When it comes to leadership, teacher Val Berryman has written the book. She, along with Principal Jami Bronson cultivated a vision of a class that empowers students to give back to their community.
For more than 30 years students enrolled in the school's Community Service and Learning class, have served as active leaders in their community through hands-on service projects.
"Our belief is that students are not born leaders but, instead, learn over time how to be an effective leader," program adviser Val Berryman said.
Bronson and Berryman said that when fostering a culture of service, it's important to start young.
"The best thing schools and leaders can do is to build leadership capacity within the staff and student body," Bronson said. "This class gives students a leadership experience and helps create a leadership capacity revolved around thinking of others."
Berryman, who has been running the program for more than two decades, said the class replaces any form of student council at the school and instead allows seventh- and eighth-grade students to complete hours of community service for class credit.
"Student council is limited to only a few individuals who are lucky enough to be elected by their peers," Berryman said. "We developed this program to appeal to a wider group of kids."
Berryman said the class is divided into three components: classroom lessons on historical leaders, committee work and individual community service. The class is offered every nine weeks, with a new group of 40 to 60 students each quarter.
Service with a smile
Students in the class are divided into eight committees based on the individual's student's interest. Committees range from outreach, which helps with programs outside of the middle school, to helping hands, a group of students who assist teachers throughout the year with various projects.
Individually, students are required to complete at least 10 hours of service with the option to do more. As a class, students pick a local charity or nonprofit group and spend the bulk of their nine weeks hosting fundraisers and other events to draw public awareness to the cause.
"We try to put students in groups that focus on issues they are passionate about," Berryman said.
Past beneficiaries of the students' service have included the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Make-a-Wish Foundation and the Washtenaw Intermediate School District's Education Project for Homeless Youth, among others. The students also are involved with a food drive in December for the Faith in Action food pantry.
"The kids have done clothing drives in the past to help out because some of the people who need a little extra help are living right here in Dexter," Berryman said.
This year, the class will host its seventh annual dance marathon in conjunction with the University of Michigan Dance Marathon in the spring, which raises money for children with disabilities. The group has raised more than $30,000 for the organization.
Seeing the students' energy toward helping their teachers, students and community is invigorating, Berryman said.
In 2010, the eighth-grade class completed 2,795 hours of individual community service, and seventh-graders accrued 1,158 hours, bringing the program total to almost 4,000 hours.
"When you think of a really powerful group in the community, you have got to think about our middle school students," Berryman said. "Every year, we have a service board with folks from clubs, churches and charities asking for our help."
In order to keep track of all the projects, Berryman each year enlists the help of fellow advisers Maryanne Mutschler and Julie Wineman, along with up to 16 junior advisers in the eighth-grade class.
"The junior advisers really do a lot," Berryman said. "They are picked based on their involvement in service projects in the seventh grade and help coordinate everything from fundraisers to the Michigan Association of Student Councils state conference in Dexter."
Junior advisers also have a voice during new hires at the school. Potential candidates are asked to prepare a 10-minute lesson and teach the junior advisers, who report to administrators on their interaction with the instructor.
"Having teachers on the interview committee and students comment on a lesson allow us to look at various skills sets of a candidate, such as: Do candidates know their content? Do kids find them approachable? Can they manage a class?" Bronson said. "Students must complete a rubric on each teacher and discuss whom they feel is the best candidate for Mill Creek. Information from the teachers and students is then used to select the best possible candidate for Mill Creek."
Molding tomorrow's leaders today
Bronson said often students who enroll in the Community Service and Learning class volunteer in other organizations outside of school, including their church and local nonprofits, such as the , which awards students with pins and plaques yearly based on the number of hours they complete.
"We want them to do service for life," she said. "Middle school students need to feel helpful, and this class gives them that boost of self-confidence that they can carry forward.
"It does take a lot of time, but it pays back 10 times," Berryman said. "You plant the seeds, and then you let them go. It's a powerful feeling to be able to sit back and watch kids make a decision and live through that decision."