Students from Ellison High School worked to build their teamwork and communication skills against the scenic backdrop of the Texas Hill Country at an annual leadership retreat this week.

The students — sophomore and junior members of the Ellison Leadership Academy — traveled to Variety’s Peaceable Kingdom Retreat just south of Killeen, where they participated in a number of recreational activities, including team-building challenges and tackling the retreat’s high and low ropes courses.

“It’s been a really great experience,” said Brittney Unit, a sophomore. “Everyone here is very supportive and encouraging. I’m learning a lot.”

Unit spoke after scaling the retreat’s 40-foot tower before hurtling down a 175-foot zip line.

“It’s exciting, and a little scary when you first get going on (the zip line),” she said.

The games and activities aren’t just a fun time for students.

They’re aimed at teaching them leadership qualities like teamwork, communication and critical thinking. Fostering those qualities is a goal of the academy, said Donnie Williams, the Ellison Academy coordinator.

“It gives them the chance to learn to work cooperatively with their peers to communicate and solve problems,” Williams said.

The students will need those skills when they and other academy members plan, organize and run the academy’s annual leadership conference later this year. The conference attracts hundreds of students from neighboring school districts.

The skills the students learn in the retreat don’t apply to just the academy.

“(The academy) has really helped me a lot,” said Katy Gilmore, a sophomore.

Unit agreed.

“It’s given me a lot of good skills, and opened me up to a lot of new experiences,” she said. “I know there’s situations in the classroom, and even in my own family where I apply the things I’ve learned in the academy.

“You really learn to become a leader and take charge.”

Contact Chris McGuinness at or (254) 501-7568. Follow him on Twitter at ChrismKDH.

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