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Welcome to Learning to Lead!

An Interview with
Rob Paymer

Executive Director of Bridges




1) What inspired the creation of Bridges at St. Paul's?

Two St. Paul's legends, Bob Hallett and Judd Anderson, founded The Coldstream Project (now Bridges) in the summer of 1993. They had $5,000 and three major goals: (1) use the School's resources to provide an exciting and enriching summer to nine and ten year olds from Coldstream Park Elementary, a Title I School in NE Baltimore; (2) involve high school students from the St. Paul's Schools as volunteer assistant counselors; and (3) help these students and volunteers - kids from very different parts of a still very segregated town - bond and have a great summer together.

2) To what extent is leadership development part of the Bridges mission?

Development of high school volunteers was a hallmark of the program then and has remained a key priority. Between our volunteer orientations and in-program trainings, we help high school students learn how to listen, build trusting and intentional relationships, tutor, and facilitate group activities. We educate high school volunteers on the systems and challenges facing our students, but are careful to teach in a way that helps them to see students as people and not as data points.

One of the on-going highlights of my 12 years at Bridges has been seeing the ways past volunteers have and continue to apply their Bridges experiences to their adult lives. I have a monthly phone call with a past volunteer who is 26, living in New York, and supporting the success of young people in Harlem. Earlier this year, I had a few planning calls with a long-time volunteer who's in college and going to South Africa to develop a program for kids in under-resourced areas. There are lots of stories like these - they are rewarding and underscore the importance of the volunteer side of Bridges. I went to St. Paul's and volunteered in the program from 1994 to 1998. I still have and wear my red program t-shirt.

3) What are two of the unique leadership opportunities for students?

The two most common ways that high school students lead in Bridges are as after school tutors and as assistant camp counselors.

Each sports season, we form a team of after school tutors to work with Bridges' youngest students. These tutors commit to weekly training and after school sessions that include sports, enrichment activities, and homework help.

In the summer, we form yet another team of high school students to volunteer as assistant counselors with our elementary and middle school aged students. The summer role is particularly intense (45 hours/week for 2 weeks) and includes everything from making breakfast for students to leading assemblies, chaperoning field trips, leading recess, escorting students on trips to the nurse’s office, and tutoring.

4) What drew you to leading a program like Bridges? How do you stay motivated?

Around the middle of high school, primarily through readings in English and US History classes, and experiences in Bridges, I started to get the sense that our society was not particularly adept at developing human potential, particularly of people growing up in under-resourced communities. I did not think it was fair, nor did I think it was good.

Continued experiences working with and learning from young people during and immediately following my college years at Northwestern heightened this belief. Ultimately, my decision to leave the for-profit world in Chicago and return to Baltimore 12 years ago to run Bridges was rooted in two things: A frustration with the way things were and an unwavering belief that things could be better.

I was frustrated that success stories were so hard to come by in the under-resourced areas where I had spent time with kids. Just getting through college took a combination of great genius, hard work, and extraordinary luck. To this day, less than 10% of high school freshmen in Baltimore's public school system will have a two- or four-year degree by the age of 24. This is a simple, but jarring fact, not a comment on any one institution.

Did so many things need to be left to chance? I did not think so then and I do not think so now, which speaks to the belief piece. With my frustration came the belief, which I still hold, that we could do a much better job supporting young people. I saw no reason we couldn't create much longer term support systems that nourish potential from a young age, build personal capacity, and provide access to like-minded peers and opportunity.

Being 25 when I took over Bridges, my vision for this system was not 100% clear but I was committed to the idea and knew it was possible. The right resources at the right time, delivered consistently and over many years make for life-changing impact. It’s must easier said than done, but it’s what fuels our work at Bridges.

We will always be improving our answer to the challenge, but I feel like our work has come a long way over the last 12 years. Most of the nine- and ten- year-olds we recruit stay in the program through high school, graduate high school, and go to college. We are building up a college program to ensure that degrees started are completed and converted to fulfilling careers. We are currently working with 260 Baltimore City youth, ages 9 to 22.

