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HMS Science Teacher and Student Combine Forces to Create Revolutionary Leadership Program for Teens

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The year was 2004 and Tom Coburn was an eighth grader at Hopkinton Middle School. Full of first-day-of-school jitters, he nervously made his way to science class. He was greeted by a high schooler standing outside of the classroom handing out High 5’s. 

But then the door closed and Tom realized this wasn’t a high schooler, it was his science teacher, Mr. Gunduz. 

He and his classmates were taken aback by the teacher’s energy. He was all smiles and full of positivity and an enthusiasm that was infectous. The teacher handed out a notebook to each of the students and explained that these would be for their “Starred Thoughts”. And each day, Mr. Gunduz would give his class a new Starred Thought, such as “Leadership is action, not position.” and “Gratitude fuels your attitude.”

>> RELATED: Leadership Academy Returns for 17th Consecutive Year

This was science, and it was also leadership. Coburn knew this was a different kind of teacher. 

Coach Ev

Gunduz and his students at HMS in 2005. Coburn is pictured third from left.

Evren Gunduz was a first-year teacher at Hopkinton Middle School. A graduate of UMass Amherst, Gunduz was profoundly impacted by his high school coaches and college professors, who incorporated a variety of leadership techniques in their curriculum. What excited him was the opportunity to influence the next generation of leaders in Hopkinton. 

This mission resonated with his principal, Alan Keller. Gunduz came to Keller mid-year and asked if he could create an after-school program to teach some of the same lessons he was teaching in his classroom. Keller supported this, and the club evolved into the IGNITE program at HMS and later UNITE at Hopkinton High School.

In subsequent years, the program was so popular that Gunduz expanded it to a month-long intensive program that ran at night for middle school students. Gunduz used HMS as an incubator for the curriculum, testing and refining with his students, who provided overwhelmingly positive feedback.

In 2009 Gunduz was granted a leave of absence to attend the Harvard School of Education, where he received his Master’s degree. He used the time to study adolescent development and continued to build the curriculum. By then Coburn had graduated from HHS and enrolled at Boston College. He applied for and was accepted into the Shaw Leadership Program, one of 20 freshmen to be granted the opportunity.

“It was a great program, and I heard from guest speakers like the president of the college and the football coach, and it was great stuff, but none of it was as good as what I learned in my eighth grade classroom,” recalled Coburn. 

Coburn invited Gunduz to make a presentation, who was voted overwhelmingly as the best speaker of the year by the students in the program. That same year Coburn started his software company, Jebbit. To date, he has raised over $100mm in funding and now employs 130 people full time. 

“There is no way I would have started Jebbit without this,” he said. “Whenever someone compliments our culture, I tell them it’s everything I learned from Evren. He’s the Tom Brady of educating adolescents.”

The Tuna Melt Talk

One day during his sophomore year Coburn dropped in to visit Gunduz at his Cambridge apartment. At the kitchen table over tuna melts Coburn pressed his mentor. 

“What are you going to do with this,” he asked? “This is special. This has to be bigger than Hopkinton. Every kid needs to have this experience.” 

With a big smile on his face, Gunduz shared with Coburn his big dream of becoming a motivational speaker that traveled the country, an idea that Coburn immediately panned. 

“I held up my wrist to show him my bracelet,” said Coburn. “I said ‘I got this from one of your classes 7 years ago and I still wear it every day!’ I told him that if I had only watched a one-hour lecture at my school I know it wouldn’t have had the impact it did.”

They agreed that to make a life-changing experience they’d need the kids longer and to spend quality time with them. The idea for a summer program was formed. They decided to form a nonprofit (Enjoy Life Education, or ELE) and the summer program would be “Leadership Academy”.

Coburn pushed Gunduz to quit his teaching job to focus on Leadership Academy full time but Gunduz was reluctant. He returned to HMS and taught for another four years. In 2012 they launched the first summer program of Leadership Academy and had 30 students register, all from Hopkinton. In fact, they were all Gunduz’ students. The feedback from both students and parents was tremendous. “I had kids coming up to me telling me this was the best week of their life,” said Coburn. 

From L-R: HHS grad Meredith (Clark) Saeger, Tom Coburn, Evren Gunduz and Tara Gunduz

In 2015 Gunduz took the plunge to work full time on Leadership Academy, focusing on the curriculum and execution with Coburn providing the business support. The program continued to grow, and to date has impacted more than 1,110 teens from the MetroWest area. Many return each year, earning more responsibility along the way. Some students have come for nine years in a row, working as staff as they’ve aged out of the program. Through a variety of partnerships, the program has expanded to include students from France and Luxembourg. Locally, ELE partners with Boys & Girls Clubs of America to provide scholarships, primarily to inner city students who can’t afford the fee.


In 2018 ELE commissioned an independent study via the firm Algorhythm to assess the impact the Leadership Academy has on students. The purpose of the evaluation was to measure the growth of youth in the 6 Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Capacities, which are:

  1. Positive Identity: A youth’s internal sense of positive self-worth and self-efficacy as they explore who they are
  2. Self-Management: A youth’s ability to make choices, take positive risks and persist through life’s challenges
  3. Contribution: A youth’s capacity to give energy and time to help their family, community and society
  4. Self-Efficacy: A youth’s motivation and confidence in their life performance.
  5. Social Skills: A youth’s ability to take others’ perspectives into consideration, as well as express caring and empathy
  6. Social Capital: A youth’s positive bonds with people who can provide advice, counsel and access to what they need to succeed

A program is considered successful if students make gains in 3 or more SEL Capacities.

According to the study, 99% of Leadership Academy Students made gains in 3 or more SEL Capacities while 49% made gains in all six.

When asked if they would recommend it to a friend, 93% of the students answered “Definately Yes”.

The report concludes with “Overall, Leadership Academy students made more SEL gains than any other program Algorhythm has ever researched.”

Leadership Academy in 2023

This year Leadership Academy will be held July 10 – 14 at Stonehill College in Easton. Space is limited so interested parents are encouraged to register early.

>> RELATED: Leadership Academy: Through the lens of a First-Year Student

It All Starts Here

When asked if the Leadership Academy would have been as successful if it had been started in another town, Coburn is emphatic. “No way. The support we received from the parents and the community was invaluable. They saw the spark of what Evren was doing and just wanted to support him.”

Added Gunduz: “The Hopkinton school system was so progressive at that time, and it still is. The administration had an attitude that they wanted to make HPS the best in the state, and they were willing to take risks on ideas that were outside of the typical school curriculum to make that happen. They said Yes to every one of my crazy ideas.”

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