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Woodland Hills hosts students leaders in preparation for annual Student Summit


Woodland Hills hosts students leaders in preparation for annual Student Summit
Andrew Chiappazzi

Approximately 80 students from multiple districts gathered at Woodland Hills High School on Tuesday, Nov. 8 to begin preparation and planning for the annual Woodland Hills Student Summit in the spring.

As the summit continues to grow and involve more students from more districts, student leaders are being provided more resources and tools to create effective, productive discussions about important issues. Tuesday's meet and greet and training featured students from Aliquippa High School, Avonworth High School, Belle Vernon Area High School, Mt. Lebanon High School, Penn Hills High School, Shaler Area High School, Westmont Hilltop High School, and Woodland Hills High School.

Tuesday's planning session was the latest expansion to the Student Summit from organizer Ms. Erin Wall, an English teacher at Woodland Hills High School. It featured a presentation from Matthew Crutchman and Michael White of Pennsylvania 4-H at Penn State Extension. The duo shared guidance on effective leadership, the keys to differentiating empathy from sympathy, the characteristics of robust equity, and tips to navigate group dynamics.

Following the presentation from Mr. Crutchman and Mr. White, the students headed to separate rooms to begin preparing their presentations for the spring. Like past years, students have selected specific topics to discuss with the full summit. These topics include racial and social injustice, women's rights, climate change, LGBTQ, animal welfare, mental health, and gun violence.

Each group worked to determine a more specific focus for their group discussions. The topics can be wide-ranging and one of the suggestions the students received was to zero in on an aspect of their topic that can lead to more detailed discussions, advice, and even potential action plans. Should mental health focus on self-care or coping mechanisms, or should it focus more on understanding various forms of trauma? Should climate change focus on advocacy and raising awareness or on supplying students with ways to become involved on a more local level? The conversations were earnest and honest, with some students sharing heartfelt, personal stories as to why they were getting involved in a particular topic.

The students met again after lunch to continue their preparations. They also were able to lean on the guidance of experts in their particular fields. Beth Foringer of CeaseFirePA was on hand to help facilitate discussion in the gun violence group and point them to resources that they might be able to use as they continue to formulate their presentation over the coming weeks and months. Mr. Crutchman served as a sounding board for the mental health group as they bounced around ideas, including whether or not a trained professional might be helpful to have on hand for particularly difficult conversations.

The presentations will take shape over the next couple of months as the students work remotely to finalize their topics and create the end product. During the Student Summit in the spring, the students who took part in Tuesday's training will lead discussions involving 150-200 of their peers.

Along with the discussion groups, the student leaders took part in a couple of different activities. During lunch, students had the opportunity to explore Woodland Hills' Chill Spot, a room created to help students de-stress and recalibrate. The room includes sensory objects and soft lighting to promote relaxation. Therapy dogs were also on hand and students had the opportunity to interact with the pups and meet their handlers.

At the end of the day, students worked on an art project that incorporated their various school colors. Students painted a tile in any color combination that they desired, used heat to quickly dry it, and then wrote on top of it. Some included their school logs, others incorporated an inspiring or heartfelt phrase.

The upcoming Student Summit will be the fourth held at Woodland Hills High School. The first summit featured only Woodland Hills High School students, while the second summit was a virtual multi-district discussion led by Woodland Hills High School students. Last year's summit returned to an in-person, multi-district event. This year's summit has expanded the roster to include additional schools.