Members of the school district’s new Center for Leadership Advisory Council were introduced to the Board of Education last week. They are, from left, Ngassam Ngnoumen, C.D. Glin, Dave Smith and Jim Marpe. Not pictured are Peter Boyd and Joan Gillman. / Photo by Linda Conner Lambeck

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — The school district has assembled a group of local corporate, government and education leaders to serve on a newly formed Center for Leadership Advisory Council.

Introduced to the Board of Education last week, the panel includes former First Selectman Jim Marpe, PepsiCo Foundation President C.D. Glin and Yale lecturer Peter Boyd.

Also, Joan Gillman, corporate director for Catalyst for Growth and Transformation; Ngassam Ngnoumen, a strategic advisor and former Mastercard vice president, and David Smith, a leadership coach, author and founder of Fuel for Leaders. He is also a district parent.

The council feeds into the district’s strategic plan, which along with social and emotional efforts to make students feel they belong, aims to help all students tap leadership skills within. (Here is an introductory report about the new group presented to the school board.)

Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice called it the bolder part of the plan, meant to unfold over a three-to-five-year period.

The idea is not to add more courses to the curriculum, but to imbed strategies from kindergarten on up into learning experiences so students will learn to help students discover and develop leadership skills.

“It has to be ingrained,” Scarice said, adding the effort will distinguish the school district. “You don’t see this kind of work in public schools.”

Marpe, who in addition to serving as first selectman prior to that was vice chairman of the school board, said he hopes the effort will build upon leadership skills many students in the district already exhibit.

“Leadership takes many forms,” Marpe said. “It’s not just being captain or president of the National Honor Society.” He called it a mindset, an attitude and a set of skills that can be taught and learned.

Boyd agreed. “I teach this stuff,” he told the board.

Gillman, who was the former executive vice president and chief operating officer at Time Warner Cable, described leadership as a series of skills one develops, including self-awareness. That includes understanding what they are good at and what others are good at by listening.

The younger that students are taught leadership skills, she added, the more opportunity there is to practice.

“Sometimes it takes a lot to lead,” added Glin, who has three daughters in the school system.

“We want to democratize leadership,” added Ngnoumen.

Every student, she said, has knowledge and can lead, in a variety of contexts.

Done correctly, teachers should not hear from the same students all the time, Ngnoumen said. More students would speak out.

Scarice said the leadership council met over the summer to create the effort’s “lift-off.” The council created a vision and a mission, and identified areas of focus. It will reconvene to guide next steps.

The district is creating an internal team to develop the integrated curriculum, secure community partnerships and find a physical space for the center, which Scarice deems important.

Board member Dorie Hordon asked how Scarice assembled the advisors. Scarice said he asked around, starting with Marpe, who helped suggest others.

Board Chairwoman Lee Goldstein said the leadership plan feels like it is really starting to take root.

She told the superintendent, “I appreciate the care and intentionality” he is taking with the initiative.

Board member Robert Harrington said he wished it was moving faster. “Deliverables are in order,” he said.

Board Vice Chairwoman Liz Heyer called the initiative great, but wants to make sure part of what is taught includes the pitfalls of leadership and encouraging students to take more risks, despite the possibility of failure.

Board member Kevin Christie called the effort exciting, especially since it will focus on every student.

“The district does a great job now with leadership,” added Hordon. “There are a lot of opportunities now. I just hope truly that kids who don’t usually rise up as leaders are tapped.”

Her hope is that every student is given an opportunity to lead.

Gillman said the initiative will work to help each student “lead their own life.”

One way, would be by setting goals. Seven-year-olds, for example, might be asked at the start of the school year what they would like to accomplish. Goals would become more sophisticated with age.

Dovetailing with the leadership effort will be district work in the area of growth mindset, or rather, learning from one’s mistakes.

Two other district staff members, C.J. Shamas, who teaches physical education at Staples, and Ashley Moran, a teacher at Saugatuck Elementary School, are working to help staff develop common tools to help students become motivated, resilient and adapt to change.

They also want to help students better manage stress and see mistakes as learning opportunities.

So far, Shamas said he is overwhelmed by how students have gravitated toward growth mindset.

“I am proud to be associated with a school district that would put this at the forefront,” he said.

Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.