At the same time, we are now working with 165+ high school volunteers per year. This includes students from St. Paul's School, St. Paul's School for Girls, Gilman School, Bryn Mawr School, and Roland Park Country School. These volunteers are using Bridges to learn about themselves and the world around them, much the way that I was as a high school volunteer 20+ years ago. The strong relationships I see being fostered between volunteers and students gives me hope that Baltimore can look different, be more inclusive, and be better for everyone 20 years from now.

Big picture, we are just getting started. I'm excited to finish our program model at Bridges at St. Paul's School, continue to grow Bridges at Gilman School, and to open additional sites throughout the City.


Leadership in Partnership: St. Paul’s School for Girls & Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women

Joie Gill
Middle School English

Whitney Price
Director of Strategic Initiatives
St. Paul's School for Girls


With a shared mission of empowering young women to find their voices and lead in the world, a partnership between St. Paul’s School for Girls (SPSG) and the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW) was a natural fit. Introduced by mutual friends, the schools began to explore opportunities for engagement in 2015. Both schools identified that developing leaders at the Middle School level was a priority and that there was room for growth on each campus. 


In recent years, SPSG’s Middle School Student Government Association (SGA) has strengthened its presence on campus, identifying and leading activities related to value themes of the month, running the middle school assembly block, and building community by hosting events such as the 5th grade sleepover each fall. But a group of 8th graders was thirsty for more. Opportunity arose when it was identified that 8th graders at BLSYW also wanted to put their skills to work to affect change on campus. Faculty and administrators agreed that developing programming for the eldest members of both middle schools would prove mutually beneficial. Head of School Penny Evins notes, “This partnership builds sisterhood through forming relationships beyond our immediate school community and sharing experiences to grow each other’s strengths for a greater good. We look forward to the ripple effect for years to come.”


During the summer of 2016, faculty from SPSG and BLSYW partnered to develop a series of workshops that would strengthen leadership skills. Moreover, the students from each school could learn from one another. The student program kicked off with a half day at Genesee Valley Outdoor Learning Center. Team building continued later in the fall when the students attend SPSG’s Upper School production of Hairspray together. As teamwork depends on a solid foundation of trust and communication, these two activities allowed the girls to begin to develop a relationship that would enable them to problem-solve and collaborate with ease during the year’s workshops.


In February, the group reconvened at SPSG to tackle challenges facing each school.  Students were tasked with identifying an area for improvement, presenting the issue to their peers, and soliciting action-oriented suggestions.  Using Critical Friends protocol, which focuses on listening and feedback as essential leadership skills, the girls took advantage of one another’s fresh perspective.  One student reflected, “I enjoyed the most recent activity we shared with BLSYW because it gave us a chance to discover new ideas about how to improve our school. It was good to be able to have more insight than just from the people in our own community.” At the conclusion of this workshop, the two groups were charged with using the feedback to develop and implement strategies that would help their schools make forward progress. One BLSYW student shared, "It was really fun getting to know different girls. Even though we were different, we had a lot of the same problems. I liked how we were able to come together and work together to try to solve our problems." 


In early May, the partnership culminated with a two-part workshop that includes an industry visit to Pandora, an international jewelry powerhouse, and a debrief of the students’ action plans. The girls spent the morning learning about leadership traits, styles, and the path to success from female executives. The day culminated on to the BLSYW campus in the afternoon to discuss what they learned while reflecting on the successes and challenges of the plans they developed back in February. 


While scheduling can be a challenge, both the students and faculty recognize the value of such a partnership. One participant shared that “Our school's partnership with BLSYW has helped my problem-solving skills improve. I also developed my collaboration skills by working in a large group and making sure everyone's thoughts and ideas were heard.”


The responsibility of developing tomorrow’s leaders transcends campus boundaries and county lines, and bringing students together with a shared goal has allowed both Schools to better serve their students and live their missions. The pilot program has been met with such success that SPSG and BLSYW look forward to solidifying the model and expanding in years to come. 


Creating a Meaningful Retreat Program: Energizing Your Campus Leaders

Marc Buckley
Upper School Dean of Students
Severn School


For the past four years Severn School has invited all sophomores, juniors and seniors to a three-day leadership workshop in late August that is intended to give students skills they need to lead each other and the community over the course of that respective year.  The long weekend is facilitated by the Upper School head, class deans and myself in conjunction with members of our faculty who graciously volunteer their time. The event has energized students and set an empowering tone that truly changed our community in many positive ways. I encourage you to consider hosting a similar event.

