A dozen students had crowded into a small conference room at Loudoun County High School in Leesburg last month to learn about Advanced Placement classes.
Unlike similar sessions — typically led by teachers or counselors — the seminar was conducted by four student leaders who, collectively, had taken nearly every AP test the school offers. They stood at the front of the darkened room, delivering a slide presentation and sharing their experiences with the underclassmen.
The session was part of a weekly series — called “student professional development seminars” — that the school launched this year to help students succeed in high school and prepare for college. It’s the only such program in Loudoun to be led by students, school officials said.
The 30-minute sessions, which Loudoun County High Principal Michelle Luttrell described as “purely academic,” cover topics such as college readiness and preparing for Advanced Placement, SAT and ACT tests. High School 101, a seminar geared toward freshmen, focuses on how to succeed in grades nine through 12, Luttrell said.
In the seminar on AP classes — courses that give college credit to students who excel on the final test — senior Maria Brock, 17, told the underclassmen that the curriculum moves at a much faster pace than they are used to. “But don’t stress,” she said. “It may seem really difficult at first, but once you get into it, it will get . . . much better.”
Senior Noelle Branch, 18, urged the students to be diligent in citing their sources in research papers. Brock warned against plagiarism. Sophomore Nia Dumas, 16, said some teachers use online tools that indicate what percentage of a paper has been copied.
Brock encouraged the students to speak up in class. “Teachers love it when you ask questions, because it shows them that you’re actually interested in what they’re teaching,” she said.
Junior Gavin Bukala, 17, advised the students not to take on too much.
“Counselors will tell you to take as many AP classes as possible,” he said. “But don’t kill yourself taking five APs all at the same time. It’s really important to find a balance between your [classes and] your extracurriculars.”
One student drew chuckles when he asked the upperclassmen if they could recommend any teachers who are nice. “The teachers will always be nice as long as you’re respectful,” Brock said.
Nancy Thomas, the faculty sponsor of the Student Council Association at the school, said the younger students appreciate hearing from their peers.
“Kids just have a different way of relating to one another,” she said. An adult “might say, ‘This is what you need to do.’ And the kids say, ‘I just lived through this.’ And it’s just very different when it’s your peer telling you, ‘It’s okay, you’ll be fine. Do it this way.’ ”
Luttrell said the seminar series was sparked by a survey of the faculty to determine which qualities they thought were most important for the school’s graduates. Words such as “confident,” “compassionate,” “problem solvers,” “critical thinkers” and “lifelong learners” came to the fore. The goal of the seminars, she said, is to develop students who have those qualities.
“It requires a degree of compassion and understanding on the presenter’s part to recognize, ‘I have 14 vulnerable people here who have said to me by their presence alone [that they] need to know more,’ ” Luttrell said.
Luttrell asked the SCA to take on the project because she wanted the group to become more involved in academics. When she came to the school last year, the SCA had been focused mainly on social development, she said.
“They are elected by their peers to lead,” she said. “So they need to focus on both dimensions, academic and social.”
Brock said that she approaches her presentations by thinking back to her freshman year and asking herself, “What would I have wanted to know?”
“And then I try to tell them everything I think would be really helpful for them,” she said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for all of us to help them.”