Ava Shively was feeling pretty confident as she stepped through a loop of string wrapped around Lily DeLap’s wrists.

Her goal: Separate the intertwined strings without biting or breaking them.

Despite her acrobatics, Shively couldn’t hide her disappointment when she realized the string around her own wrists was still linked to her partner’s.

“We’re back where we started,” said the 11-year-old Coulee Montessori School student.

Author and speaker Craig Hillier calls the maneuver the “old step-through method,” and it doesn’t work. Hillier served as ringmaster Wednesday in a series of leadership exercises that had La Crosse middle school students smiling, clapping and rooting for their peers.

Fifteen students from each of the La Crosse district’s middle schools participated in the program, following separate assemblies at Lincoln, Logan and Longfellow this week focusing on compassionate leadership.

“Right now, one of the main goals is to have these three schools working together for a result,” Hillier said. “One of the biggest parts of leadership is connection.”

The event’s theme was inspired by the La Crosse Compassion Project. About 7,000 private and public students from across the grade levels will create compassion-themed art on 6-by-6-inch canvases for the community art project.

Students started their paintings, drawings and collages at the beginning of the school year. The Pump House Regional Arts Center and other venues across the city will show the work from May 2 through June 28.

Allyson Fergott, 12, painted a heart.

“I thought that was a really good symbol,” said the Longfellow seventh-grader. “You need a heart to be compassionate.”

The already ambitious community-wide art project wasn’t enough for Lincoln students. Members of the student council wanted to bring a guest speaker for an assembly.

Seeking grant funding, they went to the La Crosse Public Education Foundation, and officials liked the idea so much they asked students to expand the event to all three middle schools.

Foundation Director Tim Riley adapted the Compassion Project from a similar effort in Appleton, Wis. School assemblies this week and the leadership program at Hogan Administrative Center could provide a solution to one of the quandaries faced by educators — how to keep students focused on compassion after this year’s project ends, Riley said.

“One of the questions we’re asking ourselves is: How is this sustainable?” Riley said.

Organizers hope to bring the event back again next year.

The foundation awarded Lincoln’s student council $3,600 to organize the event and bring Hillier to La Crosse to speak. Organizing and participating in the assemblies makes them feel empowered, and adds new meaning to the idea of being compassionate for students, Blasing said.

“I think it’s phenomenal,” Blasing said. “I think we’re laying a new foundation.”

As for the strings, Hillier calls the exercise “breaking through confusion.”

After learning the trick from Hillier, Shively worked with DeLap, her partner, to undo the strings.

The 12-year-old Longfellow student clapped and cheered as they broke free.

“Sometimes you just have to let other people lead,” DeLap said.

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