Our leadership retreat purposefully includes all interested sophomores, juniors and seniors as we believe strongly that all of our students have the capacity to lead.   Planning for the upcoming August event begins in early Spring and I usually ask faculty to offer suggestions as to the kinds of skills they believe students need to be more effective in the classroom and around campus. After they brainstorm ideas during a faculty meeting I ask them if they wish to participate in the formulation and implementation of seminars during our retreat. Having a group of committed faculty at the retreat diversifies the voices and makes the experience that much richer.

While there are many different ways to schedule a late August leadership retreat, we have found that spreading it out over three days and working with the athletic department to ensure the least amount of conflict with practices and games ensures that more students will be able to attend.  

The retreat begins with a welcome dinner followed by a presentation laying out the theme of the retreat and the schedule for the upcoming days.  I then offer 90 minutes for students to diagnose the strengths and challenges of the community. Allowing students to take stock of what is working and what needs fixing gives them a sense of ownership and empowerment.  We encourage this.  The thought is that we spend more time with each other on a daily basis than the kids spend with their respective families.  Therefore, we want them to work with each other and with faculty to make the community as strong as it possibly can be. After students report out their findings and we process them, we break for the evening.

During the following morning students rotate through a series of seminars designed to improve communication and organizational skills.  The seminars typically last for 45 minutes each and all are interactive.  Most are based off of faculty suggestions during our spring faculty meeting.  We eat a quick lunch and we break for practices and games.

Finally, on the third day students return to their assessments of the community’s strengths and weaknesses and they engage in the process of selecting an adaptive challenge for the year that is based on those early conversations. Think of an adaptive challenge as a lofty goal that is not necessarily attainable.  An example of one may be “respect”.  However, as the community makes conscious efforts to move toward realizing the adaptive challenge, the health and wellbeing of the upper school improves. The process of selecting the adaptive challenge takes as much as an hour and includes much back and forth between students.  Adults merely facilitate the conversation. The adaptive challenge, however, becomes the focal point of much of the work that students pursue over the course of the year.

After the selection of an adaptive challenge students break off into their respective clubs and they begin to plan activities for the fall that will support the attainment of the adaptive challenge. During this hour to two-hour period of time students formulate their goals and use school calendars to construct agendas for the fall. They will refer back to their goals and agendas often throughout September and October to ensure that they are meeting them.  Finally, we schedule two follow-up retreats, one in late October and one in early January, to offer kids a three-hour block of time on a Saturday morning to evaluate their progress and to formulate new goals for the intervening periods of time.

When we first rolled out the notion of an August retreat, 60 students attended.  Last year, 110 students came.  Severn students look forward to the camaraderie of the event, they take it seriously, and they engage fully in it.  Moreover, we have seen an increase in participation in clubs and in their ability to set and attain goals.  Our clubs now sponsor events during the year that are well attended and well planned. Most importantly, our kids feel empowered to make decisions with feedback from their faculty facilitators.  Some of their ideas are fantastic and some fail and they are learning from both experiences and are gaining wisdom in the process.  Our students feel as though they have a large stake in the health and vitality of our community. Respect for the institution and for each other have increased measurably as a result.

I highly encourage you to consider hosting an August leadership retreat and would be more than happy to help you get a program off the ground.


Exploring Feedback with the Center for Ethical Leadership and Service at NCS


Jessica Clark
Dean of Student Life & Director of Center for Ethical Leadership & Service

Emily Fetting
MS Dean of Students

National Cathedral School


At the heart of the National Cathedral School Center for Ethical Leadership and Service is a set of mutually-supportive objectives: leadership development, service learning, and religious and multicultural education. As an all-girls' Episcopal school located on the grounds of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., we have a unique opportunity to develop leadership competencies in the context of the Episcopal tradition. Our program prioritizes individual students’ journeys, strengths, and impact on our community, as well as the importance of developing our students’ self-worth. The Center's framework focuses on three guiding questions: What does an ethical leader do? Who am I in the context of the world in which I live? What is my responsibility to building a just world? We examine these questions in a variety of curricular and co-curricular contexts, and such self-reflection has allowed students to consider not only how they view themselves, but also to explore the impact of their choices and behavior.

