Meet three Altamont School students who are changing the world

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From the left, Altamont Miree Leadership director – Katherine Berdy talking with Altamont Eleanor Roth, Sameer Sultan and Jaye Conn. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Are leaders born or made? Students at The Altamont School strive to answer that question through participation in the school’s C. Kyser Miree Ethical Leadership Center.

Leadership is a Core Value at Altamont

Visit the “Leadership” page of Altamont’s website, and the first sentence you read is:

At Altamont, we believe that all students have the ability to lead.

Starting as early as fifth grade, students begin finding their path to leadership through community service and school-wide events. When they move into upper school, Altamont students can tailor their leadership path by participation in the Miree Center. Students who are accepted to the Miree Leadership program commit themselves to creating and implementing a project that fills a need in the greater Birmingham community.

To successfully complete the Miree program, students perform over 80 hours of community service and attend 12 cultural events. As juniors, they must successfully defend their leadership experiences in front of community leaders, faculty and Altamont alumni in order to earn the Miree Commendation on their Altamont diploma.

According to Katherine Berdy, who is the director of the C. Kyser Miree Ethical Leadership Center, the program challenges students throughout their four years at Altamont, especially in the ninth grade when students are just figuring out what they are passionate about.

“Rarely do these projects end the way they were originally conceived. Having ups and downs is part of the program,” she said.

Student Journeys – Music, Robots, Yarn/Education

What makes a Miree project unique is the way students are given the power to independently choose their projects.

“The process is intentionally vague. It teaches our students to problem solve and become more resilient. It is motivating for some and frustrating for others. In life, you have to work toward solutions using the resources you have,” Berdy added.

We recently visited with three Altamont students about their Miree projects.

Sameer Sultan – Music

Altamont School
Junior Sameer Sultan playing with the Altamont School Jazz Band. Photo courtesy of Altamont School

Junior Sameer Sultan’s Miree project has taken several turns over the past two and half years. Building on his love of music, Sultan, who plays the saxophone in Altamont’s jazz band, wanted to find a way to make instruments available to people everywhere, from Children’s Hospital to the public square.

“My first idea was to create a public resource for music called “Public Pianos.” I started with the piano because it is the best gateway to music. I wanted to put pianos in public spaces where anyone could go out and hear someone play it or play it themselves.”

The Public Pianos project did not pan out as expected because of the long-term upkeep and resources needed to do the project. So, Sameer turned his attention to working with underserved communities needing music education.

Sultan has written a curriculum, worked with the A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club and is now teaching eight students at Hayes Elementary using keyboards.

“Walking in my first time to see the students, I was intimidated. That all quickly crumbled away and became just me and eight kids having fun. We all love hearing and playing music.”

In the coming year, Sultan is looking to expand his project.

“I’m not satisfied with one school in one place.”

Jaye Conn – Robotics

On the left, Sophomore Jaye Conn with her sister Toby on the far right, winning a robotics competition. Photo courtesy of the Conn family

Sophomore Jaye Conn loves robotics. When she was younger, she competed widely and won robotic titles at the county and state level. Her team, which included her sister, Toby, won a section in a world competition against 255 teams from 115 countries.

“When I worked on robotics, I felt like a failure at first because my team didn’t know what we were doing. From the programming of the robots to what was expected for the competition, we lacked resources,” said Conn.

Conn is helping to solve that problem. For her Miree project, she is creating an online database and website for people to submit helpful tips and videos about robotic competitions. She is also developing a summer robotics camp for kids and seeking ways to properly fund teams that lack the resources to compete.

“I want to help people compete successfully. I want to offer the advice and tips that I needed when I was beginning,” she added.

A Girl Scout, Conn’s Miree project is also being done in conjunction with her Gold Award.

Eleanor Roth – Yarn and Education

Sophomore Eleanor Roth standing by the Altamont Knight decorated in yarn. Photo courtesy of Altamont School

Sophomore Eleanor Roth is learning two languages at once, French and Mandarin.

Likewise, she has initiated two Miree projects.

The first project involved working with faculty to create yarn displays in two campus locations: the library and Livingston Art Gallery. The project generated school spirit and welcomed new students, “knitting them into the fabric” of the school.

The yarn project helped Roth flesh out her other project – education.

She is presently planning an Education Symposium with the topic, “Where is Alabama education going?”

“I really want to see how teachers are innovating in the classroom and how what they are doing can be implemented in different classroom settings. I am recruiting people outside of Altamont to come and speak on a panel.”

Building a National Reputation

Schools from all over the nation are inquiring about Altamont’s Miree Center. Katherine Berdy has spoken at several national conferences on the topic.

“I believe overt intentional discussions about leadership, about what it looks like in its many different forms, is vital for 21st-century learners. Our students need to understand how to lead, what leadership looks like, and how leadership can and should improve the fabric of society,” Berdy said.

Learn More

Learn more about The Altamont School’s C. Kyser Miree Ethical Leadership Center.

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Author: Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.