The Ins and Outs of Leadership on Westridge
By Katie S.
December 16, 2019
Every other Tuesday, April Verlato attends Arcadia’s City Council meeting. Every time she speaks, it’s in front of a room primarily full of--or only--men, but that hasn’t deterred her from sharing her voice, advocating for ideas, and in essence, serving as a leader. Why? Verlato is the Mayor of Arcadia.
On the left is April Verlato, Mayor of Arcadia, at a City Council meeting
Terry Miller/Beacon News Media
Verlato, a Westridge alumna from the Class of ’89, started her journey to her current position at Westridge. Although she didn’t hold any formal leadership positions during her time here, Westridge encouraged and developed certain skills necessary for leadership. “I took on more leadership in college, and it’s because of the self-confidence I was able to establish at Westridge and being able to have that sense of ‘We can do anything, we’re girls, it doesn’t matter’ was reinforced,” said Verlato.
For her, the all-girls environment at Westridge made her feel more comfortable with the idea of being a leader as a woman. She had previously attended a co-ed school throughout grades nine and ten but switched to Westridge for the rest of high school. “I think when you’re raised in a co-ed environment there’s an underlying bias towards men being the leaders. So girls growing up tend to be conditioned to that, but when I transitioned over to Westridge, all of the sudden there weren’t any men to be the leaders, so the girls had to be the leaders, and you start realizing ‘Oh I can be in that leadership position, she’s in that leadership position, she’s doing that, I could do that too,’” Verlato continued.
Westridge helped Verlato develop self-confidence and propelled her to leadership positions in college and eventually to the position of Mayor of Arcadia. Although more and more women like Verlato are taking up leadership positions, women in Congress hold less than 25% of all positions, and a mere 28.9% of state legislators are women according to the Center for American Women and Politics. “I think women tend to get too caught up in how they’d be perceived if they run and lose, so they don’t want to run at all. If we don’t have any female candidates running, we can’t pick a woman. Without those examples, women won’t get enough confidence to do it,” Verlato commented.
As an all-girls school, Westridge empowers its students and encourages them to step up and take advantage of leadership positions. Student Voices, theatre, Peer 2 Peer, Student Life, and various clubs are just some of the avenues through which leadership opportunities are available. “Last year, almost half of the Upper School student body was engaged in some sort of leadership position,” stated Brittany Coker, Dean of Upper School Student Activities. This year, not much has changed; the primary difference from past years is the presence of the brand new Student Action Council. “It’s very unique; we haven’t had anything like [the Student Action Council] before.”
Students seeking leadership opportunities most often try electives and student government. For example, Assistant Director and Stage Manager positions are open to students interested in the theater program. The program also includes an all-student run Black Box Production where students design the sound, lighting, set, and costumes. Peer 2 Peer, an elective designed to teach students empathetic listening and the basics of psychology, encourages students to create a strong community through peer mentorship and support. Town Meeting, run and planned by Student Life, engages the Upper School in a discussion about various topics from mental health to summer vacations. Clubs and affinities are another way for students to step into leadership roles.
Bella M. ’21, from Student Life, shares a funny childhood story for Town Meeting
However, Lower and Middle School don’t have quite as many leadership opportunities as the Upper School. The only formal opportunities include class student government positions and clubs. Affinities and other similar gateways are still in the works.
Counsel, the Lower School’s equivalent of Human Development, is one way of building leadership. Students learn important conflict resolution skills and how to work effectively with other people.“I think cultivating leadership skills is helping the students really know who they are and the things that they feel are important,” Dr. Carruthers, Director of Counseling and Student Support, said. “I guess you could say I’m working to make leadership something that every Lower School student is capable of because we’re helping strengthen the skills that are essential to being a good leader.”
Encouraging students to engage in leadership roles is a fundamental part of Westridge. “I think just by the very nature of who we are as a school, we’re encouraging girls to step up and be leaders in different ways,” said Elizabeth McGregor, Head of School. “So it doesn’t necessarily have to be a formal leadership position, but we’re encouraging and guiding you to try to speak up for things that you believe in.”
To take advantage of leadership opportunities--formal or informal--students need the proper skills. Many electives help build the skills associated with leadership. “I think everything we do in theatre, whether it’s on stage or off stage, is focused on creativity and expression and building confidence in those areas, and I think the more confident a person becomes with expressing themselves the more comfortable they are stepping into a leadership role,” explained Brandon Kruhm, Director of Theatre.
“I would say Westridge is pretty supportive of student leadership,” said ASB President Sophie C. ’20. “Mainly, the opportunities for public speaking Westridge provides for elected leadership are helpful in building leadership skills.”
Sophie C. ’20, ASB President, speaks at an assembly
Westridge weaves skills involved in leadership throughout classes and activities, but some don’t know how to utilize those skills when the moment comes. “Westridge is teaching the qualities [of a leader] like loyalty and friendliness, but they’re just not teaching them in a way that we know it’s for being a leader,” said Olivia W. ’26.
Right now, the Middle School is redeveloping its advisory and social-emotional learning curriculum. “I think if we had leadership workshops, if we had a consultant come in, or maybe some of the teachers put together some curriculum around leadership, that would be really cool,” said Gigi Bizar, Middle School History Teacher. “I think teaching someone how to find their own passion and what motivates them, how to talk to a group, how to get a group engaged, how to inspire others would be part of [this new curriculum].”
Similarly in the Upper School, some students believe there should be more concrete steps towards building leadership skills. “I think core classes could include teaching students how to lead discussions, how to help other students, how to mediate a conversation, how to give instructions to a group, or how to just be in charge of a group of people,” said Grace N. ’22.
Another perspective is that providing the space for experimentation and experience is enough for building leadership. “You learn these things by doing,” said Zoe Munoz, Human Development Coordinator and Student Voices Co-Dean. “We can lecture and do powerpoints and do presentations all day, but the way we really lead and organize people is by doing it, by starting. So part of it is giving kids the space to learn on their own.”
Westridge can provide support and encouragement for students to develop leadership skills and experience, but some parts of becoming a leader are up to the student. “I think that leaders are a combination of natural [talent] and work,” said Eighth grade Class President Rachel K. “The best leaders are the ones that work to make themselves better leaders as much as they can because there’s always something to learn.”