Fueling the Fire: Training for Leadership at Alpha Public Schools

The work of transforming schools is an endurance sport, less like a sprint and more like a ‘round-the-world sailing race. You cannot predict what your crew will encounter once you leave the familiar waters of the harbor, and no level of preparation or state-of-the-art equipment can protect your ship from every peril. Some days you will find yourself trapped in the doldrums, frustrated at the lack of progress. But if your team is vigilant, every so often you will catch an elusive breeze: the sails will fill, the salt will spray, and the ship will bound forward. On those days, your crew may well look back at the mainland—no more than a speck on the horizon—and marvel at how far you’ve come.

“Fueling the Fire,” the Practitioner’s Guide to Next Gen Learning summer series, celebrates moments like this with stories of encouraging events from Next Generation Learning Challenges partners across the country. This week’s edition features Alpha Public Schools in California. After years of teamwork, reflection, and dedication to social-emotional learning (SEL) and student leadership, Alpha’s Personalized Leadership Training (PLT) has now gone viral, becoming a systemic component of the school’s design and a vital experience for all students.

Personalized Leadership Training: “This is not PE”

One hundred and fifty students from Blanca Alvarado Middle School in East San José, CA, pour out of the school building and onto the blacktop. Clustering into ad hoc groups of three to six, everyone begins a light warm-up. Some do jumping jacks while others stretch. Meanwhile, trainers in bright yellow pinnies organize their materials: stopwatches, clipboards, data-tracking binders, and observation sheets for recording individual fitness milestones. Based on the first few minutes, it already looks as if this class has incorporated some elements of next gen learning. Competency-based fitness progressions, data collection on individual performance, and student choice are clearly part of this program.

Promising practices, to be sure, but take a closer look: the trainers, now leading the class through a more structured round of warm-ups, are middle school students themselves. Today’s trainers are among the nearly 40 percent of Alpha students who have studied and practiced outside of school to pass the performance-based trainer test. Many of them have gone on to design their own sports programs, which are then added to the list of options their peers can choose from. Now in its third year, Alpha’s PLT program is providing all Blanca Alvarado students with explicit leadership training to prepare them for academic, professional, and personal success. 

As Greg Callaham, director of social-emotional learning at Alpha Public Schools, relates, students are quick to correct anyone who refers to the “Field” component of Personalized Leadership Training as PE/physical education. Recalling a conversation between students and a local journalist, he says, “They were adamant that [PLT Field] is totally different from PE, and they felt a lot of pride about that.”

Alpha PLT: Lab and Field

One reason that students at Blanca Alvarado Middle School experience “PLT Field” as much more than a personalized fitness program is that it works in tandem with “PLT Lab,” Alpha’s advisory program. Leveraging the 90 minutes dedicated to advisory and the three-plus hours set aside for PE classes each week, Blanca Alvarado can offer both classroom instruction and “in the field” practice in college- and career-ready skills like problem-solving, giving and receiving feedback, finding the middle ground, and learning from failure.



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