Headlights on Highway 1: Conestoga's "Breakfast Club" is changing school cuture

Headlights on Highway 1: Conestoga's "Breakfast Club" is changing school cuture

By Tyler Dahlgren

It’s still dark outside when the headlights start to appear on Highway 1’s horizons, approaching Conestoga High School from both the west and the east.

Tuesday’s forecast calls for an unusually pleasant 55 degrees, another reprieve from a recent string of brutally frigid weather, but that doesn’t matter much at 6:30 in the morning.

It’s cold-you can see the breath of students in the air as they hurry from their cars to the school's entrance. And it’s early-at least an hour before sunbreak and 80 minutes before the first bell.

In Jason Ahrens’ classroom, donuts (courtesy of principal David Friedli) await. High-schoolers and junior-high students come in one by one for the next half hour, until the room is nearly full with 30 or so Cougars.

Three young men stand at the head of the classroom. Their lesson plan, today’s focused on “Making an Impact”, is loaded and ready to roll on the projector screen behind them. Ahrens sits at his desk in the rear of the classroom, and when everyone is settled in, he starts the meeting.

This is Conestoga’s “Breakfast Club”, a student-run group focused on building better people, and Friedli has never seen anything like it.

“It’s changing the culture of our school,” said Friedl. “We have heard the stories before, the one about the wolf and the one about the starfish, but when these kids tell them it’s coming from an entirely different perspective.”

Nothing about "The Breakfast Club" is contrived or forced. It was started with Ahrens’ Cougar basketball team last summer and, after some discussions between the players, expanded to the entire student body shortly afterwards.

“It is just so sincere, and that sincerity is what wins each other over,” Friedli said.

Juniors Alex Lamoureux and Cooper Moore and senior Dawson Hogue, three of the nine student leaders in control of The Breakfast Club, start the first meeting of 2018 with a quick rundown of 2017’s 16 meetings. The topics ranged from “Empathy and Kindness” to “Positive Thinking” to “Toughness” to “Passion” and pretty much everything in between.

They radiate with sincerity, and speak to their classmates candidly and openly, inviting responses and sparking discussions from the room of attentive and note-taking students. For a minute, you almost forget that, when the morning bell rings, the trio will be hustling to their first period classes just like everyone else.

“These are topics I would have never talked about in high school,” Ahrens, the facilitator, admits. “Getting up there and talking in front of your peers and not being too cool to talk about some of the things they talk about, and to see high school boys speak about being kind and setting examples for younger kids, it’s very cool.”

Ahrens spends his time at "The Breakfast Club" meetings just like everyone else. He takes notes and involves himself in the dialogue when needed, but his leadership style is mostly laissez-faire.

“It gives them power, and when they have that power they become more invested in it,” Ahrens said. “They haven’t been forced to do it. With Breakfast Club, it’s like ‘This is our idea. This is our thing.’ I think that’s why others have joined.”

It started with basketball players, like Lamoureux and Moore. Then wrestlers, like Hogue, joined in. Dance team members followed. The Breakfast Club is open to anyone, and attendance has been on a steady rise through the year.

“The first follower is just as important as the first leader, that was one of our first lessons,” Hogue, who also plays football and soccer and participates in Speech, One-Act and FCA, said. Once he started showing up, other wrestlers followed.

Lamoureux, who plays soccer and takes part in Speech, One-Act, NHS and Quiz Bowl, spreads the word through Twitter, and much of the recruiting is done through word of mouth. The Breakfast Club will soon have its own website with links leading to student bios and past lesson plans.

The trio stood in front of the class for over half an hour Tuesday morning, sharing insight, solicitude and showing maturity well beyond their years.

“It kind of helps with the way you see the people around you and the way you treat others,” Moore said. “Building those qualities in yourselves, they kind of overlap and, over time, you start to see a difference in the way you act and the way you impact others.”

Again, Friedli has never seen anything like this. The principal fills with pride when talking about the ownership Conestoga’s students have shouldered in steering the school’s culture in a positive direction.

“Our kids are inspiring each other,” Friedli said. “It isn’t just a top-down thing any more. They are waking up early and coming to hear other students talking about their lives. It’s simple-a group focused on building better people, but the kids take it to a different level, and that is what is so amazing.”

Lamoureux describes his experience as a self-journey.

“Not only are you teaching those qualities, but you start to learn them and, before long you see yourself doing the things that you’ve been talking about,” he said.

The junior has missed a portion of his season on the hardwood due to injury and some following surgery, but that hasn’t changed his demeanor during the day.

“Alex has been out two and a half weeks, and he is still upbeat and positive every day,” Friedli said. “It’s not just what he is doing on the court, but it’s what he is doing off the court, and he’s one of the kids changing the culture of our school.”

Winter days have the tendency to drag on for what feels like forever. Some students arrive before the sun comes up and leave after it goes down. What The Breakfast Club provides is a spark, an early shot of motivation.

“It gives you a boost of positivity for the rest of the day, and week, really,” Hogue said.

Moore and Lamoureux both agree.

“Just having it at the start of the day, it serves as an early reminder and it’s not at the back of your head at the end of the day,” Moore, who plays soccer, shoots for the trap team, and participates in FBLA, NHS, FCA and Quiz Bowl, said. “You can actually go out and act out some of the things you learn about.”

The three upperclassmen end Tuesday’s meeting with a powerful request of reflection.

“We never know what is going on in someone else’s life,” Hogue said to the class.

“Think about when you’re down or having a bad day,” Lamoureux continued. “Sometimes even the smallest thing that someone does for you, maybe just a smile in the hallway or a simple compliment, might get you back on the right path and make your day better.”

Hogue and Lamoureux are quite familiar with the namesake of their morning committee, but Moore admits he’s only seen “bits and pieces” of the 1985 John Hughes classic.

Ahrens slightly shakes his head when he hears this news.

“I need to pass the DVD along.”