The start of the CELS program coincided with the start of our School's new daily schedule, allowing the goals of the program to be incorporated into newly available time slots that increased opportunities for student contact. This synergy is at the core of CELS' success, as it has supported the development of a four-year Upper School sequence of seminars and meetings to explore essential questions, build skills, and cultivate a commitment around serving others. In the 9th and 10th grades, students meet regularly in small-group seminars to develop leadership skills around identity, values education, cultural competencies, service learning, and social justice. We continue to work with students in 11th and 12th grades using a 45-minute block once per cycle to further develop the goals and skills that we begin in seminar, which leads into broader, real-life applications. Our staff works together to create mini-units on issues such as mental health and a healthy transition to college.

We are particularly proud of two examples that highlight more real-life examples focused on leadership and communication. In our leadership unit, juniors and seniors explore the intersection of leadership and communication in individual and group contexts, while also getting feedback about its efficacy. For juniors, this centered around interview practice. They were introduced to the do's and don’ts of verbal and nonverbal communication through videos, discussion groups, and conversations with recent alumnae from the class of 2007. The unit culminated with a videotaped practice interview that they showed to three trusted adults and/or peers for evaluation and feedback. Alex, a junior, said "I felt their feedback was helpful because of their outside perspective, which enabled them to notice aspects of my interview (good and bad) which I was not able to notice myself. I wish we had a few more opportunities to do mock interviews." (In the spring, the girls will have opportunities to practice more.)

While the feedback itself was useful to many students, the opportunity to prepare for an interview was also valued. Another student commented that, "The most beneficial part of the unit for me was actually just receiving the interview questions and devoting time to think about them. That really gave me a chance for self-reflection and opened up some discussions with my family/friends. I think reflecting is an important part of the college process and for later on in life, and so making us do it was actually pretty useful. I got to come up with some more concrete descriptions of myself and what my goals are."

Seniors participated in a survival simulation activity in homeroom groups of 8-10. Students were guided through a scenario in which they were involved in a plane crash and had to rank the importance of several survival items. Students did this individually and ultimately had to build group consensus about which items to prioritize and why. Advisors acted as observers during the activity and kept detailed notes of important behaviors and the impact they had on others. In the next homeroom meeting, advisors shared observations. One senior, Ashley, observed that this activity was beneficial because it was concrete. With so much of seminar and co-curricular time devoted to broad, more theoretical conversations about leadership and its impact, the girls were eager to jump into practical application. Ashley also remarked that smaller homeroom groups were helpful in allowing more authentic responses to emerge: "I know that everyone in our homeroom is very close, so it was easy to argue with people on what made the most sense for survival!" Another senior, Izzy, remarked that, "It was also great to receive feedback, because, as our advisor, she already knows us so well, so she gave great feedback on how we could better use our unique leadership qualities when working together."

These responses from our students confirm for us how eager they are for hands-on opportunities to apply the skills we teach. The girls' academic exploration of leadership and its qualities needs room to breathe and grow as they try out real-world applications and reflect on their impact and significance. Moreover, our CELS lessons crystallized for us how few opportunities our students have for trusted, targeted feedback outside of the classroom or a sports team. As much as they enjoy and see the benefit of practical applications and feedback about their behavior, they also push us to keep lessons targeted and relevant. As CELS continues to polish its initiatives and curriculum, we will continue to prioritize opportunities for feedback—not only for our students, but also for our own work on their behalf.  


Cultivating Leadership in Young Students: Planting the Seed at Roland Park Country School

Kaci Garland and Peggy Brooks 
5th Grade Teachers
Roland Park Country School


We pose this question to students every January upon their return from winter break.  With this evocative prompt, talk of holidays and time spent with family quickly shifts to serious conversations about how each girl intends to make the world a better place.

