The Center for Awareness, Compassion and Engagement (ACE) at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, CA was designed to empower women and girls to learn, lead and effect positive change in the community both globally and locally. Through its programming girls develop the skills that transition them from being witnesses to the community around them to becoming active stakeholders and emerging change agents.
The seven-year leadership development program launches with the sixth grade and culminates with the Senior year. The local and global experiential learning focus is exemplified by marquee tenth and eleventh grade programming.
In 10th grade the focus is local, when students complete a “Communities in Transition” endeavor. This year-long project asks them to research and learn about social issues prevalent in the Palo Alto and East Palo Alto community, two geographically connected but socially and economically divergent communities, and begin to develop the necessary skills to lead with empathy, compassion and respect. At the heart of this work is the idea that the girls are dedicating time to community action that is authentic, sustainable, and developing a life-long commitment to community building.
In 11th grade, the Castilleja girls take these budding skills and build on them with the Global Investigator program.
Each spring, all students in the junior class embark on one of four international trips. Funded by a generous gift to the endowment, these trips are graduation requirements for the students. In each of the four countries where the girls travel they are asked to partner with a local stakeholder and investigate a social issue. These topics include but are not limited to environmental sustainability and issues surrounding immigration and gender equality. To compliment this investigation, the girls are also asked to assume leadership roles that make them active participants in both the preparation and execution of the trip.
“There is no toolkit of solutions on these trips, only awareness and engagement”
Before the start of their junior year the students attend a two-day training workshop. Here they are exposed to content information about the community where they will visit. They also attend seminars about mindsets and behaviors and are asked to role-play situations that may occur while on their trip. In addition, each girl is assigned to one of six leadership roles for the duration of the year and throughout the trip itself. These roles range from partnership coordinator to debrief facilitator to logistics. The students later meet six times throughout the year to receive more training pertaining to their specific trip and leadership position.
The goal is to provide the students with enough information and training that they can navigate new cultures and contexts. Stacey Kertsman, Director of the ACE Center, says, “There is no toolkit of solutions on these trips, only awareness and engagement with the partner in an authentic project. We believe that is the optimal way for our students to learn to navigate the complex situation of being both a leader and a guest – a prerequisite to being an effective social change agent.”