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Re-Defining the High School Experience

I just interviewed Leslie Smith, Head of School for Orange Lutheran High School in Orange County, California. Leslie and her incredible staff have become dear friends over the past three years—and we just honored her with our 2016 Growing Leaders Award for her work in cultivating a leadership culture on campus.

GL Award 2016

May I share how they have re-defined the high school experience for their 1,300 plus students, staff and faculty?

Orange Lutheran has a rich history of college bound graduates, amazing athletics and holistic programming. But like many high schools, they witnessed the deep amount of angst and stress levels among students to make the grade, make the team, get the scholarship and get ahead. It’s enough to paralyze a teen emotionally.

Unless, of course, their leaders make some pivotal changes.

When Leslie discovered that 100% of their faculty and staff were concerned about the stress levels of students and the balance in their lives, she and her team chose to shift the campus culture. Seven words summarize the PIVOTAL new focus on their school:

P – Purpose and Priorities – We have clarity on what’s most important.

I – Invested and Involved – Everyone is “all in.”

V – Values for all – We embody our beliefs and our ethics.

O – Optimize – We make things as efficient as possible for best results.

T – Time – We use our time wisely which includes sleep and margins.

A – Academics – We offer training in STEM courses, arts, humanities, and more.

L – Leadership – A World Council fosters a culture of leadership for students.

Leslie recognizes that parent/school relationship can potentially be adversarial. The faculty feel pushed to achieve the school goals while parents lobby for their child to get ahead. Sadly, the student can become the victim in such a scenario. Leslie noticed that if “college” is the chief goal—when the student gets accepted into the college they want, then their focus may be so narrow that their resumes interfere with the growth process needed to develop strong, caring, emotionally healthy people. School is not just for building transcripts and resumes. It’s about preparing for life not just college.

Wow. I could not agree more.

The Role of Leadership Development

Leslie Smith is a life-long learner. In fact, she’s serving as Head of School while earning her doctorate at Pepperdine University right now. She’s not bored. But she’s not satisfied either. She told me when she discovered Habitudes® she finally realized they might be an important part of the solution to their leadership challenge. Their values reminded them that along with standard curriculum, they needed to develop emotional intelligence, values and ethics, vision for a lifetime and skill sets for life.

So her school hosts something they call “World Council” where students are divided into communities of ten, called countries. Each has an adult (staff or faculty) who facilitates their weekly experience. They discuss a Habitudes® image every six weeks during World Council Week, drilling down the entire week on the principle. It includes dress up days, posters, food, activities, discussion groups, assemblies, etc. They continue to focus on the principle (lesson) for 4-5 weeks until the next Habitudes image is introduced. This allows their Student Leadership Team to prepare for the next World Council Week.

Leslie told me it was a little sketchy at first as it was so new to everyone at Orange Lutheran. It involved a lot of people to organize and equip, both adults and students. They learned over time that the best “wins” happen when students lead students, and facilitate the learning communities.

They also launched R.O.A.M. (Re-vitalize On A Monday). Students get to choose an activity that energizes them, from basketball, pingpong, corn hole, or they can catch up on a subject they’ve fallen behind in, or they can just rest and enjoy some “margin” in their day.

Is It Working?

Leslie told me they’ve made adjustments to the game plan but students, faculty and staff are enjoying a deepened culture of relationships and growth. They mix in real life activities with discussion and reflection. And the students are winning.

There is measurable growth in the emotional intelligence of everyone; increased focus on the right priorities, authentic conversations among adults and kids, and celebration of the growth these students enjoy.

What’s more, Leslie says she’s been revitalized. Just over two years ago, she was questioning: Is this all there is? Just helping kids race to build a profile, with a life full of pressure to get into an elite university? There had to be a better way. As they focus on building leaders for life, Leslie has re-ignited her own passion for education. Everyone wins.

“What was starting to feel disingenuous now feels real,” Leslie told me. “Our students are now playing into their personal God-given greatness and discovering that their value and identity are based on so much more than a list of impressive achievements or where they go to college.”

Congratulations Leslie Smith and Orange Lutheran team for being a model for us all.


Looking to develop leadership skills in your students? Check out
Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes

Habitudes helps students and young team members:

  • Break out of the herd mentality to influence others in positive ways.
  • Take initiative and set the pace for other teammates.
  • Overcome complex problems through creative persistence.
  • Capitalize on personal strengths to be career-ready upon graduation.

Learn More Here

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Re-Defining the High School Experience