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A LEAD Boulder student presents to the group during meeting.

LEAD Boulder instills leadership skills in high schoolers who ‘didn’t see themselves as leaders’

Program made possible through partnership with YMCA of Boulder Valley & CU Boulder to expand next school year


BOULDER - Recently about two dozen Boulder Valley School District high school juniors gathered in the same room where the BVSD Board of Education meets to share the lessons they’ve learned in the first year of a two-year leadership program known as “LEAD Boulder.”


“It has been an amazing partnership with CU and the YMCA and a great student leadership program,” said BVSD Assistant Superintendent of School Leadership Dr. Marc Schaffer. “It grows, develops and fosters student leaders and helps them know themselves as a leader. It also helps them understand and appreciate the ethical commitments around leadership.”


“It is designed to take kids who were nominated into the program and develops their leadership skills to try to short circuit some of the bad stuff that happens to these kids when they get leadership positions,” said Chris Coker, the chief executive officer and president of YMCA of Boulder Valley.


Coker was inspired to start the program a few years ago while watching his son and other student leaders from Centaurus High School struggle over where to hold the school’s prom.


“I asked, ‘didn’t you guys take a survey or send out a poll? Did you ask the people you’re supposed to represent?’ They said, ‘well, no. Isn’t our job just to pick it?’” Coker said.


“These kids that we put in leadership positions, we give them very little training,” Coker added. “They’re captain of their sports teams, they’re student council chair people, they’re shift supervisors at work. We give them the mechanical tools, like here is your budget, here is how you tell the school how you are going to do prom, here are the rules around that.”


Rarely, however, are students provided training with the background, philosophies and values needed to be a good leader.


“I think a lot of people who came into the program didn’t see ourselves as leaders and now we are doing presentations about how we are leaders,” said Erika Muhlrad, a junior at Monarch High School.“ I think it has transformed the thinking of a lot of us and that will carry through our lifetime, now matter what we do.”


“Don’t draw assumptions about what you think leadership is. If you are shyer, it is easy to think that it is only the louder people in the room who are the leaders,” added Elizabeth Eyesen a junior at Monarch High School. “I hope to use leadership in every part of my life. It is easy to think of leadership as only having to take place in kind of a prescribed condition -- like a group project or if you’re running for office or something. Every day you use aspects of leadership.”


The goal is for lessons learned in LEAD Boulder to give the students the skills they need to lead in every aspect of their lives. Over the course of the two-year program, students learn about themselves and are taught about leadership skills from the same people who teach leadership at the University of Colorado Boulder.


Additionally, they get to hear and learn directly from local leaders, including Congressman Jared Polis, Floyd Pierce (a Colorado contestant on CBS’ Amazing Race), author and school board candidate Raj Rawat, and Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle.


“We had Sheriff Pelle come and talk to the kids about values-based leadership, because the sheriff’s department is all about values-based leadership in policing,” Coker said. “[The Sheriff] is low profile, highly thought of and a great leader in the community. How does this guy create a situation where the community actually votes to extend term limits? It is because of the values-based policing.”


He hopes to instill the skills needed so that they can navigate the many challenges teens face, whether or not they’re in formal leadership roles.


“I want them to be successful leaders,” Coker said. “It could be a friend-leadership situation, like ‘no, I’m not getting into a car with all of you drunk people.’”


Sadly, Coker’s daughter’s boyfriend's best friend was killed a couple weeks ago in a car accident on the East Coast.


“The driver was drunk, they all had been drinking and all of them were ejected from the vehicle. None of them were wearing seat belts,” Coker said. “Think about the leadership and the self decisions that were made in that group of kids.”


Next school year LEAD Boulder will expand so that there is a new class every year. Nominations for the program will open next February and are open to the public. School leaders choose representatives for each school.


“If kids want to be in the program, they need to talk to principals and counselors,” Coker said.


Watching the current students in the program speak about their leadership is inspiring. Coker says it really builds his faith in our country’s future.


“I have never worried about our future because I work with so many teens. They’re just like the regular population -- good ones, bad ones. The good far outweighs the bad, ridiculously so,” Coker said. “I expect this group of kids to take us to the next level.”


Learn more about the LEAD Boulder program!