A freshman and senior stand toe-to-toe, nose-to-nose in a room at Larkin High School. The older student stares down the younger boy. No words are exchanged, but the intensity in their eyes says neither is ready to step back.
This standoff could have precipitated a brawl. Instead, the two high school students were playing a modified game of capture the flag during a freshman physical education class where upperclassmen assist teachers.
They are part of the district's senior leader program, in which fourth-year students lead younger classmates through warm-ups, referee different sports and set up or tear down equipment. Senior leaders also help younger students improve their technique in activities like push-ups or volleyball and offer encouragement.
The senior leader program is designed to prepare students for leadership roles in college and beyond.
"We are trying to bring the younger kids in and provide a safe environment for them," said Niko Morado, 17, from Elgin, who wants to be a physical education teacher. "We hear about bullying and some sorts of hazing, but we want to show them the good side of Larkin High School."
The senior leader program is offered at all of U-46's high schools -- Bartlett, Elgin, Larkin, South Elgin and Streamwood. Bartlett High School has one of the largest programs with about 150 students involved.
"Students have to have the right character and initiative to become successful senior leaders," said Shannon Pennington, a PE teacher at Bartlett High. "It is really hard for kids to assert themselves toward their peers and be the nice guy. They don't want to put themselves out there, but leaders can overcome that."
The program has helped students like Bartlett senior Riannon Szofer, who wants to become a special-education teacher. As a senior leader, Riannon helps with the modified gym class.
"I always knew I wanted to be a special-education teacher ... and I realized I wanted to make a difference to those who are less fortunate or don't understand as much," Riannon said. "I want to help (students) like school more and help them in the world."
Before entering the senior leader program, students must complete the junior leader program.
Jordan Banks and Mariah Brown, 16-year-old juniors at Bartlett High School, both said they were shy and quiet freshmen who didn't know a lot of people at the school, but their senior leaders inspired them to also join the program. Mariah said she is now more outgoing and has taken on a leadership role on the school's cross country team, while Jordan is more energized and excited about school.
"It has helped my self-confidence in other classes, too," Jordan said. "Now I take more of a leadership role when there are team-building activities and I help solve problems by asking other people for their input."
And the younger students appreciate having a mentor in class and around school.
"It is a good experience to help one another and generally connect groups of people," said Monica Smialek, a freshman at Bartlett. "They help us through the high school experience."