Empower Leaders, Transform Schools
WLS was founded on the belief that we live at a crossroads of world history. World population continues to increase and issues such as climate change and education are getting worse in many areas of the world. As educators, we have a responsibility to help young people develop a sense of purpose and make connections to the world around them with service learning. Empathetic, world-connected citizens can make a huge difference for our planet’s future. That’s why we bring service learning and student enrichment opportunities to our partner schools. WLS’s mission is to “empower young leaders to find innovative solutions to the world’s pressing problems.” We do this by helping K-12 schools transform learning.
WLS fulfills its mission for teacher and student enrichment by pursuing one core strategy: working with K-12 schools to transform learning. In our view, authentic global education is another name for the broad shift towards student-centered service learning environments that emphasize student voice, collaboration technology, and real-world experience. The best global education programs help students find purpose and make connections to the world. In the process, students learn to collaborate, communicate, think critically, and be creative.
At WLS, we maintain a disciplined focus on driving change in K-12 schools and have avoided activities that pull us from that mission for student enrichment. We therefore don’t do one-time trips, nor do we university or gap year programs. We strive to be a small, mission-focused organization that does customized, deep work with K-12 schools committed to building extraordinary travel programs abroad and locally.
There is growing research around how adolescents develop purpose. This work builds off the last decade of brain research and validates the leadership development work we do at World Leadership School. We believe the underlying cause of the teen stress epidemic is a lack of underlying purpose. As Stanford professor William Damon writes, “The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness.”
Research has shown that only 20 percent of American youth today have purpose, which we define as a goal outside of oneself that is meaningful enough to prompt action. Research has also shown that students with purpose experience less stress, do better in school, and are happier. A core question for educators moving forward is “How can we help students explore and articulate purpose at a younger age?”
Despite their differences, these local leaders are extraordinary case studies in global leadership and share the following traits in common:
- Leaders lead from their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses;
- Leaders are active listeners who value multiple perspectives;
- Leaders have a compelling leadership story that they embody with their words and actions every day.
The WLS leadership curriculum helps students advance in each of these three areas: self-awareness, listening, and identity. Many of these activities have been adapted from leadership development programs used by corporations to train their executives, in which WLS Founder, Ross Wehner, has been involved. Corporations make huge investments to train their leaders to lead in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, which our students are already encountering. We believe that corporations have a lot to teach schools about building leaders, and vice-versa.
In recent years, there has been a backlash against service learning, which is understandable: there are far too many service learning organizations that send one-time groups into communities for short-term, low-budget service projects. These students arrive and depart with the illusion of having somehow helped the community. These groups actually do more harm than good in terms of building long-term relationships and contributing to the community.
WLS’ approach to service is “walking together.” We pair a maximum of 2-3 traveling schools to a host community school to ensure sustainability. We build long-term, year-round relationships with the communities via our country coordinators who live nearby. We listen and work alongside local leaders to accomplish existing goals for the local school, rather than come in with new ideas. Our students fundraise an average of $2,500 per group, which can be used in different ways according to the program type. Our students are prepared ahead of time to adapt a humble mindset of listening and learning, rather than an attitude of helping and resolution.
WLS offers a variety of experiences according to our different Student Travel programs, including community projects in our School-to-School Partnerships, NGO Partnerships, and TabLab Partnerships, where students spend time inside of a rural classroom.