WESLEY CHAPEL — Jim Cracchiolo challenged the 20 Wesley Chapel High School students before him to describe leadership.
Ten words. Five minutes. Go.
"Determined," Yamil Arias suggested.
"Yeah, I like that one," Katie Bernaldo said.
"They know they're in it to win it," Cody Walker agreed, uncapping a red Sharpie and scribbling the word on paper.
The upperclassmen continued to brainstorm.
"You don't have to be attractive," Jon Zichy said, frowning.
"When people choose a president … they'll choose the better looking guy," Walker said in defense.
"George Bush?" Zichy asked.
On it went, until the juniors and seniors reviewed their thoughts with their training session leaders.
The goal behind Wednesday's activity was to get the students to understand what it takes to lead and to be a positive role model. That's important for them, as they're Wesley Chapel High's inaugural Pack Leaders, chosen to mentor members of the incoming freshman class.
"The freshmen are coming in with a whole set of ideas and looking for someone to look toward," Cracchiolo, a behavior specialist, told the students. "We want them to look at you. We think of you as the leaders in this school."
Wesley Chapel is modeling its effort on Mitchell High's Mustang University, a program aimed at keeping ninth-graders focused on school success. A combination of mentoring, guidance, academics and social activity, Mustang U. saw improved attendance, decreased disciplinary problems and stronger classroom performance among its freshmen in its first year.
Wesley Chapel is hoping for much the same.
"This group of seniors is being coached and trained on how to best help our freshman class succeed," said media specialist Pam Willoughby, teacher of the leadership skills development elective that each Pack member has enrolled in for the coming year.
The participants in this week's two-day training understood the gravity of what they've been asked to do.
"My freshman year, I got lost. But I had other people to show me around," said Tranisha Henry. "I would do the same for a freshman who is coming here and feels lonely and doesn't have anyone to go to."
"Knowing people around the school is easier," Ylann McKenzie said in agreement. "There's a lot of freshmen. They don't know anything. It's hard for them to get around. It's hard for them to be accepted. And then they do anything to be accepted."
The Pack Leaders will spend time in classrooms and around the school offering advice and assistance.
Ninth-grade guidance counselor Patti Taylor figured the effort can yield only positive results.
"They need to have leaders," Taylor said of incoming freshmen. "So many of them don't have that connection at home. This is the support they're going to have to help them set goals and help them achieve those goals."
Assistant principal Marcy Maxwell expected that the mentors will also benefit from the initiative, with lessons in guidance, mediation and the like.
Pack Leader-in-training Walker agreed. In addition to helping others, he said, "It's actually something I am going to use in life."
It's also something new, which appealed to some.
"Being the first group of students to do this is really awesome," Arias, one of Walker's fellow Pack Leaders, said. "I like the idea of leaving something behind."
School officials are counting on this legacy being a positive one.
"We will hopefully never again be a D school," Willoughby said, "and this will be a large part of it."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.