An awkward silence broke the din that marked much of an all-day leadership conference for high school students Monday.

A pair of presenters from Montgomery High School were giving a tutorial on how they jack up spirit on campus by hosting Santa Rosa Nerd Day and putting on a funeral for their crosstown rival's mascot, Pandy.

In the 15-student audience were two orange-and-black clad Santa Rosa High students. Eyeing a pair of Panthers, the Montgomery presenter asked how Santa Rosa's student government class typically runs spirit week.

It was like parting the velvet curtain to see how a rival's show is staged.

"I think it's interesting to see how they interpret us," said Libby Paternoster, sophomore class secretary/treasurer at Santa Rosa High School. "At Santa Rosa, we go all out, so we like to see if they go as far as we do."

"It's a big part of both of our schools," Panther Gabrielle Lasher said.

The discussion, one of about 20 small tutorials conducted by students on campus activities ranging from blood drives to toga dances, was part of the annual Making Connections leadership day attended by about 300 elected officers and leadership students from nine high schools in Sonoma County.

"The leadership kids are the ones that plan every dance, plan fundraising, run spirit crew," said Jeff Lefebvre, leadership teacher at Windsor High School, where Monday's event was held. "It's really important for kids to be highly motivated and take on a leadership role and make the campus a fun place to be."

But Monday's event wasn't all fun and games.

Students were urged by keynote speaker Scott Backovich to "be a catalyst" for caring for their fellow students.

"You will be remembered by the students you influenced and the lives you changed," he said.

The message resonated with Danyel Pedro, associated student body vice president at Rancho Cotate High School.

"I definitely related to the wanting to help," she said after giving a presentation on how to get better participation for blood drives. "I'm hoping his talk gives me a little more courage to get myself out there."

In addition to big-picture plans, the day also offered instruction and conversation about smaller-scale experiences in high school -- how to host a successful Halloween haunt, how to celebrate seniors, how to get underclassmen to dress up and how to stage successful welcome-back-to-school events.

Maria Carrillo High School's student vice president, John Aitchison, gave fellow students tutorials on the smartphone application he wrote to keep Pumas informed about school activities.

Aitchison said he ran on a green platform and worked to keep students in the know via their phones without having to turn to the standard posters and tape.

"It's for sports events, dances, blood drives, stuff you put on poster paper," he said. "Schools are plastered with poster paper and they only go up for a couple of days. It's such a waste"

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at She can be reached at 526-8671, or on Twitter @benefield.