The layers of leadership at Pickering High School

Students from Pickering High School’s electric car team stand by last year’s project. Photo by Andrew Brennan.

On the surface, Pickering High School (PHS) probably looks a lot like your average school. You’ll see students being sent to the office for misbehaving in class, to pick up late-slips, or deal with other responsibilities they had previously neglected. But like an onion, PHS has layers. You might just see a special side of the school when you peel back those layers. The more you explore the school, you realize those initial images are not what define PHS. You see the leadership shown by some of the school’s brightest and most inspirational students.

Pickering High School’s mission statement says it “encourages the growth of active, responsible and educated citizens who have the skills, concepts and attitudes necessary for long-life learning in a rapidly changing world.”

Jean-Louis Poulin wants to accomplish that mission. He is one of four vice-principals at Pickering High School. While sitting in his office and speaking with him, it’s difficult to determine whether he is a bigger fan of the Montreal Canadiens or his school and its students. His eyes lit up as he spoke about the leadership qualities he sees in the students of PHS.

One of those students is Azalea Phangsoa. She balances life as a high school senior with being the head of the student government, editor-in-chief of the school’s Trojan Times newspaper, president of the school’s electric car team, and founder of the charity organization The Kick Off Initiative.
The Kick Off Initiative provided soccer balls for classrooms in Jakarta, Indonesia last October, and is currently working to do the same for children in Panama.

According to The Kick Off Initiative’s “About Us” page, Phangsoa wants to study engineering after high school. It was easy to see the enthusiasm for the electric car project after spending just a few minutes around Phangsoa and the rest of the team. The four returning students from last year’s group gathered around their finished product and close to 20 new members helped roll it from the garage to prepare the vehicle to be photographed.

Kiran Mohammed is one of those four returning students. He says the knowledge gained during the building of the electric car was invaluable. “You can’t learn that anywhere else, [not] off a textbook [or] off the internet. You have to do it and get out there,” says Mohammed.

The students are committed to the project. They spent last spring’s teacher’s strike working on the electric car. Some students put in up to 12 hours a day, says both Mohammed and Phangsoa. The entire group were there working on this year’s model after school had ended, when many of the teachers had gone home for the day.

The student government were also affected by the teacher’s strike. They weren’t able to hold voting in the spring as they usually do. Elections were instead held in September, leaving this government in what Heidi Stahler describes as its “infancy.”

Heidi Stahler is one of the faculty members involved with the student government. She says it’s structured like the Canadian government. There is a prime minister and a cabinet of 14 ministers. Their positions are not simply paired with blank titles, but real responsibilities.

The student government showed great initiative and completely cleaned out what was formerly a storage area, and transformed it into their official meeting room.

According to vice-principal Poulin, the minister of environment is working to clean up an outdoor area at the school and turn it into a positive space for students. He says the ministers of communications operate the student government social media accounts, and connect with any guest speakers who visit the school.

The ministers of finance track the money used to put on events such as school dances. They work within a budget given to them at the beginning of the year and must manage all money spent, says Poulin.
Pickering High School has found an innovative approach to the operation of its student government, as well the electoral process itself.

The school wanted to move away from forced voting to promote informed decisions and a purposeful election, says Poulin.

“Students in grade 11 and 12 created platforms and ran in the election based on those platforms. Many of the students who are currently in our student government also participated in some capacity last year, and we also have several students who are also taking the leadership course through the school,” says Heidi Stahler, a teacher involved with the student government.

The voting numbers were “low”, says Poulin. Of the 2000 PHS students, Poulin says approximately 25 to 30 per cent voted. Comparatively, the last Student Association election at DC-UOIT drew around seven per cent of students to polling stations.

This year’s group has focused on increasing school spirit and growing the school community, says Stahler. Some of their bigger projects include a pep rally and a Celebration of Cultures. “We have a great group of kids who are highly motivated to make positive changes in the school during their time in leadership,” says Stahler.

Pickering High School is like an onion with its different layers and levels of student engagement and leadership. Just like the school, its students also have different layers to their personalities. It’s easy to see how someone like Azalea Phangsoa could become interested in both the student government and the electric car project. PHS allows its students to explore all aspects of their personalities.

The student government engages students and creates a dialogue between peers. Students are able to take charge and create something of their own, from cleaning out an old storage room to planning school events. These programs allow students to discover who they are and who they want to be. They provide them with an opportunity to take on real leadership positions, make a difference in their high school, and learn more about themselves.