As fifth grade homeroom teachers at Roland Park Country School, we are continually searching for opportunities to empower our future leaders to be agents of good.  From their earliest days at RPCS, our students are immersed in a culture of service. Whether delivering art supplies to young cancer patients at Johns Hopkins, collecting towels for the SPCA, or visiting nursing homes and outreach centers, our girls know how to think beyond themselves.  By the time they reach our doors, they are bursting with ideas about how to improve their communities or help their neighbors.  What better time to channel their creative thinking while developing some critical communication skills along the way!

Our project begins with a simple question, and the process that follows is likewise basic in form. Students shape an idea; learn as much as they can through reliable sources (including guest speakers); craft letters; and then boldly present their views to state representatives in Annapolis.  While visiting the Capitol, our young lobbyists eagerly convey the importance of their issues during face-to-face meetings (which they schedule themselves).  In addition, each student presents her letter as concrete reinforcement of problem and solution.  The letters consume much literacy class time as girls are not only working to advocate change but growing into fluent persuasive writers.      

Fifth graders’ campaign for change doesn’t end in literacy class.  To problem solve through state government, students must understand how the institution works.  To this end, girls recreate the General Assembly in social studies by constructing their own Senate and House of Delegates.  They follow established protocol when meeting in committees and debating “legislation” that ends in a formal vote.  Homeroom periods also become productive times for role playing important social interactions and practicing effective communication on “Lobbying Day,” with extra emphasis applied to “thinking on one’s feet.” By the time they step into the State House, students are ready and energized!

This year’s class, like those before it, was brimming with ideas.   Topics ranged from increasing the penalty for Grace’s Law violations to equipping school buses with seatbelts. Current fifth grade student Riley B. was inspired by an article to consider ways to combat graffiti in her community.  Riley investigated the problem and potential solutions.  Through class discussion and independent research, she learned about graffiti-designated areas.  Armed with this background knowledge, she proposed a “Graffiti Park” where “artists could express their feelings in positive ways” and stipulated that this be a place where graffiti could be displayed “without fear of penalty.” Her idea included an admission fee to help defray upkeep and other administrative costs.  

As the trip to Annapolis drew near, Riley admitted she was nervous about meeting her legislators.  She spent time practicing talking points, answering impromptu questions, and extending firm handshakes to teachers.  When it came time for her appointments, this young advocate was prepared and passionate.  Riley later recounted that after the first meeting, she realized “…it was easy.  I just talked about my idea, answered questions, and felt confident.”  She returned to school that afternoon with a sense of possibility.

In the weeks that followed, students received letters from delegates and senators thanking them for their time and detailing legislation that supported their topics.  The arrival of pale cream envelopes with the burgundy return address incited many girls.  Riley found one such envelope in her classroom mailbox on a rainy Wednesday morning.  As she read through the enclosed two pages, she began to dance with wide-eyed enthusiasm.  Then she ran to the front of the room and with the papers clutched tightly in hand, exclaimed, “I got a letter back from my senator, and he is actually doing something about my idea!”

Senator James Brochin not only responded to Riley’s proposal but included a copy of his own (forwarded to Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks) that mirrored the fifth grader’s idea.  Senator Brochin wrote, “I cannot encourage you enough to keep dreaming and sharing your thoughts and ideas.  It gives me much hope for the future of our nation.” What began as a seed, planted in an 11-year-old girl by an old Baltimore Sun article, had taken root and sprouted a life of its own.  

When asked how she felt about the Senator’s response, Riley stated she was proud that the Senator was acting on her idea.  “It might do something to change the graffiti problem. It’s exciting and overwhelming. I can’t believe I actually did that.”  Riley went on to say that even if her idea does not result in a graffiti park, she still feels as though she made an impact and more importantly, has the confidence to advocate a solution to “a different problem next time.”   

About 15 years ago, our profoundly creative fifth grade predecessors, along with a city councilman (who later was elected to the House of Delegates) conceived an idea that was larger than any people, places, or events surrounding it.  It began as a means toward real understanding of government and evolved into a project that empowered young girls like Riley B. to use their words to promote positive change.  That idea at its core reflects the heart of learning and continues to play a key role in molding some of tomorrow’s most promising leaders.

If you could be a force for cultivating leaders in your school, what action would you take?

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