On his first day teaching at the Convent of the Visitation School six years ago, social studies teacher Steve Sandell saw members of the student council take charge, running the entire opening-day assembly themselves. He was immediately impressed by their leadership abilities.

“I thought, ‘Goodness, here’s a high school with an active, responsible and effective group of student leaders,’ ” he said.

That inspired an idea: Wouldn’t it be great to start a women’s leadership center at the school to further encourage students to be leaders?

After years of discussion, Sandell’s idea is taking shape. Last spring, the school shared the Visitation Institute for Leadership concept with alumni and other supporters, and it raised $35,000 toward the project at the school’s annual fundraising event.

Eventually, Sandell and Renee Genereux, director of the upper school, will use the money to fund leadership-oriented programming for students in grades 7-12, including speakers, residencies by professionals, activities and a community service program.

The institute’s overarching goal is “to encourage the idea that citizenship and leadership are everyday parts of life,” said Sandell, who also coaches tennis and lacrosse at Visitation.

But for now, its inaugural project has been starting the school’s first-ever class in women’s studies, which began this fall.

As an all-girls school, having a course dedicated to women’s lives seemed important, Genereux said.

Team-taught by Sandell and another teacher, Margie Ryan, the “Women and Society” elective focuses on history and literature, examining women’s roles in public policy and social movements, as well as issues affecting women globally.

In class last week, for example, Sandell and his students listened to a college commencement speech by J.K. Rowling in which she talked about failure and imagination. The speech tied into themes of resilience and self-confidence, which are important in encouraging students to be leaders, Sandell said.

“It’s important for young women to have the confidence to take a risk,” he said.

Visitation is K-12, enrolling coed students in kindergarten through grade six and only girls in grades 7-12. It’s still owned and sponsored by the Visitation Sisters, the same group that started the school more than 140 years ago.

Starting a leadership institute fit well with Visitation’s mission, Genereux said.

“Visitation has always been about empowering young women to become leaders in various ways,” she said. “That’s always been there, so I think what we’re trying to do is to focus on that more directly.”

The institute’s second effort will happen in April, when it will sponsor a “Women’s Day.” Held every four years, this year’s event will recognize women’s contributions to the arts and humanities. Various speakers and performers, many of them alumnae, will share how they became leaders in their fields.

Beginning next semester, the institute hopes to bring in professionals for residencies. Another goal is to bring students into the planning process, Genereux said.

‘Personal growth over time’

“The other ideas will have to be developed as we go,” Genereux said.

One day the institute may partner with student organizations, like the newspaper, student government, athletic teams or the diversity club. Eventually it could collaborate with nearby high schools to plan events, said Sandell.

Being a leader can mean many different things — not just holding a certain title, Genereux said. “I think it has to do with that personal growth over time,” she said.

Sandell said it’s about getting people to recognize their strengths, as well as taking initiative and encouraging resilience.

The institute will capitalize on the school’s history and position as a single-sex school, Sandell said.

“We’re lucky in some ways, in being a single-gender school, in the way the women are able to encourage the confidence of others,” Sandell said.