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Youth Leadership Academy in Pickens combats the middle school slump

The Youth Leadership Academy in Pickens is not your typical middle school. Students experience a challenging curriculum of math, science, social studies and English classes, but they also attend daily physical education classes, have a 20-minute recess every day and learn leadership skills.

At YLA, you’ll find students sitting outside their classrooms reading books or practicing for “The Amazing Shake” competition in one of the school’s outdoor classrooms.

“We firmly believe in the importance of fresh air and sunshine to promote physical and emotional well-being,” said Patsy Wood Smith, YLA Principal during its first three years and now Director of School-Based Programs for Clemson University’s Youth Learning Institute, of which YLA is a part. “We want to encourage active lifestyles and lifetime fitness.”

YLA was created in the 2012-2013 school year to address the “middle school slump” – the years when students typically regress academically and emotionally, and the time when students make the decision to stay in school or drop out as soon as they are of age, Smith said. Accredited through the South Carolina Department of Education, YLA works to reverse this national trend by providing a middle school experience that is successful and fun for students.

Research shows that the social and physical environment in which children learn can make a difference in their academic success. Being outdoors can enhance student-to-student and student-to-teacher relationships, with a recent study finding that attending a class in nature helps children be more attentive and focused once they return to class inside.

“We have several outdoor classrooms where teachers can bring science lessons to life or just provide a natural setting for a math or social studies lesson,” Smith said. “Our students have added personal touches, such as hammocks, to use during extension class when they can choose where they would like to work on projects, homework or read a good book.”

Leadership and soft skills training

Another important component of the YLA curriculum is leadership and soft skills training.

In Leadership class, students learn and practice leadership through service, and learn financial principles using Dave Ramsey’s Foundations in Personal Finance: Middle School which includes: Saving & Budgeting; Credit & Debt; Education, Careers & Entrepreneurship; Investing, Insurance & Identity Theft; Global Economics; and Marketing & Consumerism.

Students also participate in “The Amazing Shake” competition, practicing skills such as introducing themselves to new acquaintances, delivering a public address and participating in mock college scholarship interviews.

Service to others

Additionally, students earn two hours of service-learning credit each quarter. For example, in a two-week period during October 2018, the 144 students of YLA raised $20,000 for a family whose Downs Syndrome child needed additional medical attention that required the family to travel to Cincinnati for treatment. Representatives of nonprofit organizations are routinely invited to the school to present information about their charities and volunteer opportunities. YLA student volunteer hours last year totaled 3,055, or an average of 21.4 hours per student, Smith said.

Exposure to real-world opportunities

YLA staff plans meaningful field trips for students to learn about career opportunities – particularly in STEM fields – that give students firsthand knowledge and application of what they learn in the classroom. Destinations include Camp Sewee in Awendaw to learn about oceanography and marine biology, Camp Hannon in Sunset to learn about geology and mountain ecology, Camp Bob Cooper to experience KATE (Kids And The Environment), and Dollywood for engineering experience with roller coasters.

As the popularity of the Youth Leadership Academy grows, so will its enrollment, according to Smith. Next school year, YLA will increase its typical number of new enrollees from 48 to 96. Prospective students can apply online. If there are more student applications than seats available, selection of students is by lottery.

Learn more about Youth Learning Academy by visiting the school’s website.

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