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Lead-A-Way Turns Middle Schoolers Into Young Women of Action

"They see what work has been done before them and what work still needs to be done," the principal says of newly minted middle school leaders.

Women's leadership has become a big part of the message girls receive at  and now the older students are paying it forward to their younger counterparts.

The middle school debuted a new program Tuesday that had three groups eighth-graders making presentations to fifth-graders on notable women leaders in American history. It's part of Lead-A-Way, run by the Mount Laurel-based Alice Paul Institute.

This is the first year Lead-A-Way came to West Deptford. Barbara Smith, a former principal at Oakview Elementary School, currently works for the United Way and brought the idea to her former school district. Lead-A-Way program is funded by the Gloucester County's Leadership Council, an off-shoot of United Way.

Once the program was approved, West Deptford Middle School principal Michael Fanelli asked the eighth-grade teachers to select approximately 30 girls to join the program. They then went through a 10-week course that culminated in Tuesday's presentations.

“For these ladies, its a way to look at things in a much wider world,” said Fanelli. “They see what work has been done before them and what work still needs to be done.”

The three groups did their presentations on three minority women—Shirley Chisholm, Ellen Ochoa and Wilma Mankiller—that many students have never heard of. Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress and also ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972. Ochoa was the first female Hispanic astronaut and is now deputy director of the Johnson Space Center. Mankiller was the first female to become chief of the Cherokee Nation.

“Things like Title IX would not be here without those women,” said Smith. “That's what this program is for. You know about Hilary Clinton, you know about ones that are accomplished, but there's ones that you just don't know about.”

Lead-A-Way students met once a week for 10 weeks with staff from the Alice Paul Institute. For about 90 minutes each week, these students learned about various women in history as the girls researched and created their presentations.

The girls added a modern twist by building mock Facebook pages for each of the women they talked about. The pages gave the presentations a fresh look while retaining all of the vital information needed, and made the stories more relatable for the fifth-graders.

Ultimately, Lead-A-Way's goal is to help the girls that participate become leaders in their own way. This has become a big mission in the school—also accomplished with activities like the the school's Young Women's Leadership Club—and Lead-A-Way helps enhance that goal even further. The transformation was already evident Tuesday, as the eighth-graders led their presentations with confidence.

“We ask them how many are leaders at the beginning of the program, and a couple girls will say yeah,” said Kristina Myers, the director of Lead-A-Way. “But by the end of the 10 weeks, we're hoping that they all say that they are leaders and that's usually what happens.”

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