Future leaders born at Sumner High School

Instilling strong character into students is just as important as academics for teacher John Norlin

Staff writerJune 4, 2014 

Austin Striplin, an all-state middle linebacker on the Sumner High School football team, is a towering six-foot-three. On the field, he is the team captain, and as a senior in the classroom, he is ASB president.

From the moment he became ASB president, Striplin made it his goal to learn as many names of students at the school as he could.

“Every person needs a friend, and names are important,” Striplin said. “When you’re greeting students, it’s cool to say their names.”

Kimi Nakayama, also a senior at Sumner, is a star athlete in the track program. As part of the Advance Leadership class, she set as her overall goal to do three random acts of kindness per week.

“At the beginning of track season, I gave a note card to all the beginning pole-vaulters,” Nakayama said. “It said good luck to them and I included an inspirational quote. This was a great way to start the season.”

After this random act of kindness, Nakayama said athletes told her later that they had laminated the note cards, that they put them on display and wouldn’t forget them.

Striplin will be a freshman at Pacific Lutheran University starting next fall; Nakayama will be a freshman at Washington State University. Both said they plan to continue this model of servant leadership that they have learned at Sumner High School into their post-education career.

“It’s changed my view of coming to school,” Nakayama said. “I come to school now to serve a bigger purpose.”

It’s these kind of sentiments that leadership teacher John Norlin enjoys hearing from students who have gone through the curriculum-structured servant leadership model at Sumner that he started nine years ago.

“It’s our responsibility to teach the whole student,” Norlin said. “It’s our hope that we have stronger character students (graduating school). Having a vision for character development is huge. It’s huge that our school administration supports it.”

Nine years ago, Norlin, a student leadership instructor, introduced to the school the curriculum-structured model of servant leadership. This model came from the State Leadership Program, which is sponsored by the Association of Washington School Principals.

“We took the curriculum and aligned it to state goals and got approval from the district,” Norlin said. “From the beginning, we have had complete support from the district.”

Norlin teachers four leadership classes each year. A co-instructor, Brett McDaniel, teaches another two.

“We have 200 to 250 students each semester in leadership classes each day,” Norlin said. “We’re hitting a huge portion of the student body.”

What that means is that a core group of students are in their classrooms and in the high school hallways being leaders.

Norlin said the leadership classes empower students to be leaders regardless of a title. Elected leaders are automatically enrolled in the Advanced Leadership class, but any student who has taken the curriculum class can qualify for the advanced class.

“We’ve broken down the exclusiveness,” Norlin said.

More than 60 students make up the Advanced Leadership class, and that number is broken down into eight teams, each with its own team leader. Norlin said its these students that organize annual evens that give back to the community. Those include the Food Bowl in the fall following Homecoming, where students collect food donations for the local food bank; a community dinner in December open to the public; the Winter Wishes program where students grant wishes for others in need; and Benefit Night that raises money for individuals battling a life-threatening disease.

Norlin also empowers students each spring to host a student-led professional development leadership conference. The fifth anniversary earlier this month brought more than 800 students from 36 high schools.

Norlin’s impact has spread to other school districts in the state that have decided to also implement the servant leadership model.

“To see this spread has been one of the most rewarding parts,” Norlin said.

Sumner High School Principal Bill Gaines said there are students who want to come to Sumner High School because of the leadership model.

“We’re up to 178 out-of-district waiver requests,” Gaines said.

Gaines said he also doesn’t have any problem employing new teachers and administrators at the school.

Norlin, who received a master’s degree in organizational leadership and an endorsement in servant leadership from Gonzaga University, said he knew at the beginning of his senior year at Wenatchee High School that he wanted to be a leadership teacher.

In his senior year of high school, he made it his goal to greet people at the entrance of the school every day. In doing this, he befriended Aaron Dempsey, a physically challenged student.

“My experience standing with him is the core bedrock of what I started with students (at Sumner High School),” Norlin said.

Norlin has received countless awards for his achievements, including the 2014 Community Leadership Award from the Washington Association of School Administrators Region III.

“It gives credibility to the work we’re doing,” he said of the awards. “And it honors the work that the kids continue to do. Getting to celebrate it with them is a huge part of it.”

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