Samara Fraser-Wellington, Junior, KIPP NYC College Prep High School

The educational, social, and emotional impact of the pandemic on high school students has been particularly pronounced. Samara, who had her first year in high school interrupted by the school closures, is beginning her junior year by leading her peers back into the school building. 

Over the summer, Samara participated in the high school’s Student Justice League, which was composed of 18 rising juniors and seniors, who trained together on how to support their fellow students with transitioning back to in-person school. This training program gave Samara and the other participants a head start on their role as student leaders in the high school. Throughout the year, she will serve as a Peer Leader, supporting first-year students through a peer-to-peer group advisory program that is built into their class schedules. While advisories include staff members, having peers lead each other is an effective approach to engendering comfort among students when engaging each other about the transition. Recently Samara helped a student with a question about the school’s dress code:

“There was a sophomore who came up to me recently; she didn’t really understand the dress code. KIPP has recently changed its dress code, but she didn’t understand why she couldn’t wear what she wanted to. I see the student’s perspective, but I also see KIPP’s perspective. Dress code prepares you for a job and this is what you are required to wear. It’s a two-way thing: you express yourself with your clothing, but it’s also prep for the outside world. I had different conversations with teachers about the dress code. The student was pretty chill about it; after we spoke it made more sense to her.”

Samara also learned this summer how to lead her peers as a member of the high school’s Fairness Committee. This group is responsible for hearing and adjudicating select conflicts in lieu of the school’s assigning consequences. According to Samara, this Fairness Committee works effectively because:

“We dig deeper into the root of the problem. [Fairness Committee members] start off by doing pre-work, meeting with students on each side of the story. We might have a mediation. Fairness Committee leaders will help direct the conversation to not have an argument, but a conversation. Or we have a community circle. We facilitate but we don’t put our input in. You can advise – at the end of the day we weren’t in the situation ourselves. I had a chance to do a community circle over the summer with a group of sophomores and a teacher. With the circle, the kids see the mistakes they made, and the teacher knows how to make her class better when the year starts.”

In addition to being a peer leader and on the Fairness Committee, the Student Justice League training this summer enabled Samara to refine the communication style and tone she will take in her leadership roles. She improved at communicating assertively with her peers, finding that space between being perceived as aggressive and responding too passively. Samara practiced thinking before speaking to reflect on how she may be perceived by other students. Samara said that, “Being a leader, I’m not only speaking out for myself, but other students. In college, you’re really on your own two feet. You are thrown into a new world with new people. Having a voice of your own is key.”

With the full return to the school in mid-September 2021, Samara has the following advice for her peers:

“Student leaders are there to help and look out for them. That’s our reason. That’s our rule. We chose to be these leaders to be a voice for them if they need help or advice. That’s what we’re there for. We’ve gone through the experiences they might go through. We know how they feel. We are open minded. Don’t be afraid to reach out.”