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Leadership lessons: La Jolla middle school students finish conference in Washington, D.C.

Mila Maxwell, 12, is going into seventh grade at Muirlands Middle School.
Mila Maxwell, 12, who is going into seventh grade at Muirlands Middle School, says the Junior National Young Leaders Conference helped her public speaking skills.
(Roma Maxwell)

With fresh lessons in leadership that they say will carry them into the next school year and beyond, a few La Jolla middle school students have returned from a week-long conference in Washington, D.C., where they spent some of their summer break immersed in research and honing their public speaking skills.

Alassane Diagne, Em Gonzalez, Mila Maxwell and Max Prantil, all students at Muirlands Middle School, chose to attend one of four sessions of the Junior National Young Leaders Conference, held between June 20 and July 23 in the nation’s capital.

During the excursion, students in fifth through eighth grades chose to be housed either in college dormitories or with chaperones in hotels. They were given topics to research and present, listened to speeches and toured historic sites.

Max Prantil says he enjoyed visiting the historic sites during his first trip to Washington, D.C.
Max Prantil, an incoming Muirlands Middle School seventh-grader, says he enjoyed visiting the historic sites during his first trip to Washington, D.C.
(Jason Prantil)

The sightseeing was the best part of the trip for Max, an incoming seventh-grader who turns 12 this week. The trip, on which he was accompanied by his parents, was his first to Washington, D.C., and he said he enjoyed visiting Mount Vernon and the Lincoln and Washington memorials.

Mila, 12, an incoming seventh-grader whose parents accompanied her on the trip, agreed that the sights were “the highlight of my experience.”

She said she “learned a lot” via the sightseeing, “but I also got to know new friends.”

Max, who attended the conference June 27 to July 2, said another interesting component of the week was participating in leadership focus groups. “We would go into these groups and we’d talk about ... important skills you would want as a leader.”

He said he found parts of that challenging, such as dealing “with some of our personality traits that we struggle with.” Max said he most struggles with “diving into stuff.”

“We’ve learned a lot [about] listening to other people’s traits and how to deal with those and to improve our own traits. I’ll use a lot of that in the future,” Max said.

The focus groups contained 15 to 18 people, and students had to speak on “issues that are happening in the world,” later presenting possible solutions to problems, Mila said.

Mila, who attended the conference July 11-16, said her group tackled the topic of equity in education. “We thought donating to some organizations that basically go to schools and help kids that are falling behind, help them progress in their learning … or even just raise money to get better supplies for schools” would help address that, she said.

She said she learned from her research “how many kids don’t have a great education and they fall behind. I’m probably going to take that and try to do something with it” in the future.

From his week in Washington, Max wrote and presented a proposed law that he named “Education Reimagined.” It calls for class sizes limited to 18 students per teacher. “I had a big class and I barely got called on at all,” he said.

His law also calls for “Zoom continuation in classrooms for when you’re sick, for example. ... One year I got sick and I just missed a lot,” Max said. “I wouldn’t have fallen behind if we’d had Zoom.”

Max said he enjoyed the day he was asked to act as George Washington in a “job simulation. … We had to answer tough questions like what to do for certain scenarios,” he said. “It was really cool.”

The keynote speech for all sessions — by Anthony Robles, a one-legged wrestling champion — impressed both Mila and Max.

Max said he learned “you always have to persevere through any disabilities.”

“He kept on going,” Mila said of Robles. “He bumped into some problems along the way, and the fact that he kept on going and still achieved his goal is kind of a big deal for me.”

Though the trip is not sponsored by the San Diego Unified School District, students must be nominated for it. The Muirlands students were nominated by Mark Heinze, who teaches social studies at the school.

Heinze said the Junior National Young Leaders Conference “is designed for students who have leadership potential” and strong speaking skills.

“I’m just super grateful to be nominated,” Max said.

Mila said she “gained more confidence to speak my mind” and overcome her initial nervousness at not knowing anyone.

“I had a really good experience,” she said. “I wish I had one more day.”

Alassane and Em could not be reached for comment about their experiences. ◆