Running With Purpose: A Journey in Leadership
Corps member Cece Dye discusses some of the unexpected challenges involved in starting Laureate Academy Charter School’s running club—along with the opportunities the extracurricular program provides for students.
After graduating from Kenyon College, Cecilia “Cece” Dye (Greater New Orleans '18) joined Teach For America. Originally from Philadelphia, Cece brought her love of running and athletics to her students at Laureate Academy Charter School where she teaches third grade. When she came across Youth Run NOLA (YRN), led by Denali Lander (Greater New Orleans '09), she knew it would be a great fit for her school.
Denali’s leadership and impact through Youth Run NOLA is felt across the region. As a corps member, she founded the program in 2010 as an after-school club in St. Bernard Parish. YRN continues to create opportunities for young people to build community health change through running and partnerships with 30+ public schools in Jefferson, St. Bernard, and Orleans Parishes in Louisiana.
Although Cece’s goal to bring the YRN program to her school was challenging, the support she received through the organization and her school enabled her to provide an important opportunity for her students—and taught her some valuable lessons about leadership. We spoke to Cece about her experience launching this program at Laureate Academy Charter School, and how it informed her leadership journey.
What's the best and hardest things about teaching?
The most rewarding part of teaching is absolutely getting to build relationships with students and their families. On a daily basis, it is difficult to recognize the collective impact we are making as teachers, but I believe the connections we build with students are such a wonderful reminder of our influence. The most difficult part of teaching is simply learning to work within your sphere of control. As a second-year teacher I feel that I have to advocate pretty hard for what I believe is best for kids, because much of the decision-making happens outside of the classroom.
Tell us about your school and students.
Laureate Academy is a fairly young charter school in Harvey, Louisiana, with a diverse staff and student body. We are currently K-5, but are in the process of building up to the eighth grade. Laureate embraces parent-teacher communication, which has allowed me to build some really strong connections with my kids and their families. Our students are fantastic, resilient, and brilliant, (though I am of course biased!). Kids are of course wonderful wherever you are, but Laureate and Youth Run NOLA have allowed me to sustain some really wonderful relationships with kids across all grades. Finally, Laureate has a really strong special education team and program that I am proud to be a part of.
What made you want to start a Youth Run NOLA team at your school?
Before I started my school's Youth Run NOLA team, our school did not have any extracurriculars or sports, and Youth Run NOLA remains the only one. Our students are so hardworking, and are held to high academic and behavior expectations at school. It is so important that they have an outlet, as well as an opportunity to be leaders and shape their own program.
I started running nearly 10 years ago and had the privilege of running competitively in college at the D3 level. At college I joined a strong community of female runners who taught me boundless resilience and tenacity. Our YRN team is predominantly female, and I feel so grateful to share my love of this sport with these young girls.
How has the experience affected your students?
While a lot of our students participate in sports outside of Laureate, for some of them YRN was their first experience being part of a team. They've built some very strong bonds across grade levels, and I've seen some of our younger kids really latch on to the older kids and learn from them. Our students don't get a lot of opportunities to talk and play during the day, and even their recess time can be pretty limited. YRN practice is a space where students can talk freely across grade levels, and don't have to follow rigid rules. We also deeply value student leadership, and for the second half of the year practices are almost entirely student-led.
How has the experience affected your leadership?
In both high school and college I served as the captain of my cross country teams, so when I stepped into this leadership role I envisioned it similarly. However, considering YRN is our school's first extracurricular, the program felt like it was constantly in progress, often needing to be restructured and resized. We started the year with over 60 participants and three teachers, and it was admittedly too much for us to handle. In November, I broke my ankle and had a moment of self-reflection, recognizing that there were limits to what I could do and how I could support the program.
We decided to limit the group to about 15 kids for the spring season. It broke my heart for all the students who couldn't participate, but has definitely been the best decision for everyone. The program is significantly more organized now, and while I still can't run, the kids and I (as well as the other coaches) have been able to build stronger relationships with each other within a smaller team. A large aspect of leadership is recognizing your limits and understanding when to ask for help, which this experience has certainly taught me.
What is your personal vision for the program's long-term impact?
I hope that YRN continues to be a part of Laureate's vision, and that in the coming years we create more opportunities for kids outside the classroom. On a larger scale I hope that YRN and other programs continue to reach young women. As a kid, although I was always athletic, I rarely got to see girls like me playing sports on TV. I have such a deep love and appreciation for women's sports, specifically women's soccer and the USWNT, but the culture and community around women's sports pales in comparison to that of men's sports. My vision is that in the years to come, female athletes get more pay, more respect, and that on Sunday afternoons people gather across the country to watch women, not just men, play on TV. The girls on my YRN team deserve to have more role models and opportunities in athletics, and programs like this are a great place to start.
About Youth Run NOLA
Youth Run NOLA is grounded in the idea that youth are the catalysts for real individual and community health change. We believe our role is to work directly with our public school partners and other youth serving non-profit partners to develop opportunities for young people to take the lead and use their voice to get their families and friends active. Our high schools and recent alumni are trained to plan and lead our events so the younger elementary and middle school youth see themselves in the leadership of the organization. We work directly with our teacher-coaches to design practices and experiences in which young people are doing the decision making and goal setting for themselves and their teams, so we can create opportunities for young people to be the leaders of community health.