership with Multnomah County’s outdoor school. Camp Namanu is a 552-acre outdoor school site on the shoulder of Mount Hood. This year, Sommo and Bland chose to bifurcate the summit into two days at Camp Namanu, this time partnering directly with the camp’s owner, the nonprofit Camp Fire USA, and three days in downtown Portland touring workplaces and speaking with professionals of various careers.

The camp segment concentrated on teambuilding exercises utilizing obstacle and high ropes courses, which forged bonds early on.

“I think that brought us together because they all relied on one another. It’s basically what it was all about: we had to work together,” participant Emily Haslauer said, 16.

Frank Guy, 17, agreed. “In the real world, we are going to have stuff come upon us like that. When we get a job, we are not going to know everybody and we are going to have to work together.”

The urban component of the program relocated students to the Northwest Portland International Hostel and Guest House and divided participants into three fields of interest, as evaluated by an earlier survey. The most popular venture — arts and communications — attracted eight students. Though the group toured the offices of Willamette Week and spoke with News Editor Hank Stern, the advertising firm Wieden + Kennedy elicited more comments from students. Haslauer found it “different from what I thought it would be because it seemed like they had a lot more freedom of expression there. The way that everything was laid out was cool, how everybody communicates with each other and how they worked together; I really liked that.”

The seven students from the health and human services group attended a tour of OHSU and spoke with oncology and emergency room social workers as well as two nurses, who provided a wide range of perspectives on the options within the industry.

“My students really liked OHSU a lot and were very interested in the medical field, hearing exactly what you have to do to get there and then what it is actually like,” Sommo said.

The trades group visited the Northwest College of Construction where they spoke with Guy Crawford, the vice president of operations. They also toured Portland’s bridges with Sharon Wood Wortman, author of “The Portland Bridge Book.” The tour included an inside look at the Burnside Bridge’s control room where students helped lift the drawbridge.

The very coordination of the summit illustrated the networking and interpersonal skills necessary to conduct business. Fir Ridge staff tapped personal and professional connections to organize the tours and lectures. “The only place I cold-called was Willamette Week, and it was a David Douglas graduate who answered the phone,” Sommo said.

The summit’s revised structure also proved mutually beneficial. In addition to being the Fir Ridge Campus’s school-to-work coordinator, Sommo is also a graduate student in social work at Portland State University and incorporated the leadership summit project into her independent study class. Likewise, she employed her PSU contacts to introduce students to the school.

On the summit’s fourth day, Sommo and fellow PSU students led the group on a tour of the campus where PSU advisers answered questions on admissions and financial aid. The arts and communications group met with the editors of PSU’s student publications, and Sommo introduced the health and human services group to the social work school’s directors, Pauline Jivanjee of the master’s program and Charlotte Goodluck of the bachelor’s program. Goodluck’s personal narrative of struggle and success resonated with many students.

“We had an emotional contact,” Sommo said. “She had some really terrible experiences.” Suffice it to say she went from someone who qualified for social services to someone giving them.

Brenda Ramos, 15, originally in the trades group, switched her ambitions to social work after tagging along with the health and human services group for Goodluck’s lecture. “I went through some things and I’m in foster care, so I know what that is like,” Ramos said. “I would want to be a caseworker who knows what we are going through.”

Conscious that not all students have found their future career by age 18, Sommo also invited nonprofit contacts to join the students’ lunch at the United Way Building to discuss how volunteering may be an altruistic means to explore the workforce. Reese Lord from the mayor’s office and Andy Bell, the summit’s Camp Fire USA liaison, presented some youth involvement and service-learning options. Sommo also invited friends involved in AmeriCorps, such as Rachel Rigg, who spoke to students regarding her park beautification work.

“I think it’s an awesome program,” Sommo said of AmeriCorps. “It is such a good option for students who don’t want to go right into college but who want more training.”

Students earned a credit for having demonstrated the communication and community outreach elements of the skills targeted in the program, which included a resume and cover letter workshop in addendum. As an unanticipated bonus, the city element also helped impart some street smarts. “A lot of our students haven’t been downtown,” Sommo said. “They didn’t know that Portland was divided into four quadrants and some really basic city navigation skills. Getting out in the community, seeing what’s out there, that — in and of itself — was very successful and I am really glad we did it. Seeing the variety of people downtown and the variety of opportunit(ies) is really powerful.”

Bland concurred by commenting on the “amazing changes in the students. They are different people than the ones who got off the bus at Camp Namanu on Monday.”

Students themselves echoed these sentiments. “It brought in the fact that journalism is what I want to do,” Lashawn Graves, 17, said. “I really enjoyed going to a newspaper and (to) PSU because I am graduating next year, so the fact of college is more realistic that just saying, ‘Yeah, I’m going to college.’”

Though the eventualities of college or the workforce exist as a figurative reality in the minds of high school students, social concerns remain a high priority. Removed from familiar contexts, some students discovered common bonds usually hidden behind the cliques. “It was a good bonding experience,” Guy said. “We were rooming for four days together and I got to know a lot about people from different backgrounds and where people came from.”

Graves shared a similar view. “A lot of people’s defense mechanisms are to attack or to simply have hatred of a certain person for how they may act or what they represent themselves as, but if you actually take the time to sit there and talk to that person, you may see that they are just like you.”

This transcended age as well: Even teachers commented on the difference of relating with the students outside the classroom setting. “It was fun to hang out and have them have a lot of interaction with adults in a different way than they usually get to,” Sommo said. “They’ve gotten to hang out with adults who do a lot of different things,” adults who are not just authority figures.

“I learned how to trust older people and how to get to know people before I start judging (them),” Ramos said, a comment that elicited nods from her surrounding friends.

Yet with all the cheerleading, the summit participants spoke prudently about their futures. Students sounded wizened about the hard road ahead. “I learned (to) just keep believing in whatever you want to do, just don’t give up and everything will work out if you don’t give up,” Guy said.

“It has taught me that it is my life and I have to take charge of it in order to be in a certain place,” Haslauer said.

When the summit came to an end, students returned to Fir Ridge Campus to complete the leadership component of the program. “I guarantee that when we go back to school, things will be totally different,” Ramos